ST. PETERSBURG — Rhonda Shear posed naked for Playboy twice, in 1991 and 1993, but she remembers best the time she appeared in the magazine fully clothed.
It was 1977. Now a 59-year-old stand-up comedian, actress and founder of the intimate apparel company Shear Enterprises, she was 18 at the time, a model and pageant queen living in New Orleans.
Playboy asked her to appear in its “Girls of the New South” edition and she agreed, but only if she could remain fully clothed.
“I wore this Scarlett O’Hara pageant dress and posed on a plantation,” said Shear, who lives in St. Petersburg. “The only skin showing was a piece of one shoulder, I think. But my small photo was surrounded by large photos of naked girls.”
It was enough for the Greater New Orleans Floral Trail to yank her crown as queen.
She sued to have her title restored but lost. The story was widely covered by the local TV news.
Now Shear wishes she could get her hands on that footage. She would add it to the 400 hours of material from a 25-year show business career that she is uploading to her YouTube Channel, Youtube.com/RhondaShearTV.
This weekend, she is promoting the channel from a booth at the Tampa Bay Comic Con at the Tampa Convention Center. Her connection to this world of costumed fantasy: She portrayed the ditsy blonde hostess of USA Network’s 1990s hit “Up All Night,” which showcased B-movies, original comedy skits and celebrity interviews on Friday nights.
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Wearing revealing lingerie, Shear spoke in a high pitched voice and made bad jokes about even worse movies with plots involving bikinis and cheaply made monsters. Film titles included “Surf Nazis Must Die,” “Satan’s Cheerleaders,” and “Virgin High.”
Shear describes her new online initiative as a reflection on the past for a woman who has show business in her blood — not a desperate attempt to reclaim the fame and fortune she enjoyed as a Hollywood celebrity.
She’s doing just fine, in fact, with her post Hollywood career.
Shear Enterprises reports more than $70 million in sales a year. Its signature Ahh Bra has sold more than 30 million worldwide — just one in a line of 5,000 products. Hugh Heffner’s wife, Crystal, and Kato Kaelin of O.J. Simpson trial fame have launched lines under Shear’s umbrella, and three new celebrity collaborations will be announced soon.
“She knows how to succeed in the world of fashion,” said Kaelin, also a longtime friend of Shear’s. “She didn’t hit a single. She hit a grand slam in the industry.”
She’s free to indulge in her search through the past.
One recent find was her first television appearance as an entertainer. She was a featured dancer on “The John Pela Show,” a New Orleans version of “American Bandstand.”
She also has the tape of her first Hollywood gig — a 1980 appearance on the “Bob Hope Show” where she shows off her talent as a mime while wearing a bikini in the comedian’s search for the “Perfect 11,” a spoof of the 1979 Bo Derek movie “10.”
“I think her old celebrity interviews and skits alone are worth watching,” said Gene May, president of Florida Footage, which is digitizing Shear’s video archives. “It’s crazy to see the people that pop up in them, like Jeff Probst from ‘Survivor’ when he was an unknown and huge stars like Don Johnson and Eddie Murphy.”
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Shear admits there is a certain irony in her new pursuit. She has spent most of her life distancing herself from the ditsy blonde she famously portrayed. Now, she wants to bring it back for the world to see.
“I have thought off and on throughout my career that I was being held back because of that character,” she said.
As a teen and early 20-something, she wore the crown of Miss Louisiana USA. She was accepted into law school after graduating from Loyola University but chose Hollywood instead. She wanted to be a comedian and sitcom star.
The only auditions she could land were for roles as “bimbos” and “dumb blondes,” she said.
“I’d get parts, but they were the sexy car salesman on ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ or the slutty neighbor on ‘Married With Children.’ Not that I’m complaining about getting parts, but I wanted to do more.”
She sought creative ways to break free of the stereotype.
She would dress to look like a mannequin, and friend and comedian Kenny Ellis would carry her into Hollywood studios. He would sing to her, and she would pretend to come to life.
“You could not get away with that today,” Shear said. “You’d never get onto the lot, and if you did you’d be arrested.”
The routine got her and Ellis in front of Merv Griffin and Johnny Carson but no bookings on their shows.
Shear did had success as a stand-up comic, headlining shows at major Hollywood clubs such as The Comedy Store. But greater fame eluded her.
So in 1991 she decided to embrace the ditsy blonde character and auditioned for “Up All Night” hostess.
“The former hostess was funny and sarcastic, but they wanted more sex appeal to sell to their audience, which was teenage and college guys who were literally up all night. So at the audition I played the ultimate blonde bimbo cliché.”
The show was wildly popular among guys and fans of B-movies, producer May said.
“You’d go out, come home after a few drinks and continue the party while ‘Up All Night’ was on,” May said. “It was so funny and entertaining.”
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When the show was canceled, Shear was offered only ditsy blonde roles again. She was done with them.
“In L.A., if you are a known name and face, there is always someone who will write you a check for a part and at some point you have a chance for a big comeback,” she said. “But I was tired of the auditions and the game.”
In 2001 she married her high school boyfriend, Van Fagan, and in 2003 they started Shear Enterprises.
“I figured I’d spent my entire career either naked or in lingerie so this was a perfect fit,” Shear quipped.
“What’s great about Rhonda is that she has not changed as a person,” said Kaelin. “She may be worth millions, but she’s as humble as she’s ever been.”
She continues to dabble in entertainment, performing stand-up from time to time and acting in independent films to help a talented director get noticed. And she recently hosted a short-lived, local reboot of “Up All Night” showcasing independent filmmakers.
“She has performing in her blood,” May said. “She can’t just turn it off. It doesn’t matter how successful her business is, she is going to want to entertain.
She keeps up with some of her old friends — comedian Gilbert Gottfried and talk show host Bill Maher among them — and sometimes wonders where her career would be if she had stayed in Hollywood.
But she doesn’t dwell on it.
“I’m happy where I am and have no complaints,” she said. “I love my company. When I miss the old days, I watch the tapes.”