THE BASE OF FABIO’S DRIVEWAY, Saturday, 6:47 a.m.
I ’m having second thoughts. This isn’t just a quick interview. I’ve signed up for a 15-hour road trip with the romance novel king. Sal and Dean. Thelma and Louise. Me and Fabio. What on Earth are we going to talk about as we roll from Los Angeles to Washington state?
Fabio buzzes me in. He wears snug designer jeans and a thin, gray shirt open at the neck. As he smiles, I’m immediately struck by how normal he looks. Not normal like you and me. But no Brian Bosworth neck, no overflowing locks. He is 56 and more than intact. He’s Fabio. An attractive, young woman wearing a frilly coat emerges from the house and hops into her car. Their relationship is purely platonic. She watches his four Rottweilers.
Above: Fabio, at his property in Stevenson, Wash. (Terry Manier for The Washington Post)
Video: On the road with Fabio
I wander over. He’s standing in front of a garage packed with about 100 dirt bikes. He tells me he’s got 225 more.
Why does anybody need so many bikes?
“There’s 365 days in a year,” Fabio says with a chuckle.
The Chevy Silverado is packed with our bags, a massive wooden bed and a water-filled jug with koi. The truck is a special Texas edition that’s been Fabio-fied, with shocks specially ordered from Porsche.
He tells me he plans to spend at least half of the year up north on his 500-acre, wooded estate:
“It’s one of the most beautiful places. Not just in America. But in the world.”
Male-model musings with Fabio
Strangely enough, another male model brought us together. Jason Aaron Baca, also based in California, has been e-blasting media outlets for months to urge them to write about his attempt to shatter Fabio’s cover record. Some bit, including the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and People magazine.
The problem, for me, is that I don’t buy Baca’s premise. Sure, he might eventually end up doing more covers than Fabio, who no longer poses for books. But he’ll never be Fabio. He’ll never hang with Kathy Ireland, declare “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” or grace the big screen in such cinematic masterpieces as “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and “Zoolander.”
Carrie Feron, the executive editor of romance king Avon Books, agrees.
“I don’t think the number of movies an actor has been in makes them better or worse,” she says. “The quality of the work he did is what counts. There is no other Fabio.”
I am grateful for Baca’s pitch. It led me to call Fabio’s manager, Eric Ashenberg, and ask what the model was up to. He told me about Fabio’s two great passions: a protein powder he’s been selling since 2008 and the 500 acres.
I asked Ashenberg to email pictures of the estate. They were stunning. There was a mountain vista. A lake surrounded by redwoods. And a waterfall. It was easy to imagine Fabio, in his big-haired glory, gazing out from the mist as a blond beauty embraced his pecs.
“So could I go up there with him?” I asked the manager.
A portrait of Fabio and an ad for the Italian brand Area in the early years of his modeling career. (Courtesy of Fabio Lanzoni)
The airport in Portland, he said, was only 45 minutes away from the Washington spread.
No, I told him. If I’m going to do this, there can be no shortcuts. I’ve got to do it Fabio’s way. We’ve got to hit the road together.
We are closing in on Sacramento. Everything’s flat and dry. We pass rows of dead fruit trees as Fabio begins to open up about moving to the States from Italy in 1980.
“My father was totally against it,” he says. “My father always said, ‘He’s going to get it out of his system and come back with his tail between his legs.’ That didn’t happen.”
Sauro Lanzoni was the wealthy owner of a company that built assembly lines. His wife was a former beauty queen. Fabio, their middle child, was difficult. He couldn’t stop breaking rules and getting kicked out of school. One thing he didn’t do was drugs. A teenage friend had died of a heroin overdose. That shook him up, and even now Fabio doesn’t so much as nurse a glass of wine.
At 17, he stayed with a friend in Seattle. By his 21st birthday, he had left Italy for good.
“They don’t call it the Italian dream or the English dream,” he says. “In America, there is the American Dream. It was the first place to give people of any social background their dream. You can achieve anything.”
After puttering around a bit — even taking a business course — he walked into the Ford Modeling Agency (he had done some modeling back in Italy) and was signed to a contract. He got a Gap campaign and, eventually, the romance covers. At first, he modeled like everybody else. Day-long shoots for a few hundred dollars. Then, at a party, the head of one of the book companies approached. She had been drinking and let Fabio know a secret. Every time he graced a cover, book sales skyrocketed. Fabio told his manager. Before long, he signed a new deal to put out novels under his own name — with a ghostwriter — and was earning as much as $150,000 for a book.
A selection of romance-novel covers featuring Fabio, top, and Jason Aaron Baca, bottom, who hopes to topple Fabio’s romance-cover record.
A selection of romance-novel covers featuring Fabio, top, and Jason Aaron Baca, bottom, who hopes to topple Fabio’s romance-cover record. (Fabio Lanzoni photo by Larry Marano/Getty Images; Jason Aaron Baca photo by Portia Shao)
We start talking about women. Fabio wants kids, but he’s got to find the right woman. That’s the challenge.
I tell him that I talked to his close friend Amy Kapatkin, a veterinary professor at UC-Davis, and we had come to the same conclusion. If Fabio wants a family, he’s going to have to take the plunge. He can no longer date women in their 20s.
Fabio has his own take:
“A lot of people, they think, ‘Oh, I’m only going to be happy when I find a special person who is going to make me happy.’ No. In life, you have to be happy with yourself first, number one. When you’re happy with yourself, you have to find another person who is happy with herself so you can share your happiness.”
Fabio doesn’t mumble. He’s deeply expressive, his eyes dancing from the road to my spot in the passenger seat. He claps to punctuate a point, takes his hands off the wheel for long stretches to accentuate his words. He lays out the burden of a blessed man.
“I have an amazing life,” he says. “If I find the other person to share my amazing life, that’s amazing, it’s beautiful. But the other woman, she has to be in the same position. I don’t want to carry somebody else’s suitcase. I don’t want to carry somebody else’s baggage.”
There was a girl once. Jennifer. They met when he was 23, she 19. She modeled for L’Oréal. He was blasting through his 20s.
“She had the biggest heart, was always there, was caring and loving,” he says. “But I was too young and too wild.”
In the late 1980s, after six years together, Fabio called it off. He regretted it and, a few years later, tried to get back in touch. Jennifer had changed her number, so he sent a note through a friend. She never responded.
“My mom, she goes, ‘Fabio, if you’re not 100 percent that you’re going to marry her, you have to let her go. You can’t keep her there waiting for you. But she’s an amazing woman and you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.’ ”
“She was right.”
Fabio and Madeline Kahn in a 1995 episode of the short-lived series ''New York News.'' (Everett Collection via CBS)
Usually, on road trips, I stop for snacks. Coffee. A slice. Even a McDonald’s soft-serve. That’s not how Fabio rolls. Stops are scheduled with joyless efficiency for when we need gas. At the first convenience mart, he buys a pair of protein bars. I choose bananas and a package of beef jerky. And then, when Fabio ducks into the men’s room, I sneak one of those 25-cent mini Reese’s peanut-butter cups at the register. It’s consumed before he gets back.
Even Fabio’s water is special. Back in the truck, I notice his bottle is tinted. He tells me he adds vitamin C. And not off the counter. This is a pharmaceutical grade he’s brought back from Europe.
We talk a little about food in the car. I note that he looks lighter than during his romance-cover heyday. He is. Back then, he packed 248 pounds of muscle onto his 6-foot-3 frame. Today he’s down to 228 pounds. I ask about his hair. He has highlights. When I bring up his eating preferences, he notes that he doesn’t eat cheese, fried foods or sweets. Conveniently, he doesn’t like them. Then there’s the health implications.
“It’s like a car,” he says. “If you fill it up with 83 octane, your car is going to be a slouch. But if you put in race fuel, even a quarter of a tank, your car is going to have amazing performance.”
“We’re coming up on Weed.”
We laugh like eighth-graders making a crank call when Fabio says that. We laugh again as we pass signs for this curiously named town near the Oregon border. “Central Weed.” “North Weed Blvd.” The terrain is shifting. The reddish walls of Lake Shasta swirl on either side of the road below. That we see so much of them is another measure of how little rain has fallen.
By now, every anxiety I felt in the driveway is gone. We are strangers, yes, but Fabio can talk for hours. He bounces between politics and the environment to the San Bernardino shootings and entertainment-world dish. He grows serious as we discuss the great tragedy in his life, the 2013 death of his younger sister, Christina, to ovarian cancer.
Then we talk modeling. How Naomi Campbell is not the kindest lady (okay, he uses the b-word). How a buddy tried to set him up with Andie MacDowell (“a beautiful person but not my type at all”).
He has been offered every kind of show. “Dancing with the Stars.” “The Bachelor.” “The Apprentice.” He has turned them down.
“Usually, when people put themselves in that position, they do it because they’re desperate for money and attention,” he says. “Why do you have to do something that’s degrading? For the money? There’s not enough money in this world to make me do something degrading.”
We are close. It’s dark. The mountains surround us. The rhythm of the wipers is making me nod off. Dry California is behind us. We are now in the Pacific Northwest. I mention the waterfall.
“I don’t think we can see it this trip,” Fabio says.
“There have been big storms,” Fabio tells me. “We can’t get to it. The water’s too high.”
I let that sit, figuring I can convince him otherwise once we get to Washington. Then I slip out of consciousness. Fabio is still talking. I finally shake myself awake when we reach the Bridge of the Gods. I give Fabio a crumpled $1 bill for the toll, and we cruise down the final 2,000 feet of steel trusses that mark the end of our journey.
Fabio pulls in to the Skamania Lodge, a resort that borders his property, before the kitchen closes. It is 9:58 p.m. We made excellent time. He tells me the burger is good, so I order one with cheese, onions, a side of fries and a dark, local porter. Fabio, of course, gets two patties without the roll, a plate of cucumbers and a cup of Earl Grey tea. I feel mild shame as I eat.
Three women approach, a grandmother, a mother and their college-age daughter. “He’s hotter than ever,” the mother tells me.
A young woman, sitting with a group of friends, comes over and places a shot on the table. “That’s for you,” she tells him. Fabio politely declines. She then hands him her cellphone so he can talk to her friend because, well, he’s never going to believe it’s Fabio.
The next day we will walk his wooded property and stand where he plans to build a dream house with sharp angles and glass. We will sit by a lake, and I’ll ask him whether he’s had any work done. (Of course not!) We will not get to the waterfall. The path to it is flooded. There will be breakfast at the lodge — I let him order for me this time, a pair of egg-white omelets — and a woman will recruit Fabio for a celebration being held for her grandmother Ruth, who is turning 90.
It is then that I’ll ask Fabio whether he minds being bothered while he’s trying to eat his eggs. Not at all. These fans, he says, are why he has everything.
“Nobody put a gun to your head to be famous,” he says. “If you don’t want to be, go and work in a mine. You want your privacy? You have enough money. Get on a plane. Go to a private island. Nobody will bug you here. You have all the privacy in the world.”
He orders and consumes a third egg-white omelet. “Are you full?” I ask.
Fabio meets a fan in Coconut Creek, Fla., in 2012. (Larry Marano/Getty Images)