We are what we are And what we are is an illusion. We love how it feels Putting on heels, causing confusion. Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman;(c) 1983 Jerry Herman--They're "The Dangerous and Notorious Les Cagelles," 12 bugle-beaded beauties who definitely aren't what they seem.

At first blush, the SRO audiences at the Palace Theater might mistake the singing, dancing, prancing Cagelles for yet another chorus line of pretty faces and great gams. But that mirage fades before you can say "Guys and Dolls." They're wearing lipstick, lashes and wigs, but they're clearly a dozen males.

Drag queens, right? Not quite.

Two of the dazzling showgirls are really, well, girls. You're not sure who is what until the final curtain of "La Cage aux Folles," the musical by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein that's turned Broadway upside down--and maybe you're not sure even then. "There's always that ambiguity," says director Arthur Laurents.

The women are Linda Haberman of Albuquerque and Deborah Phelan of Milford, Conn. They are both seasoned Broadway veterans in their late twenties, a good five years older than most of the guys, whom they call "kids."

Haberman, a lissome brunet with an infectious grin--"the bright spirit of the Cagelles," Harvey Fierstein calls her--plays Bitelle in the club of comely chorines. Phelan, a statuesque blond with a cool, direct gaze--"My character is like a contessa who's above it all," she says--plays Angelique.

For an audience already stretched by certain other contradictions--such as Gene Barry in slacks and George Hearn in sequins playing middle-aged "marrieds" who run a St. Tropez nightclub--the presence of women in a transvestite chorus line might be a tad confusing. That's exactly what "La Cage" folks want it to be.

"We don't do it just out of whim," says Arthur Laurents. "We do it so the audience can try to figure out who is and who isn't. It's very theatrical, of course, and fun for the audience, but it also proves, or helps to prove, that what you think you see is not always what you see."

Says librettist Harvey Fierstein, in the low rasp he's kept from his torch-singing days as a drag queen, "It was Arthur's idea, but as soon as he had it, I knew he was right. In the shows I did in the '70s at La Mama and WPA, like 'Flatbush Tosca,' there were always girls in the cast. Arthur put the women in for different reasons. He knew the audience would sit and guess. I like it because that was the way it was."

Haberman and Phelan like it, too.

For one thing, they're happy to have the work, especially in a huge hit that will guarantee them each $1,000 a week for the next six months--a better-than-usual contract by Broadway's lights. For another, while only their hairdressers may know for sure, Cagelles seem to have more fun.

"Now, when I walk into a restaurant like Charlie's," Deborah Phelan says, "they give me a table right away. It makes me feel like somebody. It makes me smile, even if George Hearn's brother is the maitre d'."

And Linda Haberman says she's been in other shows with esprit de corps, but the Cagelles have the most by far. "Everybody's so close and emotional," she says. "In rehearsal, we all sobbed through the sentimental numbers. I just cried for the first few weeks, but some of the other Cagelles are still crying."

Phelan, Haberman and the other Cagelles were picked from more than 700 contenders, who were winnowed to a final 50 for an audition in drag last February. The men came as women, the women as men. "It was the strangest audition I ever saw in my life," says Laurents.

"It was a question of who could pass," he says. "Very tricky. We had to get girls who were pretty--and Linda and Debbie are knockouts--but there also had to be at least a small question, when they were made up, of is this really a girl? I remember one girl who was a wonderful performer, but she had such a pretty, baby-doll face that by no stretch of the imagination could you wonder if this was a boy. So we eliminated her."

The show is Broadway's biggest hit this season, with $4 million in advance ticket sales when it opened Aug. 21 to thunderous ovations and critical raves. The Cagelles, each sporting their own wardrobe of Theoni Aldredge's lavish costumes, can claim a lot of the credit. Theirs has been a life of bright bouquets, glittery parties and adoring fans, interrupted once a night--twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays--by a few hours of leg-straining work.

"The Cagelles are becoming everyone's new ideal," Fierstein says, "like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders." So it seemed the other day, with the two women ensconced in a photographer's studio near the Palace Theater, where all 12 Cagelles had been posing one by one for a commemorative calendar.

As Phelan and Haberman chatted, the show's makeup designer was scolding Cagelle John Dolf, preening at the mirror in a body stocking. "Do not talk while you're applying your makeup. That's a beauty violation." A moment later and across the hall, ballet dancer Gary Giffune, poised behind Kenn Duncan's camera, dropped his jaw at the sight of Dolf rustling up in a frilly frock. "I just can't believe it," Giffune said, wide-eyed. "I mean, that's my roommate."

Linda Haberman comes from a family of five children in Albuquerque. Her mother is a housewife and her father a salesman. "When I called my parents to tell them that I got the job in 'La Cage aux Folles,' I don't think they even knew what I was talking about," she said. "They had never heard of it. So I explained the basic story. I doubt that they understood."

Deborah Phelan is, among other things, an alumnus of a private girls' school, the Academy of Our Lady of Mercy of Laurelton Hall--which didn't quite prepare her for life as a Cagelle. "I'm not sure what the nuns would think," she said. "They all seemed to like my ballet performances."

The women share a dressing room but said they try to keep out of each other's way, making sure that while one is putting on makeup, the other is warming up on the ballet bar in another room. Phelan, who wants to be a Broadway star and douses herself with scent before each performance--"It makes me feel feminine"--has so far resisted bringing in "my theater dog," a Yorkshire terrier that she likes to tote in her purse.

And Haberman, whose aspirations run to choreography and directing--she coached George Hearn on how to walk like a woman--said she tries not to talk too much while Phelan is listening to her Beethoven tapes. She said she doesn't wear perfume.

"They all call me 'Habermouth,' " said the founder and editor-in-chief of "The Dish Rag," which, if it ever gets published, will be Haberman's backstage scandal sheet and compendium of inside jokes. But she said she doubts that she'll ever have the time. "So usually, I'll just go into the other Cagelles' dressing room and harass the boys."

Haberman, outgoing and bubbly, is the one all the other Cagelles look up to. Phelan jokes and banters, but in a lower key. But both women are liked and, what's more, admired.

"No matter how beautiful our legs are, they just cannot compare to the women's legs," said David Scala, who plays Phaedra in the Cagelles."Our legs are gorgeous, but their legs are flawless."