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Suzanne Somers Remembered

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It’s hard to remember when Suzanne Somers became a star.

Was it in “American Graffiti” when she was in the white T-bird, checking out Richard Dreyfus and whispering I love you?

Or was it four years later, when in the opening credits of Three’s Company, Joyce DeWitt accidentally poured water on her, and she sat up, grinning at the camera?

One thing is for sure: Suzanne Somers was meant to be a star.

The camera loved her, and she loved the camera back.

She wasn’t always Suzanne Somers. Born Suzanne Mahoney, she grew up in an Irish Catholic family in San Bruno, California. The family looked good on the outside, but inside was another matter. Her father Frank Mahoney was a violent alcoholic who constantly put Suzanne and her siblings down. Her older brother and sister married very young just to leave the dysfunctional environment. Suzanne sought solace in the arts, excelling in drama. In high school, she played Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls and she became hooked on the applause and the attention.

She decided she was good at this and wanted to do it for the rest of her life.

She became pregnant with her boyfriend Bruce Somers’ baby during her freshman year of college. Her dreams of stardom disappeared as she married him in a shotgun wedding. When she gave birth to their son Bruce Junior, she decided she would be a good mother to her son no matter what. This would become a challenge after the marriage broke up and he wouldn’t pay child support. She also felt ashamed; good Catholic girls didn’t get pregnant before marriage or, for that matter, get divorced.

She signed up with a modeling agency and then started auditioning and working. One of the auditions was for a game show called The Anniversary Game, hosted by a guy from Canada named Alan Hamel and there was an instant attraction. The only problem? He was married.

One day, someone knocked on her door, saying her son had been hit by a car. As he recovered, therapy was recommended for him and Suzanne. Their therapist, Miss Kilgore, helped them both, but flat out told Suzanne she had the lowest self-esteem she had ever seen in a patient. It seemed Suzanne always had the crumbs and not a whole loaf of bread. She wouldn’t confront Alan about ending his marriage. She didn’t fight for better jobs at the modeling agency. Often, she found herself in financial trouble because of compulsive shopping. Slowly, she started to realize she did deserve better in life.

It was around then she got the part of The Girl in the T-Bird in “American Graffiti” and that helped her get more notice, including a possible job as a morning hostess on the local channel KGO. By then, Alan had finally left his wife. She decided to take a risk and move to L.A. to be with him and to catch another big break. It took two years, but she got it with Three’s Company. She became Chrissy Snow, the girl with big eyes and blonde pigtails who looked at the world innocently alongside her roommates, played by John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt.

The show was silly, but it fit the mood of 1977. People wanted to laugh after Vietnam, Watergate, and so much sadness in the Western world. Somers started appearing on talk and variety shows. She married Alan in a lavish ceremony. But jealousy soon came about: during a magazine cover shoot, it became obvious that they wanted Suzanne to be on the cover, not her co-stars. Not only that, but DeWitt also felt stung that Suzanne got all the endorsement deals and attention.

It became even more ugly in 1980. Suzanne wanted a raise, equal to what John Ritter was making. She felt it was deserved; after all, she helped make Chrissy Snow popular. The producers unceremoniously fired her. On the show, Chrissy had to visit a sick aunt and the ostracized Suzanne had to tape her scenes in a separate room from anyone else, read the lines, then leave. She also found herself blackballed in the industry.

Frustrated, she had to reinvent herself. She started appearing in Las Vegas and then wrote her memoir Keeping Secrets. She wrote about being the adult child of an alcoholic and how she learned to feel better about herself. Redolent with advocacy, self-empowerment and strength, the book became an instant bestseller. There was more to celebrate: her father had become sober years before and thanks to therapy, her stepchildren finally warmed up to her. Bruce and Alan finally started getting along as well. In 1991, she starred in a new sitcom, Step by Step.  That same year, she launched something else that became even more popular: the Thigh-Master. She brought in $300 million dollars in revenue for the fitness contraption.

In 2000, she found out she had breast cancer. She decided not to go with chemotherapy but with an herbal treatment instead. She wrote more books: another memoir, health books, and cookbooks. She was everywhere until this past summer when the cancer returned. She died a day shy of her 77th birthday.

Somers was not only a fitness icon and an early feminist advocate for equal pay, but also an unforgettable image of natural wattage, lighting up the screen with her charisma and energy. If you’re looking to follow in her footsteps, perhaps it’s time to consider getting your ASFA certification.