By Clarissa Cruz
Updated February 27, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

The headquarters of MHA media in Los Angeles are a pastel-colored whirl. Garment racks crammed with slinky, ruched minidresses and frothy ball gowns crowd the floor, while stilettos in aqua, lilac, and pink fill an entire wall of glass cubes. It’s Jan. 27, Oscar nominations were announced this morning, and the comely, all-female staff is in a tizzy. After all, the firm’s sole reason for being is to get its clients’ creations — dresses and accessories by red-carpet regulars Elie Saab, Jimmy Choo, and Collette Dinnigan, among others — onto the well-toned bodies of A-list celebrities come awards night.

”We have 23 Elie Saab dresses on the way here right now from the Paris shows,” says president Marilyn Heston over the din of ringing phones. ”And the New York Fashion Week dresses [from clients Matthew Williamson and Nanette Lepore] will barely be off the runway in time to be considered for Oscars.” Meanwhile, her staff starts to place beseeching calls to stylists, messenger bauble-filled goody bags to nominees, and deliver ”look books” stuffed with sketches and fabric swatches. The goal? To re-create the 2002 coup they orchestrated when Best Actress Halle Berry wore an ornate Elie Saab gown to the Oscars — netting the then-little-known designer millions of dollars in free publicity.

Wooing Hollywood’s glamour girls — the Nicoles, Renees, Gwyneths, and Charlizes — in the hopes they’ll wear a particular designer’s gown to an event is nothing new. But what’s changed in recent years are the calculating, not-so-fabulous rumblings beneath the red carpet’s pretty surface. While firms like MHA Media can’t afford to give away piles of gowns and accessories, many designers can — and some are even paying stars to wear them. What’s more, savvy celebrities — who can rattle off designers’ names on the red carpet with aplomb — are getting more aggressive about soliciting these deals. They are also keeping them as quiet as a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant on Oscar eve.

”It’s a dirty little secret, but it’s true,” says a fashion insider. ”[Stars] certainly don’t want their public to know. The public assumes [that their choice of dress] is an independent endorsement of someone they admire and think has style.”

With the Oscars outperforming designer runway shows as the most watched fashion event of the year — and the value of red-carpet hits estimated to be in excess of $25 million in comparable advertising and retail sales — it’s no wonder the backstage dealings have gotten dirtier than a starlet’s train at the end of a long night. ”There are certain celebrities whose people are making demands to jewelry and fashion houses for contracts,” says Rose Apodaca Jones, West Coast bureau chief of Women’s Wear Daily. ”In other words, they’ll wear something in exchange for several hundred thousand dollars. As disgusting as it sounds, I can’t blame celebrities for pulling this.”

Another recent development is the concept of exclusivity: The top tier of glam actresses can demand that a designer dress them — and only them — for big nights. Which can leave the designer hanging should the diva have a last-minute change of heart. Yes, designers can spend six figures just for the possibility that a notoriously fickle star will wear their clothes to an event. ”It’s all part of their PR budget,” says Halle Berry’s stylist, Phillip Bloch. ”You’re flying [stars and stylists] out, you’re putting them up at the L’Ermitage, you’re paying for room service, not to mention shipping all the clothes out. They’re spending fortunes on this.”