June 30, 1997 12:00 PM

IT WAS ENOUGH TO DRIVE WENDY Kaufman to drink—anything but Snapple. “This whole thing took 25 years off me,” says Kaufman, 38, better known as the Snapple Lady. In the spring of 1996, when Snapple’s then-owner Quaker Oats yanked the three-year-old ad campaign that had made her a star, Kaufman was baffled as well as hurt. Told she no longer fit the image of the company, the folksy spokeswoman “almost choked,” she says. “It never made sense that they would throw it all away. I was getting 3,000 letters a week.” (Quaker Oats says the ads were pulled because of declining sales.)

Worse still for the Queens, N.Y., native who had been an employee in Snapple’s Valley Stream, N.Y., marketing department when she was picked in 1992 to star in the commercials: “They told me they’d no longer supply me with Snapple. That hit me so far below the belt, I had to reassess.”

She switched to water. “It was hard for me to go into a store and purchase [Snapple],” she admits. She also took up comedy writing and landed bit parts in a couple of B movies. But because Kaufman was so identified with Snapple, offers for other commercials dried up. “I was at a crossroads,” she says.

Quaker wasn’t faring much better. Unable to boost Snapple sales, they sold the company in May to Triarc Beverage Group for $300 million, taking a $1.4 billion bath. Among Triarc CEO Mike Weinstein’s first decisions: Rehire Kaufman. “Wendy is the essence of the brand,” he says. “We had to bring her back.”

With her first new commercial now airing (it attributes Kaufman’s absence to her being marooned on a desert island), Kaufman, a movie buff who is single and lives in a brightly decorated Manhattan apartment, says reviving the brand is “nerve-racking. But I’m in fighting mode. I’m the Jerry Maguire of beverages.”

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