Chi Lives: move over, Fabio 

Having spent 30 years behind a camera, Rockford photographer Lynn Sanders knew a prince when she saw one. At a family outing at Medieval Times in 1993, she found herself riveted by a face she knew the camera would love: high cheekbones, straight nose, and strong chin, set off by green eyes and a mass of black hair. When she realized this chiseled head was attached to a great body, Sanders did something she'd never done before: she pressed her card into the palm of jouster Cherif Fortin and gasped, "I'm a photographer. Call me."

A few weeks later Fortin, a Stevenson High School graduate (class of '88), arrived in Sanders's studio for some preliminary shots. Sanders had made a career of photographing brides and babies, often glazing the prints to give them the look of antique paintings. She had been thinking of moving in another direction when she discovered Fortin and figured she might have stumbled on the new Fabio, then the reigning king of romance-novel covers. Her hunch was confirmed after she set Fortin up as a model for a photographers' convention. "The room was filled with photographers, about 50 women and 50 guys," Sanders says. "Cherif was wearing a poet's shirt." When he was asked to unbutton it for a pose, revealing well-developed pecs and a chest covered in curly black hair, "the women in the room just sucked the air out of the place. I'm sittin' in the back thinking, Hmmm. This kid's got something." A partnership was born.

The pair started staging and photographing the swashbuckling, bodice-ripping scenes used for the covers of historical romances. Sanders overlaid the photos with paint and glazes, turning each into a dreamy blend of photographic and painted image. They took a portfolio to a romance convention, where they met established novelists Marsha Canhan and Virginia Henley. Fortin says both authors "went back to their publishers and said, 'I want this on my book.'" Soon he and Sanders were logging cover assignments and flying to New York to meet with art directors.

In their downtime they worked on a couple other business ventures, including custom-painted backdrops for photo studios and a self-published catalog of beefcake and romance-related goods. When it occurred to Sanders that their inventory of unused romance images looked like the illustrations for a book, a new genre was born: the illustrated romance novella. They wrote their own lite medieval fairy tale, filled in a few holes with new images, and sold it to a small romance publisher, Genesis Press. They convinced Genesis to let them do the layout and--certain they knew best--restored their flowery language to the text after an editor attempted to modernize it.

The fruit of their effort, Passion's Blood, made it into bookstores just before Christmas. It's the story of Prince Emric (Fortin), his betrothed, Lady Leanna (Beth Orbison of Rockford), and their nemesis, Emric's evil brother. It has 34 color illustrations, mostly of Fortin looking brave and sultry and spilling blood. There's plenty of chest hair and nipples (his), but the pictures are basically PG. Spicy passages in the text were inserted at the request of Genesis. "We were very pristine at first," Fortin says.

Because he's already appeared on ten romance covers, there's a core of Fortin fans out there. As far as they're concerned, Sanders says, she might as well be wallpaper, a fact that was driven home when the pair was invited to appear on Sally Jessy Raphael and she was confined to the greenroom. Fortin has had to stave off an Internet stalker, but says nothing in his career as a romance icon has topped the time a woman at Medieval Times approached him after a performance and grabbed his crotch. The prince lives in Schaumburg. He's never been married, but has a two-year-old daughter and, oh yeah, a girlfriend.

--DEANNA ISAACS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.

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