They say not to judge a book by its cover, but Jason Aaron Baca knows better. He's modeled for 493 romance novel covers, surpassing the iconic Fabio earlier this year. When he tells people at parties what he does for a living, he describes himself as "like Fabio, but more modern."
"In the 90s, there was that big long-hair thing going," he told me. "That was the cool thing, almost like a rocker back then. Nowadays, they go with the clean-cut look. They have graphic artists that can just add long hair."
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The 43-year-old Los Gatos, California resident was a fashion and fitness model when he came across a romance novel in a Barnes & Noble a decade ago. "Wow, there's a guy on the cover that's in great shape," he remembers thinking. "It appealed to me because here I was, the kind of person that liked to drive toward something that's exciting—something that not anybody can do. I never run with the rest of the herd. I'm always one of those guys that runs against the herd."
At that point, he had no contacts in the industry or knowledge of how to infiltrate it, so he frantically looked up authors and sent cold emails with photos of himself attached. "I was like, how do these guys get on these book covers?" he remembers. Most told him he'd have to get an agent. He posed for a few small, self-published books, but his big break was when author Lisa Renee Jones replied that he looked exactly like the half-human, half-alien leading man in her 2011 book The Legend of Michael—he just had to go a few days without shaving to get a more "rugged" appearance. He remembers stopping at gas station after gas station to try to calm himself down on his way to his first photoshoot. Now, publishers pursue him.
Baca has also been juggling a day job for 15 years, which he won't say much about except that it's an 8-5 where he'll "push papers, shake hands, deal with clients, go to meetings." His coworkers didn't know about his secret life until around two years ago, when he began making more media appearances. Still, his office work gives him the chance to be a "normal human being," which is what he likes about it.
When asked what he enjoys about his night job, he gushes about the challenge. His old modeling work, he says, "was fun, but it was one of those things I didn't have to work toward. As long as my face looked good, it was OK. I didn't have to get to the gym every day. I'm an athletic person by nature." Romance novel modeling is harder because "you don't just get a hot body" without ever lifting a weight, he explains. "It's not like, if you have all the potential, [the body is] just gonna be there."
In addition to wearing anti-aging cream and booking regular facials at the spa, Baca works out for at least an hour a day, six days a week, often waking up at 5 AM and turning down happy hour invitations to hit the gym. If he's not done with his workout in an hour, he chides himself for "goofing off" and stays late. If he finishes early, he does extra exercises.
Baca also has a special routine for when he arrives at a photoshoot. To get his blood flowing and make his muscles "nice and tight," he'll bring an athletic stretch cord to the studio, do pushups, and flex his muscles to "bring up the vascularity."
When exhaustion sets in, he pictures what the next cover will look like and feeds himself motivational thoughts. "I put a lot of subliminals in my mind and remind myself how confident a person I am and how much of a hero I'm gonna portray."
In other words, the desire that drives him is a bit circular: The challenge of getting in perfect shape motivates him to model for romance novels, and the modeling inspires him to push through his gym routine.
It seems he thrives off the act of accomplishing a goal for its own sake. A big fan of Tony Robbins and believer in visualization, Baca writes his aspirations down in a "private checklist." He won't reveal everything on it, but aside from completing 500 covers and working with the prolific romance artist Jon Paul, there are just a few left to check off before he retires. While his diligent fitness and beauty routines have kept publishers seeking him out at an age when many models have had to throw in the towel, he plans to quit soon, though he won't say when until he formally announces his retirement on television. He's currently buying property in North Carolina and New Hampshire and dreams of "a farm with some chickens like [in] A River Runs Through It" where he can "do some fishing and live life."
Still, he wants to go out with a bang. Thinking back on his college baseball career, he feels like he should've spent more time in the batting cage, and he doesn't want to repeat that mistake. "I can't go back and try to make it again. With this second gift that I was given, with being a romance cover model, I'm making sure I check everything off [before] I'm out of the business," he said. "Then I can say I've retired and I feel good about it and that's off to the next guy."
He also sees a higher purpose in his career: "To just bring a chill through [the reader's] skin and make the hair stand up on the back of their neck when they read these books and go back to the cover to say, 'That's the character,' and it's me," he says. "When it sends chills through their spine, that's awesome." Though he gets quiet when asked about the sex scenes—except to say readers "have got to have their climax of the book"—he admits to peeking at passages and praises his authors' "creative imaginations." Sometimes, they'll send him some in advance so he can get into character; other times, he'll just get vague instructions like "be an army man."
To Baca, romance novel modeling is more than a job; it's a niche, but passionate calling. "This whole book cover thing began with just an image in my mind," he explains. "If all those people that were sitting in Barnes & Noble that day realized I'd had a moment—that there was a person in that bookstore who had a realization that someday, [he was] gonna be on 500 romance covers... they would've laughed. And yet here we are today—that actually came to fruition." His one complaint? He's not the biggest fan of portraying cowboys.