Clearwater native Sara Blakely sees the Oprah Effect vault her onto Forbes billionaire list
When we talked last year, Spanx inventor Sara Blakely made no secret of it: Oprah Winfrey was one of her favorite things.
That's because the Queen of All Media helped the Clearwater native launch a $350-million a year business, just by mentioning this new, slimming undergarment Blakely had invented, with a cheeky little name.
On Wednesday, Forbes magazine proved Winfrey a shrewd judge of talent, adding Blakely to their list of the country's billionaires, proving a woman who cut her business teeth selling fax machines in Pinellas County could have a billion-dollar idea with a little help from television's most successful daytime host.
"I came up with idea for footless pantyhose," Blakely told me last year. "I’d never taken a business class, but I figured if I had this undergarment issue, so did a lot of other women...(but) I was hitting nothing but roadblocks. I literally asked for a sign – I was getting ready to give up on my journey – I flipped on Oprah, in that moment she lifted up her pant leg to show she cut the feet out of her pantyhose. The fact that it came from Oprah, who I’d been a fan of for so many years—I’d been watching her since I was in college. I jumped off the couch in the hotel room and immediately – I’ll never forget that moment; I knew I’m absolutely supposed to create this product.”
Weeks after she made the first prototype, Blakely sent a basket full of them to Winfrey, along with a story on how she inspired them. So the host filmed a segment on her product and her journey to air on the show, choosing Spanx as her product of the year, back in 2000.
"30,000 people ordered Spanx in the next 5 to 10 days," said Blakely, who noted that a mention from Winfrey on her show is still good for a spike of 20,000 sales or so; she's since given $1 million to the host's school for girls in South Africa. "She basically told the world about it. Everybody said 'I want this thing Oprah talked about.' I think Oprah launched Spanx."