At sixty-seven, acclaimed entertainer, women’s health and beauty advocate & bestselling author Suzanne Somers turns the pages of her life to the chapters facing AIDS
by Sean Black
Photos by Cindy Gold
Suzanne Somers is feeling good and staying healthy—Naturally!
Beloved worldwide for her endearing role as Chrissy Snow on the smash sitcom, Three’s Company, she is contentedly enjoying the summer with her husband, Alan Hamel, and their family. She and Alan, her longtime business manager, have been married since 1977, the year that introduced her iconic role on the hit TV show as part of ABC’s Tuesday night lineup following Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Her big break came about through recurring invitations to read her poetry on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson along with a noteworthy debut as the “Blonde in the Thunderbird” in George Lucas’ 1973 classic film American Graffiti.
Four decades later, Suzanne Somers is as active and alluring as ever, amassing a brand empire upon her trusted household name. She and Alan, formerly a Canadian television host, recently participated in several HIV/AIDS annual fundraisers in their Palm Springs, California, hometown, including AIDS Assistance Program’s Evening Under the Stars and Desert AIDS Project’s Steve Chase Humanitarian Awards Gala and its Celebrity Doodles event. The couple was recognized with this year’s inaugural Doodle Master Award. Mentioning her husband’s artistic contributions Suzanne happily notes, “Alan—an inveterate doodler—has raised thousands of dollars doodling on everything from ostrich eggs to Post-its to large canvasses with acrylics.”
She has authored twenty-four books ranging in topics from fitness and longevity, to hormones and sexuality, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Sexy Forever, Knockout, and Ageless, as well as bestsellers Bombshell, Breakthrough, Keeping Secrets, and her latest, I’m Too Young For This!
Despite many personal struggles throughout her life, which she has written about and discussed openly, she has achieved extraordinary
success as an actress, singer, comedienne, entrepreneur, and public speaker. Headlining the Vegas stage after her rapid rise to fame and then split from Three’s Company, she was recognized as Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year alongside Frank Sinatra. She went on to star in television programs like She’s the Sheriff and Step by Step with Patrick Duffy, which ran for seven years. She received an Emmy nomination as Outstanding Host for The Suzanne Show, her weekly series of one-hour health specials on Lifetime. She is a founder of ForeverHealth.com, an online resource to connect patients with doctors specializing in natural hormone therapy (also on SuzanneSomers.com) [both links below]. She is one of the most respected faces and voices of alternative medicine.
Her search for alternative solutions expanded her options for health, most notably leading her to bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, which treats the symptoms of menopause, perimenopause, and postmenopause. Bioidentical hormones, synthesized from plant extractions, are identical in molecular structure to the hormones women make in their bodies and are thought to avoid many of the health problems, including cancer, associated with traditional hormone replacement therapy. The effects of bioidenticals are often debated, but it’s Somers’ dedication to asking questions and finding new solutions to health problems that is unassailable.
Her determination to protect her health came to the fore during a cancer misdiagnosis. “Several years ago I was in Florida where we had our electronic marketing business and was sitting in a bar at the end of the day with my group having a salad and a glass of Merlot. I got up to leave with my husband, Alan, and felt very dizzy and got very cold and when we got up to the room I watched my body become covered in rashes everywhere. We flew home and when I got into bed I realized I was having great difficulty breathing. We rushed to the emergency [room] and by the time I got there I was really in trouble. The emergency doctor came out to meet us at the curb and kept yelling at me, ‘Why can’t you breathe?’ They scanned me and the oncologist announced almost with pride…‘You have cancer. I have never seen so much cancer. I am putting you on chemo today,’” she explains.
“I told him I would never consider chemo, that I would balance my bio chemicals with bioidentical hormones and eat like my life depends on it. He suggested [to me to] ‘get your things in order’ with a smirk that had a death rattle. Six doctors agreed with the oncologist and six days later after my family was preparing to lose me; a biopsy proved I had no cancer but a severe case of Valley Fever,” she says, noting that the oncologist was fired but continues to practice his “chemo-happy” cures in New York.
Like many before her, including those living with HIV/AIDS, she found empowerment in educating herself, questioning traditional medical advice when necessary, and taking control of her own health. She practices what she preaches by listening to her heart, mind, and body, recognizing the problems she’s been dealt are all part of the human condition, which she embraces.
Making time for A&U, Suzanne opens up about how HIV/AIDS has left its indelible mark on her life and why she continues to dedicate her voice to the cause.
Sean Black: When did AIDS first touch your life?
Suzanne Somers: Our cousin David was the first person we knew who died of AIDS. It was in the mid-eighties. He was more like a brother than a cousin. He lived with us half of the time and often came with us on trips and vacations. We loved David and, when he was dealing with this disease, we felt completely helpless in being able to help him other than providing emotional support and anything else that he needed to be comfortable.
Additionally, every one of my twelve male dancers that I worked with in Las Vegas through the eighties all died from this terrible disease. One of them was only seventeen. The last dancer to die was my dance captain Michael, who unexpectedly turned up at our home on a Saturday afternoon. I let him in and he started sobbing uncontrollably because he had just had unprotected sex and felt terrible. He cried all afternoon, we did what we could to comfort him and a month and a half later Michael was gone, as well. The above, plus a number of other dear friends, like Bjorn who did my hair and makeup on Three’s Company, who have perished from this disease, created something within me that made me get involved and to do whatever I could to bring comfort and hopefully a cure for the tens of millions of people in this world who are suffering.
The losses to this disease seem immeasurable—individuals who never got to raise their families, artists (like your dancers) whose creative expression was cut short. How can we protect the legacy of these important individuals so that future generations can better understand what it was like and what has been lost due to this terrible disease?
AIDS is such an important moment in millions of lives that it needs to be memorialized properly in the AIDS version of the Holocaust Museum.
As a leading author yourself, who is your favorite AIDS-related author?
I interviewed Randy Shilts for my book, Wednesday’s Children: Adult Survivors of Abuse Speak Out. He was a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle who wrote And the Band Played On. At the time, I did not know that Randy had been stricken with this terrible disease. Randy was very special, very charming and very candid and I loved the time we spent together. I believe if Randy had not perished we would’ve become lifelong pals.
Your second bestselling book, Keeping Secrets (1980), begins with a sixty-page, detailed account of your tough early years growing up in a violent, alcoholic household, which you describe as “terror-filled.” How has facing this trauma of your past shaped your life today?
As a young girl, I spent most of my nights sleeping in a closet with my mother, my two brothers, and my sister. The closet had a lock on the inside so that my violent alcoholic father could not get to us even though he tried night after night, year after year. I had only one dream…that one day I would be a big star on stage where my mother would be sitting in the front row watching me with that proud look on a mother’s face that her daughter has succeeded and is happy. That dream has come true and has repeated itself dozens of times on the stages of Las Vegas. In March 1980, I opened at the MGM Grand and I saw my mother sitting in the front row. It gave me chills and I became very emotional that my dream had come to be. I loved that special moment and so did my beautiful mother.
Writing intimate poems about the sadness and vulnerability of those early years, did you foresee becoming a bestselling author, selling millions of books each year?
I really had no dreams about becoming a bestselling author. I was a teenage single mom with a young boy and very poor, always looking for rent money and I decided to memorialize my feelings in a book of poetry called Touch Me. I had no intention of doing anything with it until Jacqueline Susann [author of Valley of the Dolls] read it and said, “This is really good…you should get it published.” Somehow, I found a publisher to publish my poems. I sent them to Johnny Carson and his assistant on a Wednesday and, on Friday, I was on The Tonight Show. Johnny had me on the show at least once a month from then on to read my poetry to him and he would do his famous “face takes”—the director always had a camera on Johnny’s face and if a guest said something that needed a comment from Johnny, he did it with his face to the camera. It was all great fun. The outcome was that book of poetry became my first bestseller. It got me on The Tonight Show and was the reason I got Three’s Company. The president of ABC happened to be watching The Tonight Show on one of the nights I was on, and after doing two pilots with two other girls playing Chrissy Snow, he decided three days before they actually went into production that I was it. That was a Friday, and on Monday, I was actually shooting my first episode. Amazing what that little book of poetry did for me.
In interviews, you’ve mentioned that your son helped keep you alive through a very difficult time. Is your role as a mother your most important role?
As a teenage mother with no way to make a real living and no child support from my son’s father, I was always struggling to pay the rent,
buy food, buy clothing, just to live a normal life. It was a major struggle but it taught me some great life lessons. Every time I looked at my little boy, I would think, I will make a good life for you…I promise. And I think I did. Sure there are moments in the parent’s life when you feel guilty or you feel that you haven’t done enough, but today that little boy is forty-nine years old with a great family and the great production company that he created and manages. We have a very special relationship because I know that he kept me alive and kept me motivated through those years when I might have just given up. I am very grateful and wouldn’t have it any other way…bumps and everything.
What motivates the queen of motivation?
I love being self-employed. I really enjoy the independence of choosing work that makes me the happiest and provides the most satisfaction, and that’s what I’m doing right now. I find a lot of my friends at this stage of life retire into a strange world filled with daily golf and tennis and a very robust social life. That is not me. I go out of my way to keep highly stimulated with my [familial] relationships, particularly with my husband and children and grandchildren as well as my work, which involves publishing one book every year and engaging in a lecture series that takes me all over this country, Canada, and Western Europe; it’s a privilege.
Are there any life lessons that have become more apparent along your journey?
As a sixty-seven-year-old woman, I have accumulated great wisdom. It is one of my most treasured assets and I enjoy being the matriarch of our little tribe. Wisdom is something one cannot study for or achieve or gather…it comes with age. I take very good care of myself physically. It’s hard work, but it’s a lot more work to be sick. I take all the supplements, I rub on my hormones [delivered topically], I think good thoughts and I believe that I will be around for a very long time. And one of the great gifts will be the wisdom I have when I’m 100-plus years old; it excites me just thinking about it.
As a sex expert and health pioneer, what conversations do you think we need to have more of as sexual beings so that we can better protect ourselves and each other so that we may one day see the end of AIDS?
Most disease relates to personal responsibility. This is certainly true of AIDS. So we ask, why is there still a major health issue in many Third World countries? The easy answer is personal responsibility. But the real answer is education. To change the sexual habits of cultures that have had easy access to unprotected sex for hundreds or thousands of years takes a major shift in thinking. The vision of an isolated tribal member deep in the interior of Africa even thinking of using a condom is a major departure from what they have known since birth. So…it’s the constant barrage of education based on survival that needs to happen. In this country, where all kinds of safe sex tools are freely available, unprotected sex is a roll of the dice. I worry about the youngest among us. Testosterone rules. And when that moment that poets write about is about to manifest big time, condoms are likely not in the forefront of rational thinking. And as my husband says, “That’s when the little brain takes over.”
What do you hope to see when you live to be 100-plus?
The day when AIDS becomes a distant memory.
Sean Black is an Editor at Large at A&U.