Laura Loveless, age 23, is a computer programmer from Cheverly who has always wanted to pose for Playboy. Beyond her impossibly appealing name, she has a bodacious form and a lovely face and the eyes of the proverbial doe. "This is something I always kept hidden," she says of the ambition that has brought her downtown to audition for Playboy's planned 1988 feature, "The Women of Washington." "And finally, I said, 'This is something I want to do for myself.' "

David Chan, Playboy's legendary photographer-recruiter, estimates that by the end of Monday, Laura's competition will have swelled to three or four hundred "young ladies," as he always describes them -- about twice as many women as turn out in other major cities for a shot at what Chan calls, without irony, "exposure."

In the reception area of the three-room hotel suite all eyes are on the door to the bedroom Chan has established as his command post. On a great many faces you can see apprehension about what a Playboy photographer might do in a bedroom, but the applicants seem even more surprised by what they eventually find: a blue-jeaned, almost wizened 52-year-old guy some inches shorter than they are, who speaks with distinctly Chinese inflection; an unmussed bed, on which is perched a handful of reporters and photographers covering David Chan at work; at least one television camera crew; two chairs facing each other conversationally; a Polaroid camera, with which Chan will snap one or two shots of the fully clothed candidate.

Says a former colleague of Chan's, "Here's the secret: The secret of Playboy going into a city and taking it by storm and getting all the women to take their clothes off is David Chan ... He's the kind of a guy who could walk up to you on the street and say, 'Would you mind taking your clothes off?' and you'd say, 'Of course not.' David Chan is 100 percent sincere. He really, really believes it's art. And he loves these women and he loves to take their pictures."

But like anyone else who procures women for a living, Chan alternates between an avuncular charm and a blunt professionalism.

"Are you the smiling type?" he often asks as he poses a candidate against the railing of the balcony that overlooks the hotel atrium. He invariably draws a smile from even the most nervous young ladies, and not one is heard to deny being the smiling type. "You photograph well," he tells many a subject as he peers at her Polaroid.

Far more rarely does he repeat that judgment after his visitor has left the room.

He has explained, for instance, that Playboy has real difficulty finding black and Asian women to pose for the magazine. "We are looking for a black playmate. Desperately looking for one. Because they are very hard to come by. Usually, a lot of them, I guess, they hold back, thinking that strictly it's a white magazine."

But after an attractive black candidate has left the room and he is asked to evaluate her chances, he shrugs: "She's okay. We'll see. I'm sure there are a lot of better-looking black girls around."

The Eyes of the Beholder In 22 years of photographing young ladies for Playboy, David Chan has never met a perfect 10.

"A centerfold is almost a 10," says Chan, "but I've never seen a 10 yet. {A woman} has got to be perfect mind, soul and physically; to me that is a 10. So if she doesn't have soul, or maybe is not intelligent, she's not a 10.

"I see a beautiful woman physically in the beginning, but after that you want to know the inner beauty," he says. And there's the rub. "The trouble with inner beauty, it doesn't come along when you're young. It comes along after you're maybe about 27, 28."

Over lunch, Chan talks freely about some of the deepest secrets of the Playboy photographer: airbrushing out moles and hickey marks and bruises, and how many of his subjects now have scars from their breast implants, which pose retouching problems either right near the nipple or underneath the breast. He agrees that the Playboy centerfolds tend to be "plastic-looking," but defends them on artistic grounds: "The centerfold, if you really looked at it, is a piece of artwork. Something that a person would paint ... Did you ever see {bruises or scars} in any painting or anything? No. It's the same thing."

The good news, he says, is that for a feature like "The Women of Washington," you don't really need a 10: "They could be, you know, seven, eight, nine," he says. "They could be a little bit heavier, or if they have thin legs, or -- could be anything, because I can use lighting, lenses, makeup, draping, to hide certain flaws they have. And all we need is one picture."

But no sixes need apply. "A lot of women come to see us thinking that we could do the impossible." Despite his talents with what he calls camouflage, "You've got to have something before we can -- you have to have a face, to start with."

Personal Touches The women who come to see him this week range from the girl next door before she grew up and got a job in the big city to the girl next door after she spent a few years in the city, and maybe had to scrape to meet the rent. Most are in their twenties (applicants must be at least 18 years of age); Washington's oldest so far is 44.

Many are secretaries, but other occupational credits that turn up on the applications include modeling, auto sales, real estate, tending bar and exotic dancing. And by noon on the first day, Chan has also seen two federal employes, two lawyers and one woman who says she was a Nixon political appointee.

Several applicants cite the likelihood that being in Playboy will increase their self-confidence. Renee Bennett, a 25-year-old secretary from Oakton who also aspires to be a country-and-western singer, says, "This is just something I had in mind to do" to gain "a sense of feeling like I was somebody." She wears a bright blue cotton dress and matter-of-factly thrusts into Chan's hands some photographs she has brought, including a few in which she poses topless. It is a close call, but it almost seems more intrusive to look at the hope she bares on her pretty face.

A 27-year-old who asks not to be identified by name says, "I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it to see where it takes me. Not necessarily to do more nude work, but someone out there might see my face and say, 'That's it, we need her.' "

On the brassier side is Stacie Seifrit, age 21, of Greenbelt. Seifrit, who identifies herself on Playboy's information sheet as a 42-DD, tells a television interviewer, "Well, some people say they read Playboy for the articles. And I've always been told I have two of the nicest articles there are." She seems a little shocked, however, when asked whether she is self-conscious about posing nude. "Oh, I couldn't do it naked," she says. "I could do it semiclothed."

The information form, which the young ladies fill out upon arrival at the suite, asks them to check off one or more choices among the following: "I prefer to pose Nude/Seminude/Clothed."

In order, these options would pay $750, $350 or $100. But "you know one thing?" says Chan. "It's very, very funny -- even though we pay them, they never ask. They never ask, 'Do you get paid for this or not?' They'd do it for nothing." In any case, says Chan, "We always get enough nudes. More than enough."

The form also requests the vital statistics of age, height, weight and measurements (including the size of their bra cups and, more mysteriously, their shoe size), and poses these questions, in keeping with its election-year theme for "The Women of Washington":

Who's your choice for president in 1988?

Who do you think is the sexiest man in government?

Which American woman would make a good president?

A fair number of Washington's Women had no choice for president in 1988; an equal number misspelled the names of those they favored, including the name of George "Busch." Among the female presidents suggested were Dolly Parton, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Dole and -- most frequently -- Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Occasionally an enterprising applicant would nominate herself. A few applicants doubted that there are any sexy men to be found in government, but there was a near consensus that Clint Eastwood's election as mayor of Carmel, Calif., had rectified this problem.

The Right Stuff Chan is looking for only a dozen or 15 women; after taking all his Polaroids back to Chicago he may contact as many as two dozen women for further consideration. Those who don't make the cut will not be notified.

He does his Polaroid routine with every young lady ("I treat each one the same ... Because sometimes they know they can't make it, but just showing up at Playboy means a lot to them"), but if you stick around, it becomes pretty easy to tell when he has mentally consigned the emerging Polaroid to the trash heap.

A different kind of attentiveness comes over him when a woman truly catches his eye. One such is Patricia Dixon, a cool 29-year-old attorney and real estate agent from Fairfax who scuba dives, rides horses and collects Corvettes. At 5-feet-8 and 120 pounds, pretty in pink and black and with a mane of silvery blond hair, she is something of a Fawn Hall look-alike. She has brought a full-color portfolio, one of the most professional of the day: camisole shots, bathing suit shots, straight portraits, and more.

"It's always been in the back of my mind," she says about why she is here. "I think a lot of women consider it. Everyone's got some vanity, and it's the ultimate test of vanity, or womanhood." She adds, however, "I would only do it in Playboy; other magazines are a little bit repulsive."

Kimberly Sommerhoff also makes a big impression. More than half the women here have worn some brand of miniskirt, but the tallish Sommerhoff is in a class of her own, swaying into the room in a tight gray-and-black wet suit of a dress. A dental assistant and free-lance model, Sommerhoff once posed for a Porsche poster, and says she has no qualms about posing nude. Eurasian, with long reddish-brown hair and green eyes, she moves in a manner so feline as to make most of her competition seem sexless. Chan seems especially crazy about her teeth.

He props Sommerhoff on his balcony and, the better to emphasize what her application has identified as her C-cups, begins to lower the zipper at the front of her dress.

"You're not going to scream, are you?" he asks, as the zipper approaches her sternum.

Dreamily, she peers down over the hotel lobby, 11 stories below. "No, I'm not afraid of heights."

When she has gone, Chan says, "She photographs very well. Her face is great. It glows. Have to wait and see how her body is." It is unclear what information he needs about her body that cannot be gleaned from her dress.

Sommerhoff and several others, it develops, came to see Chan in the company of Michael O'Harro, owner of the bar Champions, whose business card bills him as "One of the foremost leaders in the nightclub industry."

O'Harro is quick to tell you that he was at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles last Sunday. Or rather, two weeks ago. "I'm acquainted -- we're not close personal friends -- but I'm acquainted with Hugh Hefner. I'm invited to go to the mansion whenever I'm in Los Angeles."

O'Harro is here with a small platoon of candidates because he's that kind of guy. "Any time I can help out. David asked me to come by and bring some quality friends of mine."

One is a bartender at Champions. Two others do public relations for him. One works for Victoria's Secret at White Flint. All are among the most practiced of the candidates.

The women who try out, O'Harro avers, are "not what you would call not-nice girls." O'Harro is affronted by the dirty minds of some people. "Some people," he says, "believe the dregs are the kind that show up for this kind of thing.

"It's interesting for me to note that the ones that were protesting were obviously not attractive."

He is referring, now, to Sue Goldstein, who made an appointment like everyone else but came dressed in Saran Wrap over a T-shirt and fishnet stockings, bearing a grocery store meat sticker on her forehead and a sign in her hand saying, "Packaged and angry: USDA Choice." To make her point, she presented to Chan some raw meat.

Bill Page of the magazine's public relations department grumbled in her wake, "We'll fry it up, like your brain."

But that was naughty of Bill Page. Everyone knows that Playboy magazine loves the First Amendment as much as it loves young ladies. And so that was to be the only ugly note in a hymn to pretty women.

Chan told Sue Goldstein, as he told all the others, "Thank you for coming."