For Suzanne Somers, it was a very bad week. After previously denying on the Tonight show that she had ever posed nude for Playboy’s centerfold, the February issue was on the stands with 10-year-old audition shots for the magazine’s Playmate feature. There was the Three’s Company blonde, at 22, thigh-high in a Mexican stream wearing only a thin gold chain and a tense expression. Ace Hardware Corp., which pays Somers $200,000 a year as its pitchwoman, prissily wrote all dealers that it had “decided to cease using any advertising featuring Ms. Somers” at least temporarily. Her position as national chairman of the Easter Seal campaign also seemed in jeopardy. Then two days later, by grim coincidence, the Easter Seal Poster Girl, Jeanette Alvarado, 8, was wounded in a random shooting incident in San Antonio. Somers phoned her in the hospital to say she looked forward to Jeanette’s recovery and hoped they’d be meeting at the annual telethon soon. It didn’t look good for either.
Yet by the end of the harrowing week Alvarado had ail but recovered, Ace had forgiven Somers her youthful indiscretion (undoubtedly benefiting from the windfall publicity), and she was backed up by the Easter Seal Foundation. Suzanne still had been stripped painfully of her public modesty, and perhaps a few illusions. “I’ve tried so hard to be a good person,” she sighed, “but now they’re bringing up things out of context in my life. It makes me want to cry.”
Not long before, Somers had been confronted by Barbara Walters on national TV with her ancient topless photos that had run in High Society magazine. Those pictures, Suzanne explained (as well as her much-reported bad-check charges), dated from a tumultuous period in the late ’60s when she was living precariously as a model. She was divorced, and her young son, Bruce, now 14, had been struck by a car. His spleen was torn, and hospital bills totaled $20,000. “She didn’t do nude layouts to publicize herself,” insists manager Jay Bernstein. “She was trying to survive.”
Photographer Stan Malinowski hired her for an assignment in Mexico in 1970, but only for a swimsuit ad. He mentioned, though, that selection as Playboy’s nude Playmate of the Month would pay $3,000 (now $10,000), and Suzanne agreed to do the test. She was chosen in 1971 but “chickened out” just before the full-undress photo session. In gleeful text accompanying its current layout, Playboy says that Suzanne’s test photos were then forgotten until Malinowski casually mentioned them to an editor some months ago. Malinowski claims they actually surfaced when Playboy sued him for nonpayment of debts and, in a counter-claim, he demanded the return of his transparencies (the suit has since been resolved). In any case, Somers has never received a penny for the pictures, while Playboy expects record sales for its February issue (at $2.50 per).
Suzanne was “very, very hurt and embarrassed,” and husband Alan Hamel, a Canadian talk-show host, was “furious” at Playboy, according to manager Bernstein. Otherwise Somers was saying next to nothing. It was left to Easter Seal executive director John Garrison to sum up the obvious: “What happened 10 years ago shouldn’t be a factor.”