Americans prefer blondes - even in kindergarten.

That's the view of Dr. Joyce Brothers - herself fair-haired - quoted in an article in the current issue of the Hearst magazine Harper's Bazaar, in which she said:"We've been conditioned to consider blondes lovelier. Even in kindergarten, studies show that eight out of 10 boys and girls will paint the little girl's hair blonde. Preferences start very early."

They do not stop there.

"There continues to be a real romance in our culture with blondes," said Thomas Cash, professor of psychology at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Cash specializes in the subject of human appearance. He added:

"We've all been socialized that blonde is what's beautiful. It was once what was considered feminine and is still part of a stereotype that we hold on to."

Back in 1925, 113 million Americans each week headed for the silent movies, where blondes Mary Pickford and Jean Harlow came to embody mass appeal.

So far-reaching was Hollywood's influence that during World War II blonde Veronica Lake was asked to change her peekaboo hairdo because it was feared it would cause accidents among women war workers.

"How many truly unforgettable brunettes can you remember?" asked Eileen Ford, owner of Ford Models. "Blondes have greater longevity."

It is hard to believe only 16 percent of American women are born blonde. Today's Hollywood bombshells include Kim Basinger, Ellen Barkin, Jessica Lange, Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep and Kathleen Turner.

Lately, a number of well-known brunettes also have crossed over to blondedom - Demi Moore in "The Butcher's Wife," Winona Ryder in "Edward Scissorhands," Lorraine Bracco in "Switch," Isabella Rossellini in "Wild At Heart" and Angelica Huston in "The Grifters."

"Women who convert to blonde do so in pursuit of youth," psychologist Cash said.

Four out of 10 women alter their hair color, and most choose to go lighter. A golden glint can "warm and brighten up the face," said Louis Licari, master colorist and owner of New York City's Louis Licari Color Group, who added, "It can take 10 years off your looks in one visit."

Once becoming blonde was a hidden thing, but no longer. Licari counts among his followers Christie Brinkley, Ellen Barkin, Tracy Pollan and Peggy Lipton.

In Beverly Hills, Angelo di Biase cares for the golden strands of Candice Bergen and Farrah Fawcett, while Thomas Morrissey of New York City sees to Pat Buckley and Nina Griscom.

Madonna vamps it to Bruno & Soonie, while Greta Scacchi and Natasha Richardson go to Daniel Galvin at New York's La Coupe.

Natural hair color, texture and skin tone, the experts said, are what determine whether a woman should color or not. Olive-skinned and sallow-complexioned brunettes are better off staying that way, or perhaps lightening a shade or two.

Top colorist Constance Hartnett of Frederic Fekkai Beauty Center at New York's Bergdorf Goodman, tells dark-haired baby boomers concerned with covering gray:

"When hairdressers say `go lighter,' they don't mean `go blonde' but simply go back to where you once were. Never be more than a few shades lighter than your natural color."

Unless, of course, you are Madonna and want to be an obvious bottle blond. With her downtown, bleached-out curls, Patricia Schultz wrote in Harper's Bazaar, Madonna has a corner on the market with a look that was revived by Blondie's Deborah Harry a decade ago.

"She would never have made it as a brunette," Brothers said of Madonna. "But now that she's made it, she can write her own rules."