Long before the internet, cover models became viral sensations. As “The Topaz Man,” Steve Sandalis graced the covers of over 700 novels. CJ Hollenbach has been a fan favorite at conventions for over twenty years. And the average shopper probably can’t walk past the dairy case without thinking of Fabio (the undisputed king of romance) and his disbelief with regards to imitation butter spreads.
For as long as modern romances have existed, male models have been an integral part of their marketing. Readers love them, and love interacting with them. In 2016, Nightline somehow managed to go to a convention full of women and single out these men to profile (rather than the female authors or readers who drive the industry).
How important are models? You can see the perspectives of readers in the video, but as one woman bluntly stated, “If the book ain’t good, you can always put it on the shelf and look at it, honey.” Author Beth Williamson stated that the cover of the book was “almost” more important the content, because it was all about making a first impression with the reader. That’s not a reality that’s lost on authors or publishers. But recent developments within the romance community have many questioning just how important these men are to the success of the genre–and how much authors and readers are willing to put up with.
Since Fabio’s heyday, fan interaction has been an important part of a model’s career. In a 2015 story for Jezebel, Romantic Times founder Katheryn Falk explained the appeal that made the golden one so popular:
Katheryn Falk, the founder of Romantic Times, says a great cover model can “look a woman in the eye.” Falk adds, “Like Fabio, he was bigger than life. He thought every woman was beautiful. And he had a lot of charisma. The accent, the name. He wasn’t overdoing it, but he would pay attention. He would look them in the eye. He appreciated women and it was part of his nature and part of his charisma that all women ruled over him.”
The personality of a model was once as important as looks in becoming the object of reader fantasy. Respecting the authors and readers wasn’t just a key to success; it was a job requirement.
So, where did it all go wrong?
Recently, Faith*, an author, pleaded with romance readers and writers via Facebook, warning them of a model she’d worked with who’d harassed and stalked her. Faith says the model repeatedly asked her sexually inappropriate questions via text message, tried to pressure her into signing a contract guaranteeing him a portion of her royalties, and physically threatened her at an event. Faith initially feared retribution from her publishers and from convention directors who’d warned her against going public. Even when she eventually did, she declined to mention the model’s name. Emboldened by Faith’s story, other authors who’d had similar interactions with the model came forward, and were more than willing to name Jackson Young as their tormentor.
Public content on Young’s Facebook page features bible verses and a profile photo declaring that he loves his mother. Readers and authors have tagged him in photos from the Romantic Times convention in Las Vegas, declaring how much they enjoyed meeting him. This public persona of the aww-shucks-cornfed-country-boy has given him ample camouflage to abuse the women signing his paychecks, as well as the voracious readers who swoon over his appearance on their favorite novels. When the story went public, readers and authors alike rushed to defend him and declare Faith a liar and an attention seeker.
Another model, Paul Blake, recently posted the following tirade on Facebook:
I’m going to keep this real simple. If I see you post anything that has to do with body shaming I will delete you. Let me clarify. If you are That person that has a weight problem and your always posting these memes about how it is wrong to “body shame” I am deleting you!!!! Becaaaaaaause you are the reason many of our youth is thinking it’s okay to be obese. Idiot!!!!! You SHOULD be ashamed of yourself.
When one woman objected, Blake responded:
you should go eat your last Dairy Queen Blizzard and then hang yourself in the closet
Screenshots of the altercation quickly circulated on social media, yet some of Blake’s fans still felt that his “honesty” was refreshing. One wrote:
I know so many “big girls” who are big by choice because of poor diet and lack of exercise that have passed their poor eating habits on to their children and it frustrates me so much! Then yeah will be like curvy girls do it better and I just want to slap them because curves means you have big hips and a smaller waist line not a muffin top hence the word “curves”! I agree with you completely. Preach on, I love it!
Thank you that’s what I’m talking about I care nothing about book covers or a following. Im not a fuckin celebrity.
When damning evidence of his behavior circulated, he warned one woman via Facebook messenger:
You and all the other fat slob offers going screenshot this and pass it around I don’t give two f**** what you old horny b****** think about me that’s why your big fat ass sits behind the f******* computer and types romance novels about the dick you will never have you will all pathetic lazy b******* so you can say what you want just like I say what I want I don’t give two s****
How did the genre move from readers worshipping at the feet of Fabio, a man who worshipped and valued each and every one of them right back, to muscle-bound meatheads who proudly degrade women and tell them to kill themselves?
Romance novels have always been the domain of women, from the majority of editorial staff, agents who represent clients within the genre, to the authors and readers. Even romance novels about gay men are written and consumed predominately by cis heterosexual women. The genre has made millionaires (Nora Roberts, E.L. James, Danielle Steel, among others), and boasts a loyal and hungry fanbase. So then why, in an industry driven by women, are these abuses allowed to happen?
The actions of these men are their own responsibility, and only they are accountable for them. But the fostering of the toxic culture within romance that has elevated them to near untouchable status lies squarely on the industry. Authors, publishers, and conventions have gleefully touted the importance of a square jaw and rock-hard abs as an integral part of fully enjoying the romance experience. Some authors even hire their cover models to attend their signings, in the hopes of drawing a larger crowd. When the models begin to believe that they’re so important or noteworthy that they no longer need the authors or readers, something has to give.
Change in the genre must come from within. While many authors and readers stepped up to publicly shame Blake and Young, social media outcry isn’t enough to protect future victims of harassment. Authors and publishers must agree to stop hiring any amateur with a nice body because he’ll settle for a low paycheck. Background checks should be mandatory before models can attend reader events (during the social media backlash, Blake boasted to one author that he had spent time in prison on weapons charges). And when an author or reader levies serious accusations against a model, those accusations should be investigated, not hushed up. Romance is a billion dollar industry. Surely it can afford to safeguard its readers and authors.
*Name changed to protect the individual