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Exhibit brings romance -- as in Harlequin -- to Las Vegas

For six decades, the Harlequin romance novel cover girl has largely maintained her porcelain skin, saucer eyes, bee-stung lips and a waist as whittled as Scarlett O’Hara’s celebrated 17 inches. But, oh, how her dalliances have changed.

In 1952, she was Anna, a femme fatale in a half-buttoned shirtdress, kneeling on hay because (as the book cover tells us) “she lived like a wicked little animal.”

In 1960, she was Doctor Sara, a raven-haired ingenue clutching a hunk, the nearby “brewing storm, thrusting lighthouse and swirling vortex of clouds” suggesting (as a placard tells us) the couple’s future passion.

By 2007, she didn’t need to grace the cover anymore. She was ogling “Flyboy” with the rest of us. Evoking Tom Cruise in “Top Gun,” he donned aviator shades and dog tags and unzipped his uniform down to . . . a rocket that’s blasting off.

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That Harlequin. So subtle.

So goes the publishing company’s free exhibit, “The Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949-2009,” which recently opened at Paris Las Vegas. It’s a small, intellectually provocative display in a town incessantly struggling with its portrayal of the fairer sex. (The showgirl: empowered or exploited? The exotic dancer: businesswoman?)

As Martha Quinlan, a 28-year-old tourist from Baltimore, observed one afternoon after staring at walls of covers: “Even the most suggestive is nothing compared to what you see on the Strip.”

Harlequin -- a Toronto-based company that issues 120 book titles a month, about half of them romances -- commissioned curator Elizabeth Semmelhack to put together its 60th-anniversary show. She had recently written “Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe,” a social history of the high heel.

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Semmelhack, who was no reader of romances, pored over a trove of original Harlequin paintings. Her job: to judge the books solely by their covers.

She came to two conclusions: The artwork, which had the richness of movie stills, was of higher-than-expected caliber. And the heroines it depicted lived out female professional -- not necessarily sexual -- fantasies long before they became reality.

For example, the covers of doctor-nurse romances of the ‘50s and ‘60s showed workplace lovers chatting as equals, which might be linked (as another placard tells us) to the frustration of women who “felt sequestered in the domestic realm of postwar suburbia.” In exotic-locale tales of about the same period, women were the doctors, though only in foreign and often tropical destinations.

The second wave of feminism, with its focus on workplace equality and reproductive rights, was still years from peaking. In the mid-'60s, Harlequin covers shifted to tight portraits of resolute-looking women. Their paramours were relegated to the background, if they appeared at all.

“I don’t think anybody sat back and thought it out,” Semmelhack said. “These works were part of a larger zeitgeist.” Because Harlequin markets the books to such a large audience, “they had to have their pulse on women’s desires.”

The exhibit -- a mix of dozens of book covers and detailed paintings -- ended up in Sin City after a stint at a New York gallery. It was an appropriate landing spot: Both the publishing company and the Strip trade on decadent fantasy.

Michelle Renaud, a Harlequin spokeswoman, stayed at the Paris Las Vegas during a licensing convention and marveled at how its marketing mirrored Harlequin’s. (Among the links on the hotel’s website: “Between the Sheets” and “Up All Night.”)

The cover-art display is the first in a planned string of tie-ins between Harlequin and Harrah’s Entertainment, which owns Paris, including an upcoming book signing with an author of western romances. “We’ll have beefy men there,” said Dawn Rawle, a Harrah’s vice president.

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“The Heart of a Woman” exhibit is just off the casino floor, between La Reception and Les Toilettes.

Visitors walk through a doorway next to one of Paris’ signature advertising photos: a couple lustily embracing on an elevator, the man reaching for the “stop” button. It could be mistaken for a Harlequin cover.

Inside a small room is a chronology of representations of desire.

The earliest covers draw from film noir and are rife with -- in hindsight -- unintentional comedy.

“Virgin With Butterflies” (1949) shows a brunet in thigh-high stockings encircled by five male heads sprouting butterfly wings. “Men Cast a Net for Her,” the cover promises.

A decade later, women apparently dreamed of romance amid danger. In 1959’s “The Yellow Snake” -- one of Semmelhack’s favorite covers -- a gun-wielding, professorial man and a blond woman in pearls gasp at (as the placard helpfully explains) an “overtly phallic snake.”

As women gained financial and political power, the coverboys were portrayed more as playthings than saviors. By the ‘70s, they were waiting to whisk away their ladies in helicopters and Austin Healeys. By the ‘80s (the era of Harlequin’s signature bodice-ripping romances), they were groveling before corseted damsels.

Eventually, women all but disappeared from many covers. In “Gideon’s Fall” (1991), the dominant image is of Italian model Fabio Lanzoni -- arguably the most famous Harlequin coverboy -- steering a ship, presumably with the aid of his glistening pectoral muscles. Some recent covers have cropped out the men’s heads entirely, just leaving their shirtless torsos.

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These days, Semmelhack said, there’s more racial diversity among Harlequin cover models, and the painterly style has mostly been retired. But even modern photographic covers show an evolution in fantasy, which is particularly interesting when contrasted with Las Vegas Boulevard.

In this year’s “The Personal Touch,” a woman in a black bra, miniskirt and, of course, thigh-highs hovers over her (as the cover describes him) “match made in the bedroom.” Despite the suggestion of tawdry things to come, she is still dressed in a manner more chaste than the average Vegas clubgoer.

ashley.powers@latimes.com


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