Americans passionately love the famous. We thirst to know what Angelina eats for breakfast, whether Paris fought with her boyfriend, and what Beyoncé thinks of her own bottom. We adulate their glamorous lives but love to imagine them as being “just like us.” This leads to articles describing how a mommy (with two nannies) spends every day on the floor with her baby, or how an actor (with three DWIs) actually spends his evenings working with blind orphans. Our worship of star power quickly flips to criticism if that star shows signs of a swollen ego, of being more than a “regular” person. You can see the split even in the names of two popular gossip magazines: People (i.e., Beautiful People) and Us. I’m not saying famous people can’t be charitable or maternal: I’m just saying that our culture simultaneously casts them as both impossibly glamorous and improbably homespun.

These mixed signals make it very hard to build a romance around a supposedly famous entertainer. The lifestyle is delicious — and yet off-putting. Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that a star wields, by definition, tremendous beauty, power, and money. How can she find herself vulnerable to another person, or in love, with all its attendant anxieties? Any reader of People knows that stars discard lovers like old socks, so it takes a particularly adroit romance author to make her readers believe a star’s new love will last. One way around this problem is to humanize the heroine by showing the dark underbelly of fame. This column is about great romances that take on our cultural fascination with the famous, along with its flip side: our creeping feeling that maybe stars aren’t “just like us” after all, and that perhaps fame isn’t as delicious as it appears from the outside.

Christine Feehan‘s latest novel, Turbulent Sea, appears in her Drake Sisters series, which follows a family of young women born with psi powers. The heroine is Joley Drake, born with a magical gift for singing that has made her into a rock-and-roll star. Feehan does a great job of showing how the life of a musical star can be constricted by drugs and fame. Joley doesn’t partake in drugs, but most of the people around her do. She struggles to stay away from the paparazzi seeking to expose her every move. Her life is deeply unromantic, despite the fact that it seems her beauty and power can get her any man she wants.

In an opening scene, Joley goes to a party intending to hook up with a hot man for just one night. Instead she runs into a disturbing acquaintance, Russian bodyguard Ilya Prakenskii. She can’t have him; it’s more the opposite. The encounter hinges around his calm statement: “You belong to me, and I’m not willing to give you up because you’re afraid.” Feehan takes a risk by making the match clear so early in the book, but she builds tension magnificently by using Joley’s star-power, in its good and bad dimensions, to tear the two of them apart. It’s not safe to be a star, either mentally or physically, and Feehan creates considerable suspense around that fact.

A male match for Joley, in terms of fame and beauty, comes in Julie James’s Just the Sexiest Man Alive (the title pretty much says it all). Jason Andrews is a rock star along the lines of Brad Pitt sans Jolie — i.e., there’s no woman he can’t have, and he knows it. Julie James flirts with the dark side of celebrity in creating her hero: Jason is not only famous for his handsome face but for making ugly statements: “He’s the guy who said on national television that women should be treated like film scripts: kicked to the curb after an hour if they don’t hold his interest.” Of course, that was before Jason met Taylor Donovan, the lawyer assigned to coach him in his next legal thriller. Taylor is not only uninterested, she’s revolted by Jason’s poor manners and general air of presumptiveness. What’s more, she definitely doesn’t want to be seen with him, a whole new experience for the L.A. movie star.

Fame comes between the couple here because of its consequences — not in terms of danger to one’s well-being but in terms of danger to one’s character and expectations. The battles between Jason and Taylor remind me of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies: they have that funny edge that acknowledges gender differences and deficiencies of character, while still making us love the combatants. It’s truly enjoyable to watch the humiliation Jason suffers before he finally learns that genuineness is more important than his reputation.

Deirdre Martin‘s take on the effects of fame is two-sided: both characters in Power Play are famous. Monica Geary is a leading soap opera star, beloved by legions of fans and particularly by athletes, while Eric Mitchell is a world-famous hockey player, just traded to a new team. Eric is one of People‘s Sexiest Bachelors, and he knows it. As with Just the Sexiest Man Alive, the effect of fame on the male ego is presented as deeply problematic: Eric’s celebrity has allowed him to become distastefully impolite. For example, he tries to seduce Monica by reminding her that he’s a sex symbol, adding: “Two famous people who are hot?how about you give me your number, and we set the world on fire?”

The plot stems from a contemporary version of a marriage of convenience. Monica’s agent puts them together because Monica needs a new boyfriend to spark media interest now that she’s suddenly fighting a young blonde to keep her spot on the soap. Eric’s debut with his new hockey team isn’t going well, and he needs the media to focus on something other than his losses — plus, his teammates have decided that Monica is a lucky penny, and he needs her to attend his games. “It would be highly unusual if you hadn’t developed a little crush on me by now,” Eric says to Monica after a few days. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone.” Monica slaps him, and follows that up by calling him a smug egomaniac with a possible personality disorder, likely resulting from a small-sized package. In short, she’s more than a match for him. Martin’s PR fiasco heats up into a dizzyingly silly, but totally fun, story about fame, fortune, and the delights and consequences of having both.

Rachel Gibson’s Lola Carlyle Reveals All takes on another side of fame by focusing on an ex-supermodel, Lola, whose sexy private pictures have been posted on the web by a vengeful ex. Put that together with tabloids blasting her as “Heavyweight Former Model,” and she’s miserable. Gibson does a great job of creating a realistic picture of the consequences high-profile women suffer, such as the eating disorder Lola struggles with, and her vulnerability to both lovers and the media. Gibson pairs that reality with a thoroughly unrealistic but entirely enjoyable adventure in which Lola finds herself on a yacht commandeered by a government agent, Max Zamora. Chased by all sorts of nasty drug lords, stranded on a desert island, nearly blown up a few times — they manage to have hot sex no matter the danger. Their string of miraculous escapes will give you a wonderful escape of your own, particularly since Lola’s problems allow you to think that, super-model or not, “She really is me.”

All of the books I’ve been discussing simultaneously buy into the fascination of fame and remind us of its dark side. Reading any one of them is the ultimate get-away: the reader can pretend to be rich and beautiful for a while, but still be happy toe in his own romance novel – not to mention soap opera, sports, or TV stars — please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she’ll be joined by Christine Feehan and Deidre Martin! You can check out Eloisa’s past columns in the Archives. realize that she’d rather not be terrified of crazed fans, extra calories, or paparazzi.

If you’d like to discuss just which of People‘s sexiest bachelors should feature in his own romance novel – not to mention soap opera, sports, or TV stars — please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she’ll be joined by Christine Feehan and Deidre Martin! You can check out Eloisa’s past columns in the Archives.