They were packed in like sardines, if sardines could emit frenzied screams. Every available square tile in Peru Mall’s concourse had someone standing on it.
Combine the entire student populations of La Salle-Peru and Hall high schools and it still wouldn’t get you quite to the number of people that were estimated to be there that day.
Why were they showing up in droves? To see the Italian sensation pretty much known for one thing — being attractive.
On March 19, 1994, Fabio Lanzoni came to Peru Mall. His appearance was tied to a radio contest that stirred interest in the Illinois Valley over the course of several weeks. And when the time came, women traveled from all around the area to catch a glimpse of the model/actor who had been billed as the sexiest man in the world.
The NewsTribune recently caught up with several of the people involved in the contest and mall appearance who helped bring Fabio to town. Here is how it happened.
Local radio station WAJK began running a contest called Love Letters to Fabio where fans were asked to send in the letters, which were read on air and then voted on before five winners were chosen.
Contest winner Lonna Sue Berton: When I first saw the contest, I had never heard of him before. But I entered about every contest that I could.
WAJK’s John Spencer: I can’t remember now how many entries we got, but we got a ton. There was great buzz, interest and excitement from people hoping to get a chance to meet this guy,
Peru Mall marketing director D.J. Bice: I was looking for ideas for Peru Mall. And part of the marketing plan was to bring entertainment on a weekly or monthly basis in addition to other activities like craft shows, petting zoos, that sort of thing.
Contest winner Susan Lind: I was working in Spring Valley at Mercier Insurance at the time and we listened to WAJK a lot. A coworker said, “You’re a good writer. You should do it.”
Berton: It really wasn’t a love letter that I wrote. It was something completely different. I said things like “Why do you keep leaving me messages on my answering machine?”
Lind: It just kind of started out as a dare. And I came home one day and didn’t have anything to do so I just wrote one. It was really a parody.
Excerpt from Lind’s submission: Your smile was so blinding I tripped over my feet. As I stumbled you held out your strong hands to me. Those fireworks we heard were only my knee, which broke when I landed flat on my face. There was no pain though for I was in your embrace.
Bice: Fabio, to be blunt about it, he was in my price range. I had a budget to work with. He was someone that I could afford to bring to the mall and he was someone who was a big name and yet he wasn’t A-list material. Traveling was part of his career — traveling to malls around the country. But he had no real talent. So, it was a meet and greet event where he just shook hands and signed autographs.
Bev Sons, NewsTribune editor covering the event: It was like, “Oh my God. I can’t wait to go tell my daughter because she gets to go with me and meet this hunk.” Not so much for me, but there were a lot of young girls in the audience. And we didn’t get that many “famous or big-name people” to come to the area. And to be that close to someone of that stature — in that respect it was exciting.
Bice: I was able to get him on a weekend when we needed entertainment. He drew a large crowd. I’m sure it was under $5,000. I don’t think I spent more than $5,000 on anybody. I had to stay within my budget.
Note: The five contest winners were Lind of Princeton, Berton of Oglesby, Sandy Baracini of Spring Valley, Grace Snell of La Salle and Mary Moore of Peru.
A boisterous crowd
The five contest winners would get a personal meet and greet with Fabio before the show started. All the others would have to wait in line before getting to meet the Milan native. Crowd estimates were around 2,000 people.
Bice: I was always searching for entertainment for the mall. Probably the biggest entertainment that I remember was an Elvis impersonator. And at that time, for that particular weekend, it packed the mall. I could feel the building shaking. There were so many live bodies in center court and down the hallways to see the Elvis impersonator. There were actually more to see him than Fabio. But Fabio drew a good crowd.
Spencer: It was a precursor to the huge Black Friday crowds if you will. I know Black Friday isn’t what it used to be, but that’s the closest I can think to just wall to wall people around center court at Peru Mall. If you can just imagine 2,000-3,000 people packed in there.
Bice: That (estimate) is probably a little on the outer range. But you could probably say that and no one would argue it.
Cheryl Mennie, owner of Fabio’s transportation for the day Cher’s Touch of Class Limousine Service: Everyone was excited because he was on all those magazines — like romance magazines — he was on the cover of all of them.
Sons: Oh God, the women went gaga over him at the mall. There have never — and to this day since — been that many people at the mall at the same time. It was mobs — really, really crammed full.
Bice: Campy — that’s a very good word for it. It was the allure of someone famous.
Spencer: There was a huge line. There was a select group that got to go in one-on-one privately before the big opportunity. I didn’t get a chance to spend any quality time with him, but I did get to shake his hand and say “hi” and pose for pictures right next to him.
Sons: There was an empty storefront, which was rare in those days, where they had all the food prepped for him and there was like a pre-thing before he had to go on stage. And then when it came time to leave that room to enter — oh my God — they practically needed crime tape to separate the crowd to get him to walk through the screaming crowd. Like “Oh my God. Here he is.”
Note: The NewsTribune reached out to Fabio’s representation for comment on this story. However, he was unavailable by the run date.
The man himself
Fabio, who was 33-years-old at the time, stood at 6 foot 3 inches tall. But did he live up to the stature presented on the romance novels that made him famous?
Sons: He had a very large stature and was in good physical shape. And he really knew how to play to the ladies. But he wasn’t standoffish in anyway or egotistical. He was pretty warm and friendly. He was kind.
Berton: When I saw him, he was a big guy. He was really impressive. But what really impressed me was how kind he was. He was so nice and kind to everyone. That stood out more than anything.
Lind: I thought he was very gracious and very polite. He gave everybody a hug and didn’t rush anybody off stage and we all got pictures. I still have the picture. Every once and a while I’ll show it to some friends and say, “Do you recognize this guy?”
Sons: He was very warm and friendly and I had my daughter was with me. He conversed with her quite a bit and gave her a big hug and photo ops — very personable.
Lind: I remember I did not ever wear that blouse again because it smelled like him. His cologne smelled so good.
Sons: He was a model on the covers of romance paperbacks, and I think a lot of ladies read paperbacks and associated him with these main characters in books and it’s a matter of now I get to see him in the flesh. He’s the real deal of whatever they created in their minds before that. So I think they just wanted to see him in person and identify with the person from the books they were reading about.
Spencer: He’s a very attractive man. In this day and age of airbrushing and Snapchat filters and stuff, he actually was just about everything you expected him to be when you met him.
Lind: I think his first book (Pirate) had just come out because he signed copies for us. And I still have it.
Sons: Shortly after, he started doing commercials for I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and I thought to myself “Dear Lord, what a comedown from being this sex hunk to doing butter commercials.”
Spencer: He was a huge celebrity and we don’t get that many coming through the Illinois Valley, or at least the opportunity to get up close and personal. And I think it was just a testament to the number of women who were attracted to him and all that he represented from being on the cover of all of these steamy novels.
With Spencer as the master of ceremonies, the five contest winners each got to read their letter to Fabio on stage after their personal interactions with him.
Lind: We each got called up individually to read our poem and I decided I was going to read mine from memory. I recited mine and got lost about halfway through. Then I got back on track. (Fabio) kind of chuckled and he was like “Oh, you’re good.”
Berton: I had to meet him on stage and read the letter out loud. And then when I went to shake his hand, instead I raised my arm upward for him to kiss my hand. You could hear the whole audience — I think there was about 2,000 people — swoon in unison.
Lind: I think it had a really good turnout. A lot of my co-workers came to watch. And this was in the days of (Betamax). One of my co-workers recorded it on Beta.
Spencer: They dressed me in a tux with a red jacket and it just so happened he was wearing a red jacket as well. I would have preferred anything other than a red jacket that day when I saw him. At that point I was this skinny little, ugly radio dude — a guy with a face for radio — and here I am in a red jacket and people are like “Oh he’s trying to be Fabio.” I’m like “No, no I would just as soon be in my studio.”
Berton: (Fabio) was such a good sport. He even let me cut off a lock of his hair because I was working as a beautician at the time. And then he signed a shirt and a book and pictures. I remember he laughed at the pin I was wearing. It said “I’m nearly famous.”
Note: While a quarter century has passed since the Italian model passed through town, some personal souvenirs live on. Lind still has a copy of the letter she wrote to him that won her the contest. Berton has many photos from the event. And even some of the coordinators have photos they took with Fabio.
Bice: I have a picture of him, I have it on a wall in my living room. It’s not the centerpiece but it’s in my living room. It’s of Fabio at the mall, and he’s got one arm around (former NewsTribune publisher) Joyce McCollough and the other around my mother… Fabio is there standing in the middle looking handsome with his long blonde hair. He towered over Joyce. You can see that he just has real broad shoulders. He’s towering and muscular. Very masculine and he had charisma. For a guy with no talent he had his charisma.
Lind: The next day, the paperboy had dropped off the (NewsTribune) and my husband’s friend picked it up when he walked in the front door. He looked at my husband and said, ‘Did you know your wife is on the front page with Fabio?’ He was on the Princeton fire department at the time and for a while they called him Mr. Fabio.
Bice: Over time, that type of activities at malls is all gone. And so are marketing directors. That was one of the first positions in mall management that they eliminated. There are no marketing departments or weekly or monthly entertainment. All of that is gone.
Former lifestyle editor Chris Yucus contributed to this report.