Sunday night, the night of the North American Hairstyling Awards, the ballroom of the Hotel Sofitel in Rosemont was filled with men who were too chic to wear ties. They came in pleated tuxedo jackets and sleek shimmery salamander-skin sport jackets and they stood below chandeliers that looked like arachnids and drank champagne from flutes and salmon-colored liquid from parfait glasses with twists of lime and multicolored swizzle sticks and they talked to women wearing wasp-waisted sparkly black and gold dresses. Except one man wore a red dinner jacket with gold buttons; he was a dead ringer for Mr. Ned of Bozo’s Circus.

The air was filled with chatter in thick accents, some of them phony and some real, while people waited for the awards program, which was being presented in conjunction with the Midwest Beauty Trade Show across the street. The awards were sponsored by Modern Salon magazine and Redken Laboratories, which makes the kind of hair products you can only get in a beauty parlor. There were four categories: “Makeover (Before and After Pix of a Single Model),” “Avant-Garde,” “Classic,” and the “North American Hairstylist of the Year.” The judges included a fashion writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, a representative from Elite Modeling Management, a fashion photographer, Mary Hart’s hairstylist, and Debbie Reynolds. They were not present.

The money raised at this wingding was to benefit the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. A video about pediatric AIDS was shown featuring a segment from 60 Minutes and some words of wisdom from the foundation’s honorary chairman, Ronald Reagan. “The disease is frightening, not the people who have it,” Ronnie said in a little sound bite that was at once magnanimous and homophobic. Later, during the awards presentation, there was a healthy number of gaffes along the lines of, “I’m happy to be supporting AIDS. It’s a wonderful thing to be part of.”

Hairstyling truly is an art. That point was stressed by most of the presenters and award recipients. Indeed one of the major aims of this event was to boost the image of the hairstylist in the American public’s mind. “We’re artists in the business,” commented one of the judges in a videotaped transmission. “We take our craft seriously.”

At that moment my mind wandered to the barbershop on Devon where I get my hair cut. Rocky, my barber, takes his craft seriously, too. I walked in a few months ago with a Planet of the Apes helmet of hair. Rocky, a compact guy from the south of Italy who likes to talk about hockey and the barbecued chicken at Reza’s (“You kiddin’ me? That shit don’t give you the runs”) gave me the once-over. He touched my hair and said, “Look at this. This is what an artist does. Makes something out of nothing.”

Over and over I heard the same themes at the North American Hairstyling Awards. “There are no losers here tonight.” “We’re not here to give out awards.” “The public doesn’t have the right idea of what we do.” “We are an image-making industry.” One man I met kept asking me to make sure I mentioned that the hair business is no different from any other art. “It’s just like sculpture. Except we’re not sculpting from clay. We’re sculpting from hair. I want to see you write that down. Are you writing that down?”

I excused myself to go to the john, which is a great place to eavesdrop. I saw two young models entering the women’s room and overheard this conversation through the wall:

“I look really ugly today. I don’t normally look like this.”

“Well, I feel short.”

“You are short.”

“I’m taller than my mom.”

“She’s real short.”

In the men’s room I heard about “a new generation of hair” and “the turning point in the future of hair.” I also heard a comment that I’ve since thought about a lot: “Hair is more editorial than it used to be.”

The winners of the Hair-styling Awards were not all from LA and New York, as you might expect. In fact, none of them were. Wendy Williamson, winner in the Classic category, is from Calgary, Alberta. Lillian Blanchard, the Makeover champ, is from King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Brian and Sandra Smith, the Avant-Garde winners, own shops in Dalton, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. And the big winner was Frank Rizzieri, a “third-generation hairstylist” from southern New Jersey.

I was at the bar when Rizzieri, who was last year’s winner in the Avant-Garde category, was named 1990 North American Hairstylist of the Year. Spotlights tracked up and down the aisles and audience members rose to their feet, hooting and hollering for the winner, who looked like he belonged in the rock band the Cure.

A man in a tuxedo, gold watch, gold rings, and gold-capped teeth said to me, “You know, hair is the wave of the future. It’s the career for the 90s.”

As I drove home on Devon, I couldn’t help remembering that Rocky had told me the same thing.