WHEN FORMER Secret Service agent Michael Wiles consider going into politics, then Maryland Senator J. Gleen Beall suggested he put it off and "go where the money is first." It was not bad advice. Wiles, whom some call the American Prince Edward has come a long way from Dematha High School. He is now one of the top money making male models, travels the world on assignment and can be seen from billboards in Germany to American television commercials.

They were clean cut, healthy and straight, the dozen models chosen to present the clothes of menswear designers to the press at the Men's Fashion Association meeting recently at the Great Gorge Playboy resort in New Jersey. It is no surprise. In a season where the economy is tough and the priority for clothing is diminishing, looking proper and appropriately dressed for the job -- even if you don't have one, helps.

And the clothes underscored the same point. Chairman-of-the-board suits, racehorse-owner tweeds, ski-influenced sportwear, successful-candidate clothing. No surprises here either, after a couple of seasons when men looked like fashion victims with their super skinny ties, rumpled jackets and slim lapels, sanity plus safety has returned to the men's fashion business.

For this season the clothes are familiar and calm with only an injection of color -- sometimes very subtly in the fabric, in the three-inch tie, the socks or pocket hankie -- to brighten the establishment, conservative, traditional menswear look.

Of the 12 models chosen to show off the new designs, three have strong Washington ties: Michael Wiles, a former U.S. Secret Service agent; Bob Pittard, a Delaware "corporation," and Alan Cephas who once worked for the Federal Reserve Board. All are at the top of the heap of the male modeling business in New York, making as much as $125 an hour, $1,200 per day or even $150,000 annually -- though never the annual salaries of the big names of the female modeling trade. "Not by $100,000," laughs Eileen Ford, head of the largest modeling agency in the country. They may get the same hourly rate, she says, "but they don't get the nice lucrative cosmetic contracts."

Also unlike the women in the modeling business, once they get "hot" in the business, they can go on almost without any age limitation. "Wrinkles are welcome," adds Ford. So is experience.

Bill Louck, 60, who has more experience than any trio of popular male models today, says the big change in the male modeling business happened about 10 years ago. "It simply reflects everything else that has happened in the country. Everything is accepted and with it has come a new respect for modeling," he says.

Before then it was locked on as a business for sissies, a place for part-time actors to pick up some extra money. A business not to be taken seriously.

"Now," says Louck, "you can't be taken seriously by a modeling agency if you aren't willing to work at it full time. And there is enough work with magazines, retailers and ad agencies to keep a good model working every day if he wants to," says Louck who in 1960 was making $60,000 a year. "Everyone has larger budgets for advertising and models in particular, he says, so shots once taken against no seam paper in a studio are now placed on location in the luxury spots around the world.

The new competition, he says, is from the corporation presidents who want to do their own commercials "Everyone wants to be in pictures," he says with a laugh.

Michael Wiles treats the modeling business like a political campaign. He was close to the headlines when he was the Secret Service agent assigned to George Wallace when the governor was paralyzed in an assassination attempt in the Laurel, Md., shopping center while campaigning in 1972. In fact it was Wiles who insisted Wallace be taken to Holy Cross Hospital. "My good Catholic upbrining," he says. A former political advance man for Sen. Charles "Mac" Mathias, he has jockeyed himself into some of the juciest modeling assignments around the world, from billboards in Frankfurt, Germany, to television commercials for Woolite, Flicker ladies shavers, K-Mart, Joseph Banks and others.

His father, Frank Wiles, is the former director of the budget for the Department of the Interior. His mother coached the women's basketball team at Catholic University and, no slouch himself, Michale Wiles was an All-American basketball player at DeMatha and while finishing up at the University of Maryland covered sports for WMAL.

But the tilt is more to being a politician than a sportsman when the modeling time runs out, which is not likely to be soon. "When Larry Hogan gave up his seat some friends suggested I run for it," says Wiles. But he took former Senator J. Glenn Beall's suggestion to run to where the money is, and then consider politics.

He floats easily to where the money is . . . in Venice, Calif., today, moving to New York next week. "Being in the right place at the right time is essential," he says. There isn't any place in the world he hasn't been, all expenses paid and being paid, as well, on assignment . . . in the Seychelles, London, the Carribean, Africa, anyplace. It was in London he was first dubbed "The American Prince Edward."

The current state of the economy works in his favor, he says. "In the current economy clients can't afford to use friends or choose models by sexual favors offered. You can't select a model for the job just because he is a special friend. As tough as business is today and as expensive as it is, there is little room to do a friend a favor. There is no room for mistakes." In fact he has a German client who checks by computer the success of models in each ad and hires only those whose photographs sells clothes the best. He uses Wiles regularly.

Until it was stolen last week, his silver Secret Service badge was his proudest possession. (Only 400 were made.) And when Ted Kennedy was campaigning in California Wiles, caught up with some old Secret Service buddies.

Does he ever expect to be the person the Secret Service protects? He won't say much about that except that getting the message across through modeling or acting . . . that's pretty much like a politician, he says. t

Alan Cephas has three work wardrobes. Actually all are based on the same basic parts -- khaki pants, T-shirts or sweaters. But for New York the chinos get replaced with black leather jeans and for Washington there is the multicolor knitted Khuffi (cap) he wouldn't dare wear in Philadelphia where he now lives. "It's not a political thing with me," says Cephas, who is afraid the cap might be "misread" there.

The $125-an-hour, $1,000-a-day model -- wages admittedly paid only at jobs like photographing catalogues or the MFA meeting in Great Gorge -- had thought of becoming a D.C. cop like his brother James. ("Not today," he says with a huge grin.) In fact, after graduating from McKinley Tech, he worked at the Federal Reserve Board in administrative services until he could find something more "creative," specifically creating displays first for Hecht's, then for Kleins Four Seasons and Sweet Charlotte, both stores for women with several branches around Washington.

He had done only a few shows for local designers Lord Gilliam and LePenski when friends prodded him to try New York for modeling jobs. "I was short until I was 18 so it had never occurred to me that I might be a model," says Cephas. "Besides, I was never popular in school. And a job like modeling that looked like such easy fun was certainly not going to come my way."

It wasn't fun and easy in the beginning. The first time he went to New York to call on agencies, he got a blunt rejection from Elite but encouragement from designer Bill Blass and the Zoli, Ford and Wilhelmina agencies. He signed with Wilhelmina two years ago. ("At 29, I'm a beginner!") The hard part, he says, is being able to accept constant rejection, even if you are the most qualified.

The rejections are fewer now, even if the glamor trips have, so far, only taken him to Nashville, Great Gorge, Orlando and Baltimore. He needs the experience of working in Europe, particularly for the book of clippings he shows to perspective clients. The French and Italian fashion magazines provide not only the most innovative clothes and good photographers, but the paper used gives ideal reproduction of the photos. Besides there is the vacation-like side of working over there. "There isn't any place I'd choose to go on vacation that I haven't been to as a model, and be paid to go there," sais Michael Wiles.)

But while European designers are quick to hire black American models, both male and female, for the runway, black models are the exception in European fashion magazines. At the moment he is so busy in New York there is no need to test the scene in Europe, he says.

But even as a top black model, there is less work than for white models. "Look at the ads," says Cephas, who would not be specific about the money he makes.

Cephas, reluctant to abandon his Washington accounts, including Raleighs and Hechts, has settled halfway between Washington and New York in Philadelphia. "It is much cheaper and calmer than New York," says Cephas, who admits he would rather make the trip up and back to New York than bunk in overnight. "And besides, you don't have to look and act like a model all the time."

Bob Pittard, currently one of the top 10 money-making models, almost blew it all by staying too long at the beach. Rehoboth, in fact. He was having too good a time and his regular clients thought he might not be coming back so they booked other models. His salary dropped to $75,000 from $125,000.

Such set-backs seem to bounce off the broad shoulders of Pittard.After graduating Bullis Prep he was turned down for the naval academy because he is color blind; you need to be able to read the signals at sea, he says. But he did get admitted to West Point but dropped out with thoughts about going into the seminary. After finishing at the University of Delaware, he settled for the good life and good food at the beach as a lifeguard, content with his 220 pound figure.

It was model Dick Scott who convinced him (right there on the beach) that he had model potential. "If you've got ego enough and the thought of making that good money you can do anything," says Pittard. So he became an instant vegetarian, worked out and ran everyday, and in a year dropped to 160 pounds. He's kept up the food regimen.

Pittard's a Delaware Corporation -- Pittard Enterprise, mostly doing modeling, acting and commercials. He did the first Britches catalogue with photographer Fred Maroom at Mt. Desert Isle, Maine ("That one cost me 15 pounds just in beers") and is a regular with the Washington-based Sporting Life catalogue, also a Maroon connection. Additionally there are Raleigh's ads, Close-Up and Foster Grant commercials, among others.

But he'll model anything, even cigarettes -- though he doesn't smoke and doesn't think others should. "People should be sufficiently discriminating to make that choice themselves," he says. You can't take this business personally. "You often have to wear some outlandish clothes," he says.

Aside from a cool disposition, Pittard says it is essential, for the big money, to be at least six foot, wear a 40 regular (sample size) suit, and be proficient in tennis, riding, sailing, skiing, whatever. The best modeling trips are the ones that take you to Europe, Vail or the Caribbean, he explained. And it would never do well for the model to fall off a horse, for example.

Only once has he fallen off the runway, for a show in which models were to place themselves at the end of the runway before the lights were turned on. He took one step in the wrong direction and landed in the lap of a guest. When he righted himself on stage he had the bag of the lady rather than the one he was modeling on his shoulder. Pittard knew the difference but there was no telling whether or not the audience did.