updated 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Only a year ago, he was nothing more than an image—though a delicious one, to be sure—quietly gracing the covers of millions of those soul-stirring, bodice-ripping romance novels. Then—be still, gentle hearts!—this standard-bearer of masculinity came alive, and thus spake the wild-maned Fabio. And spake and spake and spake.

With the help of an aggressive public-relations campaign, sponsored in part by Avon Books, and his own colossal charisma, he parlayed his day job into a 24-hour conglomerate, seducing a nation of dreamy-eyed romance readers with a hot-selling calendar (200,000 copies sold this year) and his very own 900 number. For a mere $1.99 a minute, he'll expound on romance in an aurally challenging Milanese accent: "If something comes from inside, is more beautiful," he coos. (Hey, you were expecting Elizabeth Barrett Browning maybe?) Then there was October's launch of the Fabio International Fan Club in San Antonio, where 2.000 breathless admirers gathered. Paid members ($15 per year) got to pose in the embrace of the Bronzed One against a backdrop of a pirate ship on a moonlit night. Gushes fan club president Ellen Wulf, 39, a San Antonio homemaker: "He is probably the ideal of every woman's romantic fantasy."

And a darned good sport too. As Fabio himself says, "Because of the way I look, people think I'm going to be very stuck up. And I'm not!"

No, you can't tell this book by his covers! (Or his exclamation points!)

At 6'3" and 220 lbs. of hard hubba-hubba, Fabio, 31, is this year's hunk "with a vision," as he puts it. His mission is to build confidence and self-esteem in each of our souls, using a three-tined program of mind power ("You make your own destiny!"), body power ("You can be closer to physical perfection!") and humility ("I'm nobody special!"). And if his spiritual message won't persuade you, perhaps his new line of health, vitamin and exercise products (to be marketed in 1993) will.

Newly unattached after the breakup of a three-year love match, Fabio is too busy brand-building to be dating. But his ideal woman "is intelligent, has goals in life, loves herself." Looks, he claims, don't matter. "It's the souls getting together." Yes! But what is the meaning of Fabio? "Now that women can support themselves," suggests psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, "we don't have to care about the size of a man's wallet. We care about the size of his pecs." Dr. Joyce!

Expect more of those pecs next year. He had offers to do a TV pilot, and Fabio's hoping to star in a movie. And, much to the dismay of some veteran writers of the genre, he has signed a controversial six-figure deal with Avon Books to write (with assistance) three romance novels of his own. "Why can't he just be quiet and be pretty?" asks author Anne (Night of the Phantom) Stuart. Says the Bulked One: "Because there is a place for everybody on this world to be successful!"

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