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Fans line up to meet Spanx founder in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: April 11, 2014 at 06:30 PM

Wearing a crimson dress and bright smile for the cameras, Sara Blakely stood at the entrance to her first Spanx body-shaping underwear store in her hometown market of Tampa, and she thanked many in the crowd who helped her along the road to becoming a famous billionaire.

A line of adoring customers grew to several hundred and stretched down the hallways of International Plaza mall, while Blakely waited to greet each one — many of them aspiring women entrepreneurs who wanted to meet their hero, while others were classmates at Clearwater High, or people who baby-sat her when she was young.

“This is such a full-circle, pinch-me moment to be opening a Spanx store in the Tampa Bay area. “I look out to the crowd, and I'm seeing people I grew up with. I'm seeing people who bought fax machines from me when I was selling them door to door ... even people who didn't need them. Thank you, grandma.”

This is the fourth Spanx store, but if successful, this will be only the first act for the brand that re-created the girdle for a modern age. Spanx is branching out into shape-molding denim jeans, bras to take on Victoria's Secret, and bathing suits to help women brave the beach. Spanx plans to open between eight and 10 locations in the next 12 months, with many more after that.

But for Friday, Blakely was the center of attention, and target for hugs and stories from adoring fans — with the atmosphere almost a goofy celebration about a particular dichotomy. Though the product is very personal and intimate, and Spanx are firmly geared to help women transform their shapes into something they feel is more attractive, the breakout success of the brand has made Blakely's own success story into a symbol of women's empowerment.

Tapping into the appeal of that story, both Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor came to the ribbon cutting Friday — which was actually made by cutting a pair of panty hose. Castor spoke of Blakely's story as a touchstone for the politically hot issue of women's pay equality, and how “it takes a village” for even doggedly persistent women to succeed in today's world.

Buckhorn joked at the awkwardness of helping open a women's underwear store, but he also praised Blakely as a hometown hero, and said “as the father of two little girls, it's important for me that I stand up for women entrepreneurs, and I celebrate their successes, because ultimately it is women like Sara that will be the role models for my two daughters.” He dodged the question of whether he'd ever wear the men's version of Spanx, saying “Bill Clinton answered the question of boxers or briefs. I'm not going to answer it.”

Many of the women in line at the store were entrepreneurs on their own.

First in line was Nicole Enterlein, a student at the University of Central Florida. Like Spanx, her's is a particularly private consumer product. Called “Smartway,” the device is a disposable paper funnel. As many women abhor sitting down on public toilet seats, the Smartway lets them stand upright and direct their stream into the toilet — much as the male gender would at a urinal. “I'm having some success,” Enterlein said. “I have the product in several drug stores in central Florida — CVS and 7-ELEVENs. Sara has been my inspiration.”

The story of Spanx has become legend in the retail market. Blakely was working as a sales trainer by day and performing stand-up comedy at night in the 1990s. Originally from Clearwater, Blakely was selling fax machines in the Florida heat, and hated the feel and look of panty hose in open-toe shoes. Yet she liked the shaping effect of the fabric on other parts of her anatomy. So she cut the feet out of a pair of panty hose and had an “Aha!” moment.

With a $5,000 investment and a patent (she wrote the first draft after consulting a textbook from Barnes & Noble), she began the company that reinvented the girdle for a new generation of women. She chose the name “Spanx” in part by looking at other successful brands, such as Coca-Cola and Kodak that had a distinctive “K” sound.

As the company's official history reads, “Plus, it's all about making women's butts look better, so why not?”

Spanx now sells “power panties,” brassieres and active-wear for yoga and running at stores including Sports Authority, Dillard's and Neiman Marcus.

Other women at the opening had more personal stories of how Spanx changed their lives. Buddy Brew co-founder Susan Ward of Tampa waited in line to reconnect with Blakely. “We were students together at Clearwater High,” Ward said. “She's been an inspiration to me in my whole business life.”

Heather O'Brien-Walker drove up from Sarasota and waited in line for several hours to tell Blakely how Spanx helped save her wedding. A bad fall and car wreck had badly damaged her body and sense of balance. “Wearing Spanx helped hold my body together, and gave me the confidence to walk down the aisle of my wedding,” she said. Now she uses that story as a motivational speaker. “I just want to meet her and tell her that.”

rmullins@tampatrib.com

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