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Whatever happened to Diet Coke hunk Lucky Vanous?

Lucky Vanous
Lucky Vanous was one of PEOPLE's Most Beautiful in 1994. Left: As a model in his bare-chested days; right: At a promotional lunch for Diet Coke in L.A.  

By Megan Kaplan

(PEOPLE) -- When Lucky Vanous took his shirt off and sent an office full of women into a swoon in 1994, he thought he was just hawking Diet Coke on TV. He had no idea he was sparking a social phenomenon.

But along with becoming one of PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful in 1994, Vanous also graced the cover of Psychology Today, for an article titled "The Beefcaking of America." "We've started to accept men as objects of desire (and) this is making some guys nervous," the magazine's then-editor, Hara Estroff Maranom, told USA Today at the time.

There's more to Vanous than just beef, however. "I'm more introverted than you might think," says the actor, now 41. "I thought taking off my shirt and stuff was kind of cheesy."

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After the Diet Coke commercial craze, the 6-foot-2 Vanous, who was raised in Lincoln, Nebraska, released a workout video, and then decided to try his hand at acting. The former Elite model and veteran of the Army's anti-terrorist and anti-guerrilla Black Beret Rangers, who had been pursuing a degree in political science at New York's Fordham University, gave up the textbooks and began training with drama coach Alan Savage.

"I made the decision I would take a year off for coaching and classes," Vanous told Entertainment Weekly in April 1997. "I figured it would be very difficult to bridge the gap to legitimacy coming from product land."

Making the transition

It was. Though Vanous got some roles -- he appeared as a construction worker on "Pacific Palisades," Aaron Spelling's short-lived 1997 series, and as a paramedic on a 1998 episode of "Will & Grace" -- he didn't reach the level of notoriety he enjoyed as everyone's favorite soda-swigging shirtless construction worker.

Eventually Vanous landed a lead role in an action television series, "18 Wheels of Justice," which aired on TNN. In it he played a former federal agent forced to enter the witness protection plan to escape the mob, whose new vocation is truck driving. But the show died quickly, and his physique still seemed to be the main attraction. "He looks good in those jeans, let's just put it that way," Heidi Grotsky, a makeup artist on the show, told PEOPLE last November.

Meanwhile, Vanous faced challenges in his personal life as well. His seven-year marriage to model Kristen Noel ended in 1996. After the breakup, Vanous relocated to L.A. "It was so difficult coming out here after my divorce, and dating," says Vanous, who came to Hollywood hopes of furthering his acting career. "Bottom line is, I'm looking for work." There are two potential TV pilots for which Vanous is crossing his fingers, and he's considering returning to TV commercials.

He's also back in the dating game, and would like to remarry. "I'm one of those guys who needs a good woman in his life," Vanous says. And that's not all. "I want kids so bad, it's a problem," he says.

While he searches for love and livelihood, he has his pets -- a parrot, a dog and the real object of his affection: Gypsy, his 5-year-old Clydesdale horse. "I've always loved horses," he says.

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