Fabio Alleges Gianni Versace Owed Him Money from a '90s Fragrance Campaign: 'He Wasn't a Very Honest Person'

The model and actor also rehashes his career journey on the season finale of the PEOPLE in the '90s podcast

Photo: Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Today we know Fabio as the king of romance, the guy who appeared on more than 1,300 steamy novels throughout the '90s. He posed as a pilot, a pirate, a cowboy and a winged angel. (He also played the pope in Sharknado 5.) But, as he tells Jason Sheeler and Andrea Lavinthal on the season finale of PEOPLE in the '90s, "I can only be Fabio."

Born in Milan, Fabio Lanzoni was modeling all over his hometown by the time he hit his teens. His father, who ran one of the world's first conveyor belt factories, wasn't thrilled. Fabio, the middle of three, was expected to join the family business. "You want to be a mannequin? And not a man?" he says that his father asked incredulously.

But Fabio enjoyed the work—and the parties that were part of the fashion industry—until a night out with friends changed his life.

"I saw my best friend overdose from heroin," Fabio says. "I found him dead in the bathroom." He was 16 at the time. The experience was so shocking that he never touched drugs or alcohol again. Instead he started getting high in a different way: "My drug became endorphins, like working out."

During his required military service in Italy, he thought about his future. He had worked for Versace and other Italian brands, but he wanted more and set out for the U.S. "If you're famous in the United States, you're famous all over," he explains.

He moved to New York in 1987. On day one he secured an agent at the elite Ford Models. Day two: He booked a campaign for the Gap, for a fee of $175,000. He called to tell his father the good news, but before he could get a word in, his dad said, "I'm not going to give you money, so just come back home" and hung up.

Fabio kept trying to make his dad proud. He asserts he was the first male supermodel; he says at one point making more than Cindy Crawford. He became the face of Versace's Mediterraneum fragrance in the early '90s.

"The Versace campaign was extremely successful at that time," Fabio says, "because it was the biggest contract a model— not just a male model, a model — ever got. So I got a contract even bigger than Cindy Crawford and the rest of the female models."

Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Fabio says he remembers the details of the job.

"It was a multi-multi-million dollar contract, plus 6% of the growth, of sell." It was a huge success. "When I started advertising, all of a sudden it became one of the best colognes out there. I was doing appearances: 15,000, 18,000, 20,000 people were showing up outside of Saks Fifth Avenue."

But Fabio says he was never fully paid. He says the late Gianni Versace owed him money. "Big time. A million," Fabio asserts. "You know, unfortunately Versace wasn't a very honest man, God bless his soul, but the truth is the truth. He wasn't a very honest person." (Representatives for the Versace brand had no comment.)

Rick Maiman/Sygma via Getty

A leather jacket ad for Andrew Marc that ran in multiple women's magazines led to auditions for a romance novel cover; soon he was shooting as many as 16 book covers in one day. (Each cover starts with a photo and is then painted by an artist.)

By 1993 Fabio was everywhere: on David Letterman, Regis and Kathie Lee, on the cover of People. "That's when my dad finally said, 'I am proud of you,' " he recalls. That affirmation "meant more than anything, more than becoming famous, more than money, more than anything."

He also headlined dozens of romance novel conventions around the country, at which thousands of women would line up to meet and pose for a photo with him. He remembers some groping. "Pinching my butt, that's inappropriate," he says. "But listen, I'm from Europe, I'm a man, I can handle it." (Donnamaie White, the president of the Fabio Fan Club, who attended many of the conventions, remembers, "He was such a gentleman. That's what we all wanted from him.")

Sometimes he got requests to sign women's breasts, underwear, and, ahem, other body parts. He obliged. "Whatever floats your boat," he says with a shrug. "There's a time to make some money. Then have some fun. Then make some money again."

For more from Fabio and other '90s icons, listen to PEOPLE in the '90s on iHeartMedia, Apple podcasts, Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to your podcasts. New episodes drop Thursday mornings.

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