Uniforms? Not really.

"I sometimes wear a white T-shirt that says Nanny Madison on the pocket," says Madison Myers, 24. She can chime into any conversation. She's a blond-bombshell nanny, a chuckling-fun sort from Southern California. "And maybe white shorts and tennis shoes."

"Not tennis shoes. I'd never wear them," says Judith Abranovich, 34, who works in Bedminster, N.J. She's got on an oversized linen jacket with the sleeves rolled up, a bit. She's been a nanny for 10 years. She's a graduate of the Sheffield Nanny School in New Jersey. She's very serious about nannying, and smart. "There are some houses," she says, "you'd just never enter in tennis shoes."

"But I work," Myers bubbles forth, "in L.A."

Welcome to the International Nanny Association (INA) conference in Crystal City. There's an annual network operating here -- nannies, nanny placement agency owners and people who train nannies. From Thursday to Sunday they'll total 300.

Nannyland. Top-of-the-line in child care. They are the Cadillacs, the Jeep Grand Wagoneers -- depending on which coast, which clients -- of babysitting. They can place complicated phone calls. They speak English! They have working papers! Driver's Licenses! They take CPR courses, can quote T. Berry Brazelton and Benjamin Spock, deal with the Jealousy Issue, fit in at the country club.

They have smarts, after all. They are nannies who know. For one thing, they knew to be nannies -- not babysitters or au pairs or mother's helpers or day-care workers.

"I worked in day care for two years," says Megan Rabung, an 18-year-old nanny in Midlothian, Va. "Boy, that was a bad, bad situation," she says. "Babies all around. Sick. Crying. I wouldn't do it again."

A bunch of nannies have just come from yesterday morning's closed-door "Nanny Caucus," where they were able to gripe freely about professional problems: The so-called "nannies" who aren't really nannies (not enough training) and the placement agencies (why can't nannies use several agencies, the way parents do?).

Other subjects come loose. Out here in the lobby of the Crystal Gateway Marriott, the nanny grapevine starts up. You hear things -- about the Billy Joel/Christie Brinkley household, for instance. "They've burned through lots of nannies," says one. "I've heard that too," says a second.

"Christie Brinkley's looking for a nanny," speculates another, "who looks like Christie Brinkley."

"I interviewed for a job with them," says Holly McManus, who's a 26-year-old nanny in Lawrenceville, N.J. She's got short dark hair, shorts, a polo shirt. She doesn't look like Christie Brinkley. "First they turned me down. Then I turned them down."

"I know that Shelley Long had been through 30 nannies the year I was interviewed for that job," says Myers.

Turned down jobs?

"I interviewed with Neil Young," Myers continues. "I turned it down."

"I turned down a job with one of the Talking Heads," says Amelia Georgiana, 31, who lives with a family in Pennington, N.J. "I didn't want to move to Wisconsin."

"That was stupid," says McManus. "Really stupid."

No Laughing

Years ago they used to live forever in the attic of the country house, still mending socks and re-buttoning the eyes on teddy bears. They ate prunes. They'd spoon off the baby food on your lips too hard. They'd mistake a freckle for dirt and try to scrub it off in the bath with a washcloth that felt like steel wool. They'd wear thick-soled, sensible shoes that looked dangerous from your low vantage point. They'd smell like violet water and camphor and scones. They had wobbly, slanted, ancient old-lady handwriting.

They were old ladies.

Just the word conjures up female goats, the brown-uniformed "Norland Nannies" or Margaret Thatcher's "Nanny England," or a Monty Python skit -- perhaps John Cleese in drag. Discipline, schedules, subway and bus timetables, rules, naps, eggs for breakfast, peace and quiet -- these were a few of their favorite things.

They'd snooze off in the afternoon, and secretly hate your parents. They'd refuse to play on the floor. And they'd often whisper the most terrible things to you in private. "Hush! No laughing!"

No longer.

"American families are very different from English families," says INA President Cathie Robertson. "And you have to match a nanny's values to the family's values -- on strictness or discipline, on culture and life."

Does an English nanny get paid more here? "Unless they've had English training," says Robertson, "they might not get more money, but they are more likely to get the job. It's a status thing -- to say you've got an English nanny. Even between an Irish and an English nanny, people will pick the English."

"But that's really changing," says Mary Jo Crist, owner of Nannies & Associates, a Dallas placement agency. "Attitudes are changing. It isn't such an elite thing anymore. Half of the nannies live out of the home now. And 98 percent of my mothers are working women -- lawyers, doctors, CPAs, upper-level management. They just want to find a nanny they like."

Nanny of the Year

A podium is set up at the Nanny of the Year luncheon. There are three ficas trees. There's an arrangement of flowers below on the floor. It's a small arrangement but sweet, the kind you'd send to someone in the hospital who'd just had minor surgery. But this seems wholly inadequate. Any amount of flowers would be. The nannies are crying, on their feet.

It's an ovation for Harriette Grant. She's Nanny of the Year.

Grant has a nursing degree, and has been a nanny for 27 years. She's worked for J. Carter Brown's family here for 13 years. Before that, she was with Tony Bennett's kids in Beverly Hills.

"I am honored to be the first nanny to receive this award," Grant stammers. "I believe nannying is a career choice. I am proud of my profession. And if I had to do it again, I wouldn't change a thing -- oh, maybe one or two." She thanked her family and her "nanny support group."

Huge nanny applause. The room stands again. They look like suburban mall shoppers. They have perms and tans. Highlights and nail polish. They wear Top-Siders and sportswear, spectator pumps and linen suits, gold shell earrings, lipstick.

Grant has a box of a dozen long-stemmed red roses. She has the Nanny of the Year plaque. She has tears she's wiping. And she has 6-year-old Elissa Brown -- blond and tan, coltish long legs and arms -- wrapped in a bearhug around her waist.

"I'm very privileged to be able to bask in Harriette Grant's reflected glory today," says J. Carter Brown. He's speaking to the luncheon crowd on Grant's behalf. He's come with ex-wife Pamela and Elissa. (His 12-year-old, J. Carter Brown IV, has left that morning for summer camp.) "We can't say too much about what she has provided them in terms of love and discipline and fun and a wonderful caring presence... .

"She has made me realize the importance of being a nanny," says Brown, "and of having professional standards -- the kind which are fostered by this group. ... There are more and more households becoming involved in careers and separations -- all of the modern life pressures -- and we have to rely more and more on quality child care at home."

INA President Robertson takes the podium. She's wiping tears. She runs a nanny teaching program at Grossmont College in San Diego. "They go out and buy their Mercedeses and Volvos or whatever," she says of some parents today, "but only will pay $85 a week for family home day care. But I say: Let them drive Chevys!"

The Nanny Trance

J. Carter Brown often enters a trancelike state (eyes closed, mind expanding) when descanting on things like medieval psalters or Robert Motherwell. But one wouldn't expect this phenomenon to occur when he reminisces about his nannies.

"My first one was French," he says, "which was handy for me because I got to learn her language before I spoke English."

The eyes shut down. The eyebrows raise. The trance of the National Gallery director begins. "But then we had Lily Cameron," he says. "She was a wonderful Scottish woman. Rock of ages. Honest. Hard-working. Loyal. One of those great Scots. She brought us all up," he says, eyes opening as if emerging from prayer.

"My wife also grew up with a wonderful nanny, and my father had one who was a real fixture in his life."

Pam Brown is watching Grant and Elissa have their pictures taken. "I had a wonderful nanny growing up," she says. "A Scottish nanny. She was wonderful. We had a temporary nanny too, named Mrs. Broadfoot, which made me laugh. She had the longest, narrowest feet. So Broadfoot -- can you imagine? -- seemed hilarious to me."

How did she find Harriette Grant? "I didn't want an older six-week nurse," she says, "or a nervous sort of housekeeper type. I only interviewed three nannies, actually. And when I got to Harriette, it just felt right."

"She's a very intuitive person. She picks up on vibes," says Carter of Pam's choice. "Neither of us had had children before, and I think we just wanted to find one with the right value system," he says. "And also, Harriette -- let me tell you -- is very smart."

The Nanny Industry

Booths are scattered here and there -- exhibitors in Nannyland. There's Rent-a-Mom and Beacon Hill Nannies and A Choice Nanny and the Nanny Exchange and Capable Care -- all placement agencies. Some charge clients 10 percent of the nanny's annual salary; other agencies have flat fees -- $1,000 to $2,000 -- to place a nanny in a home.

One booth is particularly impressive. It is huge by Nannyland standards. It's the work of American Security Services Corp. (AMSEC) out of Middleburg. They do important background checks on nannies. It's black, their booth. The whole thing's a scary photograph, really, of an enormous lightning bolt. There are also headlines from newspapers effectively placed around:

"She had 38 names," says one, "but died unknown."

"Records show K Street Driver," says another, "had 72 suspensions in New York."

For $65 any placement agency -- or family -- can hire AMSEC to run a "package" check on a potential caretaker.

"Within the nanny industry, I don't think we've come up with any atrocious discoveries," says the company's Bob Green. He's a young man with a preppie's face in a blue suit and tassel loafers. "A bad driving record is important to check. And if there's a criminal record, of course."

There's also a booth for Advantage Payroll. For $8.25 a week, Joel Bernstein's company will pay your nanny by direct deposit. He has the money wired automatically out of your account, and he'll provide all the tax work -- the 942 forms that the IRS now requires for domestic employees.

"Nannies are a multibillion-dollar business," says Marla Sanders, owner of Mother's Helper -- a placement agency on the West Coast -- and director of Capable Care here. Half the nannies are placed, she says, through agencies.

"Twenty percent of the time," she says, "it doesn't work out. Usually just compatibility problems. Even with a careful screening process this can happen. ... It's like a bad marriage. The thing is to get them out right away. Otherwise everybody tries to make it work, but it falls apart in three to six months anyway."

So-Called Nannies

Most nannies are not nannies, they will tell you. "They are just mother's helpers. These supposed nannies are not properly trained," says Sanders. "We didn't used to have definitions for child-care providers."

In 1988 the INA agreed on a definition for a nanny: "Employed by a family on either a live-in or live-out basis to undertake all tasks related to the care of the children. Duties are generally restricted to child care and the domestic tasks related to child care. May or may not have had any formal training, though often has a good deal of actual experience. Nanny's work week ranges from 40 to 60 hours a week. Usually works unsupervised."

Cathie Robertson wouldn't mind having these definitions become even clearer. Stricter. The INA is working toward an accreditation program for nannies. It estimates there are 75,000 in this country. They want "certified nannies" -- although this is probably four or five years down the road.

Standards for nannies, agencies and nanny trainers have been created by the INA, but these are now all voluntary. Training varies widely: One woman in San Diego, for example, shows a four-hour video and calls her nannies "trained." There are also nanny schools and college programs that are far more substantial, offering lectures by doctors, nurses, psychologists. This year the INA is printing its standards on membership forms and asking agencies to sign a promise to comply.

Only five years old, the INA now nears 1,000 members: 270 agencies, 600 nannies and 40 educators or others. Its numbers have recently tripled because of a very popular new group insurance plan for nannies being offered to members. Of the 300 at the conference, a handful of truly international nannies turned up -- from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain.

"We can't possibly," says Robertson, "produce the number of nannies we have the demand for." There are 20 to 40 jobs, she believes, waiting for every nanny.

Problems of the Rich

Nanny prices reflect their position as the top-of-the-line in child care.

Au pairs and mother's helpers make $125 to $150 a week. "They are basically untrained," says Sanders. "But usually they have babysitting experience."

Nannies command anywhere between $200 and $600 a week, according to the INA, depending on their experience and the city. Some make more. Some less. In Manhattan, nannies are paid closer to $400 to $500 a week. In Richmond, a new nanny -- fresh from its New World Nanny Academy, say -- makes under $200. In Washington, nannies can start at around $200 a week, but some star nannies could be making as much as $900.

Dream Jobs

The lobby remains loaded with nannies. Judith Abranovich, the one who would never wear tennis shoes in some people's houses, admits that it's intimidating for some nannies to work for incredibly rich clients.

"Not me," she says. "I grew up with charm school ways -- hats and white gloves."

"It's not like we come from poverty," says Holly McManus. "But I've seen some jealousy in nannies. Sometimes it's not easy to live with people who have so much more than you do."

Dream jobs?

"A 500-acre estate," is what Abranovich has in mind -- she already gets to go to the Bahamas every year with her family in New Jersey. "My own private cottage. Ruralness. It doesn't matter who the parents are, but I have lots of responsibility. Like I call up the pilot and make all the plans to fly to their other houses. Something international. ... There are some families who only see their kids two times a week," she says. "I don't have a problem with that. It's why I'm there."

McManus -- who spent a month in London with her present family -- says next she wants "people who count on me. Longer hours. Where I'm in charge. But compensated for it," she adds.

"I want a single father with a newborn baby in SoHo," she says finally. "Is that too much to ask?"

Staff writer Sandra Evans contributed to this report.