From the day it premiered, Molly O'Connell spent many an hour engrossed in the popular TV series "America's Next Top Model," with visions of designer clothes and runways dancing in her head.

Her mom, Ann Stirling, was no less fascinated, and the two never missed an installment of the show through eight years and 16 "cycles."

And while O'Connell may have dreamt of it, the idea that she might become a top model one day was far-fetched. Until recently, that is.

Suddenly, the 23-year-old Charlestonian is on the cusp of fashion stardom as a contender on the very same series.

"I always wanted to be a model," said O'Connell, who for the time being lives in her parents' guest house on James Island. "But I guess I didn't really believe in myself. I had kind of given up on it. Then I got this opportunity."

Like quiz shows, the network prohibits contestants from divulging just how well they did in competition. For that, you'll have to tune in at 8 tonight on the CW network when O'Connell and her fellow aspirants take the stage.

Fourteen hopefuls vie for a career-launching prize: a contract with IMG Models, a fashion spread in Vogue Italia, an additional spread and cover of Beauty in Vogue, and a $100,000 contract with CoverGirl Cosmetics.

"There were almost two days of auditions and a few rounds of cuts. It was demanding, and a little scary too. I was nervous all day," O'Connell said.

Not so nervous that she failed to give a good account of herself, though.

"There was a bit of drama involved, with so many people competing, but we also had an awesome group of girls. I was surprised by how well I got along with everyone. It was also very cool to see how many people were working on the production and all the many jobs it takes to put on the show. You never really think about all that until you're actually there."

O'Connell said the experience has been memorable, but that she is well aware of how short-lived a modeling career can be.

"Most models work their entire lives just in the hope to work with such people, and never get the chance," she said. "But I definitely want to go back to school at some point. I would also like to branch out to design clothes or jewelry, or perhaps do photography. I am also interested in biology and in animals."

O'Connell is confident that none of the hubbub will go to her head.

"I'm pretty sure I will stay the person I am even if things change a lot around me. I'm always going to be me."

On tonight's episode, nutritionist Heather Bauer tests the models' knowledge of healthy foods and gives them tips on ways to improve their diet.

Reach Bill Thompson at 937-5707.