Earlier this month, Len Gunn spent four days in a Los Angeles hotel, learning dance moves to an Usher song, and passing out autographed photos to convention goers who'd flown from as far as Australia for the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention. The four day gathering of romance novelists and their fans, hosts panel discussions, meet and greets and a search for the next big cover-boy.
This year, Len beat out of the nine other male models to win the title of Mr. Romance 2011. His prize includes flying to New York to pose for an upcoming cover published by Kensington books.
Contestants aren't paid to enter the contest, but they are required to sign a multi-page document outlining participant expectations. Some regulations include a strict 12:30 A.M. curfew, no sexual contact with authors, fans or any other convention attendant. Even entering the room of a non-contestant is grounds for disqualification. The contract emphasizes the "gentlemanly" nature of the contest, which makes you wonder what exactly has gone in year's past. This year was Len's first and he was adamant about playing by the rules.
A few facts about Mr Romance 2011: He lives in Tulsa. He's 38, divorced and has a 9 year-old-son. He runs an irrigation company, and as a side job, models for print campaigns (he shot a recent print ad for Caterpillar work boots). He works out every single muscle on his chest individually and compulsively, and eats almost a dozen eggs a day. He also hasn't been on a date in 3 years.
You originally didn't want to enter the Mr. Romance contest.
This is the third year I was asked to do it. In past years it just didn't feel right. I was shy. I only started modeling about five or six years ago when a guy approached me and said 'you'll be surprised how much work there is if you look good for your age and you're between 28 and 40'. There's not a lot of models out there who are over 28. First I wanted to be a commercial print model, but then when I started getting commercials I started thinking I don't need to be so closed minded. So I just decided to come this year to network and get some exposure. I'm really glad I did. I made some good friends with the other guys in the contest.
Really? Mr. Romance isn't cut-throat?
There was nine of us and we weren't really competitive.
If the contest is only one day, what are you doing there all four days?
We'd have rehearsal for the opening dance number, which we only had three days to practice for. And had to get our costumes. And the rest of the time we were working the floor meeting people. They had us on the convention floor from 7:30 AM to midnight with two hour-long breaks. I'd be going around to tables during panel discussions introducing myself to people. I was geniune with the ladies, you know, asking them if they had any kids. There were 3,500 people at that convention and I was trying talk to everyone. By the end of the first day I had a huge fan base.
What was your strategy for working a room?
Well, they advise you to bring photos of yourself which you can sign and give away to whoever wants them. Since we were there four days, I brought four different pictures: the first day I gave out a headshot, the next a fully clothed shot, the third day a shirtless half-body shot and the last day I gave out a full body shot where I was wearing a swimsuit. So you had to collect them all, kind of like a book series.
So you're handing out shirtless snapshots of yourself to strangers. Does that open the door to some unwanted attention?
Everyone was very respectful. There was one girl who was, as she called it, 'pimping' me to get votes for me from other people at the convention. [Mr. Romance is voted on by fans, as well as judges] She was like 'I'm pimping' you out so they'll vote for you. And I said very politely, 'I don't need someone trying to get votes for me, but thank you.'
Even the word hits a nerve at the convention, doesn't it?
The second night we were there, [the contest organizer] pulled us all together. She said there was some friction between two people and someone was a tattle. She stated we're not going to deal with this and it happens every year but it's usually a lot worse. In the past it was more 'go back and have a party' in one of the authors rooms, I guess. But this year they were strict you can't do that. That was fine with me. I only have one or two drinks a month now, anyway. I've cut out all beer and carbonation.
Aside from vying for the Mr. Romance title, your contest is also entertainment for attendees.
Every year there's a theme. This year because the conference was in L.A., the theme was 'Hollywood'. All of us came out and did a dance number like we were practicing to make a movie and the second part was an interview question like your trying out for a part, so you have to wear a tux and walk a fake red carpet and answer questions.
Each contestant has a solo number that sounds a little like a swimsuit competition. Did you have any conflict taking off your shirt in that setting?
The whole week I'd been really reserved, so when I went up there I thought this is the only opportunity I got, so I tore off my costume and just had shorts underneath.
It sounds kind of like an exotic dance. Do you have experience with that? No.
Why do you think you won?
At first I was surprised because I'm a lot leaner than most of the guys. They're all built bigger, you know, like Fabio. But I got a lot of comments that I have a very versatile look. They said they could see me being a cowboy but also being in a tux, and also being shirtless.
As a romance cover model your chest is your paycheck. I imagine it brings up some body issues.
I'm hypercritical of my body. I'll say to my good friend every now and then, 'I swear I'm getting fat' and he'll say I'm not. I'm to the point where I know if I'm missing definition in one little muscle group area. I'm always looking at proportions like-is my chest to big, are my shoulders the right size? I'm just trying to keep all the proportions correct. Every weekday I work out one body party for 25 minutes and do another 25 minutes of core. Every other day I run. Every morning and night I do 500 to 600 sit-ups on an exercise ball, seven days a week.
Are there certain kinds of food you don't eat?
I'll make it easier and tell you what I do eat: My breakfast is six hard boiled eggs and only one with yolk, and a serving of oatmeal which 150 calories. So that's a 300 calorie breakfast. For lunch I have a Greek yogurt with a half serving of blueberries. I eat dinner at six so I don't have food in my body at ten when I fall asleep. For dinner it's eight ounces of bison.
How does that work on a date?
I haven't dated anyone in three and half years. How I eat can be frustrating for a lot of women. Part of it is that I'm a little picky because I take good care of myself and I want someone who compliments that.
Do you think your title of Mr. Romance will help you find that person?
I'm thinking it will help. I had to immediately create a fan page on Facebook when I got home from the contest because I had 50 fan requests.
Did you tell your son about your win?
Oh yeah. I called him first thing.
Watch interviews with all nine of the contestants for Mr. Romance 2011. (Len comes in around minute 4)
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