By Lianne Hart
Updated September 05, 1983 12:00 PM

Smile. You have just begun a Darwinian struggle called the survival of the cutest. Soldiers in Laura Ashley uniforms are fighting with the only weapons available to them—good manners and demure smiles. Nerves are screamingly taut; a sweaty palm can mean sudden humiliation. What’s a poor girl to do? How in the 1980s can you handle a 1950s ordeal that might make death seem a welcome escape?

Rushees, meet Margaret Ann Rose, 22, who this summer ran the only charm-bracelet school in the country. After graduating from the University of Texas last spring—and retiring as state rush captain for Zeta Tau Alpha—Margaret Ann decided to share the secrets of sorority selection with sisters-to-be. “It’s broken my heart,” she explains, “to see some really darling girls not get a sorority bid. They just didn’t know how to shine.”

Margaret Ann has set up shop in the right place. The unnatural selection called “sorority rush” may have gone the way of circle pins elsewhere, but more and more yellow roses of Texas are seeking out sororities. Over the past three months Rose has polished 250 young women from Dallas, San Antonio, Lubbock and four other Texas cities. “I’m so nervous,” said Southern Methodist rushee Mary Lee Tell, 18, as she arrived for Margaret Ann’s Fort Worth indoctrination. “I don’t know what to expect. I hope Margaret Ann will fill me in.”

For $50 Margaret does just that. Her four-hour “Sorority Success Seminar” provides a fashion show, a makeup demonstration, a slide show on the joys of sorority life and a lecture that stresses:

•”Smiling is very important. Smile as much as you can, but don’t have a frozen look on your face.”

•”Every morning, stand in front of the mirror for 10 minutes and compliment yourself. You don’t have to tell anyone you do it. But it really helps.”

•”Make a list of your best features and keep it handy during rush week. You can think, ‘Well, this sorority cut me, but it’s okay because I have a terrific smile, great-looking eyes, a good sense of humor’ or whatever.”

•”Don’t be shy, timid or mousy, but don’t be aggressive either.”

•”Don’t talk about things that are too radical. They might think you’re unusual. They might not like you because they don’t like your opinion.”

It may sound like Rose is trying to create the Stepford Wives of the Southwest, but what she’s really trying to build is the ego. “You can’t tell yourself, ‘I am too boring or ugly or fat,’ ” she decrees. “You need a lot of self-confidence during rush.”

It can be a truly formidable week. Rushees go to as many as eight parties a day so all the sororities can see all the candidates (the University of Texas will have 1,050 rushees this fall). At the end of each night’s round of parties at UT, the members look at pictures of the rushees and rate them. Then blindfolds are put on for secret ballots. If you’re their kind of girl, you get invited back for a second party and maybe a third. Then, if you’re lucky, you get a “bid.” You’re in.

The littlest things can hurt your chances. “They will judge you by what you’re wearing,” Margaret Ann says. “I know it sounds superficial, but that happens in life.” One SMU student of the mid-’70s recalls sorority members checking the labels of rushees’ coats. Rose’s fashion show features appropriate attire: linen skirts, silk blouses, cotton sweater-vests tucked into cotton skirts and flat, leather shoes. “You don’t need to spend a lot of money,” says a woman from a local clothing store. “We’ve kept these outfits under $200.” The audience does not blink.

Then there’s makeup. “We want to share with you how much fun it can be to be beautiful,” an Estée Lauder lady says as she shows off four treatments you slather onto your face before you put on a bit of makeup. Margaret Ann offers a practical tip: “It’s going to be hot, and you’re going to sweat. Wear makeup that will stay on or that can be easily reapplied.” Aha, so sorority girls do sweat, after all.

Rose also warns her students what they’re in for if they join. Sororities cost money; first-year dues at UT run $1,100-plus. That doesn’t count the sorority souvenirs you just have to buy: T-shirts, pinky rings and paddles all proudly imprinted with the Greek letters that spell “status.”

No matter what the sacrifice, though, Rose’s students want in. “You can just tell the Greeks on campus by what they wear and how they act,” says Laura Wells, 18, a Texas freshman this fall. “They’re very confident. I want to be a part of that.”

Texas sophomore Shelagh Brown made it into her friend Margaret Ann’s sorority last year and she remembers the horror of it: No matter how cute you are, everyone else seems cuter. “Rush was like one big beauty contest,” she sighs. ” ‘How can I hope to compete with these girls?’ I thought. I was scared to death.”

The problem these young women have, Rose thinks, is that some are children of the children of the ’60s—the generation that looked upon sororities, fraternities and the draft board with equal contempt. “The daughters are going in blind,” Margaret Ann says. “They don’t know what to do, how to act.” So, as she sees it, she provides the advice mothers used to give.

An Abilene native, Rose graduated from Texas last May with honors in liberal arts. She is headed to law school, but decided first—with financial help from Dad—to start the seminars, sending a slick pink-and-white brochure to all registered rushees in Texas.

The grand dames of sorority society are not amused. “It’s a money-making gimmick,” sniffs Evelyne Bennett, director of the UT Panhellenic Council. Rose defends her service: “I saw all these cute girls going through rush and doing all the wrong things. They have to play the game right.”

It is, don’t forget, a game.