She may have made her fortune sucking in fat tummies and taming ample bosoms, but Spanx tycoon Sara Blakely has no hang-ups about her own body.
The glamorous American entrepreneur has been the brand's pin-up since she started the company a decade ago and regularly strips down to her smalls in the boardroom to road-test the latest "magic" bra and pant prototypes that will, literally, ensnare consumers with their hidden suction panels that promise "butt boosting" and "back fat banishing" qualities.
Blakely has spent the last decade hawking the lingerie brand to anyone who would listen and her hard-headed determination has paid off, big time. The entrepreneur makes the cover of business magazine Forbes annual "World Billionaires" issue, which this month celebrates the orgy of wealth that is the "1,226 richest people on the planet".
Her $1bn fortune hardly takes her to the top of the list, ranking her at 1,153 out of the lucky 1,226, but this heralds her arrival in the business premier league and breathes fresh air into the stuffy annual survey that remains a male stronghold of usual suspects such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and investment sage Warren Buffett. At 41, she is the youngest woman to join this year's billionaires list without help from a husband or an inheritance.
The Forbes list also charts the big ideas that have changed modern life, from Google's Larry Page to Jeff Bezos at Amazon. Making people look slimmer might not seem like an achievement on the same scale as imposing order on the internet, but there is big money to be made in what can be seriously big pants – Spanx makes body-suits capable of creating an hour-glass shape between your chin and knees. Unlike other lingerie brands, it boasts three grades of suction – medium, super and super-duper.
At the last count, Spanx sales had reached $250m with Wall Street bankers reckoning that the business could be worth $1bn, raising the tantalising prospect that Blakely could sell shares in the company. Her business is admired all the more as it has no debt and has never had to court outside investors for cash to fund its expansion.
When asked by eager financial types what her "exit strategy" is, Blakely used to quip: "To exit a room looking good in cream pants." But that tone has altered with the businesswoman hinting to Forbes that she might consider selling a stake in the company: "We've been approached consistently from day one and it was never something I entertained," she said. "Now, for the first time, I may entertain it."
The Spanx legend goes that the very svelte Blakely spotted a lucrative gap in the market after being unable to buy underwear that wouldn't show through her cream-coloured trousers. To solve the problem, she cut the feet out of a pair of tights and in doing so caused one of the biggest waves in lingerie circles since 1913 when Mary Jacobs stitched together some silk handkerchiefs and called it a "backless brassiere".
Although just 41, Blakely is not an overnight success, having twice failed the law exams that prevented her from following in her father's footsteps. Disillusioned, she ended up working at Disney World, near her family's Florida home. "I would see friends I hadn't seen for a while and I'd be wearing these big Mickey Mouse ears with my name on," she recalls. "They'd say, 'Sara, is that you?' And I'd reply, 'Yes, now get on the ride.'"
Her next job, selling photocopiers and fax machines for an office equipment supplier, also lacked glamour, but she would spend seven years honing the killer sales patter that has made Spanx an international success story. She got the idea for Spanx in 1999, but did not launch the company until the following year, sinking her entire $5,000 savings into the enterprise, which had the spare room of her Atlanta apartment as its headquarters. She saved thousands of dollars in legal fees by writing her own patent using a textbook from Barnes & Noble. "Everything has grown out of that original $5,000," she says proudly.
Blakely is one half of a business power couple. Her husband, Jesse Itzler, a former rapper whose biggest hit was "Shake It Like a White Girl", co-founded Marquis Jet, which rents private planes to celebrities and business executives. The photogenic pair look like a Gap advert and say their four-year marriage works because they don't sweat the small stuff.
They don't have to. A phalanx of personal assistants, drivers, chefs as well as a nanny for their young son, Lazer, is on call to keep the show on the road, knitting together a complicated lifestyle that sees the couple run their businesses from different states. Spanx is based in Atlanta, while his business, which includes trendy coconut drinks brand Zico Water, is in New York. "It's really a full-time job to manage our lives," admits Blakely.
The couple's definition of relationship minutiae may differ from the norm; in an interview last year, Itzler recounts discovering over dinner with friends that she had put their Californian home on the market without telling him. The former rapper was not put out (perhaps because they have six), stating: "I trust her to do whatever she wants."
Blakely takes charge of Lazer's care with Itzler confessing: "Sara's assistant put Lazer's doctor's contact info in my phone, but it would take me a while to find it." The unorthodox set-up sounds exhausting but Blakely says: "We respect that each of us moves at a fast pace. That might bother some, but we get it."
Blakely, who managed to pull off being a cheerleader as well as a member of the debating team at high school, readily admits to having chinks in her armour, not least a crippling fear of flying. To get her though take-offs, she plays the Mark Knopfler song What It Is to soothe her nerves.
In a demonstration of her determination to face things that frighten her, she persevered with a stand-up comedy routine despite being racked with pre-show nerves. "Every time I went on stage I was so terrified I almost threw up," she recalls.
Spanx has some unlikely devotees, with some of the most famous – and slim – women in the world, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Beyoncé, relying on a bit of extra oomph from its power pants. The lingerie brand has been described as "Hollywood's big secret" with some celebrities even resorting to "double spanxing" to cope with high-stakes red carpet appearances. Paltrow happily sings Spanx's praises, trilling: "They just squeeze you in. That's how all the Hollywood girls do it."
It also turns out that's how the "Hollywood boys" do it. The company launched "Spanx for Men" after it cottoned on to why Hollywood agents were requesting extra-large sizes. Men can now buy "gut gauge" T-shirts and briefs with the gentle promise to "cup, support and lift".
It took someone with a well-documented battle with their weight to give Blakely her big break, though. She sent samples to Oprah Winfrey, a bright idea that saw the brand name-checked on the TV star's influential favourite things in her show in 2000. After that, the company never looked back; it was profitable from day one, turning over $4m in its first year and $10m the next. Today, Spanx has 125 staff – just 16 of them men – with the day-to-day running handled by chief executive, Laurie Ann Goldman, a former Coca-Cola executive who joined the company in 2002 as a consultant.
Several years ago, a "feminist photo shoot" in a US magazine sparked a debate over whether wearing Spanx was a symbol of oppression in a body-obsessed culture rather than liberation. Whatever the finer points of the argument, there are now more than 200 Spanx products on sale in 40 countries. John Lewis says what is dubbed "shapewear" accounts for nearly 20% of its lingerie sales. "Spanx makes great quality products that help every woman make the best of their shape," says its lingerie buyer, Helen Spencer.
It might be the fear of flying, but despite her fabulous wealth, Blakely seems to be keeping her feet on the ground: "I feel like money makes you more of who you already are. If you're an asshole, you become a bigger asshole. If you're nice, you become nicer. Money is fun to make, fun to spend and fun to give away."
The Spanx company mantra is: "Changing the world one butt at a time" and her millions of customers seem happy with the results. When they see her, they sidle up and give her a quick flash of their underwear.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012