The summer before starting college in Toronto, I worked as a counter girl at a diner, filling up soda cups, making banana splits and cutting slices of carrot cake for customers on the restaurant floor. If anyone sat at the counter to eat, they were mine to serve, which meant actual tips. Sweet!
Lunchtime in downtown Toronto was always busy at the diner. I had regulars who came in solo on their break just so they could sit down at the counter, order a soup and salad combo, and read the newspaper without being bothered by co-workers or managers.
One gentleman came in on an almost daily basis to sit at that counter for lunch. He always brought a stack of magazines to read, but some days, he just felt like chatting with me. He was polite and friendly. He didn’t wear a business suit like many others who worked in the financial district, but he must have worked nearby because he came in so often. One day, he showed me a copy of his favorite magazine, The Utne Reader. If he came at the tail end of the lunch rush, we’d have interesting conversations about the articles he’d read in the current issue.
Once, when rush hour was over and things slowed down a little at the diner, he revealed that he illustrated covers for Harlequin Romance novels for a living. I thought it was quite funny that the guy who loved to read Utne spent his days working for the most escapist books on the planet. As I was still processing that Mr. Utne was Mr. Harlequin, he asked me if I’d be interested in being his female cover model for the next book he was assigned to illustrate. I was stunned. When you take a man’s lunch order every day while wearing a stained apron, your hair hastily put up with a scrunchie, wiping down counters, and stealing the occasional greasy French fry off a plate, you hardly think of yourself as Harlequin model material.
That didn’t stop me from immediately saying yes, however, and I began conjuring up images of covers I’d seen in the past. I wondered who my Fabio would be. Would we be captured in a breathless embrace, our hair blowing in the wind like flames of fire? Would waves be crashing over rocks behind us? I could not wait to find out.
The shoot date came, and Mr. Utne explained that it would be very casual. The male model he hired, along with myself, would come to his studio and pose in a specific scenario already approved. He’d photograph us and then illustrate the final drawing from those photos, adding in all the details and background. No make-up was even needed. All he wanted was for me to wear a t-shirt over pants and to bring the black velvet scrunchie that was always in my hair.
I arrived at his studio, just around the corner from the diner. It was messy, like a mechanic’s garage, only packed with shelving of random props and trinkets. My cover lover was already there, a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing shorts and a t-shirt, looking as though he were about to head for the tennis courts. The curls near the top of his head were so perfectly coiffed they did not budge. As he smiled a big hello, I was taken aback at how white and gigantic his teeth were—like one giant strip of fluorescent enamel.
Our set was a rectangular folding table, the kind you buy at Costco. On it were four long strips of white cardboard paper, each folded and then stapled into a circular shape. It looked like a construction paper project that was never finished. Each circle was piled on top of the other, creating what Mr. Utne said would ultimately be a layered wedding cake in the final drawing. This was the basic skeleton he needed for his tableau. Any slight movement of the table would make them fall down like a house of cards and Mr. Utne would have to stack them again.
He gave me a white apron to put over my T-shirt. “You’re a bakery owner in the UK,” he explained to me for my character’s backstory. “You’re invited to your sister’s wedding and you’re also baking her wedding cake. But you don’t have a date to the wedding, and you can’t go solo. So you hire a bakery customer
to be your date-slash-fake fiancé, and by the end of the book, the two of you fall in love for real.”
So….the guy is essentially her male escort?
He wanted my hair up in the scrunchie and positioned me behind the table, facing the precarious cardboard cake in front of me. Mr. Teeth was placed on the other side of the table, his body sitting slightly on the edge. If he shifted too much weight toward the table or moved around excessively, the cardboard cake would topple.
At last we were ready to go. Mr. Teeth and I were told to look at each other—the cake between us—and smile, while Mr. Utne snapped pictures. I felt silly standing with a stranger next to cardboard paper and a folding table. There was no chemistry, no inspiration, no imagination. To avoid how stupid I felt, I focused on Mr. Teeth’s phosphorescent chompers. Then, minutes later, it was over. Mr. Utne got his shots, we signed release forms and were free to go.
Months later, the book, Love For Hire, came out. As promised, the cardboard cake now looked like a beautiful wedding cake, and the background of “my bakery” was filled with shelves of bread. The plastic fold-up table was now the glass counter, complete with pastries on display.
It was like Mr. Utne was the Fairy Godmother, taking mundane items and magically transforming them into something else for the cover… except me. There was no fabulous Cinderella dress for me to wear. No flowing, romantically windswept locks. Instead, there I was on the cover, shapeless under the t-shirt with that damn scrunchie in my hair. Meanwhile, Mr. Teeth was casually perched on the counter, looking at me flirtatiously.
It was without a doubt the most unsexy Harlequin cover I’d ever seen. No passionate embraces. No flowing garments. Just a toothy guy and a baker in her baggy shirt and a bring-your-own scrunchie. I was a counter girl on that cover, just like I was a counter girl at the diner. That’s what Mr. Utne saw me as, that’s what he hired me to be. There was no love for hire here, just a counter girl for hire.
Ultimately, I did learn an important lesson. It is the tried and true classic piece of advice handed down from generation to generation: Always be yourself. In my case, it landed me on the cover of a romance novel from an iconic brand—even if it wasn’t the type of cover I envisioned.