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Suzanne SomersFame & Fortune: Suzanne Somers

TV contract gaffe -- the last one she's made

Suzanne Somers may have rocketed to stardom by portraying a dumb blonde, but she's become one of the world's most successful entrepreneurs by proving she's anything but.

Somers grew up in San Bruno, Calif., the third of four children in an Irish Catholic family ruled by a violent, alcoholic father. Her dyslexia resulted in generally poor grades, but she found a niche in theater her senior year, acting in the high school production of "Guys and Dolls."

When she became pregnant and married Bruce Somers early in her college years, hopes of an entertainment career seemed remote. But three years later, she divorced Somers and began modeling. Several bit parts followed, including the iconic blonde in the Thunderbird in the George Lucas breakout film, "American Graffiti."

In 1977 she was cast as ditzy Chrissy Snow (more specifically, Christmas Noelle Snow) in "Three's Company." The ABC sitcom was an instant hit, catapulting Somers and co-stars John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt to instant celebrity status. The same year, Somers married Alan Hamel, who subsequently became her business manager.

When Somers boycotted a couple of episodes in the 1980-81 season over a pay raise, it spelled the beginning of the end for the series. When ABC did not renew her contract, Somers reinvented herself as a Las Vegas entertainer and spokeswoman for a new exerciser for couch potatoes called ThighMaster. With Somers' blonde good looks and Hamel's business savvy, the team developed other products and built a financial empire, thanks in part to the emerging home shopping networks.

In addition to numerous TV roles ("Step by Step" with Patrick Duffy and "Candid Camera" with Peter Funt) and movies (she played herself in the film of her autobiography, "Keeping Secrets"), Somers has become a best-selling author, inspirational speaker, spokeswoman for bio-identical hormone replacement therapy and purveyor of hundreds of diet, nutrition and beauty products.

Bankrate flagged down the fast-moving 60-year-old grandmother for a rearview glance at her road to success.

Bankrate: Your childhood was a particularly challenging one, between dealing with an abusive alcoholic father and struggling with dyslexia. What gave you the strength of character to overcome those early obstacles?

Suzanne Somers: I realized that I was the only one in my family who was not drinking and, as a pregnant teenager, was suddenly confronted with the enormous responsibility of providing for my son. I believe my son kept me alive during that time.

Bankrate: Alcoholism seemed to run rampant in your family. How were you spared?

Somers: I was the lucky one. The sword passed over my head.

Bankrate: As a single mom, how did you make ends meet? Were you resourceful with money?

Somers: I was terrible with money. I modeled, but I was short with big boobs, so I got the "B" jobs. I was always late with my rent, always getting my lights turned off and I moved a lot.

Bankrate: We hear a lot about how tough Hollywood can be on young women. Looking back, how would you rate your early years in the business?

Somers: My entry into this business was extraordinary. I went from young mother with no acting experience and no money to the star of the biggest show on TV.

Bankrate: The role of Chrissy Snow changed everything, of course. Were you ready for the financial change that accompanied your sudden success? How did you handle it?

Somers: The first time you have money, you don't know how to handle it, and I made mistakes and had a lot of fun at the same time. The second time around, I knew what I wanted to do with my money.

Next: "... always give them their money's worth or more ..."
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