By Ashley Rea (2023)
In this paper I will discuss Fabio Lanzoni (better known by only his first name), the romance novel cover model famous for being featured on hundreds of romance books in the late eighties and nineties. At Fabio’s start, he was a cover model for many titles within the romance industry, then, once he reached fame and his career really took off, he went on to author his own romance books. I will argue that Fabio consistently received a positive reaction from fans and public media as he navigated within the romance industry. I’m going to make this point by discussing Fabio’s positive reception as a cover model, as a celebrity, and then as a romance book author. To support these claims, I will be using newspaper articles that include interviews with Fabio himself, his fans, and Peter Paul, a Beverly Hills agent. Additionally, I will be using the reporter’s comments on Fabio as well as the publication they are writing for as evidence of Fabio’s positive public reception. It should be noted that there were, in fact, people who did not like Fabio and that the response to his roles within the romance industry was not only positive. That being said, Fabio received a noteworthy level of positive reception, making the reaction worthwhile to discuss in this report while still acknowledging there were negative responses to Fabio as well.
Fabio as a Cover Model
Fabio began his modeling career at 14 years old and eventually moved to the United States from Italy to continue modeling. In the 1980s, an artist who worked on cover designs for romance novels found Fabio’s modeling portfolio. The artist found his photos captivating and used them as references for the cover artwork designs, leading Fabio to break into the romance fiction industry through modeling (Popp, 2021). By the 1990s, Fabio had been featured on multiple romance novel covers and had gained a significant fan base. The public was positively reacting to Fabio’s covers, to such an extent that Fabio was being covered in major news outlets. The Palm Beach Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times, were some of many media publications that covered Fabio and his covers in their prints—all of which detailed the amount of positive reception regarding Fabio’s physical appearance in the cover artwork. In a Los Angeles Times article, a 32 year old contractor, Jonathan, was quoted saying “‘He’s … a guy blessed with a well-developed body’” (Lacher, 1993); Leslie Robinson, a 19 year old college student at the time, was quoted saying that “‘I mean [Fabio’s] body’s great…’” (Lacher, 1993).
Fabio’s overtly masculine and sexual appearance grabbed people’s attention. Even though there were those who found Fabio ugly (Carlson, 1993), many romance readers recognized Fabio as a staple of the romance fiction industry and were able to know what kind of book they were getting themselves into when they saw Fabio on the cover. According to a New York Times article, after being hired by Avon Books, a subdivision of Harper Collins Publishing, “sales increased tremendously whenever Fabio appeared” (Lyall, 1993). To further prove this point, Elaine Duillo, the romance novel cover artist who discovered Fabio and put him on his first romance novel, said that “‘The book buyers, women with a stroller with a kid and another kid that’s going out of her sight, they have to pick a book quickly … they’re going to pick up the book with the cover image they like and they can see immediately’” (Faircloth, 2019). Seeing Fabio on the cover allowed book buyers to quickly assess the contents of the book by associating the cover model with the bodice rippers books of the romance industry. Fabio was the posterman of clinch cover romance books, many romance readers recognizing Fabio’s name and face rather than the names of the authors who penned the novels these readers loved (Faircloth, 2019). According to a vintage romance fiction fan-run website, “Romance readers thought of Fabio with … a strange mixture of ironic appreciation and sincere delight for his cheeseball ways and campy goofball antics” (Diaz, 2022).
Fabio’s fame as a romance novel cover model reached so far as to even enamor the general media publications and secure him brand deals outside of the romance industry. In an article from the Palm Beach Post, the writer is very much smitten by Fabio’s appearance and personality (Palm Beach Post, 1996). In this article, the writer is interviewing Fabio, getting to know some details about his personal life as well as his future career aspects. When mentioning his ad campaign with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (discussed in the next section), the writer of the article says “Who CARES about butter? Rip my bodice, you beast!” (Palm Beach Post, 1996). This refers to the bodice ripper subgenre of romance fiction—which are the types of romance novel covers Fabio frequently found himself featured on (Diaz, 2022; Merriam-Webster)—and implies that the author was entranced by Fabio. This article encapsulates the Fabio craze that resulted from the extremely positive reaction he received from romance readers for being the featured model on romance novel covers, as well as the general public who found his muscular stature to be the epitome of the steamy romance hero starring in these bodice ripper stories. This provides a transition to discussing how the fans and the media no longer viewed Fabio as just a romance cover model, but as a celebrity who has other endeavors outside of the romance industry.
Fabio as a Celebrity
After having his big break as a cover model for romance novels, Fabio began to capitalize on his fame; the support from his fans and the media, in addition to the income from his features on romance novel covers, gave him the leeway to do so. Once his fame became apparent, Peter Paul, a Beverly Hills agent, began representing him and promoting Fabio to a wider audience. A publicity piece addressing the readers of the Los Angeles Times in 1993 begins with this quote “This story is for you [the reader] alone. It’s about the answer to your dreams. No, it’s about your dreams themselves, a pair of eyes the color of the Mediterranean fixed on you and only you. Never mind that the circulation of this newspaper is 1.1 million. This fantasy break is brought to you by Ecstasy ’90s-style, a pleasure that’s entirely legal, fat-free, nonsmoking, condom-wearing, red meat-eschewing, iron-pumping and goes by the name of Fabio” (Lacher, 1993). This seductively personal introduction completely embodies the essence of Fabio, drawing in anyone and everyone with his charisma. The introduction was a great example of Fabio’s charm that lended to his positive reception by the public and his booking of brand deals outside of the romance industry. This is the exact energy Paul tried to capitalize on when it came to Fabio. Fabio was able to sell a variety of products by “…telling women what they want to hear … [and doing] it with such big muscles” (Palm Beach Post). Irene Lacher of the Los Angeles Times interviewed Liz Perl, a spokeswoman for Avon books, regarding Fabio and his fame. Perl said that once the public found out that Fabio was a real person and not just an imaginary cover model, tons of fan mail began pouring in. She goes on to say that it was an unusual marketing phenomenon: usually, marketing is “[shoved]… down the public’s throat” but in this instance, the marketing (for the books Fabio was featured on and the subsequent brand deals) was a response to Fabio’s immense public appeal (Lacher, 1993). Fabio went on to market a variety of things, ranging from I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter to Versace fragrances (Fabio Inc.). Additionally, Fabio went on to create a variety of content for his loving fans. Fabio came out with a CD, titled “Fabio After Dark,” in which he does not sing, but rather speaks about his philosophy on love and women in between love songs by other artists. Fabio also acted in the “Acapulco H.E.A.T.” television show. Additionally, Fabio ended up releasing a fitness book and his very own romance novels, of which he also was also featured on as the cover model (Lacher, 1993). Many fans and the media received his romance books with open arms.
Fabio as a Romance Book Author
It could be argued that Fabio did not necessarily author the romance novels that were published in his name. Of the eight romance books Fabio published (Thriftbooks), he simply provided the plot while ghost writers went and fleshed out his ideas into novel-length stories (Palm Beach Post, 1996), but that did not deter his fans from devouring these romance books. Fabio made it a point to include certain plot points that aligned with his views, promoting anti-smoking, AIDS awareness, and having the hero practice safer sex; in the context of his novel Pirate, the hero habitually wears a sheepskin condom and lectures his colleagues who smoke tobacco (Lyall, 1993).
For his $100,000 three-book deal with Avon books, even Fabio freely admitted to using a ghostwriter for his novels (Popp, 2021). Many of his already existing fans appreciated his romance novels, even though they knew he was not the sole contributor to these steamy stories. In fact, in this Los Angeles Times article written by Mike Carlson, which most likely is a push piece to promote Fabio’s second romance novel, Pirate, Carlson interviews a handful of fans who are in line at a book signing. For example, a 19 year old college student and her sister were quoted saying that even though he did not write the book, they thought it was actually good (Carlson, 1993). Some fans adored his books so much that they went to his book signings; a 41 year old woman was quoted saying she got in line a second time at a book signing to get another interaction with Fabio after he had already signed one of her copies of his books (Carlson, 1993). This is only a taste of what the public reception of his books was like.
Not only did romance readers have a positive reaction to Fabio’s ghost written books, but so did the world of romance reviewers. In a July issue of Publisher’s Weekly, an advertisement for Fabio’s second novel Rogue (which followed Pirate) states that the “superhunk cover model…delivers the goods” when it comes to producing enjoyable romance fiction (Zinsser). Publisher’s Weekly only has positive things to say when it comes to the cover of his book—which Fabio is artfully featured on—and the details of the plot that Fabio provided. In an earlier issue of Publisher’s Weekly, the magazine gives a review of Fabio’s second novel, saying that the “descriptions are good, as is [the] dialogue … [although] often bawdy, there is something enjoyably self-mocking about the over-the-top take on standard characters” (Publisher’s Weekly, April 1994). This review acknowledges the fact that while Fabio’s books may be too on-the-nose and comical when it comes to the romance, the novel itself is still enjoyable for romance readers. In a May 1997 issue, Publisher’s Weekly briefly discusses another of Fabio’s books, Wild, saying that “Fabio … is a definite smoldering presence in [the novel’s main] character, making this a must-read,” implying that Fabio modeled his characters on his public persona and therefore fans of Fabio should read his book. The article also further promoted that readers “will find a finely plotted story filled with nonstop action and well-developed characters,” the hero sharing many of the same societal views as the author (Publisher’s Weekly, May 1997).
Fabio received a positive reception within the romance-reading and romance-reviewing world. Fans of Fabio, news reporters, and book reviewers were encapsulated in his sultry, thoughtful, attractive aura and it showed in the many newspaper articles, book reviews, and fan websites that were created in response to his public presence. Even though some people were not taken by his looks or found him to be too over-the-top, Fabio was still overwhelmingly well-received as he navigated the romance fiction industry. Fabio transitioned from a hunky romance fiction cover model, to an awed celebrity promoting brands and creating content for his fans, to a heavily appreciated romance fiction author, gaining and maintaining a supportive following throughout his journey.
“Blonde Ambition Fabio: ‘If I Was Not Doing This, I Would Be A Surgeon’: [Final Edition].” Palm Beach Post, Dec 15, 1996. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/newspapers/blonde-ambition-fabio-if-i-was-not-doing-this/docview/321891501/se-2.
“Bodice Ripper Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed April 29, 2023. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bodice%20ripper.
Carlson, Mike. “Fabio Sweeps ‘Em Off their Feet at Book Signing: [Home Edition].” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Nov 11, 1993. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/newspapers/fabio-sweeps-em-off-their-feet-at-book-signing/docview/282109367/se-2.
Diaz, Jacqueline. “Romance Cover Model: Fabio Lanzoni.” Welcome to Sweet Savage Flame, April 28, 2022. https://sweetsavageflame.com/romance-cover-model-fabio-lanzoni/2/.
“Fabio Inc.” Fabioinc. Fabio, Inc. Accessed April 11, 2023. https://www.fabioinc.com/.
Faircloth, Kelly. “The Steamy, Throbbing History of Romance Novel Covers.” Jezebel, February 14, 2019. https://jezebel.com/the-steamy-throbbing-history-of-romance-novel-covers-1832430711.
Lacher, Irene. “Fabio Inc. A Touch of Talent, a Heap of Hype: He’s Not just a Hunk, He’s a Conglomerate.: [Home Edition].” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Nov 19, 1993. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/newspapers/fabio-inc-touch-talent-heap-hype-hes-not-just/docview/282178211/se-2.
Lanzoni, Fabio, and Eugenia Riley. Pirate. New York: Avon Books, 1993. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1118972.Pirate.
Lanzoni, Fabio, and Eugenia Riley. Rogue. Avon, 1994. https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/2706469.
Lanzoni, Fabio, and Wendy Corsi Staub. Wild. New York, NY: Pinnacle Books, 1997. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3797012-wild.
Lyall, Sarah. “On Location with: Fabio; Please, Judge the Book by Its Cover.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 23, 1993. https://www.nytimes.com/1993/09/23/garden/on-location-with-fabio-please-judge-the-book-by-its-cover.html.
“Mass Market: Wild.” Publisher’s Weekly, 9 May 1997, 76. https://digitalarchives-publishersweekly-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BG19970512.1.76&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN%7ctxRV-Publishers+Weekly%2c+May+12%2c+1997———1.
“Paperbacks: Original Fiction: Rogue.” Publisher’s Weekly, 4 April 1994, 73. https://digitalarchives-publishersweekly-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BG19940404.1.73&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN%7ctxRV-Publishers+Weekly+%e2%80%94+April+4%2c+1994%2c+Volume+241%2c+Issue+14———1.
Popp, Isabelle. “Fabio Romance Novel Covers: A Brief History by the Numbers.” BOOK RIOT, March 12, 2021. https://bookriot.com/fabio-romance-novel-covers/.
ThriftBooks. “Fabio Lanzoni Books: List of Books by Author Fabio Lanzoni.” ThriftBooks. ThriftBooks. Accessed April 11, 2023. https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/fabio/342047/.
Zinsser, John, ed. “Audio Reviews: Fiction: Rogue.” Publisher’s Weekly, July 4, 1994, 32. https://digitalarchives-publishersweekly-com.proxy.lib.duke.edu/?a=d&d=BG19940704.1.32&e=——-en-20–1–txt-txIN%7ctxRV-July+4%2c+1994%2c+Volume+241———1.