Fabio? Fabio who?
Chalk it up to extreme good fortune, but Chandler rodeo cowboy Norm Nelson somehow managed to reach the ripe, old age of 50 without ever being exposed to the ubiquitous name, image and voice of romance readers' favorite F-word.

But in the past few weeks, Nelson has heard about little but Fabio. "The guy does nothing for me," jokes Nelson, a running and weightlifting enthusiast who resembles Fabio far less than he does a buff Robert Duvall.

Earlier this month, however, the champion bull rider discovered that Zebra Books was eyeing him as a potential "over-45 Fabio." His fiance had submitted a photograph of him to a contest seeking a cover model for a line of romance paperbacks targeted at middle-aged women. One of four finalists out of thousands who entered the nationwide hunk hunt, Nelson and his bride-to-be recently flew to New York to appear on the Rolonda show episode announcing the winner.

Still adjusting to his skyrocketing sex symbolism (a week before taping the talk show, The Globe tabloid had photographed Nelson in a steamy clinch with a blond model for a story about the middle-aged-man hunt), the retired cop from Chandler was even more surprised to discover that one of his three competitors was a police lieutenant from Mesa.

"It was quite a coincidence," concedes 45-year-old Mike Snyder, whose photo was submitted by his wife, Janis. A fitness fanatic who lifts weights for two hours a day, Snyder says his foray into Fabio-dom has earned him the station-house nickname "Snydio."
Hitting it off backstage, Snyder and Nelson's significant others swapped phone numbers, promising to get in touch when they returned to the Valley. And while there's been no reunion to date (Nelson is recuperating from a bull-riding accident two weekends ago), the quartet will no doubt have plenty to commiserate over when they finally get together. Despite good showings in the tuxedo and tank-top competitions, Nelson and Snyder's shot at a paperback claim to fame was gunned down when a panel of judges (including Cosby star Phylicia Rashad, a soap opera casting director and a romance novelist) voted for a financial analyst from Georgia who reportedly looked every one of his 60 years. (Photos of the winner are being kept under wraps until the Rolonda episode airs at 9 a.m. Thursday on KSAZ, Channel 10.)

Although the would-be Fabios and their companions claim that the all-expenses-paid vacations were reward enough, both camps are clearly puzzled by the geezer victory.

"From the audience's reaction, I think it's pretty clear everyone was surprised when this gentleman's name was announced," reports Cecelia Spangler, Nelson's fiance. "Everyone else on that stage was built, with muscles and a tan. This man was pasty, with a potbelly and gray hair." "Who knows how they figure these things?" shrugs Nelson. Twice-divorced, he theorizes he may have lost points with the judges when he told the audience, "A lot of women think they want cowboys--until they get one."
"I don't know if they thought it was funny," he reflects. "I do know they thought it was direct."
Janis Snyder, meanwhile, can't help wondering whether her husband's vanity did him in. Worried that his mustache would photograph too gray, he touched it up with makeup. "Who knew they were looking for 'old'?" she asks.

Snyder may be on to something. A survey of several paperbacks in Zebra Books' "To Love Again" line reveals none of the hothouse art generally associated with romance novels. Instead, covers feature bucolic photos of well-preserved oldsters gamboling through gardens, the same sort of soft-sell images used to peddle everything from retirement villages to denture cream and adult diapers.

That comparison does not sit well with Ann La Farge, editor of Zebra's two-year-old "To Love Again" series.

"Oh, please!" she gasps during a recent phone interview from the publishing house's New York office. "Would you prefer to see the man tearing her dress off? I don't think our readers want to see a couple that's 50 or 60 years old ripping each other's clothes off. I think what they want to see is a happy couple."
According to the editor, the shift in cover art reflects readers' increasing desire for greater realism in the realm of the romance novel. "What the readers are saying to us is, 'We're tired of these airheaded, 18-year-old virgins falling in love with a pirate, because we can't relate to that,'" reports La Farge. "Instead of a woman fantasizing that she's going to be swept away by an Apache warrior and taken completely away from her own life, what she really wants to fantasize about is meeting the man of her dreams who could exist. Someone who will sweep her off her feet in romance but at the same time will carry the garbage out, walk the dog and help take care of the grandchildren. Our readers tell us, 'We're glad that you're doing romance about women in our age group who have the same concerns we have--adult children, aging parents, job discrimination.'"

Asked about the selection of a waaaay "over-45 Fabio," La Farge answers, "We wanted the guy next door, the real American hero. We wanted somebody who exemplified the kind of man that [To Love Again"] readers fantasize about."

Yet some observers can't help thinking it's the brains behind "To Love Again" who are really fantasizing.

"I don't know because I've never read these books," says Spangler. "But my sister does and she told me, 'If I'm going to read a romance novel, I want to fantasize about some kind of hunk. I don't want the average Joe. I've already got my husband here.'

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Dewey Webb