When she was 5, Susan Akin walked on the stage of a department store fashion show, came back and told her mother, "Mama, I didn't know what I was doing, but that was fun." The next year there was Meridian's Miss La Petite contest and in 1970, Little Miss America. Through the years there have been pageants in Miami, Alabama, New Jersey, Tennessee and Mississippi, and then there she was, standing in the Convention Hall's makeshift press room, an hour after the biggest one of all.

She wore a rhinestone crown on her fluffy blond hair, held a wadded-up blue Kleenex in her right hand.

"I've wanted to be Miss America for a long, long time . . . " said the suddenly former Miss Mississippi, Susan Akin, her voice low and hoarse, choked up.

"She won some. She lost some. It builds confidence," said her mother, Dorothy Little.

"She was in Maid of Cotton in Memphis, Tennessee. She lost that," said her stepfather Harry Little. "She can take defeats. When she loses we just take her out for a pancake breakfast and she's ready to go at it again."

Saturday night she made it as far as she could go. With the crowd on its feet applauding and millions watching at home, she walked down the lighted runway, red roses in her arms, eyes filled with tears, bottom lip quivering, in a sparkly white body-hugging dress, the scooped-out back trimmed in white fur, a long thread dangling from the hem, perilously close to her feet.

"All the past pageants I've been in -- a hundred or more -- have paid off," she said.

Enter Miss America 1986. The woman of the '80s -- if you're in a Beth Henley play. This is the woman who would have entered the Miss Firecracker contest -- and won. Susan Akin, 21, is tall and blond and gorgeous in that Miss America way. For her talent, she sang a '60s tune, "You're My World," adequately and won the swimsuit competition with a white bathing suit and a striking figure. Asked how she was different from her peers, she answered, "Probably more determined, more ambitious. Very ambitious."

She makes no bones about what her goals have been:

"I started in pageants when I was 4, 5, 6 years old," she said at her press conference this morning in the Tropicana Hotel. "It has been my career and I don't regret it one bit. It's given me confidence, self-assurance -- I can stand up, sing, dance, whatever, in front of people."

Akin has finished three years at the University of Mississippi and she will take this year off from school -- where she is majoring in public relations. And she is smart for herself.

Still, at Saturday night's midnight post-pageant press conference, she got off to a rocky start, stumbling through her answer to what she saw as the pressing problems of the day: "One problem I get concerned with is terrorism between countries," she said. "Also in our own country I see terrorism in our own streets. Since the recent -- " here, there was an interminable pause as she searched for the right word, "happening, I think about terrorism and worry it could hurt this world one day."

She was more secure on abortion: "I think you can't legislate morality," she said. "Abortion is more of a moral issue than a legislative issue . . . if a woman wants to have an abortion that's her own business." Overnight she got significantly sharper and appeared at the morning press conference bubbly, relaxed and confident.

Not only did she perform a couple of magic tricks (after one simple trick that left the press in attendance silently stymied she exhorted, "Is that any good? I don't hear any response!"), she was more confident discussing world affairs.

On divestiture of interests in South Africa: "I can sometimes agree with divestment, because I have a problem with injustice with anyone -- where no one has a voice, where no one can speak out. I think divestment would help change that."

On AIDS: "It's a very serious problem -- probably one of the most serious medical problems of the 20th century . . . it's not only homosexuals, it's heterosexuals, too. I feel for anyone who has it. I wish I could just reach out and perform magic to make it go away."

She sat at the head of a long conference table wearing a blue and black knit dress, her crown and a gold Rolex watch, a birthday gift from a friend.

Somewhat to her chagrin, she was the much-publicized computer pick of a retired professor from Northern Illinois University. "I do not believe in computers," she had said Friday night. "When I got here and found out I was the computer pick, I thought, 'Well, why not?' I felt good about it. Then later I found people were getting to know me because I was the computer pick . . . and I felt the pressure and I turned totally against it by the middle of the week."

As for the fact that the professor picked right, she sniffed, "He was just lucky this year."

Though she calls herself conservative, many of her answers on political issues might be called somewhat liberal. Asked about the Equal Rights Amendment, she paused and stumbled a little: "I could be for the ERA. It's just a 24-word amendment. It's just the rights that are already in the Constitution . . . I don't think it makes any difference."

No, Bob Guccione, she's never posed for any compromising pictures. And no, she's never had any cosmetic surgery, she said, chuckling a little through both answers. "I've had a little dermabrasion on these chicken pox marks," she said, smiling, "but they didn't go away, so I guess I was supposed to keep them."

How about premarital sex? She chuckled again and paused for a long time. "Well, now that's up to the individual," she said. As for herself? "No," she said softly. "I said I wouldn't."

Between winning the Miss Mississippi pageant in July and coming to the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, she spent six weeks at the home of Vicksburg, Miss., surgeon Briggs Hopson and his family to prepare. In a state that takes the Miss America pageant as seriously as Atlantic City takes it, Hopson is the Svengali to the state queens hoping to be crowned Miss America.

Hopson said what he does for the contestants "varies from girl to girl. It depends on what kind of work they need -- body work, arm work, talent work or tummy work. With Susan, as far as body goes, it was just a little toning. And she was persistent with that. She's been a hard worker."

Hopson dismissed the idea that he molds the contestant. "I hate the word prepare. We take the girl and encourage her. If you take a plastic girl to Atlantic City, you've made a mistake."

Said Akin, "Getting ready for Miss America, I had to sacrifice being with my family. Sometimes I'd pick up the phone and call my mother and just cry. I sacrificed my friends." She thought for a moment. "Well, I guess I could say I sacrificed a boyfriend. But I guess that's not important if you want to be Miss America."

She has three siblings and her parents were divorced when she was 13. "I was very upset," she said. "I thought it could never happen to me, to my parents . . . but now I'm glad, my mother is happy, my father is happy. My brothers and sisters knew there was friction."

Harry Little, her stepfather, said the night she won that he treats her as one of his own. Her natural father was at the pageant but not seen by the press.

Akin had a sister who suffered from Down's syndrome and died when Akin was in the 10th grade. "She loved me to be in pageants," said Akin. "Whether I came in first or last place, I could see her smiling face. I get emotional about it," she said, her voice growing hoarse, "because if there was one thing I'd change I'd have her here with me."

While Akin packed so did Sharlene Wells, the outgoing Miss America. She said it feels "wonderful to be back in the driver's seat." Saturday night as Akin was led by the arm to the Miss America Ball, Sharlene Wells, her crown still in place, gave a brief television interview. She held three quarters in her perfectly manicured hand "to put in the slot machine," she laughed.

Wells, a Mormon from Utah, conservative, staunchly against premarital sex, the pageant's answer to the scandal it suffered in 1984 with Vanessa Williams, said she felt as if she had "aged 20 years" in the last year and said she was happy to be going back to school. She has no plans to go into the entertainment business like many of the Miss Americas before her.

"I have seen enough of it this year to know that's not what I want," she said. "I enjoy performing. I really do. But the life style is not for me. I plan on going back to school. I've got two years left and I get an MBA."

"The girls," as everyone calls them, are 51 in number, from all the states and the District of Columbia. They are unbelievably thin, perfectly made up at all times and rarely seen walking on anything lower than three-inch heels. They spend the week in Atlantic City, competing in various talent, swimsuit and evening gown preliminaries, being interviewed by judges and being chaperoned around town.

The rules: no drinking, no smoking, no gambling, no men -- or anyone else, even your mother -- in your hotel room. The girls are always attended by chaperones, only they are called hostesses. Each state sends a hostess to accompany its contestant to Atlantic City and stay with her in the hotel. Once she leaves the hotel, the pageant staff in Atlantic City assigns a local hostess to be with her outside the hotel and in the Convention Hall.

Some hostesses have done it for years. Eugenia Fischer, hostess to this year's Miss Mississippi, once hosted another winner -- Phyllis George.

"You try to be their friend and their counselor," said Fischer, a friendly, low-key woman with a June Cleaver hairdo and motherly air. She has been doing this since 1963. For Phyllis George, she remembered, "It was a tough week. She had tonsillitis all week. She gave it to me."

Few contestants yearn to ditch their chaperones. That's not the point, said Karen Aarons, assistant executive secretary to the pageant. "They're basically here for a week to audition for a job that pays them $150,000 at the age of 21," said Aarons. "They don't want to take a walk on the Boardwalk."

Everyone connected with the pageant stresses that this is a scholarship pageant. Indeed, every contestant is assured of going home with at least $2,000. The winner goes home with $30,000. But many are nearly finished with college or certainly partway through it. Nor do all express interest in graduate school.

"A lot of them will use their scholarship for private diction lessons, dance classes, anything to further their education," said Aarons. However, those who haven't finished school must use the money for that purpose -- or if they want the money in cash, they have to show that they have finished school first.

Clearly many of these women have not entered this pageant just for the scholarship. "Money or the recognition that career benefits can coincide with what they get here" are other selling points, Aarons said. She added, "If you have a body and the talent, why not?"

The pageant officials seem to have come to terms with the Vanessa Williams scandal. They don't advertise her nor do they deny her existence. In fact, they are almost deferential. "If you talk to anyone in the pageant you'll find her to be considered one of the best we had," said one pageant official who asked not to be named. "She's held in great affection."

The closest the pageant came to scandal this year was the case of Miss New Jersey, Toni Georgiana, who was sued by the first runner-up in the state pageant, Laura Ann Bridges. Bridges contended that Georgiana had neither lived nor studied in New Jersey. Georgiana, who now lives in Pennsauken, N.J., was until recently a Philadelphia resident. She had registered for a two-week summer course at Trenton State College, but never attended classes. Georgiana survived the court battle and kept her title.

But she had another problem this week: She bruised her kneecap during an acrobatic dance number for the talent competition. Friday night she walked smoothly down the runway in the evening gown competition, her knee bandaged under the gown.

"I haven't heard a bad word," she said about her fellow contestants' reaction to her lawsuit. "They all understand the position I was in. They all know how they'd feel if someone was trying to take the crown away from them."

Georgiana, 21, lived in New York and supported herself as a professional dancer for 2 1/2 years. In 1982 and '84 she was a runner-up in the Miss Pennsylvania pageant before switching to New Jersey this past year. "Technically I was closer to the pageant in New Jersey then the Pennsylvania one," said Georgiana. "I just crossed the dotted line. I didn't climb the Iron Curtain." After the pageant is over she plans to take a vacation. "I definitely deserve it," she said, laughing. "I'm going to sit in my apartment, I'm not going to answer the phone, not put on makeup and not talk about the pageant."

You can spot them in the audience. Just as thin, just as pretty, just as perfectly made up, and just as immaculately dressed. But mostly it is the wistful, intent gaze that they turn upon the contestants marching up and down the runway. Wannabe Miss Americas.

Joy Bland, 24, is a former Miss University of Georgia, a former Miss Georgia contestant. Now a reporter for a television station in Columbus, Ga., she interviewed Miss Georgia on Friday. Does she look at them and think, 'It could have been me'?

"I know it could have been me," Bland said. "I'm eligible for two more years. But, you know, I think it would be so easy. The judges' interview would be a piece of cake. I'm speaking from my heart. I interview people every day, but it's time to move on. A year off would hurt my television career, I think."

She had already been quoted saying that she wanted to dispel the notion of the puffy little beauty queen. Certainly the talent was different. "I thought it was very unique," said Miss D.C., Cherie Ward, a 1985 graduate of Howard University, who works as a news assistant at Channel 7.

Her talent presentation was a monologue on how television controls the mind. For this, she wore a silver suit and stepped out of a giant television set while the theme music from "The Twilight Zone," "Star Trek" and the soap opera "The Young and the Restless" played in the background.

"People today are very influenced by what they see in the media . . . " she said. "That's fine; however, they must not be so gullible. They must take it for what it's worth." Her monologue addressed soap operas, commercials and television news.

Ward had something of a tumultuous summer. The day she graduated from Howard was the day her mother died.

"Unlike other contestants who have been touring the country, going to other pageants," she said, "I was getting up at 2:30 in the morning, going to my job at 4:30, going to fittings and then being Miss D.C. at night. I've been living on two and three hours of sleep a night. Some girls have been complaining about getting up at 6 a.m. I love it." As for the contest, she sees it as a steppingstone in her career. "I'm trying to get to the top. Whatever I can do to be the best me, I'm going to do. Opportunities like Miss America only come around once . . . In no way would my mother have wanted me to stop because of her death . . . She worked in a factory all her life. If she can grind the stone for me, I can grind the stone for me."

She looked so promising going into the pageant. Miss Ohio, Suellen Cochran, 21, a sweet-faced blond woman, had won a swimsuit competition and a talent competition. She played an elaborate version of chopsticks. "It starts really simply and people think, 'What is this girl doing?' and then it goes into variations," said Cochran. "I wanted to entertain the trained musicians and the untrained musicians."

She has finished her junior year at Miami University and will take the rest of the year off to travel as Miss Ohio. For the last three months she has worked at aerobics daily, Nautilus three times a week, piano three hours a day. The Ohio pageant groomer Denny Keller brought in a talent consultant, took Cochran to South Carolina for gowns and New York for a hairdresser and more clothes. And Keller grilled her for the interviews with judges.

"We study current events constantly," Cochran said of Keller and herself. "Every time he'd call he'd have a new question. Every time you went to his house to work on talent or walking it would be me against the dinner table -- 'How do you feel about disinvestment in South Africa?' "

How does she feel about it? "I'm for it," she said. "The key to apartheid is economic investment. If we disinvest I think, like Ronald Reagan's trickle-down theory, it will trickle down and help abolish apartheid. And I think the key to it is educating black people."

She too has always wanted to be Miss America. "If I won, oh, I just can't imagine it. If you're here, it's really reaching your goal . . . I don't know what I'll do after this," she laughed, "because each year I'm always working toward a pageant. I don't know what I'll do without a pageant to work for. Hopefully, I'll be busy."

She made the top 10, though not the top five. "You just never know," said a philosophical Denny Keller after the pageant. "When there's competition, you go in with no guarantees . . . She'll be disappointed. That's understandable. But it certainly paid off. Also, you've got to be stoic about it. There are 41 women up there who would like to change places with her."