Male modeling is becoming respectable. Burt Reynolds risked overexposure posing for Cosmopolitan. Joe Namath slipped into a pair of pantyhose and became the most famous prime-time model to come out of the closet since Milton Berle. Playgirl flagrantly reversed sexual objectification. And now there's a beauty guide for men called "Looking Good."

Which brings us to Matt Collins, the fellow on the cover of "looking Good." Dark blond, hazel-eyed Collins is, at 28, one of the world's top male models, commanding rates of $1,000 a day or $100 an hour, with a two-hour minimum. In a busy year, he earns around $1,000,000.

A high-Strung chainsmoker who drinks endless cups of coffee despite an ulcer, Collins has thrived on the fast pace of the New York modeling scene since becoming a model three years ago. But ultimately he found it to be a little world, essentially superficial.

"Most models seem to have their best relationships with their mirrors," he said, with a chronic nervous grin and chuckle. "In New York, you see them riding with their mirrors in taxicabs."

For the interview, he was unshaven, his hair uncombed, dressed in faded polo shirt and jeans, and filthy jogging shoes without socks. He has little use for clothes, and the repetitive nature of his work ("five hooded robes in a week") has become maddening: "If I had to go on for a few more years making top money as a model, I'd be ready for Bellevue."

So, like a number of superstar women models before him, he has come to Hollywood seeking an acting career. He is in the Gene Wilder 20th Century-Fox comedy, "The World's Greatest Lover." He plays the silent but glamorous role of Rudolph Valentino. He's also studying with drama coach Vincent Chase and making the rounds of producers and casting directors.

It's not superfluous to compare aspects of modeling to the craft of acting. Thanks to the emergence of quality ads for men's "designer lines" and to social change that has spawned the contemporary "sensitive man," male models are now allowed a larger role and a range of feelings previously denied them in ads.

Collins, boyish in person, displays a surprising spectrum of attitudes from ad to ad. His trademark, however, is a stern, suspicious look that has sold products from perfume to evening clothes in the world's fashion pages.

Priceless now, the image had improbable origins: "I was so nervous the first time I got in front of a camera, so terrified, that I had this kind of evil, sinister look. It was terror and suspicion - I didn't know what to do and I didn't know why they were taking my picture. I wasn't trying to look mean, it was just that I was so scared. They had to come in every couple of minutes and wipe the sweat off."

The "mean" look was soon in demand, but eventually he had to soften it to work as a "prop" for women, a lucrative market. "You can't be too overpowering and get in the way of her peddling the merchandise."

To soften the look, he shot roll after roll of film with friend and noted men's photographer Bruce Weber, then started "making connections" in his mind "from past experiences, contact sheets, photographs and ads. When you start making those connections of what's coming across, you get so you know just what each frame will look like. But you have to feel it, and relax. If you try for a certain look, it's the trying that shows, not the feeling you're aiming for."

Collins came to modeling by accident after riding horses professionally since the age of 6. He was born in Waverly, Pa., of Welsh and American Indian parentage."Roy Rogers was my idol. All I ever wanted to do was ride." He became the favorite of wealthy families in the East who kept show ponies for their children, who in turn were too disinterested or scared to ride them.

His parents were opposed to riding - "My father had very set ideas on what his children would be. I was going to be the captain of the football team" - but at the age of 14, he left home to live on Virginia horse farm. He spent 6 to 10 months a year on the horse-show circuit, living out of hotels. Horses were all he cared about. Of the play "Equus," he said, "I was that boy.That was my life."

It was a small, elite, isolated world, much like modeling would turn out to be: "There are basically 200 people on the A circuit, and the cast never changes. When I was 25, I hadn't met a new person since I was 7. Plus I was using riding as a crutch. I didn't even deal with the horse-show people. I felt much more comfortable with horses."

To try to "make the riding stay interesting," he stopped show jumping and tried steeplechase, then came to California to ride for a year. That was four years ago. He met a 5-year-old thoroughbred named Harreus at the stable where he worked: "I guess I had found my Trigger. The riders in Florida had warned me that Harreus would make a fool of me, to avoid him. He was infamous. He had been mishandled always and I think he was intelligent enough to fight it. But we hit it off right from the start, and he got better and better."

Collins was willing to use his life's savings to buy Harreus, but the horse was sold instead to the Japanese Olympic equestrian team. "Without Harreus, there was no reason to stay in California. I went back to New York to try to straighten things out. I knew I should get out of riding, that it wasn't allowing me to grow as a person, but there was nothing else I knew how to do."

Then, while riding in Madison Square Garden, he was spotted by Wilhelmina, once a top model and now a successful model's agent. She told him, "With your face, I can make you a million dollars." He saw modeling as an opportunity to find "a world outside of Yonkers."

"To me, you get your first job on how you look, on the impression you make on someone. After that, you have to fight to keep the client. That's where most models screw up. They don't learn how to peddle the clothes, the simple professional things.

"Nine times out of ten, your client wants his clothing wrinkle-free. With wrinkles, you have to know your own body, which is the least you owe your client. You should be able to step out of the dressing room looking pretty much how they want the ad to look, and aware of the selling features, so you can have them toward the light or the camera . . .

"I try to assimilate a lot of things - what the product is, what my feelings are about it, who the girl is I'm working with if I'm working with one, who the photographer is, what his timing is like, what kind of ad it will be, where it will appear . . .

"Then, if you can't add something to the photographs - some part of yourself to bring it alive - you won't last, or you won't do well. The first jobs come quickly. The hard part is to avoid being a flash in the pan. So many models get five or six nice jobs, then sort of vanish. Or drop to catalog level."

Catalogs! The fashion model's Chamber of Horrors. One infamous studio in New York has shoes nailed to the floor (so the model can be tied in a pose) and sticks sheets of plastic down the sleeve, to get rid of every wrinkle. It is not uncommon, according to Collins, to have shirt and pants cut open in back, pulled tight, then taped to the skin for a wrinkle-free look in front.

One of his greatest humiliations came early in his career before his "look" caught on. An ad agency was aghast at the leanness of his face. "They said I looked gaunt and diseased, so they stuffed my cheeks with cotton."

Strobe lights for close-up work once left him with a month of headaches and the sight of flashing lights when he closed his eyes each night. And no-seam-paper (used to create an infinite background) left him feeling like an idiot: "When you're standing on a roll of noseam paper, you feel like a complete fool. I mean, there's no reason to be standing on the paper, except thai they're paying you to stand on that paper. And then when it gets very catalogy, where a client doesn't want any wrinkles and wants every feature displayed and all that crap - you feel like a mannequin."

Then came a burst of feeling for the apparel that has become the bane of professional models: "I absolutely hate leisure suits! And polyester! I mean, it's alive , it crawls on you."

Nor is he thrilled about "walking" ads that require the model to land on an exact spot - or completely fake the walk while standing still - all the while showing the clothes properly. Such movement, though, once saved the day when a manufacturer sent over a size 52 suit - Collins is a 40. "We did the picture with me running and the suit sort of flying and you couldn't tell it was big enough for two of me. in fact, it was a beautiful photograph."

Collins has avoided being tied with "campaigns" in this country - "You have to constantly fight overexposure" - but he has signed fat contracts abroad. He is the Marlboro Man in the Far East, where they prefer a more genteel image (he portrays a ranch owner instead of a ranch hand). In Japan., one of the top clothing manufacturers used French actor Alain Delon to sell their line with the slogan: "Make Your Man a Pretty Boy." The firm's competition hired Collins for his "mean look" - using only a full shot of his face staring into the camera - with the slogan: "Nobody Likes a Pretty Boy." It proved so popular, it is now sold as a poster.

Along the way, while doing commercials, he had begun to study acting, and modeling became moreand more stifling: "One day in New York, I kind of went crazy. I went right from a job to the airport and flew out here and got an apartment." Again, the grin. "Of course, I had to go back the next day, because I had more work."

Casting director Mike Fenton took him to see Gene Wilder, who hired Collins for "The World's Greatest Lover" without knowing he could ride, even though some of Valentino's scenes placed him atop an Arabian steed. Collins asked to do his own riding, but his best riding scene was cut, which is just as well for horse lovers - the shot proved too difficult and had to be done on a mechanical horse.

Acting, said Collins, give him the thrill that riding once did, but he's been frustrated by the stigma that models "are dumb and untalented and too pretty to be given good roles." Modeling was the bridge to Hollywood, "but if modeling hadn't been necessary for me as a person to gain the confidence and relaxation around people I lacked, as far as the acting goes, I never would have had my photograph taken. Because it's been nothing but in the way."

He turns down more and more modeling jobs but notes, "The less you do, the more they want you." He still rides and realizes that, with a prevailing double standard, he could continue working as a "mature and distinguished" model long after most women models are unemployable. But that's not his goal.

"The one line I got to hate so much from my New York agent was, 'Relax, you'll age well.' I don't want to age well! I want to get rich and get the hell out."