“If you love me, you’ll eat this leaf,” she said to her high school sweetheart. Stifling a giggle, trying to maintain her serious demeanor, she plucked a dying leaf off the tree branch hanging above the bench they sat upon in his parents’ backyard in New Orleans.
He knew this game. He knew she did not seriously believe eating a leaf proved his love. But he also knew that if he did not, she would playfully dig at him for days that he didn’t truly love her. Not wanting to give her that satisfaction, he snatched the leaf from her hand, tore it down the middle, crammed half of it into his mouth, chewed and swallowed, calling her bluff. Moments later, he choked up every piece in a violent fit of coughing.
“Ok,” she laughed. “Enough.” She didn’t want him to die trying to prove her wrong, but she also did not want to give him a victory, so she added, “If you TRULY love me, you will hold onto that other piece for the rest of your life.”
“We were so cheesy,” laughed 58-year-old worldwide fashion icon, comedian and St. Petersburg resident Rhonda Shear while reminiscing about her high school boyfriend, Van Fagen. “We were typical teenagers. We dated for five years and he was my first love.”
Over the 26 years that followed their breakup, a lot changed for her. She was named Miss Louisiana. She was the host of the popular 1980s B-movie television show USA Up All Night, she posed for Playboy twice and she launched a ground breaking comedy career, becoming one of the first women to successfully combine sex appeal with jokes.
However, unbeknownst to Shear, one thing never changed – her feelings for her first love.
“I had no idea I still had feelings for him,” she said. “I thought about him of course, as would anyone about their first love. You know, you always wonder what they are up to. But I never thought about getting him back. I was a serial dater in Hollywood, dating producers, directors, actors and comedians.”
Then, in October 2000, Fagen reached out to her via Classmates.com. It was a simple email, asking how she was doing. “There was one smoke signal,” laughed Shear. “He also gave me his phone number and pager number. I knew this meant he wasn’t married anymore. So I decided to mess with him and asked if he wanted to come see me and when.”
Just like the leaf incident, he called her bluff, answered tomorrow and even booked a flight to LA.
It was sudden, but Shear was up for it. She was dating someone in LA, but it wasn’t serious. Besides, she wasn’t purposely meeting with Fagen to rekindle first love. She just thought it would be fun to see him.
Her boyfriend, however, talked her out of it. He said it was a terrible idea, saying Fagen was probably fat and bald and wore clothes he bought at the Piggly Wiggly, which was a shot at Fagen’s hometown of Fayetteville, Louisiana.
Two months, later, however, when she flew to Louisiana to see her mother for Christmas, she asked Fagan to visit her. It wasn’t a date, just a friendly get together of old friends. But Shear said the moment he walked into her mother’s home on December 27, 2000, all the old feelings came back to her. It must have been mutual because later that night they kissed.
“It was magic,” giggled Shear like a high school girl with a crush. “He wasn’t like any guy I dated in Hollywood. He was all man. He showed me his house that he built with his own hands, he cooked me dinner and he was a successful businessman. And he wasn’t fat OR bald. Then, on January 11, 2001, just a few weeks later, we eloped. Everyone said we wouldn’t last and I understand why. It was crazy and we did not think it through. But we have proven them wrong.”
Shear was not finding steady work in LA, so she agreed to move to Lafayette, where Fagen owned a successful company that created the software for oil rigs. The move was as sloppy as an oil spill. The women in the small town did not accept the ex-Playmate from LA. They thought they were above her. Shear said she was lonely.
If her friends needed any proof of how much Fagen loved her, when he realized how unhappy she was, Fagen agreed to sell the company and move elsewhere. “He sold a company he founded and then had to work for someone else,” said Shear.
Being a small town boy, he was deftly afraid of LA, so they settled on Dallas. They lasted there for just three months. Then they tried San Diego, but they didn’t take to it and only lasted eight months. Finally, she convinced him to try LA.
“I was slowly moving him to LA,” she admitted with a sly smile. “He actually loved it. But then work brought us to St. Petersburg.”
That work was a company they co-founded, Rhonda Shear Intimates, a fashion line focusing on bras, panties and sleepwear. The company began selling in 2003 and struck a deal with Tampa Bay’s Home Shopping Network soon after. Shear and Fagen moved to the Tampa Bay area in 2005 to be closer to HSN headquarters and urned the company into one of the most successful in its field. Today, the company earns around $73 million in annual revenues
from its 2,500 skews and its “Ahh Bra” is the number one bra in the world, selling over 30 million.
Shear and Fagen are more than a perfect love match. They are also a perfect business match. She has the celebrity name and the showbiz know how and he has the entrepreneurial knowledge.
“It’s been wonderful and it is crazy,” she said. “I mean, I dated guys like Bill Maher and Larry King and Glenn Frey, yet in the end I was meant to be with my first boyfriend from New Orleans. Then we enjoy all this success together. It’s just crazy.”
Crazy, or meant to be. After all, Fagen still has that other half of the leaf.
“He really did save it all those years,” Shear laughed. “That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
Rhonda Shear presents The Rhonda Shear Comedy PJ Party on Saturday, February 16 at the Mahaffey Theater. The event will feature shopping, a fashion show, and stand-up comedy for a full night of fun. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, visit www.themahaffey.com.
Paul Guzzo is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker and an accomplished author. His newest book is The Dark Side of Sunshine, a history of Tampa’s infamous people and events. His recent article on a man with Down syndrome who is best friends with Dwayne Johnson was viewed by close to half a million readers in a month. It can be read at www.cigarcitymagazine.com.