"For the past five days I can't go to a restaurant without somebody coming up to me and saying 'Aren't you Pat Benatar?' That's the first time that's ever happened."

It's also the first time that rock's newest femme fatale has entered rock 'n' roll heaven: the cover of Rolling Stone and a top-10 album. At 27, Pat Benatar is there.

A year ago her debut album, "In the Heat of the Night," spawned a hit single, "Heartbreaker." and her new album, "Crimes of Passion," is already in the top five in the country, rapidly approaching sales of 1 million units. She and her hard-rock band are in the midst of a six-month, 120-show U.S. tour, with a 10-nation European tour to follow.

And yet she barely made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone -- a last minute replacement for a cover subject who was out of the country when pictures were needed. But Benatar's not entirely happy with the photo.

It was supposed to be "a 'Gone With the Wind' pose," she says, stretching out it the classic kiss-me-as-I-lie-in-you-arms-routine without the benefit of guitarist-boyfriend Neil Geraldo (who appears on the magazine cover but was elsewhere in her Washington hotel before last night's Kennedy Center concert). "They reversed the photo and stood it straight up and down. If you stand the magazine on its side, it's funnier and more like what it was meant to be. I like the other way better."

Despite her success, the five-foot, 90 pound belter wishes a lot of things were "the other way."

Like the fact that the rock press, including Rolling Stone, still insists on seeing her as a woman first, rocker second."Girls will be girls," Benatar sighs. It's a step up from the first reviews -- one New York critic, for example, called her a "vampish, sensual bitch everyone wants to love and make love to." That drove her to tears, and in the last year, she has toned down the vamp image.

Like going to the radio stations and being asked to autograph the provacative poster sent out by her record company. Like having to live down the company's publicity description of her as the "Mount St. Helens of the rock world that erupted in 1980."

Like Rolling Stone calling her "rock's newest sex symbol."

"What goes up on stage is one extension of what I am," she says. "It hardly makes up anything of my daytime life. It's a fantasy reality. She [her stage persona] is not a fabricated person, she does exist somewhere inside me. It's hard for me to live her every day."

"This one ," she says, pointing to herself, comfortably ensconced in jeans, Western boots and a bright sweater made brighter by the sunlight steaming in the window, "is too vulnerable, too soft to stand in front of all those people. The other one is much stronger."

Like having to escape comparison with other women -- like Ellen Shipley and Carolyn Mas -- who have made a new mark on rock 'n' roll in the last year.

For Benatar, women "were always there" in rock music. She recalls growing up listening to Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. "I don't see anything different in what we're doing, except maybe it's a little bit more of a . . . strong . . . position." With Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Benatar has charted the psycho-sexual battles that have long occupied male rockers, but from the woman's perspective. "That's the point to me. There's so many stereotypes, and I always want to try something that's a little out of the ordinary."

The Brooklyn-born and Long Island-bred performer began her career with operatic studies at the Julliard School of Music after years of special voice classes. Her move into high-powered rock 'n' roll forced her to rethink her approach to singing. "I knew what I wanted to get," she says of the rough edges rock demands. "I didn't know at the beginning that you could use the same technique to get the different sounds, so I struggled to break the training I had." There were also classic dues-paying gigs in Holiday Inns (while living in Richmond, Va.,), small clubs and finally, the New York showcases.

The race to success has left Benatar and her alter-ego a little winded.

"Hey, I just got here," she laughs. "It took a long time to get to the beginning, but from the beginning to now, well, it's blinding to me. I don't know what to do. I walk around every day, shaking my head. What's going on here?"

As for the money that's coming in, Benatar is thankful that "it takes so long to get to you. You know it's coming, so you feel secure."

But not entirely: She still worries about being affected by what her competitors do. "I went to see Bruce Springsteen [on Monday, in Cleveland], so I'm sure I'll be up there tonight doing this," and she starts prancing around the room in a charismatic Springston pose.

Springsteen had come to see Benatar's show the night before, but Benatar passed up a pre-show meeting, telling Neil Geraldo, "If I go, I won't be able to sing, forget it !" The meeting took place the next night. "Actually, the anticipation of it was a lot worse than actually meeting him. I was so afraid and Neil kept pushing me: 'go, go.' And Bruce was so nice."