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Will "Billionaire' make Sara smile?

The Clearwater High graduate and founder of a women's hosiery company finds out tonight if she wins $1-million and becomes president of the Virgin business empire.

She scaled the outside of a hot air balloon 10,000 feet in the air. Tied to a bungee cord, she leaped into an African gorge.

She talked world peace and women's undergarments with Nelson Mandela.

Tonight, the world finds out if Clearwater native Sara Blakely will take over a global business empire.

Blakely, 33, was one of 16 contestants in the Fox TV reality show Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best. The two finalists in tonight's conclusion are Blakely and spiky-haired Utah furniture hipster Shawn Nelson, inventor of the LoveSac (relax, it's a beanbag chair).

Blakely, an Ernst & Young 2002 Entrepreneur of the Year and founder of women's hosiery company Spanx, knows the outcome. But, like all reality TV contestants, she's contractually obligated not to tell.

"It's been hard, but I'm big on surprises," she said last week. "I was the kid that never tried to open up my Christmas presents until Christmas morning. In that respect, it's been fun."

If she wins, Blakely becomes president of the Virgin business empire of billionaire adventurer Sir Richard Branson _ barring a much-hyped last-minute twist in the game's rules.

Rebel Billionaire hasn't fared well in the ratings. Blakely wonders if it's the 8 p.m. time slot, the midseason premiere, or that the show features professionals behaving, for the most part, professionally. However, she's cheered that once viewers find the show, they stay with it, unlike many reality shows that start big and lose their audiences.

Contestants, proven business leaders selected from among 50,000 applicants, tackle business-related challenges and jaw-dropping stunts to convince Branson they are worthy. Do it, and become president of his 360 companies, including Virgin Airways, Virgin Records, hotels and companies that make soft drinks, software and wedding dresses.

It's a giant prize. And just to make Survivor look puny by comparison, there's $1-million cash as part of the prize, too.

Rebel Billionaire's challenges have been over the top, hardly a surprise given Blakely's description of Branson as "the closest thing to James Bond that really exists." If his famous hot air ballooning exploits don't convince you, consider this: He wears a wristwatch that can summon a helicopter, she noted.

Blakely, who's afraid of heights, was nearly eliminated in the first show, when she failed to cross a beam suspended between two hot air balloons. In a showdown, she and another contestant had to climb the outside of the balloon and meet Branson at the top for a tea party.

Each bit of the 38-minute climb up a rope ladder looked like physical and emotional agony for Blakely.

In another episode, she helped her team win a grant for an impoverished South African village. For that, she got a private sitdown with human rights champion and former South African president Mandela.

"I talked about Spanx. Isn't that bad?" Blakely said. "It was a very surreal moment. I had to pinch myself."

Blakely said she was in awe of Mandela. But when he asked about her business, and appeared truly interested, she obliged.

"We also talked about world peace," she said.

Neither Blakely nor the other contestants knew what the prize would be when they signed on. Blakely left behind her growing company, which is based in Atlanta, to venture into the minefield of reality TV.

"Every adviser of mine was against it: my lawyers, my friends, everyone," she said. "They said, "This is reality TV. You're putting your reputation on the line.' "

Reality TV can be cruel. Ask Jennifer Crisafulli, a former Apprentice contestant fired from her real-life job over something she said on that show. Blakely said she knew the dangers, but like Branson, she isn't shy about risks.

"I really did do this show for personal reasons," Blakely said. "I had spent day and night eating, sleeping, breathing Spanx, and it had become my life. It gave me perspective on my company to be away from it for two months."

She said she was confident she could handle the pressure, and the Bunim/Murray production team assured her the show would portray her fairly.

"They said they wanted to step the reality show up in integrity," she said. "I was taking it as a leap of faith."

Besides, Blakely said, a little publicity couldn't hurt the bottom line.

Spanx started out making footless, control-top panty hose so women could smooth out imperfections and still wear open-toed shoes. It quickly expanded with an array of women's undergarments.

Company motto: "Don't worry, we've got your butt covered."

The Clearwater High School graduate moved to Atlanta after graduating from Florida State University and was working as a corporate trainer in 2000 when she invested her own money to start Spanx.

After being featured in Forbes, Fortune, People, Entrepreneur, InStyle, the New York Times, Vogue, Glamour, Essence, Self and USA Today and on Oprah, a reality TV stint might seem an odd fit.

But Blakely defies categorization.

She moonlighted as a standup comedian: "My mom kept asking me when I was going to get married. I said maybe I'll get a dog. She said, "Honey, that's a 15-year commitment.' So I told her I'll get a 14-year-old dog."

She has disco lights, arcade games and a fog machine in her home, all of which have added to the party atmosphere in recent weeks as her pals have gathered to watch Rebel Billionaire. Sure, Blakely knows what's going to happen, but there's been suspense for her, too, seeing how she'd come across on national TV.

Working for Blakely means never knowing what's going to happen next, said her friend and employee Misty Elliott. In a corporate meeting, for instance, she once pondered how clothes would be different if people had tails.

"She is just pure creative energy," Elliott said. "She is just constantly thinking of new things."

But even Blakely was awed by Branson's own creative energy.

In last week's episode, in a challenge to create a TV commercial for the era of commercial space tourism Branson envisions, Blakely flew in a jet that climbs and dives to create weightlessness to show what space travel might be like.

Sure, she's a fun-loving adventurer and has earned a reputation on Rebel Billionaire as the sensible, agreeable winner _ she has never been on a team that has lost a challenge after that first episode. Her ambition, too, has been on display. "Covering women's butts and making them look better is not my life's purpose. It's just sort of been my first step," she told the camera in last week's episode.

So, what are her chances?

Branson may have an emotional bond with Blakely after seeing her in considerable peril twice. She nearly fell through the center of the hot air balloon, and later she credited him with saving her life as she was trapped under a raft in an African whitewater expedition.

On the other hand, Branson has one of Nelson's LoveSacs in his vacation home. Nelson kind of looks like Branson. He's brash, and he speaks Chinese.

Tough call. Reality shows are notorious for editing tricks that keep viewers guessing until the end, so it's hard to know how to interpret Branson's remarks.

Blakely "refused to let her fear keep her from success," Branson said on the show. "Who should it be? Sara's steady approach, or Shawn's unrestrained creativity? . . . I have a very difficult decision to make."

And then, there's a final twist, Branson teased. No hints, just a warning. Something's ahead, a chance for the winner to risk everything, one more time, for a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Chase Squires can be reached at (727) 893-8739 or squiressptimes.com.

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