Heather Renee French, a 24-year-old Kentuckian with a model's moves and a talking head's ease of articulation, was crowned Miss America 2000 tonight. She immediately put a new millennial crown studded with rubies over her short, hip haircut and pledged to lobby Congress on behalf of homeless veterans.

"I'm afraid I'm gonna drop the scepter," she said offstage. "You just can't imagine what's going through my veins right now."

She said she was inspired to help often-forgotten veterans by watching her father, who suffered bullet wounds in the Vietnam War, struggle with rheumatoid arthritis.

"It's not the prettiest platform, ladies and gentlemen," she said. Earlier, in an interview, she said she felt passionately about the issue because "this is America, and we take care of our own."

Wearing a blue strapless gown with tiny pleats, French sang "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in the talent competition as Miss Kentucky. In addition to singing, she is a graduate fashion design student at the University of Cincinnati, a textbook author and a teacher. This batch of activities caused pageant co-host Marie Osmond to ask her whether she might be a "jack-of-all-trades and master of none."

"When you stop learning, you stop living," French replied.

Miss Illinois Jade Smalls, a 21-year-old Northwestern University student and piano major, was first runner-up. She wins a $30,000 scholarship. Miss Pennsylvania Susan Spafford, a classic violin student at the Eastman School of Music, was second runner-up and won a $20,000 scholarship. Miss Maryland Keri Schrader, of Rockville, was third runner-up. She goes back to Georgetown University Law Center with a $15,000 scholarship. An intern in the State Attorney's Office in Rockville, she is an advocate for preventing domestic abuse. According to the official program, she wants to sit on the Supreme Court.

Schrader came to the pageant with a fan base that at times made the hall sound like Cole Field House with rousing cheers of "Let's go, Maryland." Yanci Yarborough, Miss Texas, was fourth runner-up and won a $10,000 scholarship.

Miss Virginia Crystal Lewis had won one of the three talent preliminaries this week with her rendition of "I Believe in You and Me," but the 21-year-old from Newport News did not place among the top 10 finalists. Both she and Miss District of Columbia Toyia Taylor won scholarships for their talent, however. Taylor, a 24-year-old family services coordinator for the D.C. Housing Authority, performed a dramatic monologue on Wednesday that she wrote herself about keeping kids off the streets.

Last night's crowning capped an unusual week for the pageant. Its novice president, Robert Beck, plunged the pageant into controversy on Monday by announcing that rules changes would permit divorcees and women who had had abortions to be contestants. By midweek, he had backed off, following howls of protest from former beauty queens and state directors, but the controversy clouded the week's festivities, as did pounding hurricane rains and a three-day strike by 14,000 casino workers.

In front of a raucously enthusiastic audience of nearly 11,000 last night, the hosts made light of the controversy.

There is one new rule that is going to take effect, said Osmond, who was co-host with her brother, Donny. "Miss America is going to split the scholarship money 50-50," she said, "and share it with her ex-husband."

CAPTION: Miss Kentucky Heather Renee French is crowned Miss America 2000 by outgoing title holder Nicole Johnson in Atlantic City.