Who were these people who'd paid $40 a head for a chance to shake the kid-gloved hand of Sydney Biddle Barrows, a k a the Mayflower Madam, whose arrest for allegedly operating a pricey prostitution ring last winter kicked her out of the Social Register and onto the front pages of the tabloids? Who crowded into the converted Presbyterian church in Chelsea called Limelight to eat crudite's in the chapel and to boogie in the nave?

They called themselves "The Friends of Sydney Biddle Barrows," and tonight's event the Mayflower Defense Fund Ball. But who were they really?

Almost 50 of them, the ones in the least chic outfits, were photographers and reporters jostling for shots. Barrows, a descendant of two Mayflower Pilgrims, wasn't giving interviews, but she was smiling graciously and relentlessly, in pink taffeta and pearls, through two hours on the receiving line.

"Step back, step back," a tuxedoed Limelight official bawked when they pressed too close. "You people are going to spoil everything if you don't step back." The crowd complied, muttering.

Many of them were lawyers. The entire receiving line, beneath the black tie and spangled gowns, was from Dickstein & Fabricant, the entertainment and general practice firm handling Barrows' defense.

A few were relatives. "Oh, you came!" cried the guest of honor, embracing Ernest and Ana Biddle, who said they were distant but very supportive cousins from Philadelphia. Ana Biddle wore a tiara and glitter around her eyes, even though the invitations had expressly stated that "Ladies Need Not Wear Tiaras."

The party-goers included socialites in pearls and black strapless dresses and Limelight denizens wearing earrings (if they were men) or swathes of nylon net around their heads (if they were women). Waiters with spiked hair and designs painted around their eyes passed drinks.

"What do you think of all this?" a reporter asked Ernest Biddle.

"I think you guys are having a field day," he said. "If her name had been Sydney Smith, this wouldn't have half the impact."

Across from the receiving line, Steve Axelrod and Joan Brandt were looking particularly delighted. He's an agent about to offer the Sydney Biddle Barrows story to publishers, as cowritten by William Novak, Lee Iacocca's collaborator. And she's handling the film rights.

"Sydney has posed for photographs but she's never given an interview," Axelrod pointed out. "No one knows her story except her. And now, to some degree, Bill Novak."

Will Barrows' sell like Iacocca's book? "Better," Axelrod said. "This is going to make Iacocca look like an Edsel," he said.

Some guests really were friends. Jim Black said he lived two doors down from Barrows on the Upper West Side. "Her friends have really rallied around," he said. "She needs the bucks. She's a businesswoman, you know, and she's had a lot of expenses within the last few months. It's enough to drain anyone's checking account."

And then there were those guests who declined to give their names. "I used to work for her; I was a receptionist," said a young woman holding an invitation on which Barrows had written, "Save me a dance." A number of Barrows' employes were on hand to show their support, the receptionist said. "A lot of customers, too."

When the receiving line finally dissolved, attorney Mark Denbaux attempted to raise Serious Legal Issues with the television crews. He was saying that Barrows ran a "legitimate escort service -- there was no money paid for sex."

Was there sex? one reporter asked. "I don't think a dating service is prostitution. Or that a singles bar is prostitution," Denbaux responded. "It's not a crime to run a business in which people have sex. Lots of businessmen have sex with their secretaries and no one comes after them."

"It's unconstitutional," he added, "to prosecute her if none of the 3,000 men who were her clients are prosecuted."

But the mood of the evening was better captured by songwriters Richard Currier and Jim Piazza, who'd collaborated on a ballad called "Media Event." Currier performed it from the stage in the nave while a crew videotaped.

"It's inspired by Sydney, but it's really about anyone who's caught in the spotlight," said Piazza, who hoped the video might wind up on MTV.

He quoted the chorus:

You're a woman

You're a headline

You're a media event.

We rise to your descent

You're a media event.