"Miss America is not a beauty pageant. I abhor that word. . . . Miss America is a scholarship pageant."

Al Marks, chairman of the Miss America Pageant, Sept. 9, 1982

"If it is not a beauty contest, I suggest they put a bag over every girl's head." Comedian Foster Brooks, one of the judges at the 1982 Miss America Pageant

Miss Maryland had just finished the swimsuit competition. "Truthfully, what do you guys think?" the finely sculpted contestant asked. "Your rear was hanging out," answered a friend, who had monitored the first night of preliminary competition.

"I know," Miss Maryland said, "but not in front of the judges. That's where it counts."

There were a lot of things that counted last week in Atlantic City at the Miss America Pageant. There was poise. Slender thighs. Talent. Elocution. Ambition.

And for Miss Maryland, an ash blond with flecked green eyes, there was luck -- hard luck. After seven years of climbing the pageant ranks, 10 years of voice lessons and 10 years of ballet lessons, Lynne Carole Graham didn't even make the final 10.

For her, no solo walk down the runway. No blowing thankful kisses to the judges. No big national television exposure. No whisking away to New York.

Just a bellhop wanting to know who she was.

"Hey, are you one of the Miss America ladies?" asked the man delivering the second breakfast of the morning to Room 210 Sunday. "I saw you on television. No kidding. Which one were you?"

If there is any lesson to be learned from this 56th running of America's most celebrated beauty pageant it is that there are no Cinderellas here. Maybe 20 years ago there were, maybe even 10.

But the 50 contestants who come to Convention Hall each fall now are the polished and sophisticated veterans of the pageant circuit. What they're competing for are dollars -- big dollars -- and prime time.

This is Cinderella-gone-commercial (last year's Miss America earned $112,900 for the year) and no one takes it lightly, least of all 23-year-old Graham.

"I did everything I could to prepare for this," said Graham, wrapped in a lavender robe and propped up in a peach-sheeted bed the morning following the final competition, eye shadow and curls missing for the first time in a week. "Speaking monetarily, excluding the scholarship, it would have meant a tremendous amount of money . . . and the national exposure. Just think of it. . . .

"It also would have meant a year of growing and learning and turning into a woman.

"My dreams are still there," continued Graham, who wants to be both a child psychologist and an entertainer. "But they are just going to take longer to reach . . . unless someone in the audience saw me, took an interest in me and decided to help me in some manner. It has happened."

Ask any contestant why she enters pageants and the answer is always the same: the scholarship money.

The Miss America Pageant gives out more than $2 million annually in state and local competitions. Graham, the youngest of three children, has won $5,400.

"It's made it a lot easier for me to go to school," she said. Her mother is a teacher of the deaf and her father is state coordinator of community education in Kentucky.

But the cost of competing?

Graham estimated that the seven gowns she brought to Atlantic City cost more than $1,000 each, but added that her parents and grandmother had paid for them.

And forget the myth of the young innocent plucked from the crowd to wear the crown.

Nearly every contestant here competed in numerous local and state pageants before winning a state title. Several entered competitions in more than one state and a number of contestants wear the sash of states that are not their native homes.

Graham, 23, a Kentucky native with a drawl to match, has lived in Maryland for little more than a year. She entered her first competition in Kentucky -- for Miss Boyle County -- when she was 16, and won. Since then she has been Miss Lexington, Miss Green River Valley, a three-time runner-up to Miss Kentucky.

She entered the Miss Sweetheart pageant in Hoopeston, Ill., and the Miss Lake Cumberland pageant in Kentucky. Last year, when she was a senior at the University of Kentucky, Graham moved to Bethesda to work as an intern with the Washington office of the USO and decided to make one final grab for the Miss America crown via the Miss Lanham contest, which she won, and then Miss Maryland.

Following the Miss Maryland pageant early this summer Graham moved into the Baltimore County home of Chuck and Bev Skinner, who head the state contest, to train for her chance at the big one.

"I wouldn't call myself a professional, but you could say I'm a veteran at this," Graham said earlier during the pageant week.

She was not alone in her struggle. Her roommate and best friend, Alice Baird, postponed looking for a job this summer to be with Graham at the pageant. "I've been through it all with her and I wasn't going to miss this one," Baird said here this week.

"I've taken notes on the news, rubbed on suntan lotion, done sit-ups, compared pageant books, gone to pageants, listened to our neighbors pound on the floor above us when she was practicing her songs. . . ."

Others at the contest had also been on the move for some time: Miss California -- now Miss America -- Debra Sue Maffet, competed unsuccessfully for three years in the Miss Texas pageant before moving to Anaheim and winning the state crown there.

This year's Miss Louisiana competed against Miss California in the Miss Texas pageant and this year's Miss Texas had her first title at 8 when she was second runner-up in the Little Miss Weatherford contest. This year's Miss North Carolina was first runner-up in the Miss South Carolina contest last year while this year's Miss South Carolina was first runner-up in the Miss North Carolina pageant last year.

Another part of pageant preparation is scooping the competition. This year, Graham traveled to pageants in Texas and Connecticut, and she and her mother attended Miss America pageants for the last three years.

In addition, the women train. They have protein drinks for breakfast, lift Nautilus weights, plastic wrap their thighs, tan their bodies, tape their breasts, strengthen their "smile muscles" and pad their bras. Who wants cellulite in a swimsuit?

Graham, 5 feet 6 inches and 112 pounds, visited a body builder in Texas this summer where she was scouting the state pageant winner -- Texas always is one of the contenders to beat. The body builder, who works with a number of state winners, prescribed exercises to trim her thighs, reduce her waist and build up her calves. Every day, she faithfully performed the exercises in between tanning sessions.

"It's part of being the total woman," Graham explained after the swimsuit competition. "It shows the public how much we care for our bodies and how disciplined we are. To have the bodies we have and to be in the condition we're in, they know we've had to exercise and eat the right foods."

And wear the right clothes. The fashion show in Convention Hall is right up there with the best of Seventh Avenue's.

No one seems to wear the same thing for more than an hour or less than a couple of hundred dollars. Each contestant has been given at least $1,000 to spend on her wardrobe and most shell out more, much more. Miss Texas had costumes made for herself and her ventriloquist's dummy, Homer, that were valued at $18,000. Miss Florida brought 35 dresses and 25 pairs of shoes.

Graham brought 13 day outfits, 15 pairs of shoes and seven evening gowns.

The intensive training that all the contestants undertook this summer included more cerebral pursuits. They spent mornings watching Good Morning America and the Today Show and evenings clipping newspapers to prepare for what they call the "current events" section of their judges' interview.

Top on the list of reading material seems to have been Time magazine.

Graham toted a folder of articles to Atlantic City on issues that she thought might come up during the interview. Beforehand, her pageant directors quizzed her, her friends quizzed her, her father quizzed her. Lynne's mother underlined articles in red that she thought her daughter should read.

"Lynne is up to date; she's solid. She knows the names of world leaders and understands important issues," said her father, Gippy, the day following Graham's judges' interview. "Lynne is a better conversationalist because of her pageants."

The name of the game in the judges' interview is to sidestep to the right of middle of the road. No one is going to risk being too controversial here.

Q: ERA?

Lynne: "I am for equal rights but not the amendment."

Q: Living together?

Lynne: "I don't think it is necessary to cohabit before marriage."

"Every time we asked the girls about cohabitation they were against it," said Foster Brooks, one of the seven judges. "Every time we asked about Ronald Reagan, they were in favor."

"Don't you feel like royalty?" Miss America hostess Marge Howell asked Lynn Moreland, Miss Maryland's traveling companion. Moreland was describing the carnations that arrived each morning with breakfast.

A contestant is never alone at the Miss America pageant. There is either a hostess, assigned by the pageant, or her traveling companion at her side at all times. She cannot be interviewed alone and no men are allowed into the hotel suite that she shares with her traveling companion. Not even her father.

About 70 people, yet another part of the Maryland entourage, were wearing "Win With Lynne" T-shirts or glossy black-and-white buttons with her photograph. There were state pageant people, family, friends, boyfriend Taylor Shelton and best friend Baird.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said state director Chuck Skinner, talking like a man with a good horse in the Preakness. A chunky, balding man with wire-rimmed glasses and checkered knit pants, Skinner and his family have been involved in pageants since 1967 and are spending vacation time to be here.

"We love it. There's a lot of national scope here and it gives us a great opportunity to get to know a lot of people," said Skinner, a personnel trainer with the federal Social Security department. "It's our hobby."

When it was all over and Miss California had glided down the glittering runway beaming, Miss Maryland stood alone offstage. She waited, in her forest-green gown with rhinestones and matching shoes, as her rack of clothes rolled by.

There was the tangy-red swimsuit with the low back; the sophisticated, one-shoulder gown of light blue that she wore during the talent contest; the white chiffon-and-silk pantsuit with the huge bow and silver sprinkles; the blue shoes, the red shoes.

And when the clothes passed she followed them into the cavernous garage.

"We love you, Miss Maryland," shouted two young girls waiting behind a rope.

Then, finally, there was a tear.