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Staff Reporter

At Umberto in Beverly Hills, business is unusually slow this afternoon.

In the main salon, adorned with Italian frescos and reproductions of Renaissance paintings, only five hair stylists are working with clients. At least seven more are thumbing through magazines and swapping the latest Hollywood rumors gleaned from clients.

At the manicure station, an older man sits with his feet soaking in a plastic pan, talking on a cell phone as he gets his nails buffed.

Actress Patty Lotz is getting her shoulder-length auburn hair cut and colored by stylist Ilona Miko. As Lotz's roots are wrapped in foil to separate the strands being colored, she says Umberto is the only salon she trusts with her hair. In fact, she insisted that Miko be her on-set stylist after she was cast in an upcoming movie starring Andy Garcia.

"These people are the style-makers and the trend-setters," Lotz says. "Hair can make or break people in this industry. Look at Jennifer Aniston. Her haircut made her career. That's how important this is."

"We are the creators," Miko adds as she folds another piece of foil onto Lotz's head.

Indeed, the desire to look young, hip and attractive is what draws as many as 800 clients a day to the Canon Drive salon, where celebrity sightings have included Cameron Diaz, Madonna and Sylvester Stallone.

Some clients spend as much as $150 for a haircut and $225 for highlights. One older woman from Tennessee says she makes it a point to get her hair done at Umberto whenever she's in town.

"I can't find stylists with the sophistication and expertise to give me what I want back home," she says, gently patting her short brown bob as she impatiently waits for a ride.

The inside of Umberto is huge, housing over 81 styling and manicure stations. There are private rooms where celebrities can be coiffed out of the public eye. (One male star was so upset when a fan kissed him in the main salon that he has requested a private room ever since.)

Indeed, the privacy of clients is almost as important as good hair. At least four stylists don't want to talk at all about their clients or work. One middle-aged client wearing jeans beneath a black cotton smock blocks her face to keep from being questioned.

At Myrna, a mini-jewelry boutique inside the salon, a woman with bleached hair, dressed completely in black, asks saleswoman Blossom Chorost about a necklace in the display case.

"Look at those tiny pearls," Chorost says. "These are pieces by (Italian artist) Diego Percossi, this isn't available anywhere else. He sends the pieces to Russia for enameling before he sets the stones."

The woman walks away without a word.

If a client is displeased with service at the salon, it's the job of General Manager Babette Beja to soothe them.

"It's what I do," she says. "We had a director come in the other day who was so very rude. I might have excused the behavior from, say (Robert) De Niro or somebody like that, but not this man. I went to him and said, 'Are you having a bad day?' That shut him up. I deal with attitudes like that all the time."

Meanwhile, a group of women wearing smocks, with color in their hair, gather at a table toward the back of the salon, where an attendant serves drinks and snacks. A woman with purplish gel smeared on just her roots debates the astrological aspects of relationships.

"Well, you know that Capricorn rising with an Aries cusp can be a bad combination," she says.

"Yes, and Aquarians are nuts, but in a crazy good way," adds a woman with her hair wrapped in a towel.

"There is fluid and crystal intelligence," the first woman replies. "I mean, Pisces intuition is really right on."

Over at the jewelry counter, Chorost says she is always fascinated by the activity.

"It's all quite amazing, really," she says. "My mother used to say, 'Powder and paint make you look what you ain't,' and that's really true here."

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