I watched the Miss America pageant on television as I always do. I like to tune in right from the start, when all 51 contestants go on parade, so I can start winnowing down the field by crossing off the lumberjacks. Every year there's four or five you just know are going straight home from Atlantic City to start pulling out tree stumps with their bare hands.

I predict the 10 semifinalists strictly on looks. I realize that must make me seem like a terrible sexist. But if the show was all about which woman had the highest law boards, they probably wouldn't be wearing spandex and spike heels. When was the last time you got bikini-waxed before torts class?

I don't mind if the woman who wins isn't quite as pretty as the woman who comes in second or third. I don't even mind if the judges are pathetic geezers--like Judge Judy. (Oh, man. Did you see Judge Judy on the cover of People this week? In a tight-fitting magenta exercise top! It's just horrifying. It looks like an ad for some anti-aging hormonal treatment that allows you to look 80 when you're actually 120. Seriously, at what point does somebody say to Judge Judy: "Okay, lady, the joke's over. Get back in the duffel bag"?)

My point is, I like the whole idea of Miss America. I like Donny and Marie. I liked them even before their sex-change operations.

But somebody is ruining this show.

It's not just the proposed new liberal rules--where you could still be eligible to be Miss America even if you've been married before! That sort of widens the field, doesn't it? I mean, eventually the only person who can't be Miss America will be the pope!

The real problem, as I see it, is the way they're attempting to modernize the TV show. For example, they've started pre-taping sappy "day in the life" interviews with the contestants on location in their home states, doing what Miss Americas typically do: volunteering at the hospital, shearing sheep, Jell-O wrestling. Some of the contestants were actually shown nuzzling their boyfriends! For 75 years Miss Americas were supposed to be chaste. Now it's like they're in an episode of "Sex and the City." Here's how we'll know we're in a new millennium: When the contestants are shown nuzzling their girlfriends. (Right, Vanessa?)

Imagine my despair at the format this year--where all this high-gloss dross is crowding out the essentials, the true allure of Miss America . . . no, not just hot babes with bazooms. You can see that on ads for mouthwash. The real loss is that, because of all the taped pieces, they've cut the number of contestants who display their "talent" from 10 finalists to five.

This is tragic. Other than the Jerry Lewis telethon, there's simply nowhere else where you can see some of the restaurant-quality acts that have graced Miss America pageants all these decades. The glockenspiel players. The archers. God help us, the earnest girls with the hand puppets!

These were contestants who sailed through their state pageants on, um, posture. When they arrived in Atlantic City they had as much chance of being crowned Miss America as Yogi Berra--in part because they had no talent, but were forced to come up with one anyway.

So they tried hard to twirl a baton, re-create the Battle of New Orleans with glow-in-the-dark yo-yos, or cook a casserole while playing the harmonica. Once in a while you'd see some stupefyingly bad hula dancer, or a hopeless girl blowing up balloons and shaping them into livestock. My favorites were the ones who completely despaired, and "performed" by doing dramatic readings of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in full costume with a crescendo of patriotic music in the background. What is this, a VFW hall? If that's what you want in a Miss America, why not give the tiara to Charlton Heston? I always thought they'd be better off carrying a boombox to the center of the stage, slapping on a Barbra Streisand CD and saying, "Let's not kid ourselves. If I could sing this good, you think I'd be shaving my legs every morning? They gave me three minutes. I'm going outside for a smoke. In the meantime, here's Babs." (I've tried to think what I'd do in a similar situation. What could I possibly do to demonstrate talent? Hit a pitching wedge into the audience? Eat a club sandwich?)

Now that they're down to five finalists, they can fix it so everybody sings or dances or plays an instrument reasonably well. Where's the drama? Where's that once-in-a-lifetime performance that is so hideous it makes your spleen explode?

Now the toughest thing a prospective Miss America has to do is come up with a "cause" to believe in. Something empathetic, yet cutting-edge--Happy Meals for Kosovars, maybe. (This can be harder than it seems. I remember reading about the tragic story of a debutante who got so frustrated trying to attach her name to a worthy cause she whined, "All the good diseases are taken.")

The only other stumbling block to becoming Miss America is the "live interview." And even that's easy now. First of all, it's this touchy-feely format with all the finalists lounging on a couch, and guess who's firing the tough questions: Marie Osmond. Forgive me, but this is not exactly like being cross-examined by Barry Scheck.

Forget the couch. I want them standing alone in a spotlight on a dark stage, choking on some impossibly long-winded question involving the use of bunnies in medical experiments. I want them to have flop sweat. And the usual abundant cleavage, which would glisten as they respond, "Um, I think all animals should run free, and I believe world peace is within our grasp. Roll Tide."

Gone. All gone.

How I long for a gymnast who recites the Lord's Prayer while balancing herself on a pommel horse.