Cover model Billy Freda tells us what it’s like on the other side of the book…
“There will always be a character my age. You know, all your heroes aren’t 28 years old and buff.”
New Brunswick, NJ — Sitting across an IHOP breakfast table from a male model makes it a little difficult to focus on your omelet, let me tell you. It’s even more difficult when you have a copy of a romance novel in your bag of which said model’s image graces the cover. But when he’s known in the industry for his comedic tendencies and light-heartedness like Billy Freda is, it’s more than manageable.
With 83 books covers in his portfolio, Billy has been involved in the Romance community for more than eight years. From literal “knight in shining armor” to “midnight cowboy,” he’s run the gamut and lived to tell the tale.
There’s more to being a cover model than just a pretty face, though, and I, for one, was eager to learn more about this facet of the publishing industry that gets so overlooked, despite its über-visual nature. And with a tape recorder on the table, I was about to get some insight:
DP: So, how did you start modeling?
BF: Fell ass-backwards into it? [laughs] I started in college for some extra money. As a matter of fact, my college girlfriend saw a posting in…remember these things called the “Classifieds” in the newspapers? — Yes, I just dated myself about how long I’ve been modeling. — But she saw in the Classifieds, ya know, “Model Wanted yada yada.” I went in, and I got the job. My first big job I was a Claiborne guy for a while, for their men’s division. And then I just started getting into it. I got my shots done, found an agent, and just snowball, snowball…
DP: What made you get into modeling for book covers and the publishing industry?
BF: Really funny that you asked that following when I started….The photographer from my first shoot was literally the first person I ever shot with, and I had moved on from him but maybe two or three years later, out of the middle of nowhere, he saw that the romance world was looking for contestants [for the Romantic Times Mr. Romance competition]. He submitted me with the pictures that he had shot.
DP: [laughs] Without your knowledge?
BF: Yeah, I didn’t know! And the next thing I know, I get a phone call from a Cindy Walker telling me I’d been selected to make it into this competition and I’m like “huh?” And that’s how it all started.
DP: That’s too funny….What made you want to model? Or was it just that it fell into your lap?
BF: I mean, it kind of fell into my lap, yeah. Did I think when I started modeling in college for money that that would be a third to fifty percent of my career? No, never. But we’re all starving college students. It was money at the time and now it’s an integral part of my career.
DP: What about after college? Did you continue right into the modeling world?
BF: Kind of. I did modeling while I was a practicing engineer. And you know, it’s a little tougher obviously, having a 9-to-5 and trying to model. But if people want you, they will work around your schedule. You know, your bigger shoots—the higher paying ones, the commercial shoots, stuff like that—no, they won’t work around your schedule. But that’s why God created sick days, so… Yea, I continued to model right through while I worked as an engineer for six years, and then really stepped it up and put myself out there when I went into entertainment full time.
DP: Tell me a little bit about that experience with the Mr. Romance competition. You were not only one of the winners, but you’ve hosted it a number of times too.
BF: Like I said, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a great experience though. There are a couple guys from my year that I’m still in touch with and friends with. After I won, they found out that I do a lot of TV hosting and emceeing live events, so in ’05, I hosted one of the segments with Cindy Geyer, who is like the Mrs. Fabio. She’s been on hundreds and hundreds of covers, if not more, and she’s a doll, great to work with. And then in ’06 I co-hosted it, and in ’07 and ’08 I wrote it and hosted it.
DP: Can you walk me through a typical cover shoot?
BF: Well, there are two different types of cover shoots. There’s one where they’re shooting for a very specific cover in mind. The author’s requested this [scene, etc.]. A lot of times I ask for a synopsis of what the hero is like so I can portray that. And then there are shoots where publishing companies just want ten clothes changes, different time periods, and are just going to sit them in a database and use them as they are needed.
DP: About how long does a shoot take?
BF: If we’re shooting for a specific cover, we can bang it out in an hour. I’ve done a couple of Harlequin covers where they have it down to such a science: you walk in, you meet the girl who you’re about to quote-unquote sleep with, who you’ve never met in your life, which is always a little awkward… You’re literally on set, under the covers, in fifteen minutes. The shoot’s done in 30 after that.
DP: How long would it take if you were to do ten covers at once?
BF: That’s an all-day affair.
DP: What makes a cover shoot good or bad?
BF: I think what makes a shoot good is just professionalism and…well, professionalism. Just like you want an actor to show up and know his lines, I don’t want to show up to a set and the lighting isn’t set, we don’t know what we’re shooting, “oh crap, we forgot a prop,” et cetera et cetera et cetera. Get in, gone on, get done. Boom.
DP: How do you get jobs? Do you have an agent? Do companies call you specifically?
BF: A book cover is one of the only print-type work I don’t do through my agents for. Everything is self-promotion. And honestly, at this point, between being a former Mr. Romance winner and hosting the show for three years, everybody knows me so I really don’t need an agent. The covers kind of come to me.
DP: So people will come to you—there’s not an audition process or anything like that?
BF: Yes, there is no audition process. Occasionally you will see a cover model request in the breakdowns, though. The breakdowns are the list of all available work in the acting-modeling world. So, when I see a breakdown, I just basically send a quick cover note saying, “Listen, I’m a veteran at this. I’ve done 80+ covers…” and I’ll probably send them two or three samples, and if I’m the right look, then I’m the right look.
DP: So after you get a gig and shoot a cover, do you see it again? Do you get to approve anything? What’s the process after you’re done the modeling part?
BF: There are a couple houses that I do ask for approval from. They will say, “Is this good or not?” Now, is this a formality? Are they extending a courtesy? If I said, “Actually no, that is terrible” well, you know…
DP: Do they send you a copy of the book or anything like that once it’s published?
BF: Yeah, I have a copy of a lot of my covers. Some of my favorites, like Kate Hofman’s My Love, Forever and Carol Carson’s Fortune’s Treasure, are cover facing out in my library. Just because it’s like anything else, you know. It’s like if I were a painter and I had one of my own pieces hanging up.
DP: I hear you also have a sword on display in your home–is that from a shoot?
BF: Oh, yeah, I do. The sword that sits on my mantle is actually a sword I brought home from Spain. It’s a real sword made of Marlow Spanish steel, and obviously I took it back prior to 9-11. [laughs] It’s a little tough to get on planes with them now. That was the sword I used the year I competed [in Mr. Romance] actually.
DP: How did you use it to compete? What do you mean by that?
BF: Each year it’s slightly different, but usually you have to portray certain characters throughout the competition. I had a contemporary—my contemporary was from a book written by Beth Ciotta and I was a billionaire—and then for my historical hero I came out full chain mail, the real boots, the gloves and the cuffs, and that was what I wore for the competition…and I carried that sword.
DP: In addition to the Romantic Times convention, you go to a lot of other romance conventions and signings. So, I’m curious, do you get hit on at these events?
BF: [laughs] Yes.
DP: What’s the craziest, weirdest encounter you’ve had?
BF: Oh, man. You want me to put this on-the-record? Okay, so a lot of the times people will hand you a book or a calendar, ask you to sign, and then ask “Can I get a picture?” Sure! I’ll say. And, as you know, a lot of these conventions and signings are at hotels. So, in the middle of a picture, I actually had a woman slide her room key in my back pocket, and after the picture was snapped, she said the room number and walked away.
BF: Yeah…and now she’s my ex-wife. [laughs] No, no, I’m kidding about that part. But yeah, I get that kind of thing a lot.
DP: So, what’s next for you when it comes to working in publishing?
BF: Well, first of all, book covers is a very small facet of my whole entertainment career. I’ll say maybe print comprises half of what I do, and then this, the book covers, is just a small percentage of that half. I enjoy the industry, though; I like it. It’s a billion-dollar industry, and it’s not going anywhere. I mean, it’s going to move digital, but it’s not going anywhere. I’ll continue to do covers, I’m sure. There will always be a character my age. You know, all your heroes aren’t 28 years old and buff. So, there are always going to be heroes—I’m sure there are heroes in some romance books that are 60—so I’ll probably be doing covers for a very long time.
DP: It’s a tough profession to be in, though, no?
BF: Yea, well, the entertainment industry is the most miserable profession in the world. And I mean that whole-heartedly. But here is how you know you’re doing what you want to do: The alarm goes off in the morning and you turn it off and you say “I am in the worst profession in the world” and you get up and do it anyway. That’s how you know you’re doing what you want to do.
Bio: Billy Freda started his acting/modeling/hosting career while attending Rutgers University College of Engineering. Since then, Billy’s career has consistently been on the rise, and has included countless prints ads, national campaigns, billboards, calendars, fitness magazines, and book covers. Billy’s favorite facet of his career, acting, has been receiving attention lately with his performance in the lead role in the TV pilot, “Bodies of Work.”Soon, you can find more info on his website, http://www.billfreda.com, which is currently down for maintenance.
Photo courtesy of Billy Freda.