Hometown girl makes American dream come true

Sara Blakely, Spanx creator, grew up in Clearwater Beach.

Once upon a time there was a girl who grew up on Clearwater Beach thinking she would be a lawyer. As fate would have it, courtroom life was not in store for Sara Blakely.

The Clearwater High School graduate, who attended St. Paul’s School and Shorecrest Preparatory School, has been all the rage in fashion circles because of Spanx, a product she invented that just happened to catch the fancy of a very famous person.

Seven years ago while working for Danka in Atlanta, Blakely knew she had a great idea – footless pantyhose that would be both slimming and attractive to women who wanted to wear open-toed shoes.

The problem was that no one in the male-dominated hosiery industry would buy into the notion that women would embrace footless pantyhose. Frustrated by repeated rejections, Blakely decided to let go of the idea, and let fate take its course.

Then one day after she had taught a Danka sales seminar, Blakely flipped on “Oprah.” Lo and behold, Oprah Winfrey lifted her pant leg to reveal to the world that she cuts the feet out of her pantyhose.

“I freaked out,” Blakely said in a recent phone interview. “OK, I’m not crazy, I thought. This is a sign. I called all the hosiery mills and told them I believe in this … I just saw Oprah do this. So, I took a week off work and drove around to all the mills.”

Once she succeeded in getting the Spanx prototype and packaging exactly as she wanted it, Blakely sent a gift basket to Oprah, thanking her for providing the inspiration she needed to press on with her idea.

Within weeks, Blakely received a phone call that would change her life. Spanx was selected by Oprah to be featured on her “Favorite Things” show.

Blakely’s dream of footless pantyhose was off and running. Already in a few Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue stores, Bloomingdales and Nordstrom called her within days. Blakely sold 50,000 pair of Spanx in three months. That was just the beginning.

This innovative entrepreneur has turned her initial investment of $5,000 into a hosiery giant with annual sales of $100 million. Women adore the dozens of different Spanx styles, which are sold online and at high-end retailers; and her new product, the more moderately-priced Assets, available at Target stores.

Spanx is a favorite among Hollywood celebrities looking to smoothen and improve the look of their backsides as they stroll down the red carpet.

Recently, Blakely took her firm belief in giving back to a whole new level.

She was asked to be on “Oprah” last week to discuss Spanx for a “How’d You Do That” segment. As Oprah thanked Blakely for “shaping up the rear ends of women around the world,” little did she know that Blakely had a huge surprise in store. Blakely suddenly revealed to Oprah that she was donating $1 million to Oprah’s Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa.

Oprah was speechless. Both of them had tears in their eyes.

No one is more proud of the 35-year-old blond-haired beauty than her mother, Ellen Blakely, and her grandmother, Morrow Ford, both of whom live in Belleair and who were in the “Oprah” audience for Blakely’s big surprise announcement.

“Sara sent a private jet to pick us up,” said Ford, who has lived in Belleair for 26 years with her husband, Blakely’s grandfather, Charlie Ford. Sara affectionately refers to them as Nannie and Gaga and she credits them with playing a big part in her success story.

Morrow said the “Oprah” visit with Sara was “fabulous, she did really well. I’m so proud of her.”

Grateful for her own good fortune, Blakely’s vision is to empower women around the world. She counts among her good friends Sir Richard Branson. She was in the cast of his “Rebel Billionaire” reality TV show, and the billionaire entrepreneur teamed up with Blakely for a “Give a Damn” party last October, launching the Sara Blakely Foundation to help young women globally. Branson donated $750,000 to the foundation. To get started, the Sara Blakely Foundation provided scholarships to 278 young women in Africa.

So, inquiring minds want to know what Sara has done for herself to splurge.

She purchased a home in San Diego, she said, where her brother, Ford, lives with his wife and baby daughter. Family means everything to Blakely.

Her father, John Blakely, co-founded the prominent Clearwater law firm of Johnson Blakely, which is how she got the notion she would be a lawyer someday.

In celebration of her 35th birthday, Blakely flew 10 of her closest girlfriends to Costa Rica for a fantastic girls’ getaway at the Four Seasons Resort.

“It was very extravagant,” she said. “I wanted to spoil all my friends and myself. We had lots of fun.”

Another exciting chapter in Sara Blakely’s life is ahead. After a 2-year courtship, she recently became engaged to Lawton Ursrey, an Atlanta photographer and inventor who has his own Internet wireless business.

So, what’s next for this bubbly, go-getter?

“Good question,” she said. “It’s exciting and wonderful when you achieve your goals, but it also leaves you with a feeling of ‘OK, I’ve gotta regroup’ … I am pinching myself. The fact that I was able to write a check for $1 million to something I believe in, it’s the American dream.”