For Suzanne Somers, The Thigh's Not The Limit
By Julia Boorstin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – When NBC booted blond star Suzanne Somers off Three's Company in 1981 after she demanded that her salary be quintupled to M*A*S*H star Alan Alda's $150,000 a year, critics scoffed she was a bimbo who lacked business sense. And while Somers's TV career hasn't exactly flourished since, turns out her business has.

Somersize, which started out as a small company hawking that infamous '80s exercise machine the Thighmaster, has turned into a veritable diet and fitness empire. Somers, 57, is a bestselling author, and she sells her jewelry, skin care, and clothes (300 products in all) mostly through the Home Shopping Network. In the past three years revenues have grown 100% annually. Her 11th book, The Sexy Years, on menopause, is in its 11th consecutive week on the New York Times Bestseller list.

Starting with the Thighmaster, Somers's successes have all come from capitalizing on her own weaknesses. In the '80s her inner thighs started to jiggle, and she repurposed an upper-body strengthener. "Ten million Thighmasters later, mine turned out to be a good idea," Somers trills from the 100-employee Calabases, Calif., headquarters she runs with husband Alan Hamel. Wrestling with jiggly thighs was followed by coming to terms with her father's alcoholism, breast cancer, weight gain, and menopause (the latter two helping sell not only books, but flattering clothes, makeup, costume jewelry, and diet food). Her weaknesses, from flab to hot flashes, make her comfortable and familiar. Says Marty Nealon, president of HSN US: "She's able to talk to people about how life isn't perfect."

Somers is now Crown Books' most profitable author, and readers have spent $80 million on five million copies of eight of her titles. Steve Ross, Crown's publisher, swears that Somers writes every word herself. "She has always had an uncanny sense of her own marketplace." And she's one of HSN's most important franchises. During her monthly 24-hour-long shows, where she fields calls and chats about things like her husband and cooking dinner for her grandkids with her pressure cooker, she'll easily sell 20,000 shoes or pajamas in an hour. "She pulls things together that aren't logical, talking about jewelry while eating her candy, because it's all around her persona," says HSN's Nealon. Somers says she's in final talks to put "Suzanne Stores" with her products in a Canadian bookstore chain, and she reports that a 400-location department store has approached her to sell her apparel. Meanwhile, the only time she says she has left to write her next seven contracted books is between 3:30 and 9:30 A.M.

As for business wisdom, Somers's mantra is simpler than a Three's Company plot. She says she knows her customers because "they're me." Except we're guessing they probably still have jiggly thighs. --Julia Boorstin