Off Duty, This New York Fireman Follows a Different Siren's Song

updated 08/23/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/23/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Even though he might grimace with embarrassment, you could still call John McKernan a hero, both in fact and in fantasy. As a New York City firefighter, McKernan, 33, has been cited twice for bravery. And as a professional model (6'1", 170 pounds, size 40 regular), he is a handsome hunk who has smoldered passionately for the covers of hundreds of romance novels.

If he had to pick between valor and vanity, however, McKernan leaves no doubt as to what makes his own heart throb. "There's a camaraderie among firemen, a sense of brotherhood that I've just never seen in any other occupation," says the five-year veteran, now assigned to Tower Ladder Company 14 in East Harlem. "You never feel so alive as after a fire, when it's all over and you've done a good job." Proof of his dedication is his departmental awards: one for carrying a smoke-blinded man out of a burning apartment, another for subduing a knife-wielding arson suspect.

He isn't bad at his other job either, thanks in part to his strong zygomatic arch (bone structure around the brow and cheeks), which gives him "good facial shadows." "He's the epitome of a romantic-looking man with his dark, curly hair and his blue-green eyes," says Vicky Pribble, who heads the men's division of Manhattan's Zoli Agency, John's modeling base.

McKernan has posed for all sorts of advertisements and commercials, but his specialty is book jackets, most of them Gothic romances found in paperback racks. He models for photographs (almost invariably embracing some swooning heroine) from which artists later paint a cover scene. "John's a real pro," says photographer Bob Osonitsch. "He's so adaptable he can go right from candlelight and Gothic to modern and raunchy. Sometimes he'll come to the studio right off fire duty, and I'll say, 'Jeez, John, you still smell smoky.' But on goes the 18th-century costume, and in another second he's up there in a clinch."

The son of a New York subway detective, McKernan graduated from Richmond College on Staten Island. He got into modeling while awaiting his NYFD appointment, a wait that stretched seven years between the time he passed his exam and the time financially strapped New York City resumed hiring. At the firehouse he is nicknamed "Face," but the joshing is "never malicious," he says. "If someone spots my picture in a magazine, the guys will hang it in the latrine." The fact that his income from his moonlighting nearly equals his fireman's salary of around $25,000 hasn't hurt his social life a bit. "I'm not intimidated by beautiful women the way I used to be," the bachelor notes. "You see through beauty fast, down to what really counts: personality."

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