Rhonda Shear dials in to the phone interview from her “Barbie dream house” in Florida, speaking over the yaps of five rescue dogs (four Chihuahuas and one Yorkie).
“They’re very protective of me,” says Shear, her voice light as the feather-trimmed robe that’s part of her eponymous lingerie line. It’s the same perky falsetto that buoyed her “UP! All night!” catchphrase to success in the 1990s, when the former beauty queen and Playboy model introduced slasher movies on the USA network while wearing lingerie.
Now, as the owner of a $100 million intimates company, Shear feels her life has come full circle. Her candid autobiography, "Up All Night," details her journey, from run-ins with famed Louisiana lotharios (Edwin Edwards) to her marriage to childhood sweetheart Van Fagan. In this interview, she discusses her new career as an author and what’s next.
Q: In your book, you discuss the obstacles you’ve encountered in your career. Will you describe some of them?
In Hollywood, I fought to be a standup comic in a male-dominated industry. I was told "no" so many times, and then oh, the sexual harassment.
I’ll always remember being in Ray Stark’s office on the set of Universal — he was a huge producer, he produced "Funny Girl." And he said, “You’re a lovely young lady, but you must be willing to wallow in the dirt of Hollywood to get ahead.” It sounded like a line from a movie. I was 23 when he invited me to spend a weekend with him in Palm Springs. I called my agent and said, “You set me up.” So I never heard from her again.
The bottom line is I got chased around — people trying to cop feels, put my hands on places that were inappropriate. I was in situations where people could overpower me, and I ran like hell a few times. Slime was alive and well. But I never let the bad moments stop me from getting ahead.
Q: Hugh Hefner’s recent death sparked a lot of discussion about his legacy. What were your experiences like working for Playboy?
A: Playboy has been in my life since 1977, and they really helped my career. That year, a picture of mine appeared in Playboy (with all my clothes on), and I was de-queened from the Floral Trail Society. I took the society to court to be reinstated as queen, and Playboy reported about me — they thought it was amusing. From that point on, I was invited to the Playboy mansion. I was never a Playmate — I wasn’t going down that career path. I was trying to be a serious comedian. Hugh Hefner loved comedy, so I pitched the idea of a “Women of Comedy” pictorial. In 1991, the layout happened and helped cement what I was doing. I started headlining, and a year later, I landed USA’s Up All Night. In 1993, Playboy asked me for a celebrity pictorial.
I’ve been lucky. I love what I’ve done. It’s not conventional, but I don’t think anyone has to be conventional.
Q: You’ve worn a lot of hats: Miss Louisiana, Playboy model, actor, comedian, television host, entrepreneur, philanthropist and now author. Which makes you the most proud?
A: I probably identify the most with being a humorous designer, making people laugh on the Home Shopping Network. Of everything I’ve done, this gives me the most pleasure. I love designing for women. I can’t tell you how many testimonials I’ve heard over the 16 years I’ve been doing this — how I’ve changed women’s lives and given them confidence. To me, giving back is the most rewarding.
Q: As a born-and-raised New Orleanian, how has the city shaped you and your work?
A: It made me who I am. New Orleans is such a dichotomy. You have men and women flashing for beads on one hand, and on the other hand, there’s a very conservative, born-on-the-manor Christian side. New Orleans is my first love, and it’s the coolest place in the world to say you’re from. Even though I lived in Los Angeles for so many years, I am completely a New Orleans Yat.
What’s your design process like?
Designers design for themselves first and then find lots of other women have same problems, needs or wants. The Ahh Bra — the No. 1 selling bra of all time, it sold 35 million units in 34 countries — came out of my own needs. So I am very hands-on with the undergarments. I put my two cents in, the team tweaks it and we go back-and-forth. We will stay for a year in design and fit until something is manufactured.
What’s next for you?
I’ve given a lot of entrepreneurial speeches, and now I’m getting ready to do more with this book. I wanted to write a book for years to give back to women. Now that I’ve written a book, people are going, “Where did that come from?” But I love writing. When you’re a comic, you write all your own material. I’m getting ready to start a second book (discussing) women’s self image, and I do it with levity. You shouldn’t have to be a certain size or age to be confident.
I’m really confident in myself, and I’m having a great time. I think the New Orleans gumbo put the spice in me.
Signing and reception
7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27
Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, 621 St. Louis St.
Signing and discussion
Noon to 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28
Barnes and Noble, 3721 Veterans Memorial Blvd., Metairie