From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Fabio, the man with a face that has launched a thousand romance novels and a chest on which a squadron of fighter planes could land with no problem, is having a hard day at the office. Or, to be more precise, a bad afternoon at the beach. The sparkling sands of Maui—where he has repaired to pose for the next edition of his phenomenally successful pinup calendar—keep whipping up and blowing into his long, honey-blond eyelashes. The ship's rigging from which he dangled deliciously for a nautical shot has left nasty rope burns on the soles of his bare feet. And now comes romantic frustration in the form of a beautiful, bikini-clad fan.

"I teach surfing, if you want a lesson," says the woman.

"I'd lawv one," says Fabio, in his seductive Milanese accent.

"Hold it!" shouts a photo assistant, who immediately intervenes. As the woman disappears into the crowd, Fabio's turquoise eyes follow her with a look of intense longing. But he says nothing—just sighs, adjusts his imitation-leather cutoffs and reclenches his 6'3", 225-lb. body for the camera.

Then he sighs again.

So many fantasies to inspire, so little time.

To the Me Decade and the Go-Go Years now add the Fabio Moment. Just three years ago, Fabio Lanzoni was an anonymous hunk in a half-open shirt, staring out from the covers of paperbacks with names like Enchantress Mine and Warrior's Woman. His primary goal in life was to show his father, a wealthy Italian industrialist who had refused to finance his son's trip to America in the early '80s, that, to quote Fabio, "I dohn need your help." Now, at 32, Fabio has become a celebrity who can no longer sit in a restaurant and have his favorite meal—a five-egg-white and mushroom omelette washed down with a quart of cranberry juice—without causing a commotion. Each day's mail brings several hundred love letters, many of them large and lumpy with offerings of lingerie. Cosmopolitan has declared him "The Sexiest Man in the World"; feminist lawyer Gloria Alfred says, "His je ne sais quoi attracts women; he's one of the few men I've never sued"; and actress Sally Kirkland, while speaking with Fabio about love recently on an L.A. talk show, suddenly screamed, "I'm having an orgasm!"

Indeed, it is hard to find a female who does not adore Fabio. "He's a wonderful person," says Rhonda Gainer, an ex-business associate who filed a $6 million suit against Fabio when he allegedly broke a licensing-and-management agreement. Some women even attribute minor miracles to the former teenage shot-put star, as if he were a primitive shaman or a prospective saint. "Fabio has a very special magic," says Tina Jakes, 33, of Atlanta, the coeditor of a quarterly Fabio fanzine called The Gentle Conqueror. "Just about every woman he meets loses weight."

It isn't easy being the object of such mass adoration, especially if, like Fabio, you want "just one woman, the special one" and haven't been able to find her, owing to all the bench presses and TV shows you have to do in a given week. ("The media loves him," says Sally Jessy Raphael, "because he's handsome, intelligent and nice.") But Fabio's personal longings have taken a backseat to a mission that fate—and his Beverly Hills business partner, Peter Paul, 47—has placed in his path. "I want to bring more lawv and romance into the society," says Fabio, who sees himself not as a male model or a role model but as a simple man "selling beautiful fantasy to the world."

Behold the Willy Loman of love: a hardworking guy who knows the territory and makes no bones about being a salesman. Fabio has a 1-900 number on which he asserts such beliefs as "A man should protect hees woman" for $1.99 per minute. He has a CD, Fabio After Dark, on which he recites such lines as "Her caress ees my command" over steamy music. And this week he begins his stint on TV's syndicated Acapulco H.E.A.T. His role—a mysterious hotel owner who aids a SWAT team headed by Dynasty's Catherine Oxenberg—is not particularly large, one reason being that Fabio refuses to appear in any scenes involving bloodshed ("There is already too much guns and violence in the world," he says). Still the TV exposure can't hurt the Fabio fragrance (Mediterraneum by Versace), Fabio's first novel (Pirate, due Nov. 1 from Avon) and, down the road, a product line of jewelry, watches, T-shirts and posters to be offered on a home-shopping channel.

Fabio himself has few material needs. Though his income remains a closely guarded secret, he does drive a Rolls-Royce, a Jaguar, a Mercedes and a Porsche. He owns a 2,100-square-foot apartment in Manhattan and rents a two-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. There, he will sit on the deck and contemplate such things as lovemaking (His first time was at age 15. "She was 18, and I was ready. She was very far from a beauty, but I thought she had great personality") and his controversial theories about pasta ("I eat it only for lunch because it turns to fat while you sleep").

Fabio seems to share a philosophy with several of America's most successful service-oriented corporations: Always give people a little more than they expect. When he posed for pinup shots at up to $3,000 an hour, Fabio didn't just stand there and flex: "I aways see behind the camera to the person who looks at my picture. I make sure my eyes look right into the person." When he meets women at personal appearances, "I always try to put in a good word," he says. "If you are good to people, good will come back to you. The universe is run by this law." Ellen Wulf, 40, a San Antonio receptionist who won a phone call from Fabio in a contest sponsored by his 1-900 line, says he made her feel "like I was the only person in the world. I'm the one who had to cut off our conversation because I didn't know what else to ask him."

Raise a question, though, and Fabio will reveal almost anything. No, he didn't really write his novel, he talked it into a tape recorder. Yes, he has blond highlights added to his hair. No, he is not circumcised but "just like Mother Nature made me." And yes, like regular folks, he shampoos with little bottles of stuff he takes from hotels. His love life? On the day PEOPLE visited his Hollywood home, a pair of women's high-heel clogs pecked from beneath his king-size bed—but Fabio warned that the world should not be misled. Though he indulges in frequent flings, he has no significant other, and he claims to be haunted by the memory of the one woman he really loved: a New York model ("No name, please") with whom he ended a four-year relationship in 1992. "I was so stupid," he admits sadly. "I cheat on her near the end. I ruin something beautiful for fooling around."

One might think carrying a torch and confessing to lapses of fidelity would work to discourage female admirers. But in fact such signs of vulnerability seem to do for fans what regular doses of vitamins B6 and B12 do for Fabio. "He's very human," says actress-singer Lainie Kazan, who met Fabio on a talk show. "I thought he was just another pretty boy, but when I spoke with him, I changed my mind. You get the best of both worlds: a hard body and a soft heart." Critic Camille Paglia, author of Sexual Personae and a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has never met Fabio, but she has thought a lot about him. "Fabio is a skilled seducer who is very attentive to women in the courtly European way," Paglia says. "He worships women, and he fulfills their dream of a man who has the physique of a hunk and the emotional sense of an artist or poet. Fabio is in tune with the mass audience; his popularity isn't just media hype."

That is pretty high praise for a guy who is basically into nonstop flirting. Entering the studio of the John and Leeza program recently, he took one look at cohost Leeza Gibbons and slopped dead in his tracks. "If you weren't married," he said, "I'd be after you in a heartbeat."

The birthrate for bronze Adonises who measure time in heartbeats is shockingly low. It's possible, in fact, that no one quite like Fabio has come along since he made his entrance, in Milan, on March 15, 1961, the son of Flora Carnicelli and her husband, Sauro Lanzoni, the owner of a conveyor-belt factory. His parents provided every luxury for Fabio, his older brother, Walter, and his younger sister, Cristina. But when Fabio got to school, he turned rebel. "I couldn't just sit down and listen to the lesson," he recalls. "I always used to pick on the little girl next to me." While serving as an altar boy, he says, he once put a whoopee cushion on the priest's chair in church. "The priests hale my guts," says Fabio. "They tell me, 'One day you gonna be in jail and I gonna bring you food theere.' "

At 14, while doing calisthenics at a health club, Fabio met a photographer who needed a young male to model a teen-clothing line. Thus began a career that continued part-time through high school. Fabio's primary diversion, however, was athletics: Besides putting the shot, he was a local ski-racing champ until he broke his leg on an icy slalom course at 16. As part of his rehab, he began to lift weights. Soon he was winning bodybuilding contests, but his modeling career suffered when he grew too big for many Italian clothes.

When Fabio graduated from high school, his father pressured him to study engineering and enter the family business. But a girlfriend persuaded Fabio to try modeling in the U.S. Sauro, though he speaks weekly by phone with his famous son, still seems bitter about Fabio's career path. "My son," he says, "has been ruined by women."

Still, he can't say his boy ever had to struggle much. Fifteen minutes after Fabio walked into the Ford Models agency in Manhattan, he had a contract. "I knew he was going to be big someday," says men's-division head Rita Valentine. Among early assignments were print ads for the Gap and TV spots for Nintendo. Fabio's big break came when he was chosen to model for the cover of the 1987 romance novel Hearts Aflame; as he continued to model, his books did better than expected. At one point, Fabio was posing for as many as 16 covers in a single day, rearing high on the backs of stallions, brandishing sabers and ripping bodices till his fingernails bled.

"It's his body!" says former Knots Landing star Michelle Phillips, staring at Fabio at Club Tatou in L.A. "It makes you want to reach out to see if it's real." And very real it is, thanks to a low-fat diet and four 90-minute sessions each week at Gold's Gym in L.A. Still, a willingness to pretend is one of Fabio's prime assets. Take his career as an actor. Though he had only a few hasty lessons, "I was not nervous," he says while he was shooting Acapulco H.E.A.T. Likewise, he knocked out his Fabio After Dark CD after only enough sessions with vocal coach Joann Zajac so that she could notice, "He has a nice big Italian instrument."

Yet if no mentor has ever really trained Fabio, neither has anyone ever had to admonish him to lighten up. He knows that his novel—with lines like "She stretched upward to give him her mouth"—won't win the National Book Award and that his musical fantasies, which lend to involve invitations to come to a "tropeecal island," will never be confused with Stephen Sondheim's. "Listen," he says, "if you take the way you talk when you're in lawv, you say, 'Oh, my God. I sound like an eediot. But it's good when you can make fun of yourself. It means' you are the most secure person."

But, alas, perhaps not yet the most complete. Back in his Ritz-Carlton hotel room in Maui after the calendar shoot, slipping into a pair of midnight-blue Claude Montana slacks (32-inch waist) and a black, silk Versace jacket (size 48), Fabio can't seem to forget his former girlfriend. "She was so nice, so gentle, so patient," he says. "But once something is broken, you cannot put it back together. It is too hard." Harder even than striding into the harsh light of late 1993 and trying to conjure up a world of romance. But what can he do? Go back to the conveyor-belt factory—or become, as he says, "one of those people who just work on their look"? No way. "I'm gonna keep developing something inside," he says. "That way, when I'm 60, I'm not gonna be one of those people who try all the plastic surgery and be ridiculous. I'm gonna say, I expressed myself. And now I'm a happy man."

MICHAEL SMALL
LEONORA DODSWORTH in Rome

  • Contributors:
  • Leonora Dodsworth.