It's not easy coming up with a sane and justifiable policy on beauty pageants. Though I know they're politically correct, I can't go along with these new "Ms. Pageants" that conform to post-feminism realities by outlawing looks as a factor and, as Ms. described it last summer, "judging women for their leadership, community participation and communication skills." (Zzzz, no thanks. That's what you run for mayor with.) But it's equally tough to be "for" the Beauty Fascisti who run Miss America and its many feeder events. Their yearly crime -- converting thousands of potentially okay young women into bobble-headed charmdroids -- is very bad. On the other hand, there is that talent competition, with its yodeling ventriloquist dummies and violin-playing trampoline bouncers, and that's good. At this year's Miss America pageant, Miss Texas performed a "jazz dance" to the tune of Elvis singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." This is something we as a nation cannot do without.

So . . . after all this soul-searching, what did I do when a nice man named John Marmas invited me to be a "celebrity judge" in the Third Annual Miss Nation's Capital Beauty Pageant? Basically, I ran around my apartment in tight little figure eights saying "Wheeee!" Sorry, but the rationalization process was very easy. It began with a common-sense observation: "Anything that would have me as a 'celebrity judge' must be a little . . . low-budget." This snowballed when I got the pageant brochure, which mentioned many other fringe contests I'd never heard of (Miss Teen of the Nation? Miss Venus?) and had an all-caps headline that announced: "NO TALENT REQUIRED." Disappointing, yes, but significant, because it meant the pageant producers balked at shelling out mountains of extra cash for a record player and a spotlight. It also suggested they didn't want to risk scaring off any entry-paying contestants. Though some might sneer at these details, I embraced them as evidence that this was a beauty-contest version of the Jeffersonian ideal -- in short, a cottage pageant. I sentimentally theorized that the contestants would be scrappy bush-leaguers who'd never seen the inside of a private baton-twirling academy and whose only "beauty coaching" came from no-nonsense, Kleenex-wielding moms. Sniff. And you know what? Aside from two very glaring exceptions, that was right.

Nevertheless, the new me ("Mr. Hug Somebody") was quickly electroshocked back to healthy crabbiness. An hour before pageant time, I was standing outside the Washington Marriott's super-cheesy grand ballroom high-fiving another "celebrity judge" -- Nick Fillarama, founder and president of Royce's TV -- when a Marmas Productions staffer came up and said, "Personality competition in 5 minutes, fellas!" How's that? She explained (and I'm paraphrasing here): We judges would be herded into a jaundice-lighted room the size of a cattle car, where we had to "get to know" all 30 contestants during two 10-minute chatter frenzies. More alarming still, they would be wearing workout clothes and were under orders to be "perky." I went cantering after her -- "Ma'am? There's been a mistake. I signed on for a totally passive experience" -- but she just said, "You'll do fine." Not true. Even with the best warm-up resources -- vodka, a carnival mask and a conga line -- I'm a bad conversationalist. But this! Thirty strong young women working my arm like a plumbing snake and screeching "I'm SO glayd to meet-chewww" and not really meaning it! But it was too late for fretting -- there was nothing to do but hunker down and shoot for the eye contact. When the first group bounced in (literally), I tried the honest approach ("Heh heh, I'm not much good at chatter, heh heh"), but the combined message of four hostile glares ("Then why the hell are you here wrecking our lives!") convinced me I'd better get good fast, so I went with a Zippy-the- Pinhead delivery of these can't-miss questions: "What is YOUR name?" "Are you from AROUND here?" "Do you LIKE movies?" At one point I achieved the impossible: 15 seconds of total isolation. That's right: I was avoided by people whose economic livelihood depended on my vote!

I wasn't the only one with problems. The celebrity (?) emcee Greg Cole and celebrity (??) entertainer Mark Valdez were faced with the toughest of all audiences -- partisan families who only wanted them to shut up and get to the part where they find out: Did our baby win? They handled it like pros. Greg came out and yelled: "Do we have any Redskins fans here?" Surprisingly, YES! This guy's aw-right! Next, Greg introduced the "30 luvly, luvly ladies here tonight." And they were luvly. And even though some of them -- a` la Miss America 1987, Kellye Cash -- had cuted up their names by creative misspelling (turning "Tiffany" into "Tiffini," for example), they seemed like regular people, the kind you'd feel comfortable eating a pile of hard-shell crabs with, because you know they wouldn't whine about the "mustard."

But back to the pageant. Mark Valdez came out and gut-checked his way through a soul number marred by feedback, lack of soul and three laughing little kids who kept pointing at him and saying, "That man funny!" Next came cocktail dresses, swimsuits, more Valdez ("My Girl"), the cut to 15 finalists, the interview segment, more Valdez ("You Light Up My Life"), the cut to five, more Valdez (jackpot: "To All the Girls I've Loved Before") and the crowning. Need I tell you that the only two contestants who irritated me -- pageant-smart types who'd clearly received walk and smile training -- came in 1, 2? A veteran judge later tried to explain it ("They had more presence and verbal poise than the others"), but I had to wonder. Did they, or were the other judges fooled by cheap grinsmanship? You be the celebrity judge. Here's the winning interview:

Greg: "Hi there." Eventual Winner: "Hi." "How are you?" "I'm doin' fine." "I understand you'd like to meet Bob Hope -- ol' ski nose. If Bob were here tonight, what would you ask him?" Silent pause of eight seconds. Greg: "Like, you might say, 'Bob, when's your next USO Tour?' " Pause. Eventual Winner: "That would be nice." Pause. "I mean, I'd really just like to meet him and I probably would tell him I like really admire him as a person and a performer."

She topped that by saying she'd like to travel back to "the Gone With the Wind era" because "women were very pampered then and they got dressed up and everything and I think that would be a lot of fun to get dressed up and be pampered and be treated really like . . . a lady." By now I think she may have realized that a white girl longing for those particular "good old days" in front of a predominantly black audience was not the height of verbal poise. When she won (amid a distinct lack of applause), Greg asked, "Tell us. What are you feelin'?"

Her reply (no kidding): "No comment!" ::