They spend hours making sure their hair is perfect and putting the final fluff in already fluffy evening gowns. They take days to master a proper walk and a graceful turn. But they refuse to walk down a beauty pageant runway in a (gasp) swimsuit.

"I told them from the start," said Elizabeth Gray, a senior at Fort Hunt High School in Fairfax County, shaking a mass of tight curls, "if there's a bathing suit competition I'm not doing it."

The closest thing to a swimsuit competition in the Northern Virginia Junior Miss Program may be the white shorts and rugger shirts of the dance routine. Even then, the rigors of the dance are offset by properly white-gloved hands.

It is not a contest of sultry, surgically perfected, leggy beauties. Junior Miss, say its sponsors, is a scholarship program, not a beauty pageant. Its 70 participants this year oozed that well-groomed All-American look.

"The best part is the new friends you make," said Heather O'Beirne, winner from the Arlington-Alexandria area. "They're all so nice, you didn't really want someone to have to win."

That may be a slight exaggeration.

Chrys Peterson, 17, said she was in it for the money -- the scholarship money.

"I can't go to college if I don't get some scholarships," said Peterson, a member of the National Honor Society at Groveton High in Fairfax who works part time as a waitress at a local restaurant.

"Everybody at school comes up to you and says, 'Ugh, you're in a beauty pageant,' " said Mindy Whitesel, last year's state winner who now is using her scholarship money at George Mason University. "I say, 'No, I'm not, I'm in a scholarship program.' "

The Northern Virginia Junior Miss Program gave away almost $10,000 in scholarships to its winners Saturday night and will sponsor the three area winners at the state contest in February.

Yet despite the insistence of sponsors that this is not a beauty pageant, the backstage preparations had all the trappings of a beauty contest: the tough decisions over whether to use the Cranberry Glaze lip gloss or Currant Plum lipstick; the twisting and retwisting and untwisting for the precision curl.

And the catastrophes that take on bigger-than-life proportions: the Coke spilled on the mauve satin evening gown minutes before curtain time; the forgotten line on stage that ended in tears backstage; the frazzled nerves and adolescent anxiety.

Then there is the aspect of judging physical ability and poise and grooming. More than half the 70 contestants are cheerleaders. Thirty-three participate in school sports. And all seem to have above-average intelligence, better-than-average looks and unusually fit bodies.

Said one judge: "Most are physically really good specimens."

Although it was intelligence that counted in the offstage interviews and on the paper transcripts, from the audience the contest had the glamor and lighted runway of the big-time beauty pageants.

The chaos and mayhem backstage settles into muscle-stretching smiles and a sea of lace and ribbon and ruffles on stage: a pastel parade of the latest in bridesmaids' gowns and prom dresses.

But judges and contestants alike say that's where the similarities between Junior Miss and more traditional beauty pageants stop.

"Winning and competition is not the main thing," said Raelene Canuel of Fort Hunt High. "I almost forget there's really a competition."

"I really expected it to be a beauty contest with a bunch of giggly girls," said Fairfax School Board Chairman Ann P. Kahn, who was judging her first Junior Miss pageant. "It's not. The girls were bright, very savvy, intelligent-thinking. There were only a few gigglers."

Fifteen percent of a contestant's score is based on academic achievement: school records, grade transcripts and standardized test scores. Another 35 percent is based on interviews with a panel of five judges.

Said Judge Kahn: "I was looking for someone who was bubbly, but not giggly; vivacious, full of life, but not shallow."

Pageant officials have compiled the statistics they use to combat the usual anti-beauty pageant cynicism: The average grade point for the 70 contestants this year was 3.48 (on a 4.0 scale.); 48 girls are members of the National Honor Society, nine are listed in Who's Who Among American High School Students; 11 were nominated or attended the Governor's School for Gifted Children; three are National Merit Scholarship Finalists.

Junior Miss is a study in contrasts.

Ask the contestants what they want to be when they grow up: genetic researcher, hematologist, lawyer, politician, mechanical engineer and foreign correspondent.

But get them in the dressing room five minutes before the curtain goes up and find a normal, fidgety, sometimes giggly group of high school seniors.

It looks like a dormitory room at a summer fashion camp for girls. Shorts, stockings and costumes strewn about the floor. Table tops littered with enough cosmetics to open a counter at Elizabeth Arden. Permeating all the dressing rooms is the aroma of curling irons and hair spray and a dozen colognes.

"You wouldn't believe what we have in the lost and found," said Jill Miller, pageant mother for one group of girls. "They lose everything: high-heeled shoes, blouses, bras."

The three winners--Karri Henson of Fairfax-McLean, Heather O'Beirne of Arlington-Alexandria and Laura Forrester of Annandale-Springfield -- were not crowned. Past Junior Miss winners slipped Olympic-styled medallions on thick satiny ribbons over the winners' heads.

There were few public tears of disappointment from the losers. When it was over, they retreated to the dressing rooms, stripped off the frills and white gloves, and stored away their night of glamour in plastic bags and suitcases.

It was back to T-shirts and blue jeans and homework.