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Fabio Lanzoni: A Controversial Romance Icon
When one thinks of old-school romance books, often the first name associated with them is the male model Fabio and “cheesy covers.”
The granite-jawed male model was featured on many romance novel covers in the 198s and 1990s. “Back in the day,” Fabio Lanzoni posed for hundreds of romances–to the delight of many readers.
Fabio was often painted by artists such as Sharon Spiak, Melissa-Duillo Gallo, and her mother, Elaine Duillo. She discovered Fabio, leading to his fame skyrocketing after he appeared on her covers for Johanna Lindsey.
Like bodice rippers of yesteryear, model Fabio Lanzoni has been unfairly maligned and mocked by many modern romance readers. There’s a sentiment of contempt displayed at the old clinch covers, with some even declaring that they, along with Fabio, represented a low point in the genre.
As a fan of Fabio and old-school romance, I cannot emphasize how wrong I think these detractors are.
The painted covers of vintage romances were created by talented artists who used beautiful men and women as models. The covers were works of art, despite–or perhaps because of–their gratuitous sexual nature.
Fabio, More Than Meets the Eye
Lovers of romance should embrace that period in history. They fail to understand that model Fabio Lanzoni was supposed to be over-the-top and outlandish. He was advertising an exaggerated fantasy that we all knew was a bit ridiculous.
In trying to defend their beloved books, some fans take them too seriously. The romance novel industry has always been outrageous and irreverent by its nature, which is part of the fun.
We romance readers in the 1990s were far savvier than our contemporaries give us credit for. We were in on the joke. It was about all of us enjoying the show. Fabio always laughed along with us, embracing his beefcake status.
Fabio Lanzoni was born in Milan, Italy, on March 15, 1961. His father was Sauro Lanzoni, a mechanical engineer and owner of a conveyor-belt company. Flora Carnicelli Lanzoni, his mother, was a former beauty queen. He was raised in a loving family with siblings. As a child, Fabio was even an altar boy.
Fabio grew into a handsome young man. His large, muscular figure made him natural for the camera.
His career began at age 14 when he was discovered by a photographer who asked him to model for Italian Vogue magazine.
Following a stint in the army, Lanzoni came to the United States to further develop his career. He moved to New York City to become a fashion and catalog model and signed with the Ford Agency.
During the early part of his modeling career, Fabio obtained many jobs in print ads, magazines, and books. He also posed on video game covers.
Fabio made his first appearance on the cover of a romance novel in 1987. He posed on the back of the Bertrice Small bodice ripper, Enchantress Mine, as the ironically and unfortunately misnamed villain, Eric Longsword.
Legendary artist Elaine Duillo discovered Fabio through photos. She thought there was something unique about him that would make him a natural fit for her colorful work.
When Duillo designed her first cover for Johanna Lindsey, she used Fabio as the hero. This was the 1987 Viking romance Hearts Aflame. It was a smash hit, reaching number 3 on the N.Y. Times bestseller list.
Duillo would continue to paint Lindsey’s covers for the next decade until she retired in the early 2000s. She used Fabio as her primary male model for Lindsey’s books.
The Covers: Part I
Some Fabio covers:
A Romance Sensation
Fabio was not Duillo’s official muse as a model. Even so, no other artist captured Fabio’s look better than she did. However, Elain and Fabio only worked together on fewer than twenty books. Duillo painted other models— female and male– much more than that, including Chad Deal. (40+ vs. 19).
Other artists, such as Elaine’s daughter, Melissa Duillo-Gallo, Sharon Spiak, Max Ginsburg, John Ennis, and Pino, also painted his form. Fabio’s face is so unique that he looks different from cover to cover, depending on the artist.
Fabio posed solo for a couple of Laura Kinsale’s books. The first and most notable was The Prince of Midnight. This romance was a roaring success. This was not just because of the fine quality of Kinsale’s writing.
Editors found that Fabio’s image boosted book sales. All the major publishers were eager to use him. Avon, Bantam, Dell, Dorchester, Harlequin, Warner Books, Kensington (Zebra), and others had him pose as their leading men.
Model Lianna Loggins was undoubtedly one of the female models who appeared on most romance novel covers with Fabio: at least a hundred.
Pop Culture Status
By the early 1990s, Fabio was fully entrenched as a romance genre staple. The now-defunct Romantic Times had him as their centerfold in 1992. Fabio appeared at numerous conventions, to the delight of his many fans.
Fabio’s fame grew more prominent in the cultural zeitgeist after being made the official face of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! He starred in a series of campy commercials that were enormously successful.
Later, he was a spokesman for the American Cancer Society. This was personal to him, as he lost a sister to the deadly disease.
Eventually, Fabio made his way to screen and television, such as in the daytime soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful and in movies like Dude, Where’s My Car?
Fabio, the Romance Author & Modelling Legacy
As time went on, Fabio even wrote a few novels himself. He published several books that–naturally–featured him on the cover. Fabio came up with an overall plot and gave dictation for dialogue.
Journey-woman Eugenia Riley ghostwrote most of his books for Avon. He also wrote three more books in collaboration with Wendy Corsi Staub that Pinnacle Books published.
As a model, Fabio was featured on many romance covers, posing for 466 novels (or more).
Fabio officially retired in the late 1990s, except to pose for the books “he” wrote.
Nevertheless, some of his photos from previous assignments were recycled into new covers. Elaine Duillo used the sketches from the shoot for Rebecca Brandewyne’s Swan Road stepback to transform them into a new stepback cover for Johanna Lindsey’s Joining.
Joining, Johanna Lindsey, Avon, 1999, Elaine Duillo cover art
Fabio became a U.S. citizen in 2016.
He still maintains a grueling workout regimen to keep his body in tip-top shape. Fabio also purportedly sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber, which he says “Helps reverse the aging process.”
Now in 2021, Fabio is still as handsome as ever at the age of 61.
To this day, he remains a bachelor. However, the word is out he’s finally looking for a lady to settle down with. So there is still hope for that special someone!
Final Thoughts on Fabio
Fabio was not the first, and likely, he won’t be the last superstar cover model. During Fabio’s reign as “King of the Romance Covers,” other sunning men like John DeSalvo and Steve Sandalis achieved acclaim.
After his retirement, Rob Ashton, Cherif Fortin, and Joe Anselmo rose to stardom. All of them had long hair like Fabio–although they were brunets. (So is Fabio, naturally. He dyed his hair blond.)
A few male cover models who came after gained huge success, like Jason Baca, who appeared on almost 500 covers. You can read about him here: The Male Model Who Has Appeared on More Romance Novel Covers Than Fabio.
But though he may have his imitators, there was one and only one Fabio.
I always considered Fabio easy on the eyes. He certainly was pleasing to look upon. Even so, I never pictured him as my ideal hero.
Regardless, I treasured his charm, his ultra-macho yet sensitive aura, and his ability for self-deprecation. Fabio embraced who he was: a romance icon.
Plus, above all, he loved his fans. In turn, Fabio’s fans adored him for who he was!
Fabio haters, please go and enjoy your favorite hunky models in peace. We Fabio lovers will be here to have a good time smiling over his hundreds of beautiful covers.
The Covers: Part II
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Thanks, Jacqueline. I was into romance fiction back when Fabio became a big popcult figure because of his work as a cover model.
But I was no fan of his. I felt kind embarrassed by him, and especially by his fame. He was just too over-the-top. Not my idea of a romantic hero. Much less an ideal man.
But nowadays I really dig him! Fabio is a great figure of nostalgic and romantic fun. Over the top is just right for me. It took a while, but I’m finally in on the joke, as you put it.
The image of Fabio in his prime hasn’t changed. But I have.