Miss America was


the underage beauty queen who tearfully apologized for drinking too much, not to mention making out with Miss Teen USA, and was sent to rehab after a weepy appearance with Donald Trump.

If only.

No, in the 2007 edition of Making Miss America Matter Again, what passes for crisis Miss A style (the other was Miss USA) is the 52 contestants' being ordered to - omigosh! - remove their (not what you're thinking) makeup in front of the cameras.

This is during Pageant School, a tepid two-hour Apprentice-like reality-kinda pageant psych-up show taped in Los Angeles, which will be shown seven times on CMT and its sister stations between today and tomorrow, when the pageant itself is telecast live from Las Vegas.

"It took me a long time to let my family and friends see me without makeup," a panicked Miss Arkansas says. "And now all of America is going to."

Hey, tune in for yourself if you want to know how it turns out. No spoilers here.

Returning to Vegas after last year's debut outside her ancestral Atlantic City home on cable country-music network CMT, the Miss America pageant is still fiddling around for just the right mix, the perfect fix, the next big idea that will reestablish it as a player on the televised-pageant scene, not to mention the American pop-culture landscape.

Part CMT cowgirls, part Vegas bathing beauties. Part desperately seeking sex appeal, part can't seem to shake that wholesome thing. Mostly hoping channel surfers mistake them for the gorgeously bosomy briefcase girls on Deal or No Deal who line up just like Miss America contestants but get better ratings. That television juggernaut will also air tomorrow at 8 p.m.

(Naturally, Miss USA already snagged that special gig to have its contestants be Deal or No Deal briefcase beauties. Foiled again!)

Last year, just three million watched the Miss America pageant live, a record low, but CMT says the pageant was viewed about 31 million times by 20 million people when it was done with all the repeated showings. All in all, the Vegas experiment was judged tiara-worthy.

This year's brew is part retro-love, part techno-hype. You want a Miss America ring tone? Sold for $2.99 (no Bert Parks, only strings). You want to win some cash off the old girl? Go ahead and try on its Web site, MissAmerica.org, where the correct selection of finalists and winner could win you a million bucks (but likely not).

You want to text in your vote for Miss Congeniality, you can do that, too. There's even a Miss America MasterCard and perfume. The pageant has traded Speedo for Venus as swimsuit sponsor for a "younger, fresher, sexier look," executive director Art McMaster said. The contestants themselves were told not to look so dated.

And if Pageant School is any guide, the contestants will revel in the little things that make pageants (but not necessarily scholarship programs) so special: hair, makeup, just the right earrings, and picking out who's the nicest. As one contestant put it: "I would like to have a photogenic memory." Indeed. Trident is a sponsor.

Earlier plans to televise the preliminaries and really turn the whole thing into an American Idol-style America-votes event were scrapped. Pageant School, in which a winner chosen by judges gets a $23,000 necklace and the girls suffer such trials as having to wear geeky gym shorts, was created instead.

"This is the tester year," said Gerdeen Dyer, founder and editor of Pageant.com. "Last year, there was enough novelty to carry them through. It was so different. The question is whether this Miss USA scandal will help or hurt. The Miss USA scandal seems suspiciously or auspiciously timed."

What, Donald Trump deliberately try to steal Miss America's thunder? On the other hand, not everyone knows the difference. A little ricocheted scandal might not hurt.

McMaster said Miss A had found a comfy though obscure home with CMT, which, unlike the networks, is spending money to promote the show, including running Pageant School on sister stations VH1 and MTV. But he still yearns for Miss America to, well, mean something. Organizers don't want their queen to spend all her time packing and unpacking her suitcase while shilling for her particular cause ("Health and Fitness for Life!"). They've already announced a national platform, the Children's Miracle Network.

"We want her doing the things Miss America used to do. We want her to do things more for our country, helping out in the war effort," McMaster said. "Miss America belongs to the country."

As for the show, it's mostly straight-ahead pageant, with a new production team that will also be staging the Super Bowl halftime extravaganza. During the two-hour show, five of the Misses will perform their talent. (Hope for Miss Wyoming's "aerial silk routine.") There will be cutaways to get the judges' reactions (including that of Hardball's Chris Matthews, fresh from the State of the Union).

But will anybody care? In Atlantic City, at least, Miss America has slipped completely from the radar, though there is still plenty of bitterness. Vegas still feels like a betrayal. January still feels wrong. There have been local casualties, such as the parade the Friday before and the day-after Miss'd America, the AIDS fund-raiser and drag-queen spectacle that was the best party of the year.

"It's a nonentity," said local radio personality Pinky Kravitz, a longtime Miss America supporter who tried to keep the pageant from moving. "You don't hear anything about it. Who knows about it? Nobody knows. Nobody cares. It is sad. Because they're doing anything and everything to try to get recognition. When is it, this Saturday?"

Actually, it's tomorrow. 8 p.m. CMT. Mario Lopez, of Dancing With the Stars fame, will be the host.

As for whom to root for, sports fans, this year pageantistas say a local contender, Miss Delaware Jamie Ginn, may have a shot. (She grew up in Ocean City, N.J., where, the Pageant.com people pointed out, even crustaceans have pageants.)

She's blogging, of course, chronicling her lost luggage and stomach virus. She's a dancer who gave up some kind of high-powered engineering job in a secret lab in Delaware. And she was a finalist in Pageant School.

The actual Miss New Jersey, Georgine DiMaria, is a blond bombshell, a Miss A hottie from Lodi who would fit in nicely with a crowd of Miss USAs, or even the Deal or No Deal babes. Miss Pennsylvania, Emily Wills of Beaver, is one of the pageant brainiacs, an honors graduate from Pennsylvania State University who has a tall order in trying to repeat last year's top 10 finish by her predecessor, Nicole Brewer.

There's buzz about Miss Connecticut Heidi Voight and Miss Texas Shilah Phillips, also standouts in Pageant School, and there are the usual heavyweights from Mississippi, Utah and California.

In the words of Miss South Dakota, it could all be "a huge cupcake of excitement."

If not, well, it's back to Pageant School.

Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.