Fabio Lanzoni (yes, he has a last name) looms large in U.S. pop culture. With his comically outsized masculinity, he shills products like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and Old Spice. He makes cameo appearances in such cinematic classics as Dude, Where’s My Car? and Zoolander. And every one of those gigs arose from the job that originally propelled him into the spotlight: the meteoric rise of Fabio romance novels and cover modeling.
The famous Fabio romance covers of the 1980s and ’90s were glorious, embarrassing, corny, sexy, or off putting, depending on whom you ask. Because of their prominence, Fabio is shorthand for a man with flowing locks, gripping a comely woman against his glossy, hairless chest in a pose known as a clinch.
He’s something of a bad penny to romance readers, forever coming back to haunt us. Or maybe he’s a joke we played on ourselves.
Many romance readers and writers are eager to move beyond the constrained vision of masculinity Fabio represents. Yet there he is, enshrined in the genre, perhaps known more widely than any single romance author or title to the broader public. Can we demystify Fabio? If we look at him as a collection of facts and figures, can we understand his appeal any better? I hope so, and I aim to try.
Fabio Lanzoni was born in Milan, Italy. A photographer discovered him, as they say, when he was working out at a gym at age 14. He modeled teen clothing part time throughout high school.
Fabio left Italy after completing his compulsory military service. He arrived in the United States to continue pursuing his modeling career. Before finding success through romance cover art, Fabio appeared in print ads for The Gap and television spots for Nintendo.
Fabio’s chest circumference. That’s about 122 centimeters for our metric system-using readers.
The approximate amount of time it takes a white oak tree to grow to a circumference of 48 inches.
4 90-Minute Sessions Per Week
Fabio’s weightlifting and cardio regimen, as told on a television interview in the 1990s.
How long it allegedly took Fabio from arriving at Ford Models in New York without an appointment to getting a contract.
When Fabio appeared on the cover of Johanna Lindsey’s Hearts Aflame. Elaine Duillo, the legendary artist who painted that cover from a photograph of Fabio, had previously used his image on the back of Bertrice Small’s Enchantress Mine.
When Enchantress Mine sold well, Duillo put Fabio front and center on Lindsey’s Viking romance. Duillo said Hearts Aflame was her first “major cover” with Fabio, but she does not remember the actual first.
Once Per Week
Fabio’s chest shaving regimen.
Number of book covers on which Fabio is an angel.
“Maybe 19 covers total”
Number of covers Elaine Duillo painted using Fabio as her model, according to her interview in Illustration magazine. Despite the iconic nature of Duillo’s covers, she resists the “Fabio artist” label.
Perhaps the only person eager to take credit for the Fabio phenomenon is Kathryn Falk, the founder of Romantic Times, the publication for romance fans that ran from 1981 to 2018. Jezebel’s essential piece on the history of romance covers tracks the relationship between Romantic Times, romance covers, and Fabio. And Falk herself claims Fabio as her discovery in a guest post on the blog Writers in the Storm.
Number of covers Elaine Duillo painted using Chad Deal as her male model.
The area code of Miami, Florida, where Fabio claims he discovered his modeling photos were becoming romance novel cover art, according to a television interview. A woman told him he looked like the man on the covers of her books. He believed she was coming onto him. Undaunted, she then produced one of her books (???) in the club (???) to prove it to him.
The increase in sales publishing companies told Fabio was attributable to his face on a cover. The method by which that particular statistic was calculated is unknown.
The cost to call Fabio’s 24-hour hotline, in which callers could hear “intimate stories from around the world,” read by Fabio.
The number of tracks on Fabio After Dark, the 1994 album Fabio recorded that truly defies explanation. Prepare yourself for a love attack:
Different animal species voyeuristically appearing on Fabio romance covers.
$3000 Per Hour
Fabio’s pay for modeling sessions according to a 1993 People profile. That’s $5,430.77 per hour in 2021 dollars.
How far Slate‘s February 2021 piece about romance skeptics reading The Duke and I, the first novel in the Bridgerton series, makes it before Fabio’s name appears. The Duke and I does not have Fabio on the cover, nor did it ever. Fabio has not appeared on the covers of any of Julia Quinn’s novels. In other words, Fabio truly has nothing to do with the Bridgerton phenomenon.
When I worked in the video game industry eons ago, I learned a joking term called “start to crate.” That’s the amount of time spent playing a video game before encountering a crate, as a measure of a game’s quality. Basically, the sooner the crate, the worse the game. In video game design, a crate is an easy-to-create object for filling space in the game world, but it does little to add to a game’s visual appeal. Therefore, games with low “start to crate” counts imply the studio ran out some combination of money, time, and ideas before releasing the game to the public.
I’m proposing a similar measure, “words to Fabio.” When it comes to romance, writers certainly have the choice to pluck this low-hanging fruit. Cracking a Fabio joke reminds us that romance shouldn’t be taken seriously, right? Such jokes can also show writers haven’t spent much time on romance, or thought up a novel approach on the topic. Or perhaps whoever is publishing their work isn’t putting money, time, or ideas into finding people qualified to write about romance and willing to take it seriously.
How many words The New York Times piece chronicling the success of Bridgerton makes it before our favorite Italian stallion pops up.
Number of book covers on which Fabio is a ghost.
4 Times Per Year
The release schedule for The Gentle Conqueror, the fanzine dedicated to Fabio mentioned in a 1993 People article.
16 Covers Per Day
Fabio’s peak output as a cover model.
The amount of work I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter does in maintaining Fabio’s health and fitness, according to a television interview.
“Almost 500,” “Over 500,” “Over 1000”
The number of Fabio romance covers out there, depending on which profile you read or interview you watch. No one seems to have a comprehensive list. This Goodreads list, for instance, has collected only 174 covers, and the galleries on Fabio’s fan club website have nearly 300.
As a note, when you see an image of Fabio that looks like a cover but lacks a title and author, those are likely “step-backs,” the full page of art just inside a paperback cover. For example, Fabio’s favorite cover is actually a step-back, for Man of My Dreams.
The definitive number of Fabio romance covers, according to cover model Jason Baca, who now claims the title for most romance covers. Baca was profiled by The Cut, among other outlets, in 2016, when he had 485 covers. That press tour should have been the dance on the grave of Fabio’s romance career, except Fabio has clearly become a romance zombie. In 2019, Baca told People he was hanging up the cowboy hat and kilt with 635 published covers, with a few more still in the pipeline.
Fabio’s payment for his first three romance novels, titled Pirate, Viking, and Rogue, published by romance giant Avon in 1993–1994. Although these books were ghostwritten by novelist Eugenia Riley, only the mononym Fabio appeared on the cover. Fabio freely admitted using a ghostwriter but said the plots of the books were his ideas. Fabio posed on the covers of these books with nary a woman in sight. Elaine Duillo, the artist who first put Fabio on a book, illustrated these covers as well.
The setting for Fabio’s Pirate. “Historical accuracy” has become a hot button issue in historical romance. Some authors are working against the erasure of marginalized people from the historical record by writing them into romance. Others seem very dedicated to maintaining that erasure. Fabio, vibrating on his own frequency, wanted to write for the readers of the day. That’s why he insisted on passages in the text with anti-smoking and AIDS awareness messaging. The former is vaguely plausible; President George Washington’s surgeon general was an anti-tobacco activist. The latter, less so: the first documented case of HIV dates to 1959.
Somewhere Between 1991 and 1998
Fabio stopped modeling and stopped appearing on romance covers. This is where things get hazy again. According to his published biography, Fabio retired from modeling in 1991. Given that Fabio romance covers were generally illustrated or painted from photos of him, artists could continue using his photographs well after he stopped posing for them. The blurb for his biography said he “stepped off” romance novel covers in 1992 after over 55,000,000 Fabio romance covers had sold.
A note about that biography: Fabio’s former manager Peter F. Paul wrote Fabio’s biography, Fabio. Paul has racked up convictions for drug possession, securities fraud, and a conspiracy charge related to an absolutely bananas plot to defraud the Cuban government by selling them nonexistent coffee and then scuttling the ship carrying the imaginary coffee. He also attempted to travel to Canada using a dead man’s identity. Needless to say, my trust in Paul’s text is tenuous.
I consulted Dr. Donnamaie White, who maintains the most comprehensive website dedicated to Fabio. She told me that Fabio had stopped modeling by the time he began publishing his own books, which was in 1993. Dr. White has also provided some of the best insight into Fabio’s allure. In an article about Fabio in the book Romantic Conventions, Dr. White spoke of facing sexual harassment while working in the tech industry. She said of her coworkers: “These men do not inspire dreams, just disgust. Instead I dream of Fabio…”
Ultimately, if one still considers Fabio a cover model while he modeled only for his own book covers, I think the latest one could conceivably call him a model is 1998. That’s when he appeared on the cover of the last of his own romance novels, Mysterious.
The most generous estimate of the length of Fabio’s romance cover–adjacent career. It was really more like six years.
The number of words by which Fabio’s name precedes Joanna Lindsey’s name by in the USA Today headline about her death in 2019. That headline, “Fabio pays tribute to ‘incredible’ romance novelist Johanna Lindsey, who died at 67,” might imply the article is about Fabio’s tribute. The article, however, is about Lindsey’s life and prolific career. Despite the headline, Fabio has Johanna Lindsey to thank for his career and not the other way around.
The “words to Fabio” count for Alyssa Cole’s 2020 profile in Slate. (At least they didn’t lead with him?) Cole began publishing her fantastic romances long after even the last of the Fabio romance covers had been weeded from bookstore shelves.
The number of companies/organizations Fabio is or has been the spokesperson for, including I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Geek Squad, and Old Spice. His relationship with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter began in 1994 and he was name-dropped on their Instagram as recently as Valentine’s Day 2021. Compare that to length of Fabio’s romance modeling career.
Estimated number of dirt bikes Fabio owns. He aspires to have one for each day of the year. (No word on a leap day dirt bike.)
The number of contestants competing for glory on Mr. Romance, a 2005 reality competition show about romance novel cover modeling created by Kiss lead singer Gene Simmons and hosted by Fabio.
The number of times Fabio appears in the Goodreads profile of Beverly Jenkins. So it is possible! Night Song, Beverly Jenkins’s first novel, arrived in 1994, just as the Fabio wave was cresting and he was turning his attention to other ventures. Jenkins’s romances celebrating Black love have been treasured by romance readers who know a thing or two about the best of the genre ever since.
The year of the famed Armory Show in New York, credited with bringing modern art to American shores. When I read The Modern Art Invasion, I learned romance is not the only field plagued by a lazy joke that won’t die. Any time you come across a joke about a talentless artist getting drunk and throwing paint at a canvas or letting their pet walk over it, know that those jokes have been around for over 100 years. Perhaps the public’s reaction to challenging visual art has not changed much over time.
Still, those kinds of jokes don’t appear in the paper of record every time contemporary art makes the news. Romance is rarely so lucky. The banana duct taped to the wall at Art Basel in 2019 got respectful coverage referencing artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 was on display at the Armory in 1913, mocked by many then, and revered now. Duchamp is an artist known for walking that tightrope between jokester and genius.
Is it fair to compare Elaine Duillo’s sumptuous, outlandishly sensual artwork with Duchamp’s avant garde work? I say sure. Is there not something slyly humorous in the unabashed horniness on display on Duillo’s covers, ones that could be found someplace as decidedly unsexy as a grocery store aisle? A urinal on display in an art exhibition, a breathless clinch next to cans of soup: both provocative, and I know which I have more fun looking at.
Given the longevity of modern art jokes, romance readers should buckle in. Fabio may outlive us all. Until romance at large can throw off the yoke of that ideal “hero” who hasn’t changed much since Fabio’s time — still outrageously masculine, white, heterosexual, non-disabled, neurotypical — we’re probably stuck with him.
Despite that, throughout romance history, there have been amazing books. Some with Fabio on the cover, and even more that have absolutely nothing to do with him. While Fabio may be the joke romance played on itself, the joke is also on the people who can’t get past Fabio. They’re the ones missing out on all the fun.