Miss Venezuela, Irene Saez Conde, a 19-year-old red-haired engineering student from Caracas whose biography says she believes Ronald Reagan is "the greatest person in the world today," won the 30th annual Miss Universe contest in New York last night.

Saez Conde, who survived swimsuit, "facial beauty" and interview competition, took the field from 77 contestants at the Minskoff Theater in New York City.

Miss Canada, Dominique Dufour, a 22-year-old brunette, was the first runner-up.

Saez Conde was one of five contestants who were picked in the final round earlier last night -- representing Venezuela, Sweden, Brazil, Belgium and Canada.

Miss U.S.A., Kim Seelbrede, 20, of Germantown, Ohio, who had been selected in the semi-final round, was not chosen as a finalist.

The Miss Universe title carries more than $100,000 in cash and prizes.

"I felt so sorry for you when you got that tough question," someone backstage said to Miss Brazil, Adriana Olveira, 18, the third runner-up, who had been asked a half-hour before by emcee Bob Barker: "If you were granted one wish by the Miss Universe contest -- not for the world but for yourself -- what would it be?" She stood in understandable silence at this cosmic question before reaching for a life-raft answer about peace on earth. Miss Belgium, Dominique Van Eeckhoudt, had just finished answering the same question with the bewildered silence it deserved while a worldwide television audience of about 600 million watched. She stood agape and silent as a long minute passed. Later in the locker room, as two contestants stood combing the hair spray out of each other's sets, one said to the other, "I'm glad I didn't make it to that question."

The contest was over, sets were being struck, women in shiny evening gowns were carrying cans of Coke and wilted roses toward the buses that would take them to their post-Cinderella party at Magique, a Manhattan disco. Some locked arms with each other as the former candidates for the high office limped into the night. "Well," one said, "I'm older."

They had aged by the rite of public exposure. Two weeks ago they came to New York beauty contestants from many lands, only to be directed with the regimen usually prescribed Elite models. And just three hours earlier, as they were on the verge of the last and most anticipated step, they had been at a Chinese restaurant on West 44th Street. I sat with them, helpless bait among the mob, prey to an ancient fantasy left over from grammar school in which I was somehow allowed into a girls' mystery sanctum. They sat over their noodles and sweet and sour pork, exchanging cynical and naive information about their fall from innocence and ascent to prominence. It was, it seemed, like Jack Lemmon's remembered fantasy in "Some Like It Hot" of being a kid locked in a candy store -- and yet somehow the innocence of childhood had nothing to do with last night. There I was, muttering lines to myself, grinning and flogging myself for the tired questions which these young women entertained in their freshly weathered way.

What did Miss England think about the riots in Britain? She raised a fist. "If one more reporter asks me that question I don't know what I'll do. I'll kill 'im. You had them, didn't you? What am I supposed to say?" Then she smiled a beautiful beauty contest smile.

They came down the stairs with the television cameras on, all 77 of them gloriously unsynchronized, Miss Universe candidates, singing and smiling in the Minskoff Theater. They divided down the middle as entertainer Peter Allen, grinning and wiggling in his cutaway, picked his way through the Miss Universe kickline. Seventy-seven girls sang, "New York, New York," while the 33 members of the Naval Command Choir, crew-cutted and in ivory white, sang a Naval Command march about New York: You're so pretty you're some city The New York Times St Patrick's chimes That's New York.

Somewhere among them, a 17-year-old contestant sings along with a huge smile on her face. Earlier, she had been furious inside: "Why am I here?" she had wanted to know. "Why do I have to wear this awful makeup and let some lady do my hair up like this? I can't wait until this thing is over and I can have some fun in town instead of this dopey stuff they've been making us do pushing us around trapping us with that -- chaperone."

Seventy-seven young women take another step down the staircase. Across from the 17-year-old is a 25-year-old entrant who had spoken of a mild anxiety: "What if I win? I mean, what if I win? My boyfriend will never speak to me again. I mean, really, the whole thing is if I win -- geez, what'll I do -- I won't be able to see him or stay with him for a whole year. I mean he's so sweet, he'd never stop me from entering, but I mean, if I win we'll never even get to stay even one night with each other. I mean, what if I win?" And right above her, following her down the steps, is another girl who had wanted to know, "When do I get to see some boys? I haven't seen a boy in two weeks! Don't they have any in this place?"

The 77 girls who entered the Miss Universe contest ranged from 17 to 27 years old. The ambitious ones loved it and the most ambitious ones hated it. Women with self-esteem from Finland to Israel came -- some slightly against their wills. Miss England, Joanna Longley, thought it would be "incomprehensible and nice to win, but it would probably ruin my life. After all I've got a relationship to think about and a year from now if I win I'll still love him but I'll just be a former Miss Universe."

Dana Weschler, Miss Israel, a beautiful, gawky girl still in high school, sat with her mother on the banister of the Minskoff two hours before the show was to begin. She wasn't happy. She wants to be a doctor. She said she thought she was stuck in the dumbest thing she'd ever run into. Her father, a French-speaking engineer, and her mother, a Romanian dental assistant, came with her to stay at the new Parker Meridien Hotel on 57th Street. They were prisoners of the Miss Universe contest.

"There goes my chaperone," Weschler said, eating the Arthur Treacher fish and chips her mother had brought her, and the two of them ate separately from the rest. "Ever since I got here I haven't been able to go anyplace without her, and she has bought me the worst food I've ever tasted in my life with my own money. I was in modeling school in Israel, but they never made me put anything like this on my face," and she pointed to the red splotches.

"I came over because everyone over there thought it would be good for us." Weschler's mother, watching Miss Iceland, Elisabet Traustadottir, and Miss Ireland, Valerie Roe, run by to get into their evening gowns, wanted to talk about the Lebanon bombings. "I didn't like it, but it was necessary for a tiny country like us to be safe." Weschler, curling her lip at some Miss Universe officials, agreed with a nod and bit into her fish.

Across the street at the Miss Universe-designated Chinese restaurant, the 76 contestants ate. None of them seemed the least bit nervous.

"My feet hurt," Miss Norway, Mona Olsen, said, bowing her head toward her plate. "Have you ever tried wearing high heels for 14 hours?" "I'd like to see some people besides the people in this contest," Miss Ireland said. Miss England smiled. She has been competing in beauty contests since 1974, when she was chosen Miss Britain at 18. She was runner-up for Miss International that year and was Miss Campari in 1979. "I thought I'd give it one more whirl before I hung it up," the 25-year-old, red-haired contestant said. "In the beginning I used to think that the important thing was to seem sophisticated and older. Now I go into each contest trying to show that I'm young and innocent." She giggled, and Miss Norway took another forkful of sweet and sour. "I don't know how I'm going to walk back to that stage," she said.

Fifteen Chinese waiters hovered around, several with cameras, taking pictures of the women who smiled back with an unlikely combination of innocence and poise. It is like a Bob Hope movie -- "I'll Take Miss Universe." Hey, I wanna tell ya, I've never seen anything like it. There I was, just me and 76 Miss Universe candidates at a Chinese restaurant. I thought I'd take 38 from Column A and 38 from Column B. But seriously folks, I want to tell you, I was so scared I felt like Tip o'Neill at a Republican budget caucus. I felt like --

But any giddy mirth that was to be had disappeared with a look at the weary faces of the contestants. "After this is over," Miss England said, "I'm going back home with my boyfriend and then I want to go into PR. I've learned something about it here." I want to go back across the street and see that cute doggie," Miss Guam said. What cute doggie?" one of the other young nationals asked her. "That cute bomb doggie that's sniffing backstage," Miss Guam said. The girls trooped off to put on their evening gowns and bathing suits.