Sexy at 60
Consider her appearances on the Johnny Carson show in the mid-seventies. Somers, born in California in 1946, the daughter of an alcoholic, brutal father, dropped out of university when she became pregnant by a professor. She married him, had a son and quickly divorced, at about the same time as she was arrested for passing bad cheques. A few years of bit acting and modelling gigs followed, including the famed, brief Thunderbird scene in the film American Graffiti and a nude Playboy shoot.
Then, circa 1974, Somers found herself reciting poetry from Carson's couch. The poems were penned by the fragile Somers herself as exercises in emotional catharsis but, to Carson, here was a chance for Grade A mugging. The beautiful blonde pixie with the Bambi eyes, earnestly reading her verses as the host went through his familiar array of frowns and deadpans, soon became a semi-regular on the Tonight Show.
So Carson would get the laughs -- but Somers, at the age of about 27, was taking an important step towards putting a troubled upbringing behind her.
Recalled Somers on a book-tour visit to Toronto last fall: "It was all about my feelings, and I had to come to grips with what I was actually like. Which was this childhood that I couldn't understand. Having a violent, brutal, alcoholic, crazed father, and all that goes with that. He tried to brutalize the happy spirit but the happy spirit was winning out."
Jump forward to 1980. ABC TV has a crisis on its hands. Somers had parlayed the guileless nymph act into a co-starring role on the three-year hit Three's Company, where as Chrissy Snow, the minister's daughter with bounce, she transfixed millions of North American viewers, especially the men. The male lead was the rubbery John Ritter, an updated Dick Van Dyke.
Trouble was, after the third season, Somers was making a fraction the salary of Ritter and other leading male stars of the day -- 1/10th, she says today. Negotiating on her behalf was her husband Alan Hamel, a Canadian television institution from the 1960s and '70s, the star of such shows as Razzle Dazzle, Nightcap and The Alan Hamel Show, who had recently quit performing to handle his wife's career.
Somers says she had not had any acting lessons when she started the show and producer Mickey Ross took her under his wing as a special project. Ross felt rejected when Hamel later took over the reins of Somers's career, she says.
"I have spent a lot of years wondering, what happened? I am a nice person, how could an entire company turn into mob fury against me for asking to be paid the same as the men? It doesn't make sense, what is everyone so mad at? It came to be Alan Hamel vs. Mickey Ross."
Somers appeared for one minute per show for the latter part of the fourth season, always appearing split screen by herself, and then she was gone. It was 14 years before she and John Ritter spoke to each other again.
But new adventures awaited her.
Now it's 1984. Let Somers describe the scene. She's in Las Vegas.
"I am walking on the stage on one side, and Frank Sinatra is walking on the stage on the other side, and I am voted female entertainer of the year and he is male entertainer of the year, and I am standing up on stage with Frank and I am thinking, I know this doesn't mean a lot to the industry, but boy does this mean a lot to me.
"This was one of those momentous occasions in life to me."
To rebound from being "fired" from Three's Company, as she puts it, to make it big in Las Vegas, took intense reflection, healing, then planning and execution.
"I went through a year where I was really bummed, really depressed," says Somers. "Why did I rock the boat in the greatest job I had? Now I'm nobody.
"But one day, I heard this voice in my head. Why are you focusing on what you don't have? Why don't you focus on what you do have?
"And I answered myself. What do I have? I have enormous visibility. That's an asset, that's tangible. Everybody in this country knows my name. What am I sitting here feeling sorry for myself for?
"That's when I said to my husband, why don't I do a nightclub act?"
So Hamel tramped through Las Vegas and finally secured a two-year contract at the MGM Grand -- unheard of for a neophyte song and dance performer. The budget for programming and production was good, Bob Mackie was hired to create gowns, and Somers took dance and singing lessons. It was time to take the stage for opening night -- and Somers became a Las Vegas star.
At about the same time, Suzanne Somers Inc. was born.
Or to be more precise, the multi-million-dollar business that features the Suzanne Somers brand, now called Somers Licensing, or SLC, was launched.
It started with the Thighmaster, promoted by Somers since the eighties and no less than the single biggest-selling fitness product in history, with some 10-million units sold.
She soon threw herself into writing health, fitness, cooking and now anti-aging books, advocating controversial natural-hormone-replacement treatments that she claims have helped her fight the aging process but that have been slammed as unscientific by most researchers and mainstream health organizations such as North American Menopause Society. Her books Keeping Secrets, five Somersize titles and The Sexy Years reached the top of the New York Times bestsellers list. She continued the study of hormones in her latest, called Ageless, The Naked Truth about Bioidentical Hormones.
Somers also courted controversy with, and wrote about, her decision six years ago to eschew chemotherapy when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, instead taking the natural product Iscador, derived from mistletoe. She says she told her doctors, "I am going to have to roll the dice, that I know more about my hormones than you do."
Today she is in complete remission, 100-per-cent fit and healthy -- thanks to the bioidentical hormones, she says.
Encouraged by the success of the Thighmaster, and realizing that her unique show-business visibility could work to sell other health and beauty merchandise, Hamel and Somers developed more and more lines of jewellery, fashion, beauty, fitness and nutrition products and sold them through infomercials, the Home Shopping Channel and now online at suzannesomers.com. Today SLC is a thriving private business, with 1,000 items, that is tailor-made for the internet era -- and Somers is set to launch a new delivery system: Mary Kay-style home parties.
The storyline here represents another encapsulation of how Somers -- despite harsh criticism of her health books, her choice of cancer treatment, her career choices (some have never forgiven her for leaving Three's Company) and lately her 2005 Broadway stage show in which she publicly declared her forgiveness of her father (called smug and narcissistic by critics) -- is sustained by support from her legions of fans. Go to her website and visit the chatlines for evidence.
"When I was on Broadway last summer, they came night after night and they came dressed in my clothes and in my jewellery. In fact my hairdresser said, he would go down 42nd Street, and he said, you can see your women walking down the street and they look like a million bucks.
"I would meet with the women after the Broadway show. I sat there and I thought, something is happening between us, and I like it and they like it. And it was an honour and a privilege and a surprise."
With that level of demonstrated loyalty, says Somers, her company SLC has the potential to be a major force in the next few years.
"We're a Mom and Pop store but it is a very modern business because we have a virtual store. I have an audience of millions. I call it sell-a-tainment. So I sell and entertain, I am their therapist, I am their girl friend."
Thus, Somers has defied her critics, exorcised personal demons, fought off cancer and gotten rich working alongside her devoted husband of 29 years. She looks gorgeous and she's got six grandkids about whom she is crazy and a huge fan base that clamours to buy her merchandise.
But until circa August 2003 there was one gnawing piece of unfinished business: the John Ritter feud. Notice the time -- it was a month before Ritter's sudden death from heart failure. She had been re-introduced to Ritter some time earlier at a play by his wife Amy so the initial awkwardness between them was over. But that summer of 2003 Ritter called Somers, who was at a beauty salon, with something to say.
"John and I loved each other. That's the tragedy, and I realized why he was mad at me for so many years, because he lost a great sparring partner. When I watch the reruns now I can't take my eyes off of Jack and Chrissy. He was so talented ... We had this chemistry that was quite incredible.
"I picked up he phone and he said, it's John, and I forgive you. And I didn't quite understand that, but I said, great. I wondered if on some subliminal level he knew something, why did he make that call to me?
"He wanted me to go on his show, Eight Simple Rules, in a dream sequence. And I said, people have been waiting to see the two of us get back together, and we are not even going to be in the same room, you are not even going to be there, are you? That is not how I want to go back to work with you. Let's find a project where we're essentially Jack and Chrissy, and let's resolve that relationship for all those people who care. It is not like the whole world cares but there is a contingent of people who would have loved to have seen that work out.
"It was about a half hour. It was warm, 'I love you. I'm so sorry, we've wasted so much time.' A lot of good-bye talk now that I think of it."
And so it goes for the resilient Suzanne Somers -- setbacks and triumphs, but always she has shown she is a true showbiz survivor.
In January, one of her two homes burned down, but Somers was philosophical. Access Hollywood reported her comments: "That house blew up in 15 minutes, so we should have died and we just left two and a half hours before that not knowing we would never see it again, so it's pretty shocking, but I am so grateful to be alive."
Somers summed up her career thus far to Forever Young: "I've had a great run, a great life, and it feels as if the second half is just starting. I even see more acting in the future, because it is easier to get a job at 60 than it is at 40.
"I have had a really successful on-stage career, and I've written 16 books, and I always have said over the last 10-15 years, one day they'll figure out that Chrissy Snow and Suzanne Somers are two different people.
"And even if they don't, so what, and if people think I'm stupid, and they come up to me and pinch my cheeks at 60 years old, well that's great."
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THEY SAY/SHE SAYS
Suzanne Somers has faced her share of critics over the year but some of the strongest blasts have come from her radical views on the value of 'bioidentical hormones' to forestall the affects of aging and produce other health benefits.
Dr. Wulf H. Utian, executive director of the North American Menopause Society, quotes from her new book Ageless and then offers his own damning commentary in a recent editorial that was widely distributed by the society.
SOMERS: "Ageless, that's the promise.
"I found the solution -- a cutting-edge endocrinologist/anti-aging doctor, who prescribed a treatment of bioidentical hormones ... This became and remains a huge passion for me: to let women know there is a safe, effective treatment that is not based on drugs.
"Bioidentical hormone replacement is the only answer to ward off illness, weight gain, and other symptoms associated with hormone decline."
UTIAN:" "What utter nonsense! Many women believe the concept, some healthcare providers are feeding the frenzy, and compounding pharmacies have hit the jackpot.
"How on earth has modern medicine gotten into a situation in which the public believes the snake-oil salesman instead of the research and science? ...
"Many of the most significant national medical associations and societies are now coming out with statements of reservation about the bioidentical cult. ... It is time to tell women, 'Buyers beware!'"