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Suzanne Somers takes time to reflect

In one-woman show, she examines a tough childhood and rocky career
/ Source: The Associated Press

If you really want to understand Suzanne Somers — and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t? — you have to go back. Past the ThighMaster. Past the spray-on makeup and Somersize Waffle Maker. Past the chocolate recipe book, the sterling silver jewelry and even the clueless Chrissy Snow, that jiggly queen.

You have to go back to Somers’ childhood.

More specifically, you have to go to a backyard in San Bruno, Calif., where she and her brother, Danny, would take turns trying to wallop an inflatable vinyl, sand-filled Bozo the Clown punching bag.

“We’d punch it and it would spring back up, punch it and it would get right back up. I remember one day Danny and I jumped on top of it and we lay on the floor. When we got up, it still popped up,” she says. “That’s my life.”

The celebrity-entrepeneur-author is making her Broadway debut in the one-woman show “The Blonde in the Thunderbird.”

Part infomercial, part confessional, part Vegas act, the show details Somers’ horrendous childhood, her battles with low self-esteem and eventual emergence as a pitch woman for everything from BBQ ribs to hot pink silk pleated skirts.

The New York reviews have not been not particularly kind. The Associated Press called “Blonde” “an extended therapy session crossed with a tacky Las Vegas revue — minus the other show girls,” and The New York Times described it as “a drab and embarrassing display of emotional exhibitionism masquerading as entertainment.”

‘I've got wisdom’A provisional closing notice — mandated by union agreements before a show can close — was posted Tuesday. If business doesn’t improve, “The Blonde in the Thunderbird” will play its final performance this weekend.

Yet the actress has survived worse.

“I’m 58 now. I’ve got wisdom,” Somers says during an interview. “It’s my grown-up perspective looking back on what it meant and why I’m the way I am today, which is somebody I’m happy with. I had to go through that.”

Somers tells her story in a 95-minute show mixing patter and songs like “If I Only Had a Brain” and “Pick Yourself Up.” Alone on a plain stage, her every facial expression is beamed onto two large screens.

“I know it’s a leap. I mean, I’m that crazy lady who sells things on the Home Shopping Network,” she says, laughing. “But we all like to see a story that makes us laugh and cry, think and feel. And you will — if I do my job right.”

One obvious benefit? No research required.

“None,” she says cheerfully. “I know the character.”

The show was written by Ken and Mitzie Welch, with help from neighbor and friend Barry Manilow. She borrowed from her two autobiographies “Keeping Secrets” and “After the Fall.”

The show’s title comes from her breakthrough cameo as the mysterious woman in a white Ford Thunderbird who beguiles Richard Dreyfuss’ character in George Lucas’ 1973 cult classic, “American Graffiti.”

At the time, Somers was a divorced, single mom with angry creditors circling. The part required her to say three words — “I love you” — from behind a T-bird’s window. The paycheck was $136.72. As they were about to shoot her key scene, she told Lucas it was a dumb part.

“He says, ’No, no, no. You wait and see. Everybody will always remember the blonde in the Thunderbird,”’ she recalls. “I get in the car and I had rehearsed a hundred different ways to say ‘I love you’ and I was ready. Then George comes up to me and says, ’Oh, by the way, just mouth it.”’

And that’s how it all started: As a mute blonde.

A pivotal moment in her personal life came when her son, Bruce, almost died in a car accident. To soothe his recurring nightmares, Somers took him to a community health center that offered counseling for $1 a visit.

After a year, the counselor told Somers, “’He’s fine. You need to stay.’ I said, ’Why?’ That’s when she said, ‘You’re a walking apology. I’ve never met somebody with such low self-esteem,”’ she says.

That, Somers would learn, was the result of an abusive childhood she was only starting to untangle. Her alcoholic father terrorized her and her three siblings, forcing them to flee into a closet for protection.

“I had the craziest, most violent, most unbelievable father,” she says. “I had to do this musical because how do you start out in a closet and end up with the life I have today?”

Somers’ husband, former game show host Alan Hamel, confesses that he’s seen glimmers of that cowering little girl despite 37 years together and his wife’s transformation into a one-woman sales phenomenon.

“That stuff never fully leaves you,” he says. When his wife is tired or emotionally drained, “she gets a look on her face — in her eyes — that’s very vulnerable. I’ll know that she’s not feeling really good about herself in that moment.”

From sitcom to ThighMasterSomers’ childhood haunted her for years, complicating even the way she viewed her “Three’s Company” part. “I never felt deserving of that role. I didn’t feel deserving of the success,” she says.

She sabotaged it all when she and Hamel asked ABC for a raise from $30,000 per episode to $150,000, plus 10 percent of the show’s profits. Somers was fired in 1981.

“When I got fired, I thought, ‘I should never have asked. Why did I ask? Why did I think I could get paid what men are being paid? Who did I think I was?”’ she says.

“Rather than thinking, ‘Hey, c’mon. I have the highest demographics of any woman on television. I’m on the No. 1 show. I’m doing the heavy lifting, too,’ I went right into low self-esteem. I hid in my house for a year in absolute grief.”

Somers eventually got back on the sitcom horse, snagging parts on “Step by Step” and “She’s the Sheriff.” She also began pumping out more than a dozen books, from “Suzanne Somers’ Eat, Cheat and Melt the Fat Away” to “The Sexy Years.”

“I remember I said to my husband when we did the ThighMaster commercial if this was going to ruin my career,” Somers recalls. “He said, ’Well, right now, you don’t have a career.”’

These days, Somers endorses everything from clothing to frozen foods, jewelry to cosmetics. During the interview, she proudly points out that everything she’s wearing except her watch is from her businesses.

She still marvels that she’s come this far — a loving husband, a successful son and stepchildren, good health after battling breast cancer a few years ago, and, above all, mental radiance.

“The triumph is not my career. The triumph is my life. ... I love every day,” she concludes. “Well, not every day — you’d have to be a village idiot to love every day. Most days.”