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It was Sara Blakely’s secret. Whenever she needed the support of control-top panty hose but wanted to wear open-toed shoes, the Atlanta sales trainer and stand-up comic would cut the feet off her hose. Then in 1999, while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show, she had an epiphany: “Oprah stood up, lifted up her pant leg and showed the world that she’d been cutting the feet off her panty hose too! That was my sign.”

Blakely, 30, who had previously tried to market the idea to hosiery manufacturers with no success, decided to solve the problem for all women. Drawing $5,000 from her savings, she created Spanx, footless panty hose with an adjustable band around the calf. (The band can be raised or lowered to accommodate skirts or slacks.) Since the hose, which retail for $20 and come in black or nude, were introduced in stores last year, more than 50,000 pairs have been sold. “Wearing hosiery with an open-toe shoe is a fashion no-no,” says Diane Mellar, a buyer with Neiman Marcus department stores. “Spanx allows people to be fashionable but still have the smoothing features of hosiery.”

Grateful for Oprah‘s inadvertent inspiration, Blakely, the daughter of John, a Clearwater, Fla., attorney, and Ellen, an artist, sent the talk show host a basket of Spanx last fall and garnered herself an on-air plug and an invitation to appear on Oprah‘s show in November. Says Blakely: “I call it my full-circle moment.”