She had sung "Everything's Coming Up Roses" that May night, and her choice of titles was looking prophetic. The 1978 Miss Virginia pageant was down to two contestants, and as Paige Brown stood on stage in her evening gown, "I really thought I was going to win."

But then a Roanoke version of Bert Parks asked for the runner-up envelope, please - and Paige Maureen Brown is name was inside. "So," she said, "I congratulated Kylene (Barker), packed my bags, cried a little and went home."

Four months later, she had just finished a dinner theater performance in Burtonsville, Md., when a castmate suggested watching the Miss America pageant on television. On went the set. There was Kylene Barker, of Galax, Va., being crowned Miss America 1978.

"It took a few minutes for it to dawn on me," Brown says. "I went, 'Uh, uh.' I couldn't even get it out. But then I did. 'I-I-I'm Miss Virginia.'"

Quite clearly, inheriting the title by default is not the ideal way to become Miss Virginia. But like every bridesmaid who finally made it to the altar, Paige Brown is determined to prove that the wait - and her unusual path - will only make her reign even better.

Her bank account and appointment calendar already say so. Since taking over a month ago, Brown has filmed a television commercial, cut dozens of ribbons and appeared at various festivals around the state.

By the time she steps down next July, Brown expects to have earned at least $20,000 in appearance fees and royalties as Miss Virginia, and she knows that having held even a second-hand title "will open lots of doors for me." But best of all, because she did not win a state pageant outright, she has been assured that she is eligible to compete for the Miss America title - and the $100,000 in income the title usually carries - next year.

Paige Brown could have refused to become Miss Afterthought Virginia. Every year, of course, a state pageant-winner goes on to win the big prize, and state officials must begin scurrying for a replacement. "One year, they got down to the fourth runner-up before they found someone who would do it," Brown says.

"But I took it right away.I knew it would be a great experience. I honestly wanted to be Miss Virginia, and that's what I'm doing."

As Miss Virginia, Paige Brown gets a free, home-basis suite in the elegant Hotel Roanoke, the full-time services of a chaperone and a business agent (both women), a free car "with cruise control," free meals at the hotel and at least one paying appearance a week somewhere in the state.

She will also receive a $1,500 scholarship, which she plans to use next year at an acting or voice school in New York. "Show business of some kind will definitely be my career," said Brown, 22 "I just don't know what kind yet. It's a rough way to make a living."

Paige Brown is the first woman from the Washington area to have become Miss Virginia in the 53 years the title has been offered. A 1974 graduate of Jeb Stuart High School. She grew up in Falls Church, the daughter of a Navy officer (Richard K. Brown) and a nurse (Frances Brown). She has three older sisters, all of whom share her brown eyes, but none of whom has ever entered a beauty pageant.

Although Brown is the current Miss Fairfax County, and was formerly Miss Pasco County, Fla., she has an unconventional attitude about pageants. She thinks most contestants enter them because of the scholarships they offer.

"I was always skeptical about pageants," she said. "Many of the other girls are, too. These aren't beauty contests, they're scholarship contests. I feel much more comfortable in jeans and a flannel shirt than I do in a bathing suit."

But Paige Brown has another aim as Miss Virginia. She hopes that her Falls Church background will increase interest in the Miss Virginia pageant among Northern Virginians.

"The southern towns of the state just take over the Miss Virginia pageant," she said. "Fairfax is the largest county in the state, yet there was no support. I guess it's like any big city. You lose that community feeling."

But Paige Brown hasn't lost a sense of where she came from. One recent afternoon, she dropped in at Jeb Stuart, unannounced, to visit some of her old teachers for the first time since she assumed her title.

"They were really proud of me," Brown said. "My drama teacher told me, 'I knew it. I knew you had the talent.'"

The students she met "were in awe of me, just like everyone at first. They put you on a pedestal. But after you talk to them they relax. The one thing I always push is that I'm normal."

Still, that can be difficult to prove to some people. Paige Brown's car carries a Miss America Pageant decal on the driver's door. Not once has she pulled onto a highway without CB radio jockeys spreading the word of her presence - and pulling alongside for a long look.

"But being Miss Virginia hasn't changed me, no, not at all. And winning it the way I won it hasn't diminished it at all. I've been told it's difficult for first runner-ups to take over, but it hasn't been. I know I'll do a good job at it.

"People say, 'Too bad, you were that close.' But I'm not close; I'm there. I like to think I was just behind the best."