April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

DEMI MOORE HAS TRIED IT. MIRA SORVINO HAD BOTH hands decorated with it at February’s American Film Institute gala. Naomi Campbell displayed it across her shoulders in a recent issue of Harper’s Bazaar. You could say that the body-painting method known as mehndi is a hot new sensation. You could say that, but you’d be wrong. “There are references to it in the Bible,” says mehndi artist Loretta Roome.” They’ve found traces of henna, which is used in mehndi, on the fingertips of mummies.”

These days, though, it’s Roome, 34, who has her finger on the pulse of the revitalized art form. An avant-garde musician and sometime painter, she became fascinated with the delicate procedure last spring, when a friend told her she had just had her feet painted. “It’s like tattooing, only it’s not permanent,” she says. “It seemed like the dream art form.” She researched mehndi’s history and learned the technique by watching Rani Patel, a vocalist and sitar player, and the two women launched gallery shows in New York City and L.A. featuring photos of their designs and on-site applications by artists they trained. “The whole thing just exploded,” says Roome, who is writing a book about her craft and has been swamped with requests to help set up mehndi parlors. “The business demands of this was something I hadn’t counted on.”

It’s the aesthetic side of things that has always interested her most. The daughter of a Manhattan surgeon, Roome studied painting and theater at Sarah Lawrence College and considered an acting career (she had a bit part in John Sayles’s 1983 film Baby, It’s You ) before signing on to play xylophone with small-time band 3 Basic Needs. (She and her songwriter boyfriend Eric Feinstein, 35, now head up an experimental band called As Is.) She did lock onto mehndi, she admits, partly to make money: She charges $15 for a simple bracelet design and up to $100 an hour for more elaborate work—which she performs either at the Brooklyn apartment she shares with Feinstein and two roommates or in clients’ homes. The process is painstaking. After mixing henna powder with a variety of oils, tea and lemon juice, she fills tiny plastic bottles with the thick paste and paints on detailed designs inspired by ancient traditional patterns.The paste stays on for 12 hours or so before cracking off, leaving a brown-orange stain that lasts about three weeks.

So far, mehndi hasn’t made Roome rich. ( “I haven’t done any full-body mehndi house calls,” she says, laughing. ) But profit isn’t what’s driving her. “I want to communicate that this is not just adornment; it’s more along the lines of a talisman,” says Roome. Mehndi, she explains, has long been practiced in Morocco, where it’s thought to ward off evil, and in India, where brides are painted to celebrate their wedding days. “Our culture is so starved for something with meaning. Mehndi gives people the opportunity to have an ongoing dialogue with the invisible realm.”

That would explain why her art appeals to the glitterati—or would it? Says ER’s CCH Pounder, who recently had a Victorian-style-necklace stain done: “Your hair isn’t being curled and ironed; you’re not having your cuticles gouged back. Mehndi is one of the few painless beauty options there is.”

RIM HUBBARD

NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City

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