When I was in kindergarten, my boyfriend Graham had an affair with a model. Jeanette was seven (but didn’t look a day over six), competed in youth beauty pageants, and had a preschool entourage bigger than P. Diddy’s. Ever since the day I caught Jeanette and Graham in a lurid embrace behind the teeter-totter, my beau found a different pillow at naptime and I developed a latent distrust of beauty queens.

Lizzie, jealous? Hardly. At the age of six I had cultivated the calculated charm of Shirley Temple and the haughty confidence of Mae West. I knew that in my pink Oshkosh B’Gosh overalls — the Givenchy Little Black Dress of kindergarten — I had a classic sense of style that Jeanette’s slap bracelets and black leggings could never match.

When I turned on NBC last Monday to get an update on “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (humph), what I saw instead were 51 permutations of Jeanette, all grown up and wearing hot pants. That’s right, instead of sandstorms and sirens I was watching something equally horrific: bronzed little bodies squirming to the kind of brassy salsa rhythm that belongs in a taco commercial. As the first dancer spun before the camera and chirped “ALABAMA!” I knew that I was in for a treat.

Who knew that beauty pageants are still televised in prime time, and on America’s most successful prime time network? NBC may be too good for “Hot or Not,” but a show that displays women like pieces of meat then gives scholarships to the meat? Sure, throw that shrimp on the barbi. Not that I mind pitting women against each other like poodles at Westminster, but beauty pageants don’t even do it well.

At least not Miss USA, the pageant I was watching that Monday. Not to be confused with Miss America, Miss USA is owned by Donald Trump and boasts all the class and sincerity of one of his Atlantic City casinos.

While Miss America has attempted to infuse talent and intelligence into the competition, Miss USA has yet to approach legitimacy. No token concert violinist from New York, no husky Inuit native from Alaska. Just 51 blue-eyed, dimpled beauties homegrown from Maine to Hawaii.

Even though it is prime time programming, the Miss USA pageant is so stigmatized even Trump can’t get a decent celebrity to show up and host it. This year the hosts were some generic dude named Billy and (shudder, shudder) Daisy Fuentes. Daisy Fuentes, the poor man’s J.Lo, always manages to crawl out of anonymity whenever an event pops up that no other C-list celebrity will agree to host. Ever seen “Latino Laugh Festival” or the “Take 2: Living the Movies”? Neither have I, but they’re in Daisy Fuentes’ screen credits.

That Daisy Fuentes was once allowed to host “House of Style” only confirms for me that the late ’80s was truly a troubled time for style. Here’s an example of Senorita Fuentes’ clever stage banter: when the Texas delegate tells both hosts she could eat sushi until she burst, Daisy Fuentes replies, “Wow! Good thing sushi’s not fattening, girlfriend, because you know how we’ve got to be watching ourselves.”

Awkward silence.

One thing I noticed right off the bat was that the hosts have started calling beauty pageant participants “delegates” instead of contestants.

I figure it’s a strategy cooked up by some Miss USA PR person to lend the event an air of dignity similar to, say, a U.N. committee meeting. “The ‘delegates’ will now take the stage in their bikinis and 4-inch Steve Madden stilettos,” for instance.

Whatever they’re called, Miss USA participants today are still judged on evening wear, swimwear and a 30-second answer to one final question.

Judged by whom, you might ask? Surely experts in fashion, beauty, and etiquette!

Yeah, that or WARREN SAPP. Miss USA’s nine judges included a sprinkling of daytime TV personalities, Mekhi Phifer, Warren Sapp, and a random NASA employee with a bad comb-over and coke-bottle glasses — apparently Miss USA was so embarrassed about this one they didn’t even put his name on their Web site. Maybe he wandered into the wrong auditorium. Maybe his name is John Galliano and they got confused. Whatever the case, the D-Team was definitely up to bat that night.

That’s the only possible explanation for how people with such heinous taste in formal dress can win a national contest so largely based on clothing: they must be judged by people with equally heinous taste in formal dress. Where does one even find a tight, floor-length, blue beaded halter dress anymore? Does Miss USA publish a pattern book of acceptable dresses, all of which were designed by, well, Warren Sapp?

I think the evening wear competition — hell, the whole pageant — would be a lot more interesting if these ladies learned to take a chance and color outside the lines. Throw caution to the wind and wear your hair tied back, not jacked up to high heaven by industrial strength hairspray. Or better yet, take “evening wear” in a different direction.

Why can’t someone decide to wear a really sexed-up Armani tux, a la Sharon Stone?

The swimwear, the set, the smiles that looked like each girl had a hanger stuck in her mouth — with so many Miss USA shortcomings, this pageant makes “The Bachelorette” look Emmy-worthy.

And as for the final question, let me leave you with the newly crowned Miss USA 2003’s question and answer:

Q: If you could put any three things in a time capsule, what would they be and why?

A: Makeup, a cell phone, and — a computer. Because I feel — these things are very representative of our century and time.

I bet that one really blew Mr. NASA away.

Liz Gunnison would have put Miss USA in the time capsule.