MINNEAPOLIS, FEB. 15 -- One is the son of a Massachusetts fisherman, a serious, responsible young man who wouldn't be skating were it not for the generosity of his neighbors, who raise $30,000 a year to pay for his expenses.

The other is a former child actor from Los Angeles, emotional and high-strung, who sobbed at a recent news conference, wears an earring in each ear and dyed his hair to match his outfits: shoe-polish black.

This is the contrasting, confusing state of men's figure skating today in the United States.

Todd Eldredge, 19, from Chatham, Mass., is the reigning U.S. national champion heading into this weekend's competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Target Center. The original program, which counts for one-third of the final standings, was tonight. The free skate, which counts two-thirds, is Sunday afternoon.

Christopher Bowman, 23, born and raised in Hollywood, was seventh at the 1988 Winter Olympics, then won the 1989 national championship and finished second at the 1989 world championships. But a combination of poor work habits and injuries have plagued him since, so he left his coach of 18 years during the summer and went through a complete make over.

"The cheeseburger had to be turned into filet mignon," said Toller Cranston, the former Olympian who replaced Frank Carroll as Bowman's coach. "He needed to be into himself. He needed to be serious and his costumes will reflect this. You won't see any sequins or rhinestones. The color taken most seriously is black. Christopher will be dipped in black."

Cranston rescued Bowman from himself after the Goodwill Games last summer, when Bowman finished a humiliating sixth. He was reeling out of control; he played to the audience in Seattle, including taking off his bow tie and throwing it toward the crowd as he skated. This followed a bizarre moment at last year's world championships, in which he missed his first jump and then, on the spot, discarded the rest of his program for four minutes of improvisation. He won a bronze medal but incurred the wrath of Carroll, who could not believe that his skater would do such a thing.

"He was going in the wrong direction," Cranston said this week. "The obvious thing to do was to make him serious again in the eyes of the skating world."

Bowman, who cried openly for several minutes when discussing the end of his friendship and working relationship with Carroll, said his change should be believed.

"I'm not going a la Michael Jackson, a $30 million disguise," he said. "This is not cosmetic surgery. This is very real and I believe in it."

Bowman said in the past he lacked a "killer instinct" in a sport that, believe it or not, necessitates one.

"I was an average kid who couldn't put his right foot in front of his left," he said. "I have a background of playing no sports {except figure skating}. I was totally unathletic. I hold the world record as the only person to ever strike out in T-ball."

But this too is changing, he said.

"When a boxer says, 'I'm going to cave your head in,' some people say, 'Yeah, I can dig that.' Me, I was running for cover. I'd be the guy who was looking for the first plane out of here. Now I'm learning to be the guy who's ready to stand up and fight and take the punch. Especially being a man, you want to be a super stud, super jock, super ultra millionaire, super god of the world," Bowman said.

By comparison, Eldredge is a bore. One of the youngest winners of a men's title in U.S. history, he skates a classical program with only occasional eye contact with the audience. The townspeople raise money for him with clambakes and dinner dances. He shoots 74s on the golf course and won't let his father take him fishing because he doesn't like it when he can't see the shore.

His only diversion from the world of skating was his recent decision to take ballet, "to round out all the sharp edges of my program."

Many believe Eldredge won last year's national title only because Bowman withdrew because of a bad back.

"In some people's minds, there are actually two champions here," Eldredge said. "I'm sure that makes it more of a fight."

Thursday, in his first national seniors competition, Michael Weiss, 14, of Fairfax, finished second to Craig Heath, 23, in men's figures.