A new Miss Universe was crowned Tuesday night and she is a tall, blond Australian. Jennifer Hawkins has hair that hangs nearly to the middle of her back. She has an abdomen as flat as a Midwestern plain, and nice legs. She looked fetching in her Endless Sun bikini and quite pretty in her fuchsia Tadashi cocktail dress with its rows of Venetian blind pleats. For the eveningwear competition, she was dressed in a floor-length bronze metallic lace gown with a plunging neckline and a side slit that showed off the greater part of her upper thigh.

On the first day of her reign, during which she will make appearances in support of HIV awareness, she wore a camisole, low-rise jeans and a glittering tiara that looked like the spray of peacock feathers that constitutes the NBC logo. The network and Donald Trump are partners in producing the show.

This is all one really needs to know about the new Miss Universe. The best aspect of this globe-hopping pageant, which this year was held in Ecuador, is that it is honest. It does not pretend to be anything substantial. The point of all the smiling, waving and parading is simply to allow the judges to choose the prettiest girl. Suggestions that the pageant might help change the host country's image as politically unstable seem to have been a bit overblown. After all, there is only so much that cleavage -- no matter how spectacular -- can do.

With Miss Universe, there is no formal talent portion of the competition during which the audience is forced to endure interpretive dances to "Send In the Clowns," the hammering of piano keys in service to Rachmaninoff, or baton twirling that incorporates gymnastic tumbling. Instead, the contestants were merely asked to wear an evening gown and walk gracefully across a Plexiglas bridge in four-inch stilettos that hoisted the derriere skyward as if it were perched on an invisible platform. Doing this with aplomb, without looking at one's feet, is not easy. It is not exactly a talent, but it is a feat that tests one's coordination and is certainly more mesmerizing than twirling light sticks.

There are only big, horsy smiles on the Miss Universe stage. And mostly, there is only long hair. One can only assume that the Miss Universe pageant represents the highest per capita use of hair extensions outside of Las Vegas and Fox television's "The Swan."

While there may be significant brainpower under all of those hot-roller locks, it must be terribly difficult not to succumb to beauty pageant gobbledygook. One suspects that even a Nobel Prize winner -- floated out on a runway in a bikini and high heels -- would be reduced to muttering platitudes about everyone just trying to get along. During one of the taped interview segments, several of the contestants were asked about the shared desires of women around the world. Miss USA, Shandi Finnessey, whose platinum hair was so long it could have been flung from a window and used as a climbing rope, declared that women wanted "peace" -- not world peace, mind you, but peace at home, at work . . . and presumably at the gym, in the mall, at book group and wherever else women might gather.

The guiltiest pleasure of Miss Universe lies in the parade of nations, in which contestants dress to evoke some national symbol. Miss Chinese Taipei took the mandate to heart and wore a gown vaguely reminiscent of a cheongsam, but she made the grave mistake of revealing neither her bellybutton nor any part of her breasts. Clearly, this demure Miss had chosen not to win. But for other contestants, the costumes were more inspired, as they managed to make a passing reference to national character while simultaneously highlighting the legs, the six-pack abdominals and the cleavage that were briefly thought to be politically potent.

Miss Trinidad-Tobago dressed as a bird -- the country is known for its many species -- with the help of a green bikini, death-defying stilettos, green wings and a large beak protruding from her forehead. Miss Guatemala looked as though she had a monstrous anaconda draped across her strapless gown. Miss Switzerland appeared as an NC-17 Heidi. Miss USA wore a white feather headdress that trailed on the floor, plus a silver fringed bikini bottom and bra-high crop top. It was something that Sacagawea might have worn if the Lewis and Clark expedition had been reinterpreted as a Ziegfeld Folly.

It would have been a nice bonus if there had been a greater display of intellectual prowess onstage. But in truth, the pageant was satisfying enough just learning that marabou and chain mail somehow figure prominently in United States history.

Miss Trinidad-Tobago sported wings and a beak, but not much body plumage.The 10 finalists for Miss Universe 2004 appear in their evening gowns Tuesday during the competition in Quito, Ecuador. Australian Jennifer Hawkins, far left, smiled, waved and paraded her way to the crown.