Gossip is one of the few sports where amateurs get more respect than professionals. It's journalism's equivalent of sex: Always popular, better if it's dirty -- but nice people don't do it for a living.

Karen Feld, who writes a syndicated gossip column based in Washington, thinks nobody really understands her craft. "People think I just sit around at parties and have a good time and that's my work," she says. "They're not taking it as seriously as they should and I'm not taken as seriously as I think I should be taken as a reporter."

Feld, 42 and single, is tiny, flashy, almost beautiful -- all hair and determination. In addition to the twice-a-week column, she pops up on talk shows and at conventions around the country to dish the capital's highs and lows. She sees herself as a hard-working journalist who deserves as much -- no, more -- respect than any reporter in town.

"What I do is really news before it hits the front pages. It's always what people are saying. I think it's news before the PR people and the news handlers and the spin doctors get to it. In truth, it's the real story."

The dozen students attending "How to Be a Gossip Columnist" Thursday night -- a one-night class taught by Feld at the Learning Annex -- leaned forward in their chairs. The course description sounded like Barbie's Dream Job: "Karen Feld has the kind of job we'd all like to get. Her duties include dressing up and attending the most distinguished parties that the Washington political and social society has to offer... . Sound exciting? Well, that's the way Ms. Feld makes a living."

It's a lot more difficult than it looks, she says. She goes to six, eight parties a night -- chasing after the rich and famous is no cakewalk. But you can tell she thrives on it.

The irony, of course, is that Feld is all dressed up with no place to go. You can read her column in Toronto or Sacramento, Calif., but -- the ultimate frustration for a Washington gossip columnist -- you can't find it here.

She first got bitten by the gossip bug more than 20 years ago when she wrote an "around-the-Hill" gossip column at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill weekly. She left the paper after two years and spent the next decade bouncing back and forth between Washington and Hollywood doing public relations and freelance writing. Four years ago, she set up shop in two rooms in her Georgetown house and announced that she was back, full time, in the gossip business. Her first client was the Washington Times, which started running the column twice a week.

"You don't just anoint someone gossip columnist or society columnist," she says. "I've been building up sources and contacts over the years. This was my lifestyle long before I started doing the column. I was at these parties, socializing with these people that I'm writing about."

Feld, in fact, is a fixture at every major party in town: most recently, the "Dick Tracy" premiere, where she cornered Warren Beatty, and Pamela Harriman's rock-and-roll Democratic fund-raiser at the Kennedy Center.

"Karen doesn't take no for an answer," says Tiki Davies, director of media relations at the Kennedy Center. "From her standpoint, that's reasonable. From my standpoint, that can make life difficult."

"I don't look at it as asking for an invitation," says Feld. "I look at it as a news thing. I owe it to my readers and my syndicate to be everywhere."

Her column was first syndicated in 1988, when she signed up with Universal Press Syndicate. More than 500 people turned up at Washington Harbour for a congratulatory party in Feld's honor co-hosted by Reps. William Gray III and Philip Crane. The guest list included CIA Director William Webster, FBI Director William Sessions, senators and congressmen -- all with name tags reading "Valuable Source." Rep. Kenneth Gray entered a tribute to her in the Congressional Record.

It was a splashy affair with less spectacular results: Universal Press Syndicate Editorial Director Lee Salem says no more than seven or eight papers bought Feld's column during the year the syndicate carried it. Convinced there was a national audience for Washington gossip, she switched in 1989 to Creators Syndicate, based in Los Angeles.

But just as the syndicate was poised to pitch Feld to the rest of the country, her column was dropped by the Washington Times -- a move that deprived Feld of her crucial local outlet, readership and influence.

This critical blow came shortly after a June 1989 column, in which Feld implied that take-no-prisoners biographer Kitty Kelley had crashed the funeral of Lyn Nofziger's daughter in order to gain access to Reagan insiders for her upcoming book on Nancy Reagan. Kelley, who, in fact, was welcome at the service and at the Nofziger home afterward, cried foul and threatened to sue. Nofziger shot off an angry letter to the Washington Times: "The Times and Miss Feld unbelievably have intruded into our personal family tragedy in order to take a cheap shot at Kitty Kelley."

Three weeks after the item ran, the paper discontinued the column. Editor in Chief Arnaud de Borchgrave said the decision was unrelated to the Kelley flap. Feld charged that Kelley pressured the editors and, in August 1989, sued Kelley for $50 million. The lawsuit ended with a whimper in May: Feld says it was settled, Kelley says Feld dropped it. In any event, Feld didn't get a dime.

Kelley, who says Feld never contacted her before writing the item, declined to comment on Feld or the suit except to say, "For Karen Feld, this lawsuit was the biggest thing in her life. It was not and is not the essence of my life."

Creators Syndicate President Richard Newcombe declined to release the number of papers that currently carry Feld's column. Feld says it runs in 30 or 40 papers including the Sacramento Union, Toronto Sun and, occasionally, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But, much to her disappointment, no other local publication has picked up her column in the past year. Her explanation: "It's very difficult in your hometown to be taken real seriously, to be respected."

George Mair, a writer and friend of Feld, says the lack of a local outlet is a blow to her ego. "They say, 'What do you do?' and you say, 'I'm a columnist.' And they say, 'We can't read your column in Washington, so you can't be worth a damn. If you were really terrific, they'd be publishing you in The Washington Post.' She's hurt because she's blacked out and her friends can't read her."

"All you need to understand Karen," says an acquaintance, "is to understand her relationship with her father."

Her father was impresario Irvin Feld, a Hagerstown, Md., native who built $350 in bar mitzvah gifts into the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus fortune. Feld and his brother, Israel, opened Super Music City in the mid-'40s and they went on to become among the first rock-and-roll producers in the country, with tours launching Bill Haley and the Comets, Ike and Tina Turner, Frankie Avalon and Paul Anka.

Three weeks before Karen's 11th birthday, her mother killed herself. The suicide note asked her parents to raise Karen and Karen's younger brother, Kenny, but Feld moved his children into a high-rise apartment with his brother and sister-in-law.

"Irvin loved being a father to Kenny and had difficulty with Karen," says Arthur Spear, former chairman of Mattel and friend of the family for 20 years. "She is just like her father. He was a typical showman and full of all the flair that goes with it."

"You'd have to expect Karen to be deaf, dumb and blind not to want to grow up and be a dynamic, exciting person," says Frances Cohen, who went to Woodrow Wilson High School in Northwest Washington with Karen. The Tokens performed "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" at Karen's Sweet 16 party. "I swear that Paul Anka picked her up in a limo after school."

Karen graduated from American University in 1969. After two years at Roll Call, she left to work here for her father as national publicity director for the circus. She used her Hill contacts, got George Bush up on an elephant. But relations between father and daughter were strained and she fled Washington.

"I just really got tired of being Irvin Feld's daughter," she says. "I wanted to be accepted for me. I needed to know that my friends liked me for me, not because they wanted to come to dinner with Frank Sinatra or Paul Anka or whoever. I wanted to know my company was good enough."

She landed in Hollywood where she set up movie premieres and rubbed elbows at A-list parties. She was romantically linked to actor Jack Cassidy until he died in a fire at his home. At the request of her father, she returned to Washington in the late '70s in an attempt to repair their relationship.

But when Irvin Feld died suddenly of a stroke in 1984, Karen discovered she had been disinherited. A 1972 version of his will, written before Karen left for California, divided his estate equally between Karen and her brother. In 1982, he added a codicil that excluded Karen from any share in the family business.

"The bottom line was I got nothing. I did not inherit one penny according to my brother's interpretation of the will," she says. Feld sued her brother, who was executor of the will, for $10 million, about half of the estate at that time. After months in court, she settled out of court for less than $1 million in property, which included a house in Georgetown. Kenny Feld did not return phone calls for this article.

"You just sort of know that about Karen," says Alma Viator, spokeswoman for the National Theatre. "There's the circus and the thing with her father. It's all so dramatic. Even though it might be over, it's still part of who Karen is."

"I think she does very well for the kind of reporter and the kind of columnist she is," says her friend Mair. "And I don't mean that in any lessening sense -- it's like saying that I think this particular football player does very well as wide receiver and would not do well as a halfback."

Other are less admiring. "Personally, Karen Feld can sometimes be very charming," says Washingtonian columnist Rudy Maxa. "Professionally, I'm hard pressed to think of any story or any magazine article or even a column item that's had any impact on this city -- except for the brouhaha surrounding this Kitty Kelley flap."

Feld chalks up criticism to her working style. She straddles the line between reporting gossip and making it herself: sometimes slipping into a party by herself, sometimes showing up as a guest on the arm of a high-profile Washington bachelor such as CIA Director Webster or former USA Today chairman Al Neuharth, both of whom declined to comment.

She says she seldom deals with press assistants or public relations types trying to drum up a little ink for their clients. "The first thing I ask: Have you called {Washington Post Personalities columnist} Chuck Conconi with this? Have you called {Washington Times} Inside the Beltway with this? If so, don't even talk to me." And she doesn't socialize with other reporters.

"You look at the society reporters in any town. Liz Smith doesn't go cover things as press. Suzy. They're guests ... I think sometimes other reporters resent it."

"The biggest danger that I see with columnists like Suzy and Liz Smith is that they get too close to some of the people they cover," says The Post's Conconi. "But that's a problem every reporter in Washington has since journalists have become part of the social structure. If you're going to write a column, you have to try, as much as possible, to distance yourself."

Dossier magazine Editor Craig Stoltz says Feld is trying to do the impossible: Be part of the Washington social set and still expect credibility as a reporter.

"I can't worry about my detractors," says Feld. "I know what I want and I'm not afraid to ask for it. That might be interpreted as being demanding. I don't have a lot of patience to sit and wait for people to figure it out."