Suzanne Somers and the ThighMaster -- We take a look at the product's success

Murphy Brown got one at her baby shower. Bernice gave them to the Designing Women gang. President Bush told C-SPAN that Marlin Fitzwater had busted his. The ThighMaster — the exercise device that looks like a Calder mobile, sells for $19.95, and gets promoted by the eternally svelte-and-sunny Suzanne Somers 25 hours a day on cable TV — has found a home in our cultural lexicon.

But why? Most people don’t want to admit they need some mass-marketed, thigh-thinning aid. And the ThighMaster concept seems so, well, ’80s: Ordering one — by phone, yet — seems as tacky as joining a Living Well Lady or, even worse, buying a Ginsu knife. Yet the gadget is everywhere. Recently, when a real estate developer called a woman for a blind date, he heard a strange creaking sound in the background. ”I hope you don’t mind my asking,” he said, ”but what is that noise?”

”Actually,” said the flustered blind-date-to-be, ”I’m using my ThighMaster.”

When I finally broke down and ordered my own, curious colleagues made furtive trips to my office all day long, hesitantly asking if they could give the contraption a try. ”I’ve been dying to get one,” admitted one thirtysomething editor, who said she’d die of shame if her boyfriend found out.

ThighMaster: the dirty little secret for the ’90s.Don’t doubt the impact of this blue foam-covered apparatus with a red plastic center — just look at the legs it has given the career of its spokesperson, Somers. In the year she has been pitching ThighMaster, Somers, 45, has returned to the kitsch pantheon she occupied in the ’70s, when she starred as ditzy Chrissy on ABC’s Three’s Company. Not only that, Somers and her husband, Alan Hamel, are principals in the ThighMaster company, Body Solutions, which they say has sold several million units. ”It’s like Kleenex,” says Somers, who claims she uses her ThighMaster at least twice a day and keeps one in her handbag, one by her bed, and another in her car. ”It’s cheap and it works.”

According to Somers, the ThighMaster, originally intended for the upper body, was a Swedish product that made its way to a Malibu ashram. A group of investors discovered it there and approached Somers and Hamel about plugging and investing in the product. ”It was a fluke,” says Somers, who had just started work on her current ABC series, Step by Step. ”Suddenly it was taking more work for me to keep my body toned. How could they know this is just what I was looking for?”

So far, sales haven’t been hurt by comedians making Somers the, uh, butt of their jokes. Jay Leno stuck an orange in the middle of a ThighMaster to demonstrate the ”ThighMaster Orange-Juice Squeezer” on The Tonight Show. Phil Donahue, the thinking man’s Geraldo, wore one on his head.

”It doesn’t matter to me as long as they mention it,” says Somers. In fact, she thinks the laughter might be fitting. ”Maybe it’s funny because our mothers always told us to keep our legs together. And this is a legitimate reason to move your legs back and forth.”