The institution of Miss America teeters but never falls, not for hurricanes, striking casino workers or the blunders of its own president, not even when all those forces combine in one week. By most accountings, it should have been dead by now, finished off by several decades of pantsuits and equal pay and Title IX. Instead, it is a trademark and folklore of uncommon resilience.

At 78, this composite of ideal American femininity just glides on, headed for the next century, past the winos in the tunnel under a crumbling Convention Hall, past the neon "Girls Girls Girls" sign just out back, past the jangling noise of the slots, past the utter grimness of an urban landscape whose motto might well be "Cash for Gold," in a city where three busted gamblers jumped to their deaths from casino hotels in the past month.

This ideal is changed, surely. Miss America 2000, to be crowned here tonight, may crank up the heavy metal and listen to Howard Stern, as this week's video bios of contestants pointed out. She may pepper her slam-poetry monologue with images of Uzis on the playground, as Miss D.C., Toyia Taylor, did in the talent competition. She may openly admit that behind every great girl on the runway is a fabulous gay guy, or a small army of them, actually, offering unconditional love and hair care at every level of the pageant system.

But she is forever. Miss America endures because she is a fantasy that delivers. About 10,000 girls--and they are always called "girls"--participate every year for the coveted 51 spots. The nonprofit organization hands out more than $30 million in college money, making it the largest scholarship program for women in the world. The outgoing Miss America, Nicole Johnson, raised a colossal $12 million for diabetes research during her one-year reign; this week, she kissed a pig to raise $11,000 more. Tonight's live broadcast, hosted by those camp classics Donny and Marie Osmond, is expected to reach 20 million households, and ABC is starting it at 8 p.m. in an effort to lift ratings and draw younger viewers. "It's so uniquely Americana," says Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, who turned her tiara into a job on the "Today" show. She remains continually amazed at the breadth of goals today's contestants express. "Very few want to be in theater anymore. It's speech pathology, veterinary science, the ministry." And all are keenly aware of the power of the brand name, which persists despite the tiresome sneering of feminists and snobs.

"Look," says Jade Smalls, Miss Illinois, a startingly poised piano performance major at Northwestern University, "I'm only 21 years old, and why do I get to go in front of the Congressional Black Caucus and Tipper Gore to talk about teen-suicide prevention? Miss America, that's why."

MEET THE GIRLS

For those of you watching tonight at home, let's take a moment to handicap:

Thursday night's swimsuit winner, Miss Nevada, demolished her field in a yellow one-piece she picked up for $12.99 at Marshall's. When you're packing like that, you can wear anything.

Miss California looks like Heidi Fleiss.

Miss Hawaii's mother makes a lot of her clothes. This is an excellent move, because it has brought us a delightfully hideous yellow satin gown, with a full hoop skirt cut high above her knees in the front, garnished with a large pink rose and covered nearly completely with a black-lace mantilla. It's an elaborate version of those crocheted dolls made to cover rolls of toilet paper.

Miss Mississippi has hair that a tsunami could not dislodge. Miss New Jersey is a Princeton student on full academic scholarship who has the best-trained and gifted voice among the classical singers. She is one of the really smart ones, along with Miss Illinois and Miss Maryland, a Georgetown law student and intern in the state's attorney's office in Rockville. Miss Kansas is a loose cannon. Miss Kentucky is one to watch. Great look, great back story, great presence and a really skimpy swimsuit. There are, regrettably, no twirlers or cloggers or contortionists. There is no Miss who can approach the sheer winceability of some years back, when a contestant performed a ventriloquist act with a disabled puppet.

Many of the musical misses wear red, garish dresses and red, garish lipstick and sing loud, garish songs. They are no worse than any of the bad lounge acts in the casinos. They are a privilege to watch.

This year, the show's producer, the esteemed Jeff Margolis, with many Oscar and Emmy shows to his credit, decided to make the girls more real to America and added liberal footage of casual interviews. This is all part of the quest to get beyond the top 10 Zip codes for pageant watching, which include Sacaton, Ariz.; Lake Providence, La.; and certain sections of Chicago, Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami.

To make way, he cut the talent performances tonight to five contestants. Margolis reasoned that America didn't want to watch amateurs perform on a Saturday night. Not an excellent move. When Miss America 1996 Shawntel Smith announced this change during Tuesday night's preliminaries, the pageant faithful in the audience booed loudly. She has not brought it up again. But the swimsuits and the talent and the girls running around in an Austin Powers sendup are just entertainment. This pageant survives by choosing a woman to travel the country speaking effectively about an acceptable cause and using it to nail down the big corporate sponsors. Like any other modern corporation, Miss America uses focus groups and polling and strategy consultants. After tonight, Miss America becomes a suit--albeit one with great legs.

One day after rehearsal, Margolis dims the lights in the hall and begins to roll the previous evening's video of the misses' opening segment. It's their game tape. In fast forward, Miss Alabama scurries toward the camera, then freezes for several seconds. The girls, who have been sitting around chattering, fall silent. They sit straight up. They stare at the screen, studying each other's hair and makeup, facial gestures and body language. "Keep your head still!" one of them whispers to herself fiercely as she watches her performance.

Is this exercise vapid? Depends. You think Al Gore has never used a movement coach?

THE BOYS BEHIND THE GIRLS

Robert Beck, the pageant's president, was talking about who "falls in love with the whole aura of Miss America." Nicole Johnson was visiting an elementary school, he said, and when she took off her crown to show the children, "there were as many little boys as girls who wanted to try it on."

The boys inside the gay dance club Studio Six love this line. A few hours after midnight yesterday, it's all-Cher-all-the-time on the video monitor, and a Patti LaBelle impersonator is stalking up and down the stage in monster heels. But the boys are too busy critiquing the night's pageant performances to pay any attention. About 200 gay men are crammed into this bar, which will stage its annual spoof pageant, "Miss'd America," tomorrow night. Nearly all of them are official parts of some state contestant's retinue.

Gay men produce winners. They maintain extraordinarily high production values in coaching talent. They vouchsafe the glamour of the crown. They like to handle the tiaras. Carry O'Neal and David Lang from Regalia Magnificent Apparel and Finery in Orlando have provided the competition wardrobes for six of the last 12 Miss Americas. Kenny Mack, a massage therapist, helps Paul Brown, a radiologist, direct the Miss Manhattan pageant. In the last 12 years, Brown has sent five of his local winners on to win Miss New York. His girl this year is 20-year-old Brandi Burkhardt, a native of Pasadena, Md. She has a killer voice and a killer evening gown, of course.

Chet Welch has outfitted and sweet-talked and cossetted Miss Pennsylvania, Susan Spafford, a serious violinist in graduate school at the Eastman School of Music. She's his fifth Miss Pennsylvania. He lives in his small hometown near Pittsburgh, where he works for a pharmacy by day and runs Screamin' for the Roses, his style shop, by night.

He's been involved with the pageant for 18 years. "I was a member of the local Jaycees, and our chapter supported a girl," he says. He gets irritated sometimes that gay men don't get credit for the critical role they play in the pageant. "Hello! Look around you!" he often feels like yelling. "You see a girl out there in a fabulous evening gown, perfectly fitted, and she feels just gorgeous and confident, who do you think has put her in that? A gay guy every time!" He loves the glitz and the glamour, and he loves to help the women realize their dreams, he says.

"He always wants the best for us girls, and there's nothing to ever worry about sexually, which is very comforting," explains Mayra Acosta, 23, who was last year's Miss Pennsylvania. "He has a vision."

"They feel safe," says Welch. And this is paramount for pageant girls, who are often troubled by the odd negotiations between selling sex on the runway and remaining virtuous.

Dale Bradshaw will tell you flat out: "If not for the support in the gay community, there would be no Miss America pageant."

He is known as Mr. Maryland, the business manager for the state pageant system. He books all of the appearances and negotiates all the fees and schedules for Keri Schrader, Miss Maryland, whose cause is preventing domestic violence. Because of this loose gay network, John Josephson has come to town to see Schrader. He lives in Colorado, where he does policy work for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. He's signing Schrader up as a spokeswoman and has already written a public service ad for her. "Regardless of how she does, we will use her," he says. "She is tremendously powerful, and there is no recognizable celebrity identified with this issue."

Bradshaw, the marketing director for a specialty construction company in Springfield, Va., says many gay men love Miss America "because she is a queen of femininity. The straight community does not grasp that. It's a version of womanhood that is elegant and strong and dignified and achieving. And yes, we cross the gender lines. We are living the dreams through our contestants, through their hair and their makeup and their style. We can't be quite what we want to be, so we achieve it through them. And everything melts for them, all the worry. They know we don't hurt them or abuse them."

The unofficial pageant policy on the link between gays and Miss America is a form of "don't ask, don't tell," and one doesn't breech this. Officials won't brook the meerest hint of cross-dressing. At a news conference yesterday, when Donny Osmond, father of five sons, playfully moved to try on the new gold and ruby studded crown, the suits wouldn't let him.

ALL THAT GLITTERS

"I'm not a pageant girl," says Taylor, Miss D.C., who is 24 and a family services coordinator for the D.C. Housing Authority. "I'm more of a get-your-hands-dirty" type. She came to Atlantic City with one suitcase. She bought her clothes off the rack. The pageant faithful cluck their tongues--"poor thing"--and say she doesn't have a chance. She doesn't care. She up and does things. After graduating from the University of Washington--the one in Washington state--she moved to D.C. by herself, even though she had no job. "I just always wanted to be here," she says.

Two weeks later, she went to work on children's programs at the housing authority. "I learn fast," she says. She likes to talk in front of a microphone, and she knew her entry in the pageant excited kids from the housing projects. And she could use the money. All the contestants will tell you they are doing it for the college money, which is indeed substantial. But the pageant endures because it promises something more. "It wasn't just the big money. It was the bright lights, the big city," says a former local pageant contestant who now is a reporter for a large newspaper and still sensitive about the "bimbo" label. "I got to ride in a limo, as opposed to my friends who were in the fast-food restaurant. I was gawky. It was something for me. It felt great."

There are easier ways to get scholarships, says Crystal Lewis, Miss Virginia. "I could poke around on the Internet. I could write an essay. It's not all smiles and waves. It's a hard job. But, under the swimsuits and the evening gown, this is the only forum of its kind, where women get praised for their hard work and their dedication in front of a national audience. And I think that's cool." And finally, there is the trademark itself, the rhinestone tiara, that potent symbol of this odd and resilient tradition.

Early in the week, Miss America 1996 turns to Miss America 1999 on the sequined, shimmering stage and comments--as if to explain why the pageant endures. She speaks for all the Miss Americas who have gone before and all the little girls who will come up through this system. "There's something nice about the crown," says Shawntel Smith wistfully, "and there's something nice about the runway, too, isn't there?"

CAPTION: "I'm not a pageant girl," says Miss D.C., Toyia Taylor. "I'm more of a get-your-hands-dirty" type. She bought her contest clothes off the rack.

CAPTION: Miss Wisconsin, Mary-Louise Kurey, left, and Miss Kentucky, Heather French, after preliminary victories on Tuesday.

CAPTION: Miss Nevada, Gina Giacinto, above; and Miss Virginia, Crystal Lewis, during the talent competition.