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The Unsinkable Suzanne Somers

How a 'dumb blond' turned her life crises into a commercial juggernaut

February 04, 2007|Gina Piccalo | Times staff writer

Just off a freeway access road in Calabasas, past an RV lot and a saddle shop, there is a beat-up little office park, the kind of anonymous, out-of-the-way place where corporate whistle-blowers or police informants might rendezvous. This was where Suzanne Somers chose to be interviewed. Not her 86-acre property in the upper Mojave Desert, where she's planting an olive orchard, citrus grove and organic vegetable garden. Not her (then intact) beachfront Malibu home. Cut to a strip mall with no shops, only blank, black-tinted windows. Somers' office, her assistant had said, was behind the door mysteriously labeled "Port Carling." No circular drive. No potted palms.

Inside, the glamour quotient did not improve. On one wall, "Suzanne Somers" was painted in green next to a caricature in lavender. But aside from the few old movie posters and photos lining the halls, the office was furnished strictly for function. No sumptuous carpeting. No fresh flowers. No smartly appointed secretary. Instead, there was a small clutch of casually dressed staffers mingling around a coffeepot in a starkly lighted hallway.

Somers' assistant led the way through the decidedly Spartan headquarters of E.L.O. Somers Licensing (short for "extraordinarily low overhead") to a small, windowless meeting room stacked with the hundreds of products that have made the erstwhile "dumb blond" a commercial juggernaut: books, clothes and jewelry, kitchen appliances, a skin-care line, simmer sauces and condiments, and, of course, the ThighMaster.

Down the hall, Somers' voice could be heard echoing as she walked and talked, firing off a series of questions to her staff about the status of clothing orders, about her doctor's appointment later that day, about the coffee and the type of china in which she wanted it served (classic white porcelain). She was followed closely by her husband and manager, Alan Hamel. They both looked tanned and fabulous. Yet Somers seemed braced for something. A petite woman, she wore all black: boots, turtleneck and slimming pants, setting off her gold hoop earrings and tousled blond hair.

She had a hectic week ahead of her--a speech before 6,000 anti-aging doctors, a performance with her close friend Barry Manilow, a sales meeting with dozens of "Suzanne" product consultants--and had just weathered some bad press over her latest bestseller, "Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones," which some doctors say touts a dangerous hormone replacement regimen for menopausal women. She'd been on the hot seat a few nights ago, at the center of a nasty shouting match with two of those doctors on "Larry King Live."

So on this weekday morning, Somers was eager to get down to business. She extended a firm handshake, sent Hamel away with a reassurance that she'd be fine, pulled up a chair and proceeded with a familiar line of defense. She lambasted the patriarchal medical community and recounted the life-altering benefits she has experienced on bioidentical hormones: better sex, better sleep, better mood, better body. It seemed this wouldn't be a meandering chat that left everyone a bit less inhibited than when it started. This felt more like a well-honed, telegenic sales pitch.

Somers continued virtually without pause for about 40 minutes, and then I stopped her. The point of this profile, I said, was to get to know the real Suzanne Somers, her world, her life, her personality. She nodded vigorously, taking it in.

"Got it," she said.

Then Somers began again. There was no hesitation. No apparent contemplation. Somers knew where to take this. She recalled a lecture she had delivered in 2004 at Ernst & Young's Entrepreneur of the Year awards in Palm Springs. Somers explained that she never speaks with notes, but rather devises an opening line and a thread of an idea and then knows where she'll end up. At this lecture, however, the idea didn't hit her until she was in the wings.

"Then it came to me," she said. "I sell my problems. I'm a woman with problems. I've had problems since the day I was born. And I have found a way to turn my problems into assets."

And then Somers told a story that could wring tears from the most committed cynic. It took place in the early 1960s, in her hometown of San Bruno, the night before her first prom. It was the time, as Somers remembers it, that she thought she'd killed her alcoholic father. She spoke as if onstage, giving each detail a dramatic flourish.

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