The Hair.

Patti La Belle smiles when she sees people staring at it.

It's all they can do not to.

And that's the charm, of course.

It looks like many things -- a bizarre hat, for instance -- but mere hair is not one of them. More like half a dozen unfolded fans planted haphazardly on her head. Or the result of an encounter between a fright wig and a plow. You could slice bread with this hair.

"It's not all mine," the 41-year-old singer concedes gaily, without specifics. "Norma Harris, who's been traveling with me for 15 years, comes up with the different ideas. Actually, she's been doing this" -- and she points to the cacophony of hair -- "for about five years, but we just started doing it constantly in the last year. Takes her half an hour, and one night she did it in 10 minutes for a TV show.

"We call it Art Deco Hair.

"Or Outrageous Patti La Belle Hair."

She likes the sound of that. And the fact that a major department store in New York is already selling a look-alike wig.

"I take it as a compliment when I see imitators."

Patti La Belle herself is inimitable.

With or without her "New Attitude."

That's the cut from the soundtrack to "Beverly Hills Cop" that has shot her back to the top of the charts, just one element in a remarkable pattern of survival and renewal that has marked her 24 years in the business of music.

And don't think La Belle hasn't thought about survival. Even as she sizzles up the charts again with "Stir It Up" (also from the Eddie Murphy film), even as she embarks on a three-month road trip (including a stop at the Washington Convention Center July 7) that should match the string of sellouts for last year's "Look to the Rainbow" tour, even as two albums percolate in the studio and scripts pile up on her desk, La Belle is keeping an eye on her Philadelphia boutique, La Belle Amis.

"It was on 17th and Walnut, but we just moved into a building at Third and South," she slyly advertises. "On Walnut Street it was a really small place, about as big as a table. It was real fine, but this new place is huge, three floors," says the woman whose glittery "Spacequeen" fashions inspired much of the visual flamboyance of the '70s.

"It was something to do. As far as this business is concerned, you never know when you're going to be out of it, and it's good to have something on the side. I always wanted to open either a restaurant or a clothing store, and that's what we started with. Maybe next will be a restaurant."

Next may be a long way off for La Belle.

"I do work constantly, thank God," she beams, exuding an earthy, common-sense vitality that seems inimical to her stardom. "I don't go through too many boring periods of my life with nothing to do. If it's not a play, it's a recording, or a movie . . . I'm always busy."

La Belle was in town over the weekend to tape the Ford's Theatre Gala (airing on CBS next Wednesday). Tomorrow night she'll be making her fourth appearance on the "Tonight" show, with guest host Joan Rivers. "This time I'm sitting down," she says in mock astonishment. "I'm moving right along. If I get to sit down, maybe I'm almost there, huh?"

La Belle says this without rancor. Patience has been a virtue in her long career, and if that career has had its ups and downs, the setbacks seem slight compared to the gains. There have been many distinct stages between her start in 1961 with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash as the Bluebells ("I Sold My Heart to the Junkman") and her 1984 hit duet with Bobby Womack ("Love Has Finally Come at Last"), and over the last few years Patti La Belle has been crowned the queen of rock 'n' soul.

The reality of it is that only half that title got r-e-s-p-e-c-t.

"Because of 'New Attitude,' I've been played on more white stations than I've been played on ever in my life," she says. "I consider that a move in the right direction. And it's about time. I hate to be put in a slot. Music is music and shouldn't be categorized. If you're called an R & B singer because you're black, a lot of people will close their minds, say 'She's going to sing us out of the place, or deafen us.' In fact, that R & B singer can probably sing anything that he or she is given, given a chance.

"I want to be accepted on all radio stations, on all TV shows, on all video programs. I want to be accepted as a person who entertains and who can do it all. Because I can, just given the chance."

The proof is in LaBelle, the rock group that evolved Phoenix-like out of the ashes of the R & B Bluebells in 1970. The earlier group had opened concerts for the Rolling Stones, the latter for the Who, but rock radio didn't want to hear the reconstituted Bluebells. "They knew we were three black women, and there couldn't be three black women who could possibly sing pop or rock," La Belle says.

They had a No. 1 hit in 1975 with the sassy "Lady Marmalade" and were the first rock group to give concerts at the Metropolitan Opera House, but they disbanded a year later to pursue solo careers. La Belle's has been the most successful, although Hendryx has been the most musically adventurous.

"We're all still very good friends," La Belle says. "We talk all the time. As a matter of fact, we're going to do something together in the future -- touring, an album and something special." She will provide nothing beyond this tease.

La Belle's versatility is not confined to singing. After appearing in the 1981 PBS production of Studs Terkel's "Working," she spent two years on the road in Vinette Carroll's "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" before reviving it on Broadway opposite Al Green. And last year she had the only female role in the film "A Soldier's Story," performing several songs and walking away with a whole new set of rave reviews.

The acting, however, is currently on the back burner. "That's my second priority," La Belle says. "Music -- singing, recording, entertaining -- that's my first. If I happen to become an actress on the side, that will be wonderful, but I want to rock and roll a little bit."

A double live album from the "Rainbow" tour is slated for summer release, and she's halfway through a new studio album that includes a ballad duet with Bill Champlin of Chicago. Both are for MCA, her new label, although she says, "There is a record I did for Philly International when I was in Washington three years ago that's in the can, half finished. I just hope they don't try to release it. It drives me crazy."

Crazy is not a word one associates with Patti La Belle. She may carry herself with an ingratiating sass, and the fur coat enveloping her is testimony to her success, but she also projects an accessibility that's rare in the music business.

She leads a "sensible home life" in Philadelphia with her husband and three sons, two of them adopted eight years ago. "A friend of ours who lived across the street from us died and left five boys, and we took two of them who had been coming over and whom we had become attached to," she says matter-of-factly, as if such generosity were commonplace. "When she died, we just said, 'Bring your bags over,' and they moved in. Eventually we moved to a bigger house."

Now the older adopted son, Stanley, is going to Harvard Law School.

"I love it; he's a wonderful kid.

"I have my feet on the ground and I know exactly where I'm going and what I'm doing, who I want to do it with," La Belle says simply. "I map out my tours according to how much time I want to spend with my family, and everything works out well.

"You know," she adds, "once you get into the business and make it, you become very grand and don't want to talk to people or let people touch you. I don't feel that way. I'm very glad when people recognize me." After her shattering performance on the Apollo Theatre celebration a few weeks ago (which is expected to garner her an Emmy nomination for best live performance in a variety show), even more people have come to know Patti La Belle and her hair.

Still, she sees all this as a beginning, not a peak.

"There are a lot of things that make me know that I really haven't made it, but I've made it enough in the public's eye to make me feel wonderful. That's what keeps me going -- the public's loving me and thinking I'm this superstar. It makes me feel good, but I know better. I don't want to crush their dreams, but the truth is it's not there. Nothing I've recorded recently has gone quadruple platinums. I haven't had a TV special yet, but I will. No major movie role, but I will. There are a lot of things, and it's very close.

"Because I know my time is coming. I'm 41 and I know it's right around the corner. It's not here already. No, not yet. I'm on the steps of the house of making it.

"And then I'll be in the door."