Before there was Gwyneth Paltrow or Jenny McCarthy or Dr. Oz, there was Suzanne Somers.
Somers, who died of complications from breast cancer on October 15 at the age of 76, pioneered the role of celebrity wellness guru, using her fame on the series as a springboard to a second career as a self-proclaimed health and beauty expert.
Although younger generations may never have heard of Somers, they still feel her influence, said Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health and author of Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything?
The Somers “created the pattern that we see over and over again,” Caulfield said.
Somers, star of the 1970s and 1980s show Three’s Company, sold millions of ThighMasters to people hoping to achieve the Barbie-like figure Somers was known for. Her fans also connected with Somers on a personal level and appreciated the courage it took to discuss growing up with an alcoholic father or being diagnosed with cancer.
But Somers has drawn criticism for calling on women to defy the medical establishment. She revealed that she skipped chemotherapy against her doctor’s advice. She also championed potentially risky “bioidentical hormones,” which she touted as a more natural alternative to pharmaceutical menopause treatments. Somers went on The Oprah Winfrey Show to describe a complicated daily routine that included injecting hormones into her vagina and taking 60 pills a day in an effort to stay young and sexy.
“She became an influencer during menopause, before being an influencer was even a thing,” OB/GYN Jen Gunter wrote in her Oct. 17 blog.
Taking hormone supplements carries risks for any menopausal woman, especially women with a common type of estrogen-fueled breast cancer.
Somers’ advice was dangerous then and remains so today, said Guenther, who noted that Internet searches for bioidentical hormones would increase after the actress’ books and television appearances were released.
Searches spiked again after the announcement of Somers’ death, according to Google Trends.
Oncologist Otis Brawley, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said he worries that Somers has dissuaded other breast cancer patients from receiving chemotherapy, which increases the chances of survival despite difficult side effects such as nausea, vomiting and hair loss.
“I personally know of several women who have died” after rejecting breast cancer treatment “that was highly likely to cure them,” Brawley said.
Although Sommers cultivated a bright and sunny image, “she was literally scathing if anyone suggested anything should be scientifically tested,” he said.
Somers’ publicist declined to comment for this article.
In his books and media interviews, Somers also supports alternative medicine providers, including those who sell unproven or discredited therapies. One of those providers, Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston oncologist, was disciplined by the Texas Medical Board for misleading terminal cancer patients and failing to disclose potential risks associated with his treatment.
And while the natural products industry markets its products with pictures of beaches and spring meadows, “underneath that, there’s a lot of instilling of fear and anger and rage,” Caulfield said.
Like Somers, actress and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy reinvented herself in 2007 as a health advocate, trumpeting the baseless idea that vaccines cause autism and casting doubt on the motives of pediatricians who recommend them. McCarthy famously told Oprah Winfrey that she went to “Google University” for information on vaccine safety, a phrase echoed by modern anti-vaccine activists who shun expert opinion in favor of doing their own research.
Alternative therapies promoted by Somers and the conspiracy theories swirling around the Internet today go hand in hand, said Guenther, author of “The Menopause Manifesto.”
“If alternative medicine worked, everyone would be using it,” Guenther said. “So there has to be an excuse not to use it, like a plot.”
Some celebrities “really believe they have this special ability to tell the truth about medicine,” Guenther said. “You can only believe that if you have a narcissistic belief in yourself.”
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow has also built a beauty and health empire, selling a wide range of questionable products on her Goop website.
Paltrow endorsed inserting jade eggs or ions into the vagina to enhance orgasms, for example, and steaming the vagina with wormwood to “balance” female hormones and cleanse the uterus.
Yet today, people don’t have to be famous to become health influencers; they only need a TikTok account.
Social media contains a cacophony of medical misinformation, some of it dangerous. Some of the scarier videos describe do-it-yourself mole removal, removing an ingrown toenail, or using nail files to sharpen teeth.
Today’s health influencers speak directly to the camera, “breaking the fourth wall,” a technique Somers used that can create a stronger connection between the speaker and the viewer, said Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University.
“That’s probably why Summers was so influential,” Myrick said. “She spoke directly to people through the media. She used media back then the way people use social media today.