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Stiff upper lip keeps fate on TV secret

Chalk it up to another blow for reality TV.

It was like a one-two punch in the gut Tuesday for the assembled crowd to see Clearwater native Sara Blakely fall just short of game show glory.

Blakely, 33, was with more than 60 co-workers and friends, including some who flew up from Clearwater to be with her.

In a reserved room at an Atlanta sports bar, 23 televisions surrounded the throng, and only Blakely knew whether she would be the winner of Fox reality show Rebel Billionaire: Branson's Quest for the Best.

It was either slick editing, or a great injustice. Despite what seemed like a sure win for Blakely, Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines, named the other finalist, Utah bean bag chair mogul Shawn Nelson, the winner.

Nelson won $1-million and a three-month stint helping Branson run a global empire worth billions. If he does well, Nelson will head a new corporate division for Branson.

Blakely, a 1989 graduate of Clearwater High School and founder of the Spanx brand of women's undergarments, was sworn to secrecy by the show's producers. Her win seemed locked up in the final episode, and friends cheered at every commercial break.

When Branson announced his decision, the room went silent.

Everyone was so, so sure.

Blakely smiled right to the end. Her company is booming, and Branson took a personal stake in her quest to help women. He is giving her $750,000 to start a charitable foundation. As the show closed, she smiled as the room erupted in applause for her.

"I feel like I still won," Blakely said between hugs from friends. "Richard called me yesterday; he wants to fly me to London and talk about the foundation. I really want to do something to help women."

Her friends, however, were shocked by the outcome. In the final two-hour installment, it appeared that Blakely was a slam dunk.

Blakely said it was difficult keeping the outcome secret, since the last day of shooting was Sept. 25. But she agreed to the terms. And besides, she likes surprises.

The pressure was brutal. On Tuesday, it peaked with calls from news organizations, radio programs and friends.

After months of keeping mum, Blakely struggled to hold herself together for a few more hours.

After enduring hours of newspaper, radio and television interviews, she was drained.

Goofing around with a pair of drive-time radio jocks at 4 p.m., Blakely's laughter turned to tears.

"I think my emotions are coming out at strange times," she said. "I'm laughing, and all of a sudden I'm crying. I don't know what's wrong."

In a flash, the tears were gone. Blakely was laughing again.

It had been a rough day: 17 media interviews; her designer was rushing to finish drawings before flying to Taiwan on Saturday; her childhood best friends from Clearwater flew up to be with her; and Blakely is mulling attending Golden Globe promotional tie-ins at the end of the week.

And there was this big, big secret.

Blakely was selected from among 50,000 applicants to be one of 16 contestants vying for the $1-million prize and the chance to run Branson's worldwide Virgin Group conglomerate.

In an eight-week ordeal, Blakely competed with the other contestants. While striving to demonstrate business acumen in cerebral challenges, they also had to overcome daunting physical contests.

Her company's public relations director, Misty Elliott, said no one at the company had a clue.

In four years, the company has blossomed as stars including Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow praised Blakely's assortment of redesigned pantyhose and other undergarments.

On Tuesday, Blakely learned Atlanta magazine's list of what's hot in 2005 starts with her: Sara Blakely. "Isn't that crazy?" she asked. "Just my name!"

And then, there was this big secret.