On this, the 75th anniversary of what started as a publicity gimmick for an unremarkable shore town, focus on the one enduring secret of the Miss America Pageant: Normal is special.

If you have any doubt, peer closely at the 41 former Miss Americas who will parade across the stage tonight. They are, for the most part, unexceptional women who were singled out as perfectly typical or typically perfect, and then rewarded for the rest of their lives primarily for being . . . gosh, so down-to-earth.

"The biggest hurdle of being a Miss America, I think, is establishing in the minds of people that you are very normal and have a normal life and are very much like they are," says Donna Axum, 1964, a 53-year-old wife, mother, television personality and motivational speaker with that dazzling, thrilled-to-be-here pageant smile and an equally dazzling diamond ring perched on her left hand.

Special and normal: Their fame comes from being cute and committed and cheerful in an America that rewards a sweet disposition and sincere effort more than the unsettling presence of great beauty or genius.

The Convention Center is brimming today with mega-watt former Misses, who learned how to parlay one remarkable year of grueling travel and endless photo ops into a lifelong career.

Some of them have names celebrated enough to be a "Jeopardy!" question: Bess Myerson, who was crowned 50 years ago; Lee Meriwether, 1955; Mary Ann Mobley, 1959; Phyllis George, 1971. It is only a cosmic oversight that Kathie Lee Gifford didn't compete for the crown, but she's co-hosting the pageant, which is almost as good.

But more are like, say, Kellye Cash, 1987. During the week, she's the wife of a high-school basketball coach and mom to two toddlers; almost every weekend, she makes appearances as a Christian singer and speaker.

"The reason I'm in it is because of being a former Miss America," she says in that engagingly normal and humble way that successful politicians and pageant winners always speak. "There's a lot of good singers around, but being Miss America gave me the uniqueness to get me into places. It really changed my career."

No matter what else they do, a former Miss America will always have that crown hovering over her head, whether she wants the damn thing there or not.

Of course, most of them do. Crowning Glories

Beauty queens, although it is politically and literally incorrect to refer to them as such, are the B students of Life. They are not the most beautiful or the smartest or the most talented. Nor are they alienated or angry or ironic; there are no tattoos here, no burning fire to rebel or %*#*! the Establishment.

Ah, but they are competitive. The genius of the pageant system is that it provides a place for women to win big simply for being exactly who they already are. When a Miss California contestant pulled out a protest banner in 1988 -- that read "Pageants Hurt All Women," most contestants around the country responded with genuine confusion: Pageants didn't hurt them. In fact, a walk on the local or state runway frequently paid for school and gave them a shot at the American dream.

"The joke was that in the '30s and '40s they wanted to be movie stars," says Angela Osborne, author of "Miss America: The Dream Lives On," the pageant's official anniversary book. "In the '50s and '60s, they wanted to marry movie stars. Then they wanted to marry doctors and lawyers. Now they can be doctors and lawyers."

Osborne interviewed 27 past Miss Americas, as well as dozens of runners-up. Most came from small towns, and winning the crown propelled them into a entirely different world. "They married CEOs and heads of companies they ordinarily never would have had access to," she says. "When you live in a town of 4,000 people, you're not going to meet the president of IBM."

She also found that the runners-ups, not the titleholders, were the ones who went into professional careers when those opportunities first presented themselves.

"I tried to analyze why Miss Americas didn't become the doctors and lawyers they wanted to be," says Osborne. "Usually, it's because it takes about five years before being Miss America stops being their main source of income." The Miss America organization, of course, now crows proudly about the degrees and resumes of its alumni. Becky King, 1974, is an attorney; her successor, Shirley Cothran, obtained a PhD in education, Debbye Turner, 1990, finished her doctorate in veterinary medicine after her reign. The days of Nancy Fleming, 1961, who won the crown with sewing as her talent (displaying some of her handmade clothing), are long gone. The Chosen

There have been 68 Miss Americas in the past 74 years. One, Mary Campell, held the title two years in a row (1922-23). In the '20s and early '30s, as it struggled to survive, a few of the annual pageants were canceled. Some past winners have died, and a few, such as the very first Miss America, Margaret Gorman of Washington, are unable to travel.

Gorman probably wouldn't have returned to Atlantic City even if she were hale and hearty: She captured the crown in 1921 at the age of 16 and tried but never escaped the legacy of that little bathing beauty contest. "I am so bored by it all," she said in 1980. "I really want to forget the whole thing." No chance of that. To celebrate its anniversary year, the pageant invited every former titleholder to join the fun.

A few were too uninterested (or fat, according to the pageant rumor mill) to show up. Two of the most famous Miss Americas -- Myerson, gravely embarrassed by shoplifting and legal scandals in the past decade, and 1984 winner Vanessa Williams, the first African American titleholder and only winner forced to resign her crown (after explicit pictures of her appeared in Penthouse) -- both declined the invitation. Williams is too busy with a hot recording career; Myerson says she has better things to do with her time.

"With what I do, the pageant is really quite irrelevant," said Myerson, who was in Washington Sunday to be honored by Israel Bonds for her charitable work and the anniversary of her 1945 title. It's true, she says, that the pageant catapulted her to fame. It also exposed the first Jewish Miss America, a beauty from New York City, to antisemitism for the first time in her life. "I found that the pageant didn't support me," she says, and there is still an edge in her voice. "The sponsors didn't use me because I was Jewish."

She has returned to Atlantic City a few times as co-host of the pageant, but not this year. "Why should I go?" she asks. "It's like a public school reunion."

But by and large, the list of former Miss Americas today includes a lot of part-time singers (lots of National Anthems), a few local news anchors and some motivational speakers, such as Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, 1988. She was the nurse who inspired the pageant to require that each contestant speak to a public policy issue. After her reign, she opened a hospice.

"I'm a nurse who walked into food shows, to auto shows, fashion shows," she says. "Every single place I went, I had a platform. Every single place I went, I had an audience. You bet I took advantage of it."

Rafko, a lanky 32-year-old with soft curls, is loved by the pageant fans here. Her father owned a junkyard; she started competing in pageants for the scholarship money to pay for nursing school. She now divides her time between her husband and son, her hospice and speaking on health care issues. She recently persuaded officials in her native Michigan, for example, to set up bereavement programs for children.

"Now the schools are finally listening because I'm a Miss America," she says. "Bottom line, -- it gets you through doors." Touching the Stars

Rafko is, as they say, good for the pageant: sweet, enthusiastic, committed -- a nice middle-class girl eager to tell her Miss America story.

"Kids look up and see I'm reachable," she says. " She's just like me. Look where she has come from and look where she's at.' "

Just look: There's actress Lee Meriwether, back in the Convention Center where it all started. She was the first Miss America to receive her crown in front of a television audience in 1955, which catapulted her to overnight and astounding fame. In the '50s, being Miss America was almost like being president for a year. She appeared on the "Today" show and launched an acting career that included stage and television (she even did a stint as Catwoman on "Batman").

Meriwether, along with a number of other former Misses, was mobbed at public book signings this week. Some fans may be aware of her acting career. But truthfully, simply being Miss America is enough for most of them.

A former Miss America is required to look neat and smile nicely, but they aren't actually expected to have done anything else professionally. Some women, like Susan Perkins, 1978, discovered that the demands of celebrity they experienced during their year as Miss America was eye-opening. They abandoned their earlier ambitions for show business and settled happily into marriage, motherhood and occasional speaking engagements.

The women's movement is still regarded with a touch of disdain by a lot of pageant old-timers who like things traditional. Morals. Marriage. Children. God. And swimsuits on the runway, thank you very much.

So Phyllis George may have been the first female sportscaster on network television and she may have married a governor (oops, that's on the rocks, not unheard of in the Miss America family), but to many in the hall tonight, it's enough that she was a great Miss America, even if she did drop her crown walking down the runway the night she won. Odd Woman Out

Then there's Yolande Betbeze. She's here, too, although the 65-year-old activist doesn't quite fit in with her former sisters. But then pageant officials have never known quite what to do with Miss America 1951.

The exotic Alabama beauty -- and she really was a genuine beauty -- flatly refused to pose in Catalina swimsuits during her reign, which caused the company to pull out of the pageant altogether and start the rival Miss Universe pageant.

A talented opera singer and smart as a whip, she found herself cast in the unfamiliar role of dimwit beauty queen. "You found yourself having to put out energy to convince people: Well, okay. I've read Schopenhauer, Hegel and Hume. What have you read?' I got sick of that."

She turned down a ton of movie offers ("The only one I seriously regret not taking was Jane in the Tarzan' series. Swinging in the trees would have been great fun"); instead, she married studio tycoon Matthew Fox of 20th Century Fox fame.

She became a mother, an off-Broadway producer, an amateur archaeologist and an AIDS fund-raiser. After she was widowed in the '60s, she was the frequent companion of Algerian ambassador Cherif Guellal and split her time between New York and Washington. She rarely mentioned her year as Miss America.

"I was embarrassed for so many years about it because people didn't take me seriously," she says. "The kind of people I like and want to be around were amazed that I had anything to do with the pageant. Amazed."

Maybe they heard about her protesting outside the pageant. First it was to desegregate the all-white program, then later with feminist groups. She became, to no one's surprise, persona non grata in pageant circles.

"They didn't like me and I didn't like them, so I stayed away for many, many years," she says with a wry smile. "But now it's all changed and come around. And I'm here. And I'm rather proud to have been Miss America, -- all things considered."

And all things considered, the pageant is rather proud to have her. Alabama, in fact, has been very good to the program. The outgoing Miss America, Alabama's Heather Whitestone, was a gamble by pageant judges who hit the jackpot.

Whitestone, the first deaf Miss America, has been a phenomenal success for the organization. Sweet, funny, charming, she is already booked daily for the next year with speaking engagements.

Everywhere she goes, she will be introduced as a former Miss America, a title she is very proud of. No matter what else she achieves in life, someone in the room will ask her about being Miss America.

Tonight she'll make her last walk down the runway wearing her crown (the pageant broadcast begins at 9 on Channel 4). But the important thing about being Miss America has little to do with the actual pageant. Forget the fluffy hair and the ersatz glamour and the relentless sincerity. Ignore the much-hyped swimsuit vote, which will undoubtably be saved by pageant traditionalists who like their cheesecake fresh and low-fat. Forgive, if you can, the awkward lyrical dancers and tone-deaf singers and especially Miss Colorado, whose talent is singing "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" to a puppet in a wheelchair, an act of such breathtaking pandering that even pageant veterans were slack-jawed with embarrassment.

Being Miss America is a legacy. At Thursday night's preliminary competition, Whitestone walked onstage hand-in-hand with the oldest active Miss America, 1933's Marion Bergeron. Praising all of her predecessors, she told the crowd in mock horror that they set an impossible standard to follow: "I'm going to have to be on a diet forever!"

Hey, it's a tough job, but somebody -- preferably a sweet, pretty and down-to-earth girl next door -- has got to do it. CAPTION: Current Miss America Heather Whitestone is joined by 1933 winner Marion Bergeron at Thursday night's preliminary competition CAPTION: Yolande Betbeze, above right at her crowning by Jacque Mercer, autographs a program for a fan. "I stayed away for many, many years," says the woman who once protested the event's exclusionary policies. "But now it's all changed." CAPTION: Not the retiring type: Miss America 1951, Yolande Betbeze, in 1966 with the Algerian ambassador to the United States Cherif Guellal CAPTION: Bess Myerson in 1945. She declined to attend this year's reunion.