THE NEWS SPREAD LIKE A FIRE IN A hair spray factory. For the first time in 73 years, the Miss America pageant was letting down its lacquered tresses. Gone: all those $10,000 Vegas-style beaded gowns and the high-priced hair and makeup stylists who have crowded the pageant's dressing rooms for years. "I was at rehearsals [at last year's pageant], and here were these very attractive young women with no makeup on and their hair in pony-tails," says Hollywood director Jeff Margolis, who is producing the 1993 show (which airs on NBC Sept. 18). "But they came out on the stage, and they all looked like 40-year-old Stepford wives or Barbie dolls."

This year's pageant will change all that. For the first time, contestants have been asked to don evening wear that would be appropriate in their home states and to do their own hair and makeup—though professionals will be on hand in Atlantic City to give the women some pre-pageant tips. "We are teaching them how to place rollers, to do highlights, to use less hair spray and to have more texture," says New York City hairstylist Frederic Fekkai. "We want them to be more natural, not a mall look."

Since the changes were announced this summer, there has been some isolated grousing from pageant pros. "If I want hair combed back like a beehive and I feel comfortable like that—like Texas women do—who's to tell me that I can't?" says Texas-born stylist Richard Guy, who with his partner Rex Holt has groomed six winners of the rival Miss USA contest. And some contestants have hired hairstyle and makeup trainers. Says one pageant hopeful: "He'll do one side of my face, and I'll do the other till I get it right."

Still, most contestants seem pleased by the changes. "When I started competing four years ago, the winners were all 'Pageant Pal-ties,' " says Miss Alaska Rebecca Nyboer, 22, a biology graduate of Pacific Lutheran University in Taco-ma, Wash. "Girls were wearing hairstyles that wouldn't fit through a doorframe."

While visiting Texas this summer, Nyboer paid several hundred dollars for a consultation with a pageant makeup professional—but she says she won't be following every bit of advice she got there. "I'm not used to putting on a lot of makeup, so I've taken shortcuts," she says.

Because Alaska's state pageant office has never raised enough money to buy 810,000 gowns or to fly a phalanx of styling gurus to the pageant anyway, the changes may actually help Nyboer by leveling the playing field. "I think it's great they're not judging us on extravagant gowns anymore," says Nyboer, who will be wearing a full-skirled white ball gown. "You can't see the girl under all the glitz and glitter."

Miss New Mexico, Sharron Melton. 24, a graduate student in television communication at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales, is equally optimistic. "In the past, some contestants have spent between 88,000 and 112,000 for a dress—you could buy a car for that," says Melton, who paid less than $2,000 for her competition gown.

Even thriftier was Miss Maine, Josette Huntress, 21, who chose her slinky black Bill Blass sheath at a 75%-off sale at Lord & Taylor. "I'm a plain and simple person,'' says the senior sociology major at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "There's not a pouf or frill on anything."

Nor is Huntress worried about the new hair-arid-makeup rules. At a stale pageant two years ago, she ran face-first into a metal bar backstage and got a big red welt on her forehead just as she was about to go on. So she did what any pageant pro would do: She pulled her bangs down from their moussed-up heights and went on with the show.

As for Miss Florida, Nicole Padgett, 21, even the intricacies of applying stage makeup won't be a problem. The psychology senior at the University of South Florida in Tampa is a veteran of community theater and Disney/MGM Studios, where she has been appearing as the Little Mermaid. But Padgett does have some big pumps to fill: Her good friend Leanza Cornett, last year's Miss Florida, took home the Miss America crown. "Everyone has asked, 'Did you get coaching?' " Padgett says. "I tell them, 'No coaching. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it by myself.' " Adds Cornell: "If you're 22 years old and you can't do your own hair...I mean, come on!"

CYNTHIA SANZ and bureau reports