ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ On the surface, it seems it's no life being a hostess at the Miss America Pageant.

A hostess must lug around her contestant's heavy makeup bag and any other essentials, and sit through countless interviews, offering an encouraging smile when the contestant looks perplexed.

More importantly, a hostess must make her contestant feel as though she has a real chance at the crown, even if the young woman decides to wear the equivalent of a potato sack in the evening gown competition.

Nor can hostesses, all volunteers, be too young, too old or too pretty, says pageant President Ellen Plum.

So what's in it for the Miss America hostesses, many of whom willingly have taken 10 days off from their jobs for the four-day competition beginning Wednesday?

''I walk away feeling that our country is going to be in good hands 15 years from now,'' said one hostess, Marge Howell, who has ushered contestants around for 16 years. ''You hear so much in the papers about the drugs and terrible things affecting young people. These young women are the cream of the crop.''

Betty Frisch, a 27-year veteran now on the press committee, said, ''I love these girls. You know, if I stopped doing this, I'd miss it so much I'd be in tears.''

''The hostess will be your chauffeur, your cheerleader, your friend,'' pageant hostess co-chairwoman Marilyn Feehan told the 51 contestants Sunday.

The youngest hostesses are in their 30s, Mrs. Plum said, ''and we don't assign very young women to be hostesses to contestants, particularly if they are very pretty. If they are mistaken for the contestant, it would be embarrassing.''

Likewise, hostesses over 60 no longer chaperone contestants after a recent magazine article called pageant hostesses ''dowdy matrons,'' Mrs. Plum said. ''We want them to look more like a mother, not a grandmother,'' she said.

The hostess network is run like a sorority of sorts. Local women must be nominated by three current hostesses, then pass an interview with pageant officials, Mrs. Plum said.

New hostesses start on the security or food and beverage committees, she said, ''because they get to see the whole picture from there.''

Most importantly, hostesses at the competition are always women.

''All the hostesses have to go into the dressing room at some point,'' Mrs. Plum said. ''Anyway, let's say you have your 18-year-old daughter coming to Atlantic City. Wouldn't you feel more comfortable knowing she was with a mature woman instead of an older man?''

On any given day during pageant week, Mrs. Frisch can be found scheduling interviews for the contestants and the dozens of reporters with the skill of a train dispatcher.

Acting like a mother away from home worked in past decades, Mrs. Frisch said, recalling how she told contestant Judith Ford to change her hair; she went on to become Miss America 1969.

Nowadays, however, ''these are young women who are far more sophisticated and secure,'' Mrs. Howell said. ''They don't want you as a mother. All you offer is encouragement and tell them where to go.''