Q. What's hot this week?

A. Atlantic City. Miss America Pageant.

Q. Any sign of Bert Parks?

A. Matter of fact, one. Driving into town there's a billboard for one of the casinos with Bert's face, about three stories high, and the words, "Welcome to Atlantic City." Bert's so well known here after 25 years with the pageant that they don't even need to use his name.

Q. Does that make him happy?

A. Ecstatic. He guishes like an oil well. Says it's "such a smart move" by the casino, "such an advertising coup, the advertising coup of the century," then he searches a bit for exactly the right phrase and comes up with, "it's unbelievable. It's amazing, so gratifying. It's like, like a living obituary." Then he sighs.

Q. Will he watch Miss America on Saturday?

A. Oh my, yes. From his home in Connecticut with his wife. Says, "It'll be nostalgic. there'll be some emotion of course, but I dare say I won't collapse."

Q. Guess he won't sing "There She Is"?

A. Oh my, no.

Q. How will they handle that?

A. Al Marks, the director of the pageant, will anounce the decision today. There was a time when Marks thought of asking Bert to do a cameo walk-on to sing the song. But he never actually suggested it. Still, Marks says, "I honestly believe that if my butt was in a jam, he'd do it."

Q. Will the new host, Ron Ely, sing it?

A. Doubtful. Ely says he can sing "a little." But he's mostly a hummer."

Q. Interesting name, Ron Ely?

A. Say it fast and it sounds like an appetizer at Cantina d'Italia.

Q. How's Ely doing?

A. Very well. Tall, close to 6-foot-6 and powerful. Something like Clint Eastwood, though not nearly so severe. Rode to lunch with him the other day in one of those white stretch Lincolns. Blue eyes.Dirty blond hair. Good smile. Probably a pretty boy when he was starting out, but he's grown into handsome. Bert was a father figure. With Ely you're much closer to James Bond than Grandpa Walton. The word Al Marks was using when he made the change? Contemporary. Ely's got contemporary down like it was a phone number. Californian, but you probably guessed that.

Everyone seems to like him. Mention his name to the contestants and they do the flutter-swoon routine. You have to be impressed with the way he wears it all, the way he carries himself, how relaxed he seems stepping into this snakepit.

And he's not shy. The other day, he said, "Quite frankly, if I were making a pick on who should do this, I'd pick me. I believe in the pageant. I'm ready-made for it. People keep asking me if I'm nervous -- I'm not nervous at all. I know people are going to compare me to Bert, that's okay. I'm a competitor. So go ahead, compare me." And all the while the eyes are flashing, bouncing off the velvet cushions of the limo like the seven-ball off the break.

In his press conference on Tuesday he was as smooth as poured coffee, especially when he said, "I would think most people are on a holding pattern with me, and I don't blame them. They want to see what I'll do, and so do I,".

Q. They're expecting a big audience on TV, right?

A. They're saying a record. They ususally get about 85 million, but with the publicity over Bert and the actors' strike limiting what the other networks can counterprogram, Marks says they could "easily" get 100 million.

Q. One hundred million?

A. Yeah. And Dick Cummins, one of the pageant officials, says, "About 99 percent of them will tune in just to see if Ron Ely falls on his derriere."

Q. What did Ely say to that?

A. He didn't come in on the boat lift. He laughed and agreed.

Q. Tell me about Atlantic City. What's it like?

A. Just as you'd picture it. The Boardwalk is the world's biggest sardine can, jammed up with places to eat and things to buy -- trinkets, T-shirts, the usual junk -- and fortunetellers. Every 50 feet is another Madame Fatima stand. You remember Madame Fatima. Kind of chunky, with a crystal ball and a mustache. And there's new construction all over the place. Mostly casinos. The whole thing here is money. In one way or another every inch of this town is for sale. They ought to design a new crest -- a construction crane, a piece of salt water taffy and a bottle of coconut suntan oil on a field of green dollar signs.

Q. Are the Miss America contestants gambling in the casinos?

A. No way. A lot of them are staying in the casino hotels, but they aren't allowed anywhere near the tables. They've got to keep up their image.

Q. What image is that?

A. That they're the last remaining 50 virgins on the face of the earth. The whole thing -- no matter how much they push the scholarship angle -- comes down to 50 young women parading up and down a runaway being geeked at. Bottom line, most people watching are thinking, 50 Girls 50. Yet the one word you never hear is "sexy." The way they promote this thing you'd think the only one who could qualify as Miss Wherever is the Singing Nun.

Q. But don't the judges ask things like -- where do you stand on premarital sex?

A. Sure. Where do you stand on that, on abortion, on gay rights, on the ERA, on all the controversial issues of the day. They're all standing on the same spot -- on both sides of the fence. Remember the old fraternity dance verse to "Wha'd I Say?" the one that went -- See the girl on the hill. She won't. But her sister will." These are the girls on the hill.

There's a standard answer to all the tough questions. "For myself, personally, I don't believe in [fill in the blank]. It's not right for me. pBut I respect someone else's right to come to a different decision." It's always a variation on that theme depending on which way the political winds are blowing. Remember that these women are professional pageant contestants. Many of them have tried three and four times to get to Atlantic City, and once you get here you only get this one shot. Maybe they don't know exactly how to win, but they know for sure what would make them lose. Taking too many radical positions puts you out on the perimeter, away from the cover patrol. Better safe than sorry. Like pageant promoter Al Marks says, "Who wants to be known as Miss Shack-Up?"

The premarital sex question is the all-time buzz question. There's no way a serious contender -- even if she's had more affairs than Ridgewell's -- won't try to sound like she majored in Morality at Marie Osmond College for Women Jane Jenkins, last year's Miss South Carolina, considered to be one of the most intelligent, articulate women in last year's pageant, says, "They'd be pure fools to admit they'd engaged in premarital sex. You're supposed to be of good moral character here. Now maybe some of them aren't, but they'll project it."

Q. They lie?

A. Let's say they sidestep. Everyone says pretty much the same thing. Think of this as the World Series of Womanhood. Everyone has the fundamentals right. The differnce is execution.

Q. Then they're calculating?

A. Look, the biggest fallacy about pageant is the assumption that these women are dumb bunnies. No way. Okay, they wouldn't go anywhere without putting their best face forward, but like Marks says, "These are college girls. They didn't come in from the saloons."

They're bright, articulate, competitive, achievement-oriented and tough. Just because they look like the Stepford Wives doesn't mean they couldn't act like Faye Dunaway in "Network." Even the ones who wear their religions on their sleeves don't necessarily turn the other cheek. There's no one here who can't outsmile you, outcharm you or outflank you.

And so much of what they do here is psychological intimidation. Five and six times a day they change their entire wardrobe top to bottom. each time you see them they look like they just stepped out from facing pages in Redbook. Miss Ohio, Kathy Vernon, was saying she's had to console a few girls who've been intimidated by the clothing. You should see them taking their practice walks down the runway. This year their hair swings; they've stopped putting on enough hairspray to lacquer the Boardwalk. It's easy to spot the difference between the ones who hope they can win and the ones who know they can win. It's the difference between swimming and just staying afloat. And there are sharks in these waters.

Q. Not everyone thinks she can win?

A. Not really. It's a real achievement to make Harvard Law School, but not everyone makes Law Review. By Friday here usually 15 or 20 have broken out of the pack. You can see it happen. Jane Jenkins says, "You see the girls back away. You see them go from confident women on Monday to mere contestants on Friday. They've sized everyone else up and they've begun fading. By Saturday night they're just going through the motions."

Q. Which ones are the big guns?

A. It varies from year to year, but many of the Southern states are traditionally strong. Miss America means more there; the competition on the local and state levels is tougher. Miss Massachusetts, Amy Linder, says, "Southern girls are raised from Day One to be Miss America." Miss North Carolina, Janet Ward Black talks about "the science of pageants. In general, the Southern states know how to take a girl to someone who can fix the best dresses, take the best pictures, teach the best walk." Other traditionally strong states are Texas, Ohio, Arizona and California.

Miss Idaho, Leslie Taylor, is just 18 and when you ask her why she should be Miss America she says, "Because I like people." Idaho has never had a winner. "French fries, we've got down," she says. "Beauty pageants, we're still working on." On Monday, Leslie Taylor talked about intimidation: "There are certain states you look at and tremble. When I saw how many of the strong states were in my competition group I started to shake.I didn't want to come. You know, Miss Idaho's sick, can she have a make-up exam? Some of these states grab a girl from the state pageant and work on her day and night."

Q. Which states?

A. Mississippi for one. Cheryl Prewitt won it all last year, and Donna Pope is Miss Mississippi this year. Lovely woman. Lots of splash in her personality. Could probably outtalk Wolfman Jack. She definitely has the cut of a winner. She tells people that she's wanted to become Miss America since she was 3, and that her momma made a crown for her out of a Quaker Oats box. It's a great story. And she tells it all the time. This is her fourth pageant. In 1977 she was top 10 in Mississippi. In 1978 she finished third in Louisiana, where she attended college. In 1979 she was second there. And this year she went back home to Mississippi and won. She says, "This is the year I'm prepared to win Miss America." She's a gun.

This is how Mississippi loads its guns. "Any girl that wins the state, the next day the state people take her and start working on her," Donna Pope says. "They try to pull that essence out of you. They work with your talents; they find a swimsuit you can wear well; they hold mock interviews and videotape you so you can eliminate your imperfections -- whatever it takes so you can become Miss America. They work on everything so that when you get here you know you can do it well. It's not that they're changing you, they're just smoothing over the rough spots. They worked on my walk and my modeling for the evening gown competition. And I can't tell you how many times I've practiced my 15-second speech for my introduction. It's second nature to me now; I know exactly what to do. Every word of my speech, I don't even have to think about it anymore, I know what I'm doing. I'm very fortunate to have people like this to help me prepare."

Q. Do you have another example of a gun?

A. Take Ohio. Miss Ohio has placed in the top 10 here each year since 1975. "It's sort of ominous for the other girls," says Miss Ohio, Kathy Vernon. "It's like 'here we come again.' And I didn't come here to break that string."

Kathy's look is different from Donna's. Donna tries for softer. Kathy has the look of the young criminal lawyer who comes into court thoroughly prepared and totally beyond intimidation. She has enough confidence to stay sweet without ever dipping into phony syrup. Like Donna, this is her fourth try. They are obviously experienced, and older than most contestants. Donna is 24; Kathy is the oldest here, one week shy of 25. Both see age as an advantage. Neither is here to campaign for Miss Tidy. They have come here to win.

"I'm more mature than most of the other girls," Kathy says. "I've been around. I'm tough, and I think I can win. I've worked very hard for this. aI've lost 50 pounds since my local pageant. I won at 170. I lost it because I want to be Miss America. The career, the fame, the notoriety, the money, I want all those. I feel good about myself here. I think I have what they're looking for. I'm older, inner-directed, goal-oriented. I think this is my year; they're finally ready for a girl like me. Look how short my hair is. When was the last time a Miss America had short hair? I know it's a risk, but I think they're ready for it. The woman who wins this will have been the most prepared and I have prepared for it."

Q. Are there any tricks that contestants use?

A. Sure. Didn't you ever wonder how they could keep smiling? Vaseline.

A little pinch on the teeth and gums. Lets your lips slide without drying out. It's not natural to smile like that. Like a 100-watt bulb. In rehearsal they're not always smiling -- not unless someone points a camera their way. Then it's a Rosalynn Carter look-alike contest.

In order to get more cleavage they will tape the bottom of their breasts. Or use padding. Perfectly legal. You don't have to play the hand that God dealt you. Like Marks says, "I don't know what they use, and I don't care."

Steve Yearick is a designer from South Carolina, and many people here thinks his touch can make you a Miss America. He is the Teddy Tinling of pageantry. He had Kylene Barker a few years ago, and she won. This year he has six contestants -- Ohio, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Virginia. You don't dial Yearick's phone unless you think you're just a shot away. Yearick does it all. He says, "We'll change the girl's makeup color or hair color. You'll see a lot of hair that's been helped along. And we'll pad, sure.But we can also construct a swimsuit so it's not necessary. We just build in what is necessary."

Q. Anything else that isn't real?

A. The music in the production numbers.That's all on tape. Ely has pre-recorded things. So does the disco group Chic. But it's their voices. In the numbers involving the contestants, it isn't them singing at all, it's a professional choir. "But we don't tell people that," said a pageant official.

Q. How about the swimsuit competition? Do the women enjoy that?

A. Of course not, would you enjoy wearing a bathing suit and high heels and walking down a runway in front of 20,000 live Uncle Ernies and 85 million more on TV who are checking you out like a cattle run? Many of them hate it. But they rationalize. They say you have to have it because it's an indication of how poised you are. Janet Langhart, one of the judges, says, "Only a hooker would be comfortable in the swimsuit competition."

Most of the contestants try not to think about what they're doing in swimsuit. Miss Tennessee, Sarah Ann Leonard, says, "I mentally disengage myself so that it's not really me up there. I pick out an empty seat in the audience and picture myself actually sitting in it."

Q. You know, there are a lot of things I always wondered about. Some of these contestants are teen-agers. What if they suddenly break out in pimples?

A. It happens. They just put on heavy makeup. Real heavy. Rust-o-leum.

Q. And what if, when they're standing on stage during the pageant, they have to go to the bathroom?

A. Miss Maryland, Lisa Daskal, has an answer to that. She says, "You wait. You hold it in. And you keep smiling."

Q. How do they pick the judges?

A. Dick Cummins suggests them, and Al Marks has the final say. Many of them are in entertainment, and because NBC does the show, most of the entertainers have some NBC connection. This year there are Tom Snyder; Janet Langhart, a TV talk show hostess; Robert Merrill; Dr. Glenn Whitesides, president of Newberry College in South Carolina; Paul Lavalle, a conductor; Tad Tadlock, a choreographer; Azie Taylor Morton, treasurer of the United States.

Q. Why these judges?

A. Cummins says the panel has "balance." You can see there are specialists in talent and interviewing. Anyone can judge swimsuits; you either got it or you ain't got it. And with all the padding, most of the contestants got it. The odd thing is that so many of them carry their breasts so high it looks like they've had helium implants.

Q. How do the judges feel about their responsibility?

A. They take it seriously. Janet Langhart is in her third year. She says, "The most beautiful one isn't usually picked, and we're not blind. We pick the essence, not the presence."

Q. Do they ever get advice?

A. Doesn't everyone? Last week Robert Merrill said his male friends were giving him the same advice. He said, "They told me to pick the one with the biggest t---."

Q.Merril sings. Will he do the song?

A. No. He'd love to. He said there was talk about him being introduced from the judges box to do it "but it petered out." He said by not choosing him, "They're making a big mistake."

Q. What does Bert say about Ely?

A. Says he "never heard of him." Bert doesn't waste a whole lot of words on Ely.

Q. What does Ely say about Bert?

A. Not much. Says they never met. Says he thinks "he deserves a lot of credit for keeping the same job in this business for 25 years." You get the feeling Ely doesn't think he's following Earl Weaver as manager of the Orioles.

Q. Did Marks always have Ely in mind?

A. Hardly. Marks had been thinking of dumping Bert of years. But he'd never heard of Ely. Someone told him to watch Ely's game show on TV. Mark says, "The guy grew on me. He had what I wanted without being a superstar who would overshadow and upstage the contestants.

"I couldn't and wouldn't go for a star. I don't care what John Davidson says. I never wanted him. I had the bucks to get anyone I wanted. My TV people told me I could sign Sinatra to do the song if I wanted. What for? That's the top moment for the new Miss America. Why would I want Sinatra? So everyone would look at him during the song and say, the hell with the Miss America?

"Ron Ely was perfect, and to tell you the truth I'm glad Found him because I was getting a little desperate to find someone. There was no way I could have asked Bert back."

Q. Does anyone still relate Ely to his old Tarzan series?

A. Not really. For most of the '70s he was doing foreign language films in Europe so he could escape the constant identification. Someone did hang a rope on the door of his dressing room though.

Q. To hand himself or swing through the trees?

A. Probably depends on the ratings.

Q. Back to the contestants. Are they visible in Atlantic City?

A. Not much. But in the casinos you don't hear anything about the entire pageant. It's two different worlds, the pageant and the casinos. As far as the casino people are concerned, the pageant is just another week-long convention. It might as well be Bowling Electricians.

As for the women, when they're not rehearsing or competing, they're back in the hotels practicing. They may be the only 50 people here who aren't lying in the sand like hogs.

But you see their faces everywhere. All the shops on the Boardwalk have their pictures. So do the hotels. You can buy the pictures, or buttons with their pictures on them. Face and state. Never their names. Their names are irrelevant. By Sunday all the names are forgotten. The only thing that endures is the title Miss America. Over the years how many can you name? Bess Meyerson, Lee Meriweather, Phyllis George. And only because they used the title as a springboard into other visible careers. Ten dollars to whoever can name the 1963 Miss Oregon.

Q. what's the realistic goal?

A. Top 10 for the ones who want a career in entertainment. That's a great talent showcase, prime-time national TV. Everyone shoots for the top 10 and then the ones really in the hunt assume top 10 and go for the gusto. This isn't flood relief. Miss America 1981 is looking at 125,000 big ones.

Q. What's the key to winning? Swim-suit, talent or evening gown?

A. It's the interview and the personality you project. Robert Merrill says, "The mind is more important than the body. You can find bodies all over Hollywood."

Q. But we don't see the interview on TV?

A. Right.

Q. So how do we know why one wins and one loses?

A. You don't.

Q. What will the winner do?

A. Cry. They all can cry on cue. They're proud of it. Except they don't say they can cry on cue. They say they cry easily because they're "so sensitive."

Then they'll hold a press conference and they'll thank all the people who helped them, their family and God. You hear a lot about God here. When a contestant uses the word "He" or "Him" she's not talking about her father.

Q. What happens to the losers?

A. They go home and tell everyone that they're proud to have competed, that they did their best they could and they're the happiest people in the whole wide world.

Q. Should we believe them?

A. Only the ones who never had a shot to begin with. The ones who make top five and don't win are dying inside. It's a crusher. Look, Jane Jenkins came here last year and the press loved her and coming out of the judge's interviews she was really in the hunt. But she didn't even make top 10. Looking back, she thinks her image on stage was wrong. She's vibrant, intelligent, sophisticated woman, but her state people decided to give her a Southern belle image and wardrobe, and it didn't play. She was sticking on 15 with the dealer showing 20.

"It was all wrong, she says. "It was too regional, too Southern. It was like everywhere I went they were playing the theme from 'Gone With the Wind' behind me. I needed more splash on stage, and they didn't give it to me. I have a kind of haunt in my head. I was so confused last year when I was here that I came back to see what I did wrong. I wanted it very badly and I didn't even come close. It's taken me a whole year to get over it, and to tell the truth, I haven't really gotten over it yet."