Walking down the third-floor hallway of the high-rise Newport Beach hotel Monday afternoon, Elsa Ramon was so nervous she began to sweat.
"Why am I doing this?" she wondered as she scanned the doors, looking for Room 309.
The 18-year-old UC Irvine drama major said she had spent a month debating what to do. In fact, she said that at the last minute she had all but decided to back out, until some guys in her campus dorm encouraged her to go ahead.
As the former high school cheerleader faced the door to Room 309, she mustered all of her courage, thinking, "I'm here. I came this far. I might as well do it."
She knocked softly on the door and went in.
For Ramon and other young UCI and Cal State Fullerton women who made the walk down the Marriott Suites hallway this week, entering Room 309 represented the opportunity of a lifetime--even if most of them cringed at the thought of telling their parents what they had done: They were interviewed for a chance to represent their campuses in Playboy magazine's annual fall college football conference pictorial.
The young women may have been nervous, but inside Room 309 it was business as usual for veteran Playboy photographer David Chan.
"Hi, I'm David," the soft-spoken, slightly built photographer said to his latest arrival.
"My name's Elsa," Ramon said shyly, sitting down on the sofa in the suite's small living room.
As Chan prepared to shoot Polaroid pictures of Cal State Fullerton criminal justice major Joanne Joye on the balcony, Ramon picked up a Playboy application from the stack on the coffee table.
The form requests the kind of vital statistics that make Playboy one of the nation's most popular men's magazines--and one scorned by feminists: Applicants must fill in everything from their height, weight and hair color to bust, cup, waist and hip measurements.
Then there's the last--and most critical--item on the list: "I would like to pose: nude, semi-nude, clothed." (Ramon chose clothed and semi-nude.)
While waiting her turn to be photographed, she explained why she was there:
"Well, I'm usually a study bookworm and I thought I'm just going to do something that's not me at all. I think it would be neat to be a part of the so-called American pastime."
Which, she added with a photogenic smile, "is Playboy magazine."
Ramon is not alone in wanting to be a part of what long ago became an American institution.
She was one of about 60 UCI and Cal State Fullerton women students interviewed this week as part of Playboy's search for "the beautiful co-eds of Big West Conference colleges."
The pictorial, featuring several clad and unclad students from each of the 10 schools in the conference, will run in the magazine's October issue.
It seems there's never a scarcity of applicants when Chan hits town.
Indeed, since Playboy began doing college conference pictorials in 1977, more than 11,000 college women from schools coast-to-coast have applied for a chance to appear in the annual pictorial.
Over the past 13 years, Chan has conducted searches at 82 different colleges and universities.
In the process, he has logged nearly a quarter of a million miles, traveled to 42 states, shot more than 12,500 rolls of 35-mm film, stayed in more than 200 different hotels and motels, banged up 16 rental cars and lost 12 pieces of luggage.
He has also attended 14 toga parties and judged 27 wet T-shirt contests.
And, along the way, he has discovered nine future Playmates, including the current Miss May, whom he found at the University of Texas in Austin two years ago.
The current search began in February. Chan and two assistants have already been to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, New Mexico State, Utah State, San Jose State, Cal State Fresno, the University of the Pacific and UC Santa Barbara.
They'll move on to the Marriott near Cal State Fullerton on Monday and a week later they'll complete their search by interviewing Cal State Long Beach women.
Most applicants don't know what to expect when they walk in the Playboy hotel suite.
But if they're expecting a Playboy photographer rakishly dressed in Hefneresque red silk pajamas, they're in for a letdown.
On this day, Chan was wearing a gray Fresno State sweat shirt, jeans and black cowboy boots--with a hip complement of dark wire-rim glasses and several thin silver bracelets.
Playboy's man on campus is friendly and low-keyed. The Canadian-born Chan grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, but spoke Chinese at home. Now based in Chicago and in his 50s, he avoids revealing his age by good-naturedly saying, "I stopped counting at 39."
Chan studied at Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and worked as a free-lance photographer in Los Angeles before joining Playboy in 1966. He has since photographed numerous Playmates and such pictorials as "The Girls of Spring Break" and the upcoming "The Girls of Canada."
But Chan is best known for the college conference issues.