The Unsinkable Suzanne Somers

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.

"I was going to my first junior prom, and my mom had made me a dress," she said. "And he's been watching her make this dress for the past week, and the excitement that was going on in the sewing room, and the fitting. She let me choose the fabric. I'd never been dressed up, and I'd never been on a date. And I was really nervous about the date coming to the house. . . . My mom and I had a plan that if [my father] was really drunk, which he always was, that she would hold him down on the kitchen table while I ran out of the house. And so I went to bed that night. I had the dress hanging like that on the back of the closet door. You know, you're 16. It was very exciting.

"That night, he came into my room and he slammed open the door like he always did." Here Somers gasped. "And he slammed on the light like he always did. And then he came at me like a mad dog. And said, 'You think you're something, huh? You think you're going to go to the prom and all the boys are going to think you're pretty?' . . . He was so drunk, and I thought he was going to strangle me, but he went past me to that dress, took that dress, and he ripped it in half.

"I saw a white light of rage like I've never in my life seen. And my mother came in and said, 'What, are you crazy?' And he took her and he punched her in the breast so hard that she fell on the floor. And I, without thinking, looked down--I was standing on the bed because I was trying to get away from him--I reached down, got the tennis racquet, pulled it over my head and with all my strength brought it down on his head, and I still remember the sound of wood connecting with his flesh and his blood spewing out of his head like a geyser. He made this low guttural sound. He fell to the ground, and I started screaming."

She had given him a concussion. While her mother took him to the hospital, Somers spent the night mopping up her father's blood from the floor, the walls, the front walk and, yes, their white picket fence. She would never be alone with her father again. But it would take decades, she said, to realize that he feared her as much as she feared him.

There was a brief silence. "So," she said after a few seconds. "That, in essence, is who I am."

Somers had meant to explain herself with this sad memory, to illustrate that since that night she has always been a fighter, the one to face off with the brutal alcoholic, the television network, the pharmaceutical industry. The story felt revelatory. She welled up as she told it. So did I. To this day, she said, she prefers small rooms, a consequence of a childhood spent hiding in her closet. Years of therapy have helped her to cope with the trauma, but it is forever painful to recall.

This was in fact a glimpse of the real Suzanne Somers. And so is this: She has told different versions of this story many times in very public venues, first in her 1988 memoir, "Keeping Secrets," which became a 1991 TV movie, and again in 2005 in her one-woman Broadway show "The Blonde in the Thunderbird." Such revelations, as honest and heartbreaking as they are, have become a sort of currency.

Suzanne Somers the woman is inextricable from "Suzanne Somers" the brand. Many of the random personal details she shares--her dishpan hands after cooking Thanksgiving dinner for her family, her occasional use of Restylane for the wrinkles around her mouth--loop back to one Somers product or another. She still references recipes from "Somersize" cookbooks, and has used her FaceMaster every morning for 14 years. She has spun every life crisis, every career tribulation into personal power and professional gold. Her early trials led to her book of poetry, which led to spots on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, which led to "Three's Company." When that fell apart, she whipped up a hit nightclub act in Las Vegas, wrote a bestselling memoir and introduced the ThighMaster.

In the six years since her breast cancer, Somers has transformed a modest licensing business--first launched in the late 1980s with the ThighMaster--into a global merchandising machine. She has written more than a dozen books, on nutrition, on blending families, on aging, on surviving alcoholism. "The Sexy Years," her first book on bioidentical hormones, published in 2004, sold a million copies in the first three months. "Ageless" debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in October and stayed there for six weeks. The 50,000 copies Somers brought to her Home Shopping Network show sold out in three days. Indeed, she has become a legend on HSN as the most enduring celebrity brand in the network's 30 years. Even her ThighMaster, which immediately became a late-show punch line on David Letterman's top 10 list and once doubled as an orange juicer on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," is still sold in 120 countries. "The comedians started selling it for us," she said.

Somers herself is a natural saleswoman. To hear her proselytize for the FaceMaster, for example, a little $100 machine that sends tiny jolts of electricity to facial muscles, is to experience the art of persuasion. It's a workout for your face, she says, building muscle tone to prop up skin before it sags. She'll show you how she has sculpted convincingly plump cheeks with this little device (FDA approved, mind you), how she has avoided face-lifts and eye jobs. At 60, she's got some wrinkles. She'll point them out to you. But overall she looks good. And she's so down-to-earth, with that throaty, self-deprecating laugh that's just a few beats away from the Chrissy Snow snort. So you willingly ignore that part of you that's saying, "Electric jolts? To your face? Using a gel as a conductor fluid?" Here in this stuffy meeting room, surrounded by a bacchanal of American consumerism and the buzz of her own enterprise, Somers is riveting.

She's a guru, though she would never describe herself that way. She has an impressive following of women of all ages--she calls them her "flock"--who see Somers as an icon of fitness, fun and sex appeal and are willing to spend money on her products as a means of emulating her. They come from all over the country to attend her "Suzanne" conventions every 18 months, wearing their Suzanne Somers satin pajamas and their Suzanne Somers tiaras, selling out cruise ships and crowding meeting rooms at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas to hear her talk on weight loss, cooking, nutrition and fashion.

"She didn't get to go to prom, she wasn't a cheerleader, she didn't get the chance to do a lot of things girls get to do," said her longtime friend and HSN cohost Colleen Lopez. "So in a way she's enjoying having girlfriends. She's a girl's girl."

Somers says her greatest strength as a businesswoman is that she understands her customers. They remind her in so many ways of her mother, Marion Mahoney. "This is how they came from the airport," she said of a photo of dozens of these women on the cover of a convention program. "They look like my mother. I grew up with these women. And I think they sense it. This is my mission in America. It's not the coasts. It's not the super-hip people. Although I think I'm super-hip." She chortled. "That picture is so telling to me. I know that they think about the prices of everything. I know that they don't get the kind of attention from their husbands that they want. I give it to them. . . . I've been told I'm the best friend they've ever had. I get it. I just think I speak for them and I give them hope. That you can look good, feel good, have energy, have fun, be in love, have a family, have a great time with your family."

Perhaps her decision to meet at this humble office park was part of Somers' pitch. A way to keep things in context. After all, she's selling affordable luxury. And how could she do that with earnestness if she were speaking from some of the world's priciest real estate?

"What I say to them is, 'Now we can all have the jewelry that once only the wealthiest women in the world could afford,'" Somers said, recalling her HSN sell-a-thons. She gestured toward a wide bracelet encrusted with cubic zirconia. "That's a Harry Winston grid. I bought [the design] from his grandson. And did the exact same grid and cut the stones the same way he cut his diamonds but made them CZ. So I can sell that for $189, and that's probably a million-dollar bracelet. So they trust me, 'cause I don't have an agenda other than I have to love it if I sell it. And so I wear my clothes and I wear my jewelry. I use everything. I cook out of my cookbooks. I do take bioidentical hormones. I do eat the way I write about. So there's something that they're finding that's resonating as truthful."

There's been just one instance during Somers' years as a brand when that loyalty was tested. In 2001, a photograph appeared in the National Enquirer of the "ThighMaster Beauty" leaving a Beverly Hills plastic surgery clinic where she had received liposuction. Two weeks after the story broke, after her former costar John Ritter made a joke about it, after Howard Stern picked it up and the press started calling it "ThighGate," she went on "Larry King Live" to announce that she had had breast cancer and had undergone liposuction to "even things out" after her partial mastectomy.

The scandal swiftly disappeared as all talk turned to her homeopathic treatment for cancer. Somers says she's now cancer-free, and that the only health problems she sustained were due to the radiation treatment. In fact, she credits much of her entrepreneurial drive to being diagnosed with breast cancer and finding a hormone regimen that she says gives her boundless energy.

Somers has taken a more direct approach to the controversy prompted by "Ageless," which is a series of Q&As; with doctors and patients about bioidentical hormones. She toured the talk-show circuit, gamely countering criticism at every turn by recalling her devastating menopause, marked by depression, loss of libido, dramatic mood swings and insomnia so severe she says her marriage nearly ended. She bragged about her newly healthy sex life, even telling one male network correspondent, "You should sleep with me. I don't sweat and I sleep through the whole night, and if you want to have sex I'd be in the mood!"

Unlike conventional hormone replacement therapy, which is derived from the urine of pregnant mares, bioidenticals are derived from soy, wild yam and other plants. Bioidentical compounds are so-called because their molecular structure mimics those of the body's natural hormones. Still, some doctors say, bioidenticals not only pose many of the same risks as hormone replacement drugs, but have not been subject to enough testing.

The week "Ageless" was published, seven doctors, including three mentioned in it--Manhattan internist Erika Schwartz, Santa Barbara endocrinologist and Somers' former personal physician Diana Schwarzbein, and C.W. Randolph, founder of the Natural Hormone Institute of America--signed a letter to Somers and her publisher, Crown, calling it "detrimental and dangerous to the thousands of women who read it because the book freely and repeatedly blurs the line of medical ethics and science with hearsay." Their greatest source of concern was Somers' frequent reference to a rhythmic hormone protocol devised by T.S. Wiley, a former actress with a bachelor's degree in anthropology.

In November, the American Medical Assn., without naming Somers or her book, asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to increase its oversight of bioidenticals, stating that it hoped to counter "potentially misleading or flawed information about custom-compounded bioidentical hormones" and expressing concern about the promotion of bioidenticals as safe and effective by "non-medical professionals."

In response to the criticism, Somers said that Schwartz, in particular, had "a little bit of sour grapes" because her Q&A; was cut from the book. And Schwarzbein, Somers said, was just bothered that she didn't think of Wiley's method first. (Both doctors have denied these claims.) Yet the experience has been so trying that Somers likens it to being fired from "Three's Company" when she demanded that ABC increase her salary fivefold.

"That's why I don't want to fight with the pharmaceuticals," she said. "I thought [after being fired], 'Oh, I can't win. They want to make an example of me so no other women get uppity.' I have to say when women get paid big salaries in television now, I take personal pride in it. And I take a lot of pride in that maybe I'm going to be the one they all pounce on with these bioidentical hormones. But I brought them to the forefront."

And if Somers has her way, women all over America will have affordable access to them. She has signed on as celebrity spokeswoman for Menopause Clinics of America, a venture started by an Australian company that offers bioidentical hormone treatments from nurse practitioners for $39 a visit. The first clinic opened in April in La Jolla; another is set to open this month in New York, and more are planned in Indiana, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Meanwhile, Somers is saving America's women from mediocre meals and financial dependency. She has started a new restaurant franchise, Suzanne's Kitchen, which sells the raw ingredients to make Somers' recipes--what she calls "real food." And this year, dozens of her flock will start hosting home parties to sell Somers' products a la Tupperware. Within a year, she hopes, this sales team will grow to 3,000.

After that, she wants to do another sitcom, start a magazine and--theater critics be damned!--perform another stage show.

She and Hamel see all of it, from the SomerSmile Get White Tooth Whitening System to her upcoming lecture series with motivational guru Tony Robbins and former president of Mexico Vicente Fox, as "doing well while doing good." That too sounds like a sales pitch, but one with a vaguely philanthropic bent. Though most people assume that Hamel pushes her, Somers said, "I am the driven one. And it's not about money. The drive is that I like it. It's fun."

Four days before their Malibu house burned to the ground, Somers and Hamel spent a few days there, working and vacationing. They'd had a busy holiday with their children and grandchildren, but as they settled into a table at Geoffrey's, an oceanside restaurant, they appeared far more relaxed than they had in Calabasas. There was something youthful about the couple. They clearly like each other. Hamel ordered the corn chowder, and Somers finished it for him.

Somers and Hamel have been together since the late 1960s, when she was a 19-year-old single mother and he was in his late 20s, married with kids of his own. (Port Carling is from his past, the name of a town in southern Ontario, Canada, where he drove a truck as a teenager.) They met the day she auditioned for a game show he was hosting in San Francisco. She was fired almost instantly for looking into the wrong camera as she presented a prize refrigerator. But not before Hamel got her phone number.

They dated--for 10 years. Somers was struggling, living hand-to-mouth as a model, a salesclerk and a sometime actress, always behind on the rent, even arrested once for passing bad checks, and didn't want Hamel to know the extent of her problems. Hamel had his hands full juggling a family and a mistress. He wasn't especially interested in being a parent to Somers' young son, Bruce.

Once they married, Somers says, they spent their first decade fighting for "a level playing field." He was a controlling personality, someone who subconsciously reminded her of her father. Now they're close companions. Sometimes, she says, she looks at Hamel and "I still get a wiggle. He turns me on." On another level, though, he keeps her grounded. "He's very base," she says. "He says things to me as we're going out. We're walking down the hall--'Um, you're not going to like the way that looks from behind.'" She lets loose another throaty laugh. Then she shrugs. "I'd rather he tell me."

The couple are regulars at the big social events of the year--the Vanity Fair Oscar party, the Carousel Ball and others. But they're choosy about their evenings out, and when they talk about their lives they sound a lot like homebodies. They spend all their time together, 24/7. In the mornings, they follow their vitamin and smoothie regimen, followed by coffee--Hamel's specialty. Somers joked about their shared office--Hamel collects piles of papers--and reminded her husband she'd be making crab for dinner. Hamel said he's never been to a wine tasting, never been to a stag party, he's not big on golf. He doesn't have a lot in common with his retired friends, because even after 52 years he never wants to be out of work. They have six grandchildren altogether and revel in them, attending ballet recitals and such. Holidays are typically blocked out for big family gatherings.

Somers is especially close to her son Bruce, now 41, and his wife, Caroline. In "Ageless," she interviewed him about his own experience with hormone treatments. At 33, Bruce believed he was suffering from the male equivalent of perimenopause, known as periandropause, and in the book he details the relief he found with the treatment. But their exchange reveals a bit about their relationship as well.

"I don't know that I realized I was tired then," he said. "I've been tired, I mean, I've been trying to be cognizant of being tired in the last few years and not letting myself get burned out. I'm not good at it. You see, I have a mom who's a workaholic in everything she does. She's the best mom, the best nightclub entertainer, the best salesperson, the best at everything she does."

In response, Somers told him: "I'm working on it. I left dishes in the sink last night, you'll be proud to know."

In early January, on an otherwise uneventful Monday night, Hamel called his wife to the television and pointed to the inferno on the screen. It was their $5-million Malibu home. They watched it burn, consumed by a fast-moving brush fire. The next day they drove to the property and Somers waded through a crowd of reporters to get to the charred remains. Her convertible Jaguar, now a blackened shell, was still parked out front. Somers and Hamel had owned the modest midcentury two-bedroom for seven years. They bought it for weekend getaways, and ended up spending most of their time there. Still, as Somers told the reporters, it wasn't as if she'd lost a child in Iraq. "We will learn something great from this experience," she said.

In the days after the fire, Somers would elaborate only by e-mail. She wasn't especially upset over the material losses, though she said she'd miss her Tom Ford black leather jacket and a scrapbook of "The Blonde in the Thunderbird" that her granddaughter had made. "Because my social life was in L.A., and my professional life, all my clothing and jewelry and my 25-year collection of Native American moccasins were all destroyed," she wrote. "I do not own a purse or a coat anymore. My gowns were all burned. As were my costumes. My scripts and all the research I had collected--gone. It's an interesting experience. Sad, but with perspective . . . I always said, I'd like to have 10 great things to wear. 'Your wish is my command.' Be careful what you wish for."

Jackie Collins sent Somers one of her necklaces, and film producers Arnold and Anne Kopelson volunteered their guest quarters. Somers was overwhelmed by the "huge outpouring of love and kindness from our friends and hundreds of people who have reached out to my website." Still, nearly two weeks after the fire, she remained hurt that The Times' next-day news story had reported that she read a statement "from a piece of paper." She mentioned it twice in her e-mails.

"I know the 'deal' that is struck when one chooses the celebrity life," she wrote in one last missive. "I know that the press is going to be there when you want them and also when you would prefer they are not there. I have never resented the intrusion and have welcomed those appearances that move my persona forward. But what I do resent is being 'reviewed' on my tragedy. It happened with cancer and it happened again with, unfortunately, the L.A. Times 'reviewing' my reaction. Just the thought is ghastly and then to . . . say I pulled out a canned written response, when if the video is reviewed there was no written response, nor did I have any idea what I was going to say until it came out of my mouth. I was in shock seeing my life burned to ashes. It was my soul speaking . . . there was no canned response. Just the words of a woman who was trying to do her best under such adversity."

And that, in essence, is who Suzanne Somers is.

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