Otherwise, the self-made business whiz might never have developed Spanx, her vast line of shapewear that has gone global to smoothe the bulges of everyone from red-carpet regulars Tina Fey and Miley Cyrus to untold female politicians, candidates’ wives, women most of us have never heard of, and yes, even guys with beer bellies and muffin tops. (The male line is called, what else? “Manx.”)
This week Blakely, 41, joined Forbes magazine’s club of the World’s Billionaires. As Number 1153 on the overwhelmingly male list of 1,226, she is the youngest woman to get there “without help from a husband or an inheritance,” according to an upcoming Forbes profile.
“She owns 100% of her private company, has zero debt, has never taken outside investment and hasn’t spent a nickel on advertising,” says the magazine. Others who made the list on their own in years past include multi-media queen Oprah Winfrey (currently Number 442), and Meg Whitman who struck it rich while CEO of eBay (Number 913)..
As a woman of a certain age who regularly and gratefully encases assorted body parts in Spanx, I cheered loudly at the news of Blakely’s massive fortune, even while celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America, who these days encourage young women to excel in math, science and entrepreneurship. Talk about a confluence of female achievement, despite the demeaning distraction of Slutgate.
Blakely’s story is pretty inspiring. The Florida-born daughter of a personal injury lawyer who had hoped to follow her father into the courtroom, terrible test scores instead made her tap her considerable business savvy. The type-A Blakely--think champion debater and high school cheerleader--began developing bandage-strength footless panty-hose in her 20s to fill her own personal need: Something to cover those pesky underwear lines when she wore white slacks.
Using $5,000 in savings and her invaluable experience selling office machines door-to-door, Blakely created a kind of millennial girdle and set out to market it in department stores, one retailer at a time. Her breakthrough came in 2000 when Oprah dubbed Spanx a “favorite product of the year.” Known as much for her roller-coaster weight as her “live your best life” mantra, Winfrey has said all she needs “is a good bra and pair of Spanx.”
In 2001, Blakely--an all-American blond with a dazzling smile--went on QVC and sold 8,000 shapers in six minutes flat. The rest, as fashionistas on several continents will attest, is history.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com writer whose work has also appeared in Town & Country, More and the New York Times. She is at work on a memoir.