It can be easy for characters in a romance novel to connect: he rides up on his trusty steed, she smiles slyly from across the dance floor. But for the person tasked with finding a cover model to personify that hero or heroine, things aren’t quite so straightforward.
In crafting a cover image, the art director may work with an illustrator, who finds prospective models, maintains close relationships with photographers, and does postproduction work—photoshopping features and physiques, or digitally adding backdrops.
“We’ll send three or four models to the publisher and let them pick who they want,” says Craig White, a Los Angeles illustrator whose work includes Highland Avenger (Kensington/Zebra, 2012), Avenger’s Heat (Signet, 2014), and Hunted Warrior (S&S/Pocket, 2015).
Certain looks take more time to cast than others, says Shirley Green, a New York photographer who has been shooting romance covers for 20 years. “Long hair on guys is the hardest” to find, she says, because Fabio-style tresses have largely fallen out of fashion.
Both White and Green rehire models they’re comfortable working with, ones who they know will be up to the task of getting intimate with a stranger in front of a camera. “We usually don’t go through the major modeling agencies,” White says. “They seem to think every book cover is a Cosmo cover and that we have a $25,000 budget for models.” Typically, publishers book models at $150–$200 an hour.
Finding the right model, male or female, has other challenges. “There are so many [women] who are gorgeous, but sort of forgettable,” says Elizabeth Turner, associate art director at Hachette Book Group. She wanted a windswept, fresh-faced look for Duke of My Heart by Kelly Bowen. One prospect had the right features, but her bangs made her look too contemporary for a Regency romance; a model with a more timeless hairstyle was ultimately chosen.
Male models in particular—who tend to show more skin on romance covers than their female counterparts do —need to do a lot of prep work to make sure they’re physically up to snuff. Photoshop can only do so much.
“If you have a nice arms and nice legs and great shoulders, that’s good,” says Jason Aaron Baca, who has appeared on more than 400 romance covers, including Moment of Weakness by Tony J. Strawn (Samhain, 2015) and Broken Dreams by Lisa McKenna (Blue Turtle, 2016). “But unless you have the abs to go with it, then forget about it. I can tell the day of the shoot how it’s going to go. Sometimes my face might be a little puffy, or I didn’t dehydrate myself enough for those abs come out. If you miss one little step of your diet, it’ll show up on the photo.”
Another tip for aspiring models: the hirsute need not apply, or, at least, they must be willing to depilate.
David Kimmerle, who has posed for some 40 covers, including Midnight Games by Elle Kennedy (Signet, 2013) and A High, Hard Land (S&S/Pocket, 2014), says that “90% of the time, they want my chest shaved. That’s dramatic for me.”
Women may not have to flaunt their musculature like the men, but they too run into follicular mishaps. Cover model Serene Aandahl recalls arriving at a shoot for the paranormal romance His Darkest Embrace by Juliana Stone (Avon, 2010) in the dead of winter, assuming she’d wear an elaborate gown characteristic of the genre. “I came in, and it’s a scene under a waterfall,” she recalls. “My partner is a shape-shifting jaguar. That’s amazing, but I hadn’t shaved my legs in two weeks. The [other model] called me Spider Woman for two years after that shoot.”
Those problems are relatively easy fixes. Much more difficult: a lack of chemistry. Romance cover modeling requires a level of immediate but temporary intimacy with someone who’s often a total stranger.
White likes to lighten the mood the old-fashioned way: “Sometimes I’ll offer them an alcoholic drink,” he says. “Most people don’t take us up on that, but sometimes they will.” He and his photography partner, David Wagner, have known each other for years and tend to leaven the situation with humor. “That puts everyone at ease,” White says. “We’ve never had anyone leave a photo shoot.”
Hachette’s Turner recalls casting for Lia Riley’s Upside Down (Grand Central/Forever, 2015). Only one woman, Gabrielle Covers, showed up—but Turner and her staff had five men to choose from.
“It was a very good day,” Turner says. She directed each male model to hold Covers and see how they reacted together. “Four of the five guys had fairly standard responses. A little hug, a caress of the cheek maybe.” Then a model named Don Hood walked over to the woman, dipped her, and began nuzzling her neck. “She was laughing and having a great time,” Turner says. “That was our couple.”
When a shoot requires a high degree of intimacy, Green says, she’ll cast at least one experienced model. “Erotica is a lot edgier,” she says. “I am not going to just bring a newbie into something like that. I’ll use someone I’ve worked with a lot. There has to be a comfort level between me and, especially, the female—because she’s not wearing a bra.”
Bottom line: there’s more to modeling than flaunting a pretty face or a six-pack.“It’s not always the biggest guy you get the best cover from,” Aandahl says. “It’s the confidence, the one who can capture the masculinity so prevalent in romance.” What does she think her male counterparts need in order to be successful? “Strong hands and breath mints.”