ATLANTIC CITY -- Despite what you see on television tonight the contestants for the Miss America 1991 crown really are not identical Pepsodent specimens. You just need to look closely.

From the vantage of a runway cockpit here during night after night of preliminary competitions, you see that some are nut-brown, some alabaster; some stately, some skimpy (more bosom in general than behind); some frozen in that cadaverous blush of powders and paints, some uncaged by even the toughest glaze. A tiny stumble, a bitten lip, a lonely birthmark on the soft back of the knee -- each confesses to a meek humanity.

The girls -- their word, though a sprinkling affect "young women" these days -- also testify to an astonishing range of interests and talents. Opera, nursing, flight attending, law, computers, mime, motivational speaking, ventriloquism, oncology.

Verily, the womanhood that sprang from the motherland's loins in the late 1960s is represented here. From their names still wafts the aroma of those years. Not just Jennifers and Kimberlys but Karissa, Marissa, Resha, Jana, Tia and Scarlet. Spelling beevers, take note of Kerri and Karrie, Lynnae and Lynnea, Kristi, Lezlie and Brittny, contestants all.

And they are talkers, these girls. The Miss America Pageant, now more than ever, wants it known that it is celebrating the total woman, not just her outside appurtenances. "A SCHOLARSHIP PROGRAM," it says on all the publicity, lest you forget.

The contestants train tirelessly to be "able to speak and formulate opinions at the same time," as the winning Miss Louisiana, Linnea Marie Fayard, put it so well, "and a good grade point average helps that." Hers is 4.0.

In this respect, the reigning Miss America, Debbye Turner, is an ideal -- a well-spoken, marimba-playing, song-belting, soon-to-be veterinary medicine PhD.

Thus has Miss America cozied up to the social imperatives of the last 20 years. Co-host Phyllis George, the former Miss America, morning-show anchor, and First Lady of Kentucky, goes so far as to call the crown a "platform" for the expression of their views.

Stressing her qualifications in that area, while obliquely addressing the painful issue of her advancing age, Miss Connecticut, 25, said of the prospective Miss America, "she needs to be a mature young woman, who has something to say." Evidently not wanting the point of her braininess missed, Miss Connecticut -- Bianca Yasmin Salahshourian by name -- likes to be interviewed in big round eyeglasses, the kind that you see fetchingly removed as hair is unpinned and cascades with a freeing waggle of the head. She would like to be a television talk show host.

What's on the minds of the girls? Each has a "topic," and by far the largest contingent (six) chose literacy, with the environment the first runner-up (five) and child abuse the second runner-up (three).

During the preliminaries, before they model their gowns, George takes them through the all-but-rehearsed paces. Should drunk drivers get mandatory jail sentences on their first offense? "Yes," says Miss New Hampshire, Melanie Denise Bridges. Does Miss Massachusetts, Marisa Laakso, think "thin is healthy"? No.

Miss Nevada, Tia Marie Zorne, wrestling with the dilemma of athletic scholarships, says such students should build on their "God-given basketball talents" to learn skills that will serve them in the post-basketball period. As for George Bush and his controversial vacation, "I don't think the media treated him very kindly," says Kristi Cooke, Miss Ohio -- twice, in her allotted minute.

Miss Maryland, Kimberly Ann Grimm, told the judges she admired Gloria Steinem -- how so? For her achievements, came the careful reply, not necessarily for her point of view. Think about it.

As for AIDS, Miss Tennessee, Dana Brown, believes there's "no one easy answer," but one thing is for sure: Companies shouldn't be "capitalizing on the crisis." Miss Georgia, Darla Michele Pruett, is leery of kids turning in drug-addicted parents; she thinks rehabilitation is the answer, not punishment. Animal research, according to Miss Mississippi, Beth Howell, is a "necessary evil," and preferable to "computers."

The next morning Dana Dalton, Miss Florida, says, "I have not seen a girl come in here who is unprepared in any way."

Reconciliations

Every pageant has a wild card, some messy intrusion into the ordered reality of a scholarship program, and this year the Rev. Al Sharpton drafted himself for the role. Decrying Atlantic City's failure to address the problems of its disadvantaged youth, Sharpton blocked a local expressway and was arrested by local constables. He vowed to stage his grating form of guerrilla theater during tonight's two-hour NBC presentation of the 70th Anniversary Pageant.

Alas, it was not to be. At the eleventh hour Sharpton and pageant director Leonard Horn emerged to announce a truce. Why, his intentions had been misunderstood, Sharpton said; he had no wish to disrupt the pageant, and would take the "moral high ground" by behaving himself tonight.

What took him up the hill to this unfamiliar territory may have been Miss America 1990, the reigning Debbye Turner, who like Sharpton is black. She had had the deft good sense to respond to Sharpton's grievance earlier this week by agreeing with its substance and rejecting its strategy. Thrown such a bone, the theory went, Sharpton was cornered into statesmanship.

The other big reconciliation of the year is with Bert Parks, the beloved master of ceremonies of the pageant for eons until his shabby dismissal a decade ago. Tonight, for his tossed bone, he will appear again on the runway, singing "There She Is ... " to a parade of 30 former Miss Americas, many of them his own crownees. (Host Gary Collins still will do the honors for Miss America 1991.)

"It could be a vindication," Parks allowed at a celebratory press conference, but he found some moral high ground and refused to say more, since "the man who vindicted is not here to defend himself." He added, with precision, "I hope I deserve what you expect of me." The 75-year-old has-been seems to have gotten a second wind, what with a cameo role in a new movie, "The Freshman." "I could be the new Don Ameche," he said.

Preparations

Up close and personal, as they are in little bitty interviews all week, the girls do command a certain respect -- poised beyond belief, cheerful to a fault, delicate freight trains of energy.

They are living expressions of an increasingly professional business of pageantry, with its expensive trainers and extravagant jewelry and whole young lifetimes of contest-entering, from wee village klatches to county cattle-shows to big state enchiladas.

And so now a rivalry of boasts develops: on the one hand the girls who got to Atlantic City in a year, hop-skip-jump, and didn't spend a fortune or a sleepless night. And on the other hand the girls who've been preparing (driven to prepare, one can't help surmising) since they were wee and bear the burden of their ambition like some vague regret. Miss New Jersey, flight attendant Lynette Falls, competed for the title from Texas and Oklahoma before becoming the Garden State's finest this year.

Bodybuilding for the pageant is a matter of necessity in a health-conscious age. Miss Colorado, Karrie Mitchell, who won one of the swimsuit competitions, said, "I was not a swimsuit winner a year ago, let me tell you." Like many contestants laboring to get in fighting trim, she worked out with weights and shrank, she says, from a size 12 to a size 5 in one year.

Appreciating the problem, Miss Louisiana had a more enviable challenge. Petite Linnea Marie Fayard's handlers made her gain five pounds by working out and drinking proteinous potions to bulk up her bones. "Most of the other women," she begins, but then a small crease on her brow signals a dangerously uncharitable vector, and she ejects from the thought.

"All 50 of us are in the same dressing room," she says, "so we see plenty of each other."

Speculations

We will all simply have to wait until tonight to find out who the new Miss America will be. But the pageant press corps, a cynical but addicted flotilla, always has the early line. Or so they say.

During the week of swimsuit and talent competitions, the yin and yang of Miss Americadom, six of the 10 likely finalists emerge.

Relevant young women judged to fit extremely well in their swimsuits this year are Miss Florida, the statuesque Dana Rinehart Dalton; Miss Colorado, the leggy Karrie Mitchell; and Miss Mississippi, the limber Beth Howell, described informally at the press table as having the Body of Death. A compliment.

The Resume of Death, however, belongs to one of the three talent competition winners, Miss Illinois, Marjorie Judith Vincent. A third-year law student at Duke and summer associate at Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, Alexander and Ferdon, Richard Nixon and John Mithcell's old law firm; an internationally competitive concert pianist; the daughter of Haitian immigrants of modest means, fluent in French and planning to return to help in the economic development of Haiti -- and with a face and disposition to take home to mother -- well, Miss Illinois should be in the lineup somewhere.

The second talent winner was Miss Texas, with her rendition of "Sweet Reason." Suzanne Lawrence has some peculiar odds against her -- she's from Texas, whose estimable and winning pageant system was embarrassed a few weeks ago by the old-goatish comments (published in Life) of its longtime boss, B. Don Magness, who withdrew from the Texas organization so as not to cast a pall over this year's contestant.

Lawrence is an imperturbable sort, however, and has in her subliminal favor -- actually, it's quite overt -- that she has struggled with cancer. The 21-year-old blonde from Humble, Texas, founded a cancer-patient support group and is studying to be a musical therapist for the gravely ill.

So formidable has this mystery factor become that Miss Connecticut, the spectacles-wearing Bianca Yasmin Salahshourian, broke an unspoken code by singling out a competitor. "I don't feel any more inadequate than any other young lady here," she told a home-state television interviewer with an iron gaze, "not even Miss Texas."

The third talent winner was Miss North Carolina, Scarlet Annette Morgan, who performed a breathtaking aria and convinced many in the peanut gallery that she was Miss America material. A child of adoption and a student of its contours, she is said to have remarked that she knew nothing about her natural mother except that she must have been a beauty queen.

Such lines will warm a reporter's heart, but the ink-stained prognosticators snarled and turned on Scarlet Thursday night, when in answer to a question from Collins about art and censorship, she declared, "In order to distinguish between true art and what is just anything, we must have censorship," as succinct a statement of that ideological persuasion as has yet been uttered.

One besotted reporter, however, forgave her quickly -- and as she passed by him during the boardwalk parade last evening, held up a sign reading, "Marry Me?" She only laughed.

After those six, it is anybody's guess who will round out the toothsome tensome tonight. Miss Kentucky, Nancy Jane Cox, with her lively attacks on industrial polluters? Miss Hawaii, Cheryl Akemi Toma, with her spunky tour at the ivories? Miss California, Maria Lee Ostapiej, for her electoral votes? Miss Montana, Karen L. McNenny, with her silky ballerina's gait? Miss Louisiana, "Stormy Weather"-belting heartthrob of the Fourth Estate?

"Everything happens for a reason," Miss Delaware, Lisa Marie Munzert, reminds us.