ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- This is a civilization one block wide, bounded by an ocean nobody swims in and boarded-up houses nobody lives in. On the most famous boardwalk in the world, women ride in wicker rickshaws because the wooden slats break their heels. No one walks on the sand, where drunks curl up at night; a cop calls the ocean front "the scum of the city." The bars are open around the clock, but there is never a happy hour.

In this tawdry fantasyland, the Miss America Pageant, while promoting its generous scholarships and modern womanhood, still pursues traditional femininity with a garish ferocity.

"Every girl wants to wear a crown," said Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, Miss America 1988, minutes after her rhinestone tiara was bobby-pinned on Saturday night.

"I've been working toward this for six years -- well, more. I won my first local when I was 17, and I'm 24 now. I participated in Miss Ohio in '83, and the Michigan pageant three times. I've already earned about $11,000 toward my nursing career," said Rafko, a registered nurse from Monroe, Mich. ". . . This money {a $30,000 scholarship} will really come in handy."

It's hard to imagine a more cynical setting for the commercialized patriotism of the Miss America Pageant than this, the land of silk and money.

"We are the heart of America," trilled the contestants as they bounced across the stage in the pageant's big production number. Much like the U.S. Army, they cheered, "Be the best that you can be."

"Listen to the heartbeat of America," thumped the Chevrolet ad. The contestants, host Gary Collins noted approvingly, wore only "made-in-America gowns" -- some of them, supplied by wealthy boosters, reportedly running up to $20,000 apiece.

The salute to the Constitution, called "We the People," featured the "Miss America Dancers" in baffling flapper-era lame', bumping and grinding as if Bob Fosse had written the Bill of Rights.

This is the American Dream -- the big win, the easy money -- but in Atlantic City, the life has been drained out of the dreamers. In the casinos, glassy-eyed, slovenly women sit for hours wringing the handles of slot machines while their occasional jackpots tinkle down unnoticed. And over in the convention center, young women with gleaming teeth and lilac eye shadow practice holding their dimples for hours of interviews.

"I think Miss America is about vitality and optimism and professionalism," Rafko said Saturday night. "My job is to be a role model for the young women of today."

Rafko said yesterday that she supports mandatory AIDS testing -- and sexual abstinence as the best way to stop the spread of the disease. She also favors the ordination of women as Catholic priests and euthanasia for people who are diagnosed as brain-dead.

Rafko, as Miss Michigan, was not an early favorite, although she did win Friday night's preliminary swimsuit competition. She was, as one writer put it, "among the field horses" -- difficult to distinguish from the crowd. She is blond, like more than half this year's contestants, and one of the older ones who are partly into their careers (there were four 24-year-olds, five who were 25 and five more who were 26).

She also reflects the fact that there are two qualities that have gone out of the Miss America Pageant: amateurism and real "beauty."

Not only is the phrase "beauty contest" absent from official literature, but the bureaucracy of the pageant, which at the state and local levels sorts through some 80,000 potential contestants every year, has developed a very narrow physical ideal -- one so unexceptionable that it is virtually plain. There were vivacious women in the pageant and some cute ones, but only a few even slightly ethnic types, several quite ordinary faces and no striking beauties. Under the heavy makeup, they were nearly interchangeable.

They also tend to similar talents. Soprano is a way of life in Miss America. Of the 51 contestants, 28 were singers, nearly all in the high histrionic range. That doesn't count Dorothy Benham, Miss America 1977, who began each evening with an operatic treatment of "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "America the Beautiful" (in three verses) that threatened to shatter the floodlights; or this year's runner-up, Miss Louisiana, who was listed as a ventriloquist but who yodeled through her teeth on behalf of her two dummies.

In fact, the most unusual thing about Rafko was her talent performance -- an enthusiastic rendition of a traditional hip-quivering Tahitian dance that not too long ago might have been considered too provocative for Miss America. After all, as several noted, one can scarcely dedicate a shopping mall in a grass skirt. But in the final night's competition, when the talent accounted for only 25 percent of the score, she wriggled through.

"I'm not Hawaiian, I'm Ukrainian," she said after the show. "But my grandmother said, 'You have a Hawaiian name, so why not try a Hawaiian dance?' " But "as always, I'm very critical of myself . . . I usually twirl four poi balls, and tonight I only did three, I was just so nervous."

Saturday night's press conference was Rafko's first official appearance -- where, as one pageant official said frankly, "we find out whether she can talk."

In Rafko's case, they were lucky. Her ambition to continue working with the terminally ill and to manage her own hospice delighted image-conscious pageant officials. (Her interviews with the judges about her career plans reportedly went a long way toward offsetting any doubts about the acceptance in Middle America of her robust Tahitian performance.)

But for all Rafko's lofty career goals, it's the crown, and the years of beauty competitions, and the scholarship and the red Corvette convertible, and perhaps even the relatively overt "talent," that make her a "role model for the young women of today."

They were already at rampside Saturday night, hundreds of Miss Americas-in-training, preteen and even little girls with lacquered hair and long dresses with chest banners, practicing their coronation walk up and down the runway.

These near-Misses already know about self-promotion and cosmetic surgery ("Look, Mama, that's the nose I want," one girl nudged) and the padded bra. That, ironically, is one tool of traditional pulchritude they'll probably never need: What with custom-designed corrective swimsuits and the now-standard backless evening gowns, the bra is now virtually extinct in the 66-year-old Miss America pageant.

Surgical tape is all the support a professional beauty requires. This is one of the first tricks of the trade every pageant contestant learns. A side-to-side strip of tape standardizes cleavage, eliminates armpit bulge and reduces jiggle (still taboo for Miss America television).

Among the other notorious beauty aids are spray adhesive for the fanny (to keep the swimsuit firmly anchored) and petroleum jelly inside the upper lip, so that the long-suffering contestants don't find their smiles stuck to their teeth. And contestants have to be able to look convincingly into a camera as well as through the scrim of spotlights as if they could actually see the faces of the audience.

It's hard to look into the electronic face of fame without squinting. In fact, it's hard to look anywhere in Atlantic City without squinting (which may be why they wear sunglasses at 7 a.m. in the bars).

The pimps run tabs at the hotel bars, and the prostitutes, their hair sprayed back in the same wide-winged pageboys as the pageant contestants, stroll the aisles of the casinos where the beauty queens are forbidden to go, looking for lonely rollers.

It's as though Atlantic City were falling off the edge of America.

"Off the boardwalk . . ." begins a rickshaw pusher, then stops. "There is no life beyond the boardwalk."