In the shark-infested world of 1990s infomercials, where pitchmen like Tony Little and Chuck Norris hawked all manner of fitness products costing hundreds of dollars, it was a former sitcom star with a $20 toning device who wound up a winner—due in no small part to a catchphrase that easily summed up how to use it: “You just put it between your knees and squeeze!”
The product was the ThighMaster, and what was ostensibly a simple isometric exerciser turned into a kitschy as-seen-on-TV hit with over $300 million in sales.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Suzanne Somers was best known as the effervescent roommate on Three’s Company, a hit ABC sitcom about a coed living arrangement that co-starred John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt. Though her character, Chrissy Snow, was a prototypical TV blonde, Somers was not. She vigorously lobbied producers for equal pay—Ritter was making $150,000 an episode, or $120,000 more than Somers—and eventually departed the show when she failed to come to financial terms.
Somers was also frustrated that the producers didn’t see the opportunity in offering ancillary consumer products to appeal to viewers. Today, it's a common practice for a show to have merchandise tie-ins, but Somers couldn’t convince anyone to pursue it in the 1980s. “When I was playing Chrissy Snow on Three's Company, the producers did not understand business,” Somers told Entrepreneur in 2020. “They only understood how to put on a great show, and maybe that's all they needed to understand. But my husband and I kept saying that you're missing out on a whole thing here. We could brand Chrissy Snow products! She wears the little shorts and knee socks and wedge shoes and snap-on ponytails.”
The plea fell on deaf ears, but Somers believed there was a way to capitalize on the audience’s familiarity with her and go into business for herself. While performing in her own show in Las Vegas in the late 1980s, she thought about creating passive income through endorsements.
The right opportunity finally presented itself: A group of investors approached Somers and husband Alan Hamel about a compact piece of fitness equipment intended to help tone the body. It was the work of Dr. Anne-Marie Bennstrom, a Swedish physical therapist who originally conceived of it in the 1960s as a way to strengthen the muscles of skiers who had been in accidents and had limited mobility. Bennstrom, who constructed the device using car springs, dubbed her invention the V-Bar. It eventually found its way to a friend of Bennstrom's, Joshua Reynolds, who had invented the Mood Ring in the 1970s. Reynolds made some changes, including hiding the spring and making more aesthetically pleasing color choices. He then paired up with marketing expert Peter Bieler, who had recently started the infomercial company Ovation.
According to Bieler, Reynolds told him he wanted to market the V-Bar as a full-body workout device; Bieler thought it would be more appealing as a targeted thigh shaper. (Ovation CFO Joseph Grace told the press that their market was women concerned with "flabby thighs ... a very specific and emotional problem that women wrestle with every day.") After considering several potential spokespeople, including Caitlyn Jenner and even Joyce DeWitt, they found a willing partner in Somers, who wound up becoming part-owner of the business.
Everyone agreed there was a better name for the V-Bar, too—the ThighMaster.
Spots for the newly christened ThighMaster debuted in April 1991, with Somers—who was back in the public eye on the ABC sitcom Step by Step as well as the TV movie based on her 1988 autobiography, Keeping Secrets—headlining a series of commercials. Foreshadowing the sexual innuendo of future TV products like the Shake Weight and the Slap Chop, the ThighMaster sparked word-of-mouth advertising for being covertly salacious. There was Somers and her troupe of models, squeezing their thighs in unison.
One of the classic lines uttered by Somers came, she said, from buying a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes. After asking her husband what he thought of them, he said, “Great legs!” That line made it into ads, a not-very-subtle indication that consumers could expect to get a toned lower half with diligent use of the product. (Somers maintained she used it twice daily, keeping one in her handbag, car, and nightstand.)
The device began showing up on tv shows like Murphy Brown and Designing Women. Jay Leno and Phil Donahue joked about it. It even earned a mention from President George H. W. Bush in 1992, who offered it up as a playful reason why his press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater, had recently cursed out the White House news corps: “[He] had a bad day. Earlier that morning, he'd shattered his ThighMaster.” Within 18 months, 6 million ThighMasters had been sold.
The rise of the ThighMaster came at a time when the home fitness industry was booming. Thanks to Somers as well as other products from endorsees like Denise Austin and Kathy Smith, sales of equipment went up 20 percent between 1992 and 1993. Over $2.5 billion was spent on a variety of devices to tone and shape.
While ThighMaster commercials leveled off later in the decade, the device continued to sell long after the initial advertising push. In 2020, Somers, who says she owns the brand "outright," estimated that the company had moved 10 to 15 million ThighMasters, along with an untold number of sibling devices. (There was, most notably, the ButtMaster, which reversed the tension on the thighs and featured the commercial jingle: “Tired of feeling like a big, old tub o' lard? Use your ButtMaster, you'll get nice and hard!”)
In 2014, Somers was inducted into the Direct Response Hall of Fame, which celebrates infomercial royalty. Between the accolades, the commercials with YouTube immortality, and the millions of dollars earned, Somers proved a point she tried to make in her Three’s Company days.
“They would get mad at us: ‘This is not about business—it's about the show!’” she recalled producers saying. “And I would walk away thinking, ‘Actually they call it show business.’”