A HUSH came over the crowd and then a cheer went up as the man of the hour, fashionably late, descended the escalator at Hecht's department store and waded into the legions of fans.
``Fabio, you're so Fabioso!'' a voice rang out.
This was the moment they'd been waiting for, a chance to meet this year's marketing sensation, the romance-novel cover boy and multizillionaire model with the new line of cologne and a 900 number (just $1.99 a minute).
Whatever your opinion of the Fabio phenomenon - a harmless indulgence in fantasy or the worst sort of objectification that feminists have fought for decades - it is a marvel to behold. Maybe this is what America in the '90s is all about: a place where someone with an image to sell and a flair for self-promotion can turn himself or herself into an industry.
Besides his line of scents, called Mediterraneum - that's Mediter-RAHH-neum, with as much oregano as you can muster - there's the calendars, watches, tote bags, a CD of love songs (sung by other people), the romance novel (plot by Fabio, writing by someone else), the workout video, and a stint on the TV series ``Acapulco H.E.A.T.''
To some, Fabio is the essence of male beauty: square jaw, rippling muscles, flowing frosted hair, and a perpetual come-hither look. To others, he's a cartoon character come to life. In fact, he's Barney for women - visually appealing and ready to dispense hugs, just like the purple dinosaur that's all the rage among two-year-olds.
Whatever it is, this son of a Milanese industrialist, who really did start out modeling for the covers of romance novels, draws people like a magnet - even in Washington, D.C., where lunch-time chatter centers more often on politics than pectorals.
It was a mob scene at Hecht's, with walkie-talkie-toting security guards at every turn and ladies armed with bottles of Mediterraneum spritzing unsuspecting passersby. Hundreds lined up out the door for their smooch with Fabio and an autograph. A Hecht's spokesman says the store has never had a more successful launch for a men's cologne.
For Angela Reaves, a secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, it was worth the wait. ``It was VE-RRY nice!'' she laughs, quivering from her hug with Fabio.
``I've only seen him once on TV, when he was interviewing, and I thought he was SO good looking. I said I've got to go see him.... He said, `Hi,' and asked me what was my name. And I told him I would tease my nieces with him when I got home.''
Dietra Steele, a secretary at the Veterans Administration, has always loved romance novels, but she never dreamed the man on the cover really existed. ``Whenever I read those books, I wanted to see the person,'' she says. ``I didn't think he was real. I thought it was made up.''
``He's the total man!'' says Aaron Book, one of many males in the crowd, looking himself like a GQ fashion plate. ``He's just a stud. Women are crazy over him, and I wanted to be here for it.... I just wanted to say, `Hi.' I'm Italian, he's Italian. He's a huge Howard Stern fan, I'm a huge Howard Stern fan.''
Fabio couldn't quite get the spelling right on the autograph Mr. Book got for his mother - ``Ginny'' came out as ``Giani'' - but Book still gave the paisano a thumbs up.
Gina, a student at Georgetown University Law School, approached the event with a bit more equanimity. ``I don't particularly like him; I think he's kind of cheesy, but just the whole aura around him is kind of a neat thing,'' she said, admitting she did have some things for him to sign. ``Oh, this is so embarrassing!''
Gina wasn't the only one with a red face. When a cameraman from a local TV station headed into the crowd for average-gal-gone-to-see-Fabio shots, hordes of women hid their faces.
``My boss thinks I'm out on an account!'' exclaimed one woman in a red suit as she fled into the hosiery department.