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In race for entrepreneur trophy, former beauty queen taps her comedy skills

Rhonda Shear is head of Shear Enterprises in St. Petersburg, which makes women’s clothing and support undergarments, and is one of the fastest-growing businesses. She’s competing for Entrepreneur of the Year in Florida.

LARA CERRI | Times

Rhonda Shear is head of Shear Enterprises in St. Petersburg, which makes women’s clothing and support undergarments, and is one of the fastest-growing businesses. She’s competing for Entrepreneur of the Year in Florida.

She was a Miss Louisiana, a budding actor with roles like the waitress in the movie Spaceballs or on TV's Married with Children and an early woman in stand-up comedy. In 1990, she became that sexy-funny cable TV kitten of USA: Up All Night, where she injected her own comedy while hosting low-budget movies every Friday night.

Talk about reinvention. Now she's running a fast-growing shapewear and intimates firm in St. Petersburg. She's won multiple area entrepreneur awards. And she's a regional finalist competing in this year's Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in Florida with the winners due to be announced Thursday.

She is Rhonda Shear, 57, a mile-a-minute, laugh-a-moment success story. With husband Van Fagan, she's turned Shear Enterprises into a 26-employee business with $73 million in annual revenues (and counting). The former Californian relocated to St. Petersburg in 2006 to be closer to TV retailer Home Shopping Network (now called HSN) where her breakthrough product — the "Ahh Bra" — helped put Shear Enterprises on the fast track.

Last fall, she and her husband spent $3.2 million for the waterfront Snell Isle home in St. Petersburg owned by Tech Data Corp. chairman and former CEO Steve Raymund.

In April, the Women Presidents' Organization in New York ranked Shear Enterprises No. 3 nationwide among the top 50 fastest-growing woman-led businesses. Now Hollywood is calling Shear again to help launch a new brand for baby boomer women and, possibly, her own reality TV show. We caught up with Shear recently — no easy accomplishment — at a Shear Enterprises office already bulging with mannequins, staff and a chihuahua named Chicky to try and capture the frenetic lifestyle of this entrepreneur. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

You don't come across as the typical entrepreneur.

I'm not a stereotypical entrepreneur. From my days of hosting Up All Night, I was typecast as a bimbo. But most people knew it was smart, self-deprecating humor. Maybe that makes me a bimbo-preneur. But I've always had that passion to pursue what I wanted to do. These days, that's called an entrepreneur.

You graduated from Loyola University with another career in mind?

I got a communications degree and wanted to be a news broadcaster. Instead I ended up in Hollywood and got my first break in an audition with nearly a thousand other gorgeous girls with Bob Hope. I did a dance kick and my shoe flew off and landed on the table next to him. I guess you have to get their attention, then show them your talent.

Now you find that Hollywood is calling again?

When I was in show business, I was always waiting for the phone call and the big break. Now an agent has called who wants to start the Boomer Hotties brand and wants a spokeswoman for the entire line of intimate apparel, cosmetics, fragrance, a handbook — even Boomer Hotties tequila. The idea is you can still be sexy and hot and find love and go after your dreams.

There's more to this, right?

A reality TV show is under discussion. They would film it here. They love the Florida lifestyle. The fact that I am in intimate apparel means we have lots of models, a bevy of beauties in lingerie. So they love who we are. There's never a dull moment.

You have great loyalty to HSN, enough to move your business here?

We started at HSN. It's our first and biggest customer. We moved here and the business exploded. But we also sell on QVC in countries like Germany, Italy and Japan. We're in 600 specialty boutiques, some of our product is in Walmart and Target and Walgreens, and we're moving more into retail.

You say HSN CEO Mindy Grossman is a role model?

She is a friend and an inspiration. She embraced my line and inspired me to follow my heart. She's on the Forbes list of the world's most powerful women, but she's also a girly girl underneath all that. She's the one who told me to get involved in the Ernst & Young entrepreneur competition. I am up against some amazing people.

This recognition as a fast-rising entrepreneur feels different?

It's been great PR for our business. It's totally exciting, being an old beauty queen. I get very excited over the chance to win a new trophy.

What's your best advice to budding entrepreneurs?

What ever you do, make it your own and keep it your own. My husband and I are the sole investors in Shear Enterprises even when that meant our cash flow was very lean. We started the business in the back office of our L.A. apartment. It's very much a 50-50 partnership, even though I get most of the attention. I like to design and Van takes care of the money. I am the hare and he is the tortoise and together it works real well.

What do you do at the end of a long day?

I'll go home and my three dogs (Chicky and Sweetie are the chihuahuas while the smaller Yorkie is Tiki) make me laugh. Sometimes the people at work come over to the house for barbecue. Every other Thursday at work, people can get a chair massage. On the other Thursdays, there's hula and belly dancing. This is not your typical business.

Your comedy skills help even in this work, don't they?

I feel like I am real and genuine and think customers know that. It's like doing comedy in front of an audience. If you are not who you are, the audience will not laugh. Comedy can teach you a lot.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

In race for entrepreneur trophy, former beauty queen taps her comedy skills 06/10/12 [Last modified: Sunday, June 10, 2012 8:57pm]

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