“What kind of article are you writing?” the Miss Tri-Village pageant coordinator asked skeptically when I began questioning her about her involvement with the Miss Illinois program. She had me there. I’d been hanging around at the pageant’s “leadership conference” all day, and aside from a bad case of the snubs–which I’d received from everyone from Miss Illinois herself right down to one of the contestant’s moms–I didn’t have much to write about.

I’m not sure exactly why the pageant appealed to me in the first place. I guess I’m still subject to some leftover high school yearning to be queen of the prom, or at least a member of her court. I was covertly fascinated by the Miss Illinois contestants; with their perfect hair, toothpaste smiles, and jewel-toned power suits, they epitomized everything that the teenaged me had so desperately wanted to be. I fantasized about having long, intimate conversations with them. I’d nod sympathetically as they regaled me with the juicy details of their waistline anxiety and their quest for lipstick with lasting shine–all the while smirking smugly behind my cover of journalistic reserve.

But there was also a deeper worry, the nagging fear that these beauty queens were encroaching on my turf. By the end of Super Saturday, the first day of prepageant activities, I no longer felt merely like the girl who couldn’t make cheerleader. In this crowd I couldn’t even make the debate team. The recommended reading list for contestants in “The ‘Spirit’ of Miss Illinois,” the pageant’s glossy quarterly newsletter, includes books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Power Presentations, and How to Work a Room. And ever since Miss America 1991, Marjorie Vincent, shocked the pageant world by delivering her platform speech on domestic violence with tangible anger, successive winners have exhibited an increasingly activist bent. These days a coherent platform and basic knowledge of political events is as essential for a contestant who wants to go all the way as good posture and that winning smile.

Thus the first annual Miss Illinois Leadership Conference, where pageant contestants and their local contest directors listen to speeches on issues like child abuse, homelessness, drug abuse, and AIDS. This year’s conference ran for only three hours–from two to five in the afternoon–but next year, says Fran Skinner-Lewis, the pageant’s executive director and a former Miss Chicago, “I envision that it will expand to a whole day.”

Skinner-Lewis planned the conference for a couple of reasons, one of them purely practical. In order to have a Miss Illinois who can make a good showing at nationals, Skinner-Lewis needs solid material to work with in the state competition. That means the directors of the local pageants have to be prepared to school next year’s Miss Winnebago, Miss Kankakee, and Miss Macomb in writing informed, politically weighty platforms. To judge from this year’s batch–which includes examples like “Abstinence,” “Conflict Resolution,” and “Traditional Values Instilled by Parents and Effective Discipline”–the leadership conference couldn’t have come too soon.

But for Skinner-Lewis and Jackie DelGenio, Skinner-Lewis’s cousin and the president of the pageant’s board of directors, the conference, like the pageant itself, is really about fulfilling a more idealistic goal–in Skinner’s words, “giving a voice to young women who might not otherwise have the opportunity to be heard.” Skinner-Lewis discourses solemnly on a whole range of issues, from the glass ceiling to gender bias in the schools, that I’m used to hearing about from more self-consciously feminist types. DelGenio has never actually competed in a pageant herself, but she served as a sort of “companion” to her cousin Fran, and she speaks with a rather alarming degree of emotion about the pageant’s ability to “make you the best contestant–and the best person–you can be.”

“I suppose if you were going to call this program a beauty pageant, it is no longer just physical beauty. These women truly are beautiful in that they want to be role models, they want to make a difference,” DelGenio said moistly. “I sound very preachy, but I really, I truly believe it.”

After several hours of hearing this sort of spiel I started wondering if I was going to find even the tiniest crack in the facade, some small acknowledgment of the hypocrisy inherent in awarding $18 million in scholarships–more than any other women’s scholarship fund in the world–on the basis of whose butt looks the best in a bathing suit.

The swimsuit competition is definitely something of a dirty little secret for these women, if a dirty little open secret. Having a nice figure is simply part of what it takes to succeed, and that’s that, thank you. Skinner-Lewis didn’t bother to mention that the contestants would be spending the morning of the leadership conference undergoing something called a “swimsuit check.” She just asked me not to arrive at the auditorium before noon because, well, the girls would be practicing their talents on the big stage, and some of them weren’t yet “competition-ready.”

I got the frankest assessment of the swimsuit ordeal from the least experienced contestant–Julie Guzowski, at 17 one of the youngest girls in the pageant. When I approached her and asked if she was a contestant, she said “Can’t you tell?” and gestured disparagingly at her jeans, T-shirt, and high school letter jacket. Apparently she hadn’t yet put to use the $600 clothing allowance that she received, along with a $1,950 scholarship and the $200 Miss Illinois pageant entry fee, when she was named Miss Hoffman Estates. She already had the required swimsuit–made by the Rose Marie Reid company, it can be found only in shops catering to pageant contestants–but even so, her worries about this part of the competition were only beginning. “You feel so…naked,” she said. “So exposed. It takes a lot of confidence to go up there with your head high and not feel the least bit like, ‘Does this look OK? Is everything OK on me?'”

The current Miss Illinois, Sara Martin, doesn’t admit to any such insecurity. She said she had some reservations about entering her first pageant, America’s Junior Miss, but she decided it was about the “whole person” instead of just looks and besides, she needed the scholarship money. She explained that in Junior Miss there is a scholastic achievement category, and the swimsuit competition is replaced by a physical fitness routine. When I asked her if that meant the Miss Illinois pageant, in contrast, was basically all about physical beauty, her voice slowed and she began punching every other word.

“No. No. I would not have gotten involved in the Miss America system if I did not feel that its standards were of the same…caliber as Junior Miss. In swimsuit and evening gown the real important part is a woman’s presence, her ability to communicate onstage, and her personality. Which are very internal.”

I asked her what she did to prepare for the swimsuit competition; she admitted that she did one hour of cardiovascular training and one hour of weight training a day. But Martin was more interested in talking about the work that went into her platform, which advocates funding for arts education in schools. She sees herself as an “advocate” who influences people’s attitudes about the arts rather than someone who should promote a particular course of action; one of her ideas, establishing “community arts partnerships” between schools and corporations, already exists in many Illinois schools. She favors a redistribution of education funding similar to the plan proposed by Dawn Clark Netsch, but stops short of endorsing her. “I’d rather not discuss that,” she said. “It’s not that it’s a requirement to remain–apolitical, so to speak. It’s just that I really have not chosen someone to support at this point.”

Martin was plastic to be sure, and yet her evasions seemed more those of a savvy politician than an airhead. I’d expected her whole enterprise to reek of anachronism, but instead it felt like I was the one behind the times. Martin epitomizes the have-it-all “90s woman”–she’s willing to do whatever it takes to succeed, and she never lets her eyes stray from the bottom line. “Your interview is basically a job interview,” Skinner-Lewis told the contestants in a briefing about the apparently ominous load of responsibility that comes with being Miss Illinois. “The judges are your potential employers, and they want to know if you can do the job.”

What Skinner-Lewis doesn’t mention is that this full-time job has no salary. Martin apparently subsists on occasional honoraria from her speaking engagements and TV commercials for the Joe Rizzo car dealership. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of gravy once she gets through the year–aside from the $75,000 in scholarships she’s collected from the Junior Miss, Miss Illinois, and Miss America competitions, Martin says one of the biggest perks of being Miss Illinois is all the contacts she’s made.

Apparently she’s not the only one who appreciates the value of a good contact: the most popular speaker at the conference wasn’t talking about a specific issue but about Leadership America, the exclusive networking club for female corporate leaders and politicians. A Leadership America video, “Women Riding the Wave of Change,” featured neat legions of women in the very same power suits worn by the Miss Illinois contestants. When they weren’t glad-handing one another over cocktails the women in the video were sitting in hotel conference rooms, silver and gold pens poised, listening to speeches about “teamwork” and “management skills.” Founded by Texas governor Ann Richards, Leadership America addresses what Richards sees as women’s main problem in the political and corporate world: “When they get up to the plate, they don’t know how to play the game.”

Claudine DiLaFonti–Miss Hoffman Estates 1991, Miss Schaumburg 1992, and this year’s Miss Tri-Village–has no trouble playing the game. She listened avidly to the Leadership America presentation, her hair swept into a smooth chignon, her blue suit just a shade lighter than Sara Martin’s. Her platform is similar to Martin’s, too–called “Creative Vision,” it encourages artists to get involved in children’s arts education.

After the conference DiLaFonti huddled in the lobby with her mother and her local director, assessing the other contestants and analyzing her own weak spots. Up close, her similarity to Martin was striking. Both have an unusually direct gaze; both radiate a warm impersonality that invites even as it rebuffs. It was hard to stop looking at DiLaFonti–I found myself compulsively assessing her sleek perfection the way you scrutinize a magazine photo to find the airbrushing. My fantasies of probing the prom queen’s secrets began to reemerge. Here, I thought, was the perfect subject, the apparently smooth wall where if I looked long enough I would uncover the crucial, revealing chink.

She just wouldn’t be able to find time to talk today, DiLaFonti said, but she would give me a call. It would be much better for her to call me; she’s so busy, she’s barely ever home. Did I have a card? No? She produced an index card from her briefcase and asked me to write my number on that. “I’ll talk to you soon,” she said, smiling into my eyes.

Needless to say, I never heard from her.