The red-state Martha

Ignored by taste-makers but embraced by millions, ex-jiggle-blonde Suzanne Somers has built an empire of jewelry, food, ThighMasters and gauzy spirituality.


Rebecca Traister
April 6, 2004 1:42AM (UTC)

For many, the memory of Suzanne Somers probably began to fade after she was fired in 1981 from "Three's Company," where she played Chrissy Snow, the iconic jiggle-blonde she's still best remembered for. But to her, it's at that point that the real Suzanne began to emerge. "The great thing that happened from them firing me was that I sat at home for the first year in a place of grief and depression," she said during a recent interview, before "a little voice in me said 'Come on, get off the pity pot! Why are you focusing on what you don't have? Focus on what you do have!"

What she did have, she decided, was visibility -- a visibility she had unsuccessfully tried to convince network suits was worth franchising through a Chrissy cartoon-handbag-lunchbox brand. "Kind of what the Olsen twins are doing now, but I had the idea back then," said Somers, now 57. Which brings her back to the subject of what, exactly, she does for a living these days.

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"If you said, 'What do you do?' I would say, 'I'm my own boss.' If I want to sell shoes and handbags, I can. If I want to sell you a book on hormones, I can. If I want to pass on my spiritual work, I can. If I want to talk about being the child of an alcoholic, I can. If I want to sell jewelry or write diet books ..." She can.

And she does -- far more, it seems, than nearly anybody realizes. Because while we have all thoroughly mulled more upscale lifestyle/spiritual pashas like Martha, Oprah and Dr. Phil, Suzanne Somers has gone about her business largely unnoticed -- that is, except to the millions who have, in some way, bought into her brand. Her health regimen has provoked some vocal skepticism in the past few years, but Somers has mostly managed to avoid the relentless media spotlight of her A-list peers, all the while cultivating a fan base that she calls, without irony, her "flock."

Her fans have largely bought into Suzanne Somers on the Home Shopping Network, where she frequently can be found hawking a portion of what her eclectic empire has to offer. There is her line of clothing and jewelry; with a million of her self-designed "trilliant" bracelets sold, it's the single best selling jewelry item on HSN. There is her diet and exercise plan -- an Atkins-y sort of arrangement called SomerSizing, which includes cookbooks, cooking products, prepared foods and her own sugar substitute, SomerSweet -- that boasts over 3 million devotees. There is the SomerSkin line of potions (made with her own patented anti-aging ingredient Accuderm PH). Yes, there is the ThighMaster. And there are the books, like her current bestseller, "The Sexy Years," which focuses on her controversial approach to menopause, which led her recently, on "Larry King Live," to talk callers through their hot flashes and vaginal dryness.

In fact, there are currently over 5 million copies of Somers' 11 books in print -- they include a collection of poetry, several memoirs, diet and fitness books, and a spiritual guide. Last year, she signed up to do an additional seven books for Crown Publishing Group. "She does do all of her own writing," said Kristin Kiser, her editor of six years and the editorial director at Crown. Though Crown won't give actual sales numbers, Kiser said that Somers is the company's biggest franchise author and that "in terms of consistency of sales, she delivers with every book, and that is very difficult to achieve in the publishing business." Somers said in conversation that her favorite book was her spiritual meditation "365 Ways to Change Your Life," even though it was her least successful seller: She claimed it sold only about 250,000 copies.

"The Sexy Years," in which Somers banishes "Itchy, Bitchy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Bloated, Forgetful, and All-Dried-Up," her "Seven Dwarves of Menopause" -- or, as she calls it, "Men-on-pause" -- by taking "bioidentical" hormones made from yams and soy beans, was published on March 8. It's already in its sixth printing; there are 620,000 copies in print, and it's on the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Publishers' Weekly bestseller lists. Somers' entrance into the medical fray on the subject of postmenopausal hormone replacement isn't new; she angered many doctors in 2000 when she announced on "Larry King" that despite her breast cancer diagnosis she would stick to her hormone treatments and abstain from chemotherapy. Somers did have a lumpectomy and undergo radiation therapy. The controversial issue here is that some studies have linked hormones to higher risks for breast cancer.

In "The Sexy Years," Somers argues that the potential dangers of hormone replacement can be avoided by steering clear of certain kinds of artificial hormones -- specifically those made from horse urine (Premarin). Instead, she's opted for compounded hormone cocktails she claims are "bioidentical" to those found in the human body. Constant attention to her hormone levels by a veritable phalanx of doctors and lab technicians, argues Somers in "The Sexy Years," is responsible for her good health, horn-dog sex drive, kick-ass bod, and a regular monthly period that she expects to last the rest of her life. She even prints addresses and phone numbers for medical experts who share her glandular enthusiasms.

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One of those is John M. Kells, the president and CEO of Aeron Life Cycles, a laboratory in San Leandro, Calif., that monitors hormone levels in saliva. Kells said that he didn't realize that he had been named in Somers' book until the calls started coming in. Now, he said, the lab is receiving approximately 30 to 50 additional phone inquiries a day, many of them from doctors anxious to find out more about what he does. Kells' own book, "The HRT Solution: Optimizing Your Hormone Potential," came out in 1999, and did not make the same impression as "The Sexy Years" has. "I guess it took a book like Suzanne's to have made even some of the medical profession aware of some of the lab resources available to them," Kells said with a laugh.

But not all physicians are enthusiastic about Somers' sagacity. Frances Ginsburg, the head of reproductive endocrinology at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, was rather put out when contacted by Salon. "You are the third person to call me about this stuff today," she said. "I had an argument with a patient this morning; they don't believe me!" What they don't believe, explained Ginsburg, is that the hormones she prescribes for them, and has been prescribing for 18 years in practice, are "bioidentical." And while Somers argues that hormones need to be specially compounded to fit every individual's blood chemistry, Ginsburg pointed out that compounding labs use the very same materials that she prescribes directly from the pharmaceutical companies. She is also furious about the implication that the Somers' way is safer.

"No one has ever shown with a shred of evidence that [bioidentical hormones] make any difference with things like side effects; natural progesterone is likely to have the same problems as synthetic," said Ginsburg. "So I have patients screaming at me that they want bioidentical hormones. I say, 'you're on them! But you still can't guarantee you're not gonna get breast cancer!" Moreover, she said about Somers, "This is a woman with breast cancer and she is going to talk to women about how to use hormones? If she's using hormones with her breast cancer she's frankly out of her mind. And if she convinces other women with active breast cancer ..." Ginsburg trailed off for a moment before starting up again: "This is a free country and I believe in the freedom of the press ... but this is just crazy, to make all these sweeping statements with no evidence. If I did that kind of thing as a physician I could lose my license."

But of course, Somers is not a physician. And to hear her tell it, she's not selling anyone anything other than herself. When asked about the pressures and responsibilities she faces as the name behind every product she sells -- including controversial medical opinions, she shrugged it off.

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"No, no," she said, her voice calm, soft. "I love everything I sell. I believe in everything I write." She then began her repeated refrain on such questions, "When I write these things I never give advice. If you look at my books I never tell anybody, 'You should.' I just say, 'This is what I do. If you want what I'm having, this is what I do. So check it out, maybe it'll appeal to you.' And it takes all pressure off of me."

Somers' voice is steady, and peppered with little verbal ticks in triplicate. Sentences trail off with "blah blah blah"s and she corrects misconceptions with the lilting gravity of a small child's "No, no, no." It's all quite rhythmic, almost hypnotic; Somers' voice takes you with her, even through a couple of Partonian parables, like the time she was going to the senior ball and "oh, there was a dress in the window of a fancy ladies' shop" which her poor mother copied for her from fabric she bought herself. It's a warm story from what has been a pretty rocky past, documented extensively in the Somers' canon: abuse, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, botched abortion, gender discrimination, breast cancer. Somers is stitching together an epic tale from the pieces of a life that has been marked by class and gender disadvantage and turning every scrap of it -- every exercise, every taste, every hormone -- into stuff to sell.

"The breast cancer, and her whole life story, really propels this," said Irv Rein, professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, and co-author of "High Visibility: The Making and Marketing of Professionals into Celebrities." "It's called a dramatic story line. And when a real-life dramatic story line and fictive character meet, you've got yourself synergy." Rein said that Somers' business tactics remind him some of Elizabeth Taylor, another famous face who sold products after having lived through adversity.

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Granted, Taylor had a few seedy years, but the high-bred Oscar-winner surely started out several class cuts above Somers, the daughter of Frank Mahoney, the "brutal alcoholic father" who loaded beer into box cars, and his wife Marion. But when it comes to product peddling, Taylor, who sells her own perfumes, wouldnt qualify for Somers pit crew. Its hard to evaluate the worth of Somers business empire. She runs seven separate companies with her husband and manager of 27 years, Alan Hamel. Hamel, a shrewd businessman, may be one of Somers' most important secret weapons; in "The Sexy Years," she writes that he "takes care of everything so all I have to do is keep on writing" and thanks him for "running the show." Their companies are privately held, and they will not disclose much about their finances.

Somers had just finished a 25-hour weekend run on HSN when we spoke. "They wanted everything!" she said. "They wanted a piece of me! If I could send me to them, they wanted me!" Somers describes her regular sales weekends as pure, un-cut show business. "Say I've got a bracelet that's doing $25,000 a minute," she said. "Then I know, 'OK, this is cookin'.'" Somers described her on-air reaction to these big dings: "Then I go into the crazies; I dance for them, I sing for them, I do impressions for them, I don't know what I do!"

Scott Kessler, an Internet analyst at Standard & Poors, said that HSN, which is part of Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp, had net sales last year of $2.2 billion, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. Kessler said that an important part of HSN's merchandising strategy "involves not only picking and choosing products but establishing brands" -- brands like Suzanne Somers. Though the company does not publicly tally sales by brand -- and HSN representatives did not return repeated calls -- Kessler said that "home hard goods" (appliances) account for 27 percent of the network's sales, health and beauty products 25 percent, and jewelry 23 percent. Somers sells products in all of those categories.

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"I own so much of her jewelry, I use all her products, everything!" said September Radecki, a homemaker in San Jose, Calif. Radecki, the 43-year-old married mother of a 10-year-old son, said she has lost 90 pounds on the SomerSize plan, and attended a Goddess Convention at the MGM Grand Hotel that Somers threw for her throngs of fans. Radecki shops for Somers products on HSN and on SuzanneSomers.com, and said her favorite purchases include SomerSweet, and the line's prepared salt rubs for meat and vegetables. "[SomerSizing] is an awesome program," she said. "It's not a diet; it's a lifestyle. And it just rocks your world."

It's a lifestyle developed in Somers' home and offices in Southern California. She said that she has about 100 employees, four warehouses, and a handful of fulfillment centers around the country. She also said that in the near future, she plans to open retail locations and a chain of SomerSize cafes. Asked later about specific numbers or locations for these ventures, Somers' spokeswoman Sandi Mendelson said they were still in planning stages.

According to Mendelson, there have been over 10 million ThighMasters sold since the gadget's invention in the late 1980s. Somers also sells the ThighMaster LBX (which she calls the, uh, "ButtMaster") and all-over toning devices called Ultra Track and Torso Track. Mendelson said that the "hero" product on Somers' Web site is the SomerSweet sugar substitute, and the products -- pancake batter, chocolate chips, a candy called "Zannies" -- made with the stuff. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, had never heard of SomerSweet, but noted that as long as it's chemical-free, it can be sold without FDA approval. When he looked up SomerSweet on Somers' site, he noted that it was described as being made from "a delicious blend of natural, sweet fibers" and that it "cooks like a dream," but that since there was no clear indication whence these "fibers" sprang, it was hard for him to imagine what SomerSweet actually was. Mendelson later explained that it's made from chicory. By e-mail, Popkin said, "Interesting. Certainly not toxic."

Somers hooks audiences with an earthy honesty that shines brighter than any of her HSN baubles. And she works it. She offers another story, about the day that she discovered, live on HSN, that an ugly bracelet had been slipped into her collection. "I'm looking at it and I'm saying, 'And here's a trilliant bracelet.' But this bracelet was a bad blue and a bad pink together; and I'm looking at it thinking, 'Why is this here?' And I'm upset and I'm not able to exude any enthusiasm in my voice, and I looked at the camera and I said, 'You know what? I really don't like this bracelet. I don't know how it got in my collection.'"

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Somers paused for a moment, perhaps imagining the seconds it must have taken for her flock to realize she was screeching into reverse on-air. When they did, she said, "Maaaaaan, the computer went blank!" An HSN buyer came down to scold her, asking her "How could you do that?" But Somers recalled her own response, "No, no, no. How can you do that?" Somers said that she believes, "That was a turning point with the viewership where they realized, 'Wow, she can't sell it if she doesn't love it.' There are so many great things to sell, why should I sell something ugly or something that somebody's slipping in there?"

However many millions of trilliant bracelets Somers has sold, it's clear that she still conceives of herself as lower-middle class, or maybe just poor. Self-educated, knocked-up early, proud of her Coat of Many Colors prom dress and the blond-with-big-tits image that made her famous: it may explain why Somers is on the Home Shopping Network and not on the cover of something called "Suzanne Somers Living." It may also be why many business and media analysts contacted by Salon had not heard of her. Somers is simply not on the radar screens of the cultural elite. And even if Manhattan's Strand bookstore is sold out of "The Sexy Years" -- as it was last week -- even if it is atop the bestseller list in the Los Angeles Times -- as it was this week -- Somers is still regarded as Red State all the way. And therefore, she's not regarded much at all. It's perhaps the secret of some of her appeal. "Martha belongs on Cape Cod," said Radecki. "Suzanne is the girl next door. Martha's not the type of person I would walk up to and say, 'Hey, how you doing?' Yet Suzanne, I totally would."

Asked whether or not class difference is what distinguishes her from Stewart, Somers balked, arguing that Stewart has never been about cultural or class elitism. Rather, said Somers, Stewart brought the possibility of a lavish life to even those whose personal estates were closer to the trailer park than they were to Turkey Hill, Conn. "Martha Stewart has never seemed unattainable to me," said Somers. What Stewart did, Somers said, was set a quiet bar for perfection, and allow consumers to pursue her as far as they could. Somers does not see herself as being about perfection. Or, for that matter, about being quiet.

"My way is probably more: Here's my family, here are my kids, here's the dinner we have," she said. "We celebrate Passover and Easter and Christmas and Channukah. And my kids went to Jewish camps and we're kind of the-everything-family, the blended family. We fought and cried and bitched and scratched with one another ... I'm more -- I guess -- typical, in America. My first marriage didn't work out. I was a teenage mother. I was the first divorcee in my hometown. I did all that." And she's clearly more than happy to talk about it, chirpily dropping a sentence like: "When they pulled [my son] from my little teenage body, I looked at him and said out loud, 'I promise I will make a good life for you, Brucie.'" Or like this: "When I was first being interviewed in my early years on 'Three's Company,' I would allude to this idyllic childhood where my father was the baseball coach and my mother sewed my clothes. And I never mentioned, Oh, by the way, my father was a baseball coach who coached these kids in a state of drunkenness. And he'd drive them around just shit-faced and my mother was ready for the loony bin living with this craziness and that we hid in a closet every night." Or in "The Sexy Years," where Somers describes how, after the tumor in her breast was removed, one of her grandchildren sidled up to her in bed and said, "I'm sorry you have an oowie in your booby, Zannie." Martha Stewart does not have grandchildren. But if she did, it's hard to picture such a comment being met with anything other than grandma's distressed antique guillotine.

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And when asked whether her constant battle against the rigors of "the disease of aging" indicates that she will fight to actually become immortal, Somers responded, "All I know is I want my brain to be sharp the day I die. I want my heart to be pumping strongly. I don't want tubes up my nose, and don't want to be in a wheelchair." Then she went all dreamy-voiced and continued, "I even know how I'm gonna look as an old lady. I am a long-haired, banged person and I'm going to let it grow out to be totally white with bangs. And I'm gonna wear a black turtleneck and great black pants and some really cool, hopefully Prada, construction boots, and great belts, and my rouge, and my jewelry. I think I'm gonna look great at 90. And I have a feeling I'm going to be having a sex life at 90 too, cause I have balanced hormones and so does my husband."


Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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