Before there was Gwyneth Paltrow or Jenny McCarthy or Dr. Oz, there was Suzanne Somers.
Somers, who died from complications of breast cancer Oct. 15 at age 76, pioneered the role of celebrity wellness guru, using her sitcom television fame as a springboard to a second career as a self-professed health and beauty expert.
Although younger generations might have never 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?”
Somers “created the template that we see over and over again,” Caulfield said.
Somers, a star of the 1970s-’80s show “Three’s Company,” sold millions of ThighMasters to people hoping to achieve the Barbie-like figure for which Somers was famous. Her fans also connected with Somers on a personal level and appreciated the bravery it took to discuss growing up with an alcoholic father or being diagnosed with cancer.
But Somers drew criticism for urging women to defy the medical establishment. She revealed she had skipped chemotherapy against the advice of her doctor. She also championed potentially risky “bioidentical hormones,” which she touted as a more natural alternative to pharmaceutical treatments for menopause. Somers went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to describe an elaborate daily routine, which involved injecting hormones into her vagina and taking 60 pills a day in an effort to remain young-looking and sexy.
“She became an influencer on menopause before being an influencer was even a thing,” obstetrician-gynecologist Jen Gunter wrote on her blog on Oct. 17. “Somers almost single-handedly vaulted a fringe, untested medical hypothesis into the mainstream.”
Taking hormone supplements has risks for any menopausal woman, particularly women with a common type of breast cancer fueled by estrogen.
Somers’ advice was dangerous then and remains so today, said Gunter, who noted that internet searches for bioidentical hormones would spike after the release of the actress’s books and television appearances.
Searches surged again after Somers’ death was announced, according to Google Trends.
Oncologist Otis Brawley, a professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said he worries that Somers discouraged other breast cancer patients from receiving chemotherapy, which increases the odds 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 had a high likelihood of curing them,” Brawley said.
Although Somers cultivated a bright and sunny image, “she was literally scathing if someone suggested something be tested scientifically,” he said.
Somers’ publicist declined to comment for this article.
In her books and media interviews, Somers also championed alternative medical providers, including ones 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 photographs of beaches and spring meadows, “underneath that is a lot of fear-mongering and anger and rage,” said Caulfield.
Like Somers, actress and former Playboy model Jenny McCarthy reinvented herself in 2007 as a health advocate, trumpeting the baseless notion that vaccines cause autism and casting doubt on the motives of pediatricians who recommend them. McCarthy famously told Oprah Winfrey that she went to “the University of Google” for her information about vaccine safety, a phrase echoed by modern-day anti-vaccine activists who eschew expert opinion in favor of doing their own research.
The alternative therapies Somers promoted and the conspiracy theories swirling around the internet today go hand in hand, said Gunter, author of “The Menopause Manifesto.”
“If alternative medicine worked, everyone would be using it,” Gunter said. “So there has to be an excuse for not using it, like a conspiracy.”
Some celebrities “truly believe they have this special ability to suss out the truth about medicine,” Gunter said. “You can only believe that if you have a narcissistic belief in yourself.”
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow also has built a beauty and wellness empire, selling a wide range of dubious products on her website Goop.
Paltrow has endorsed placing jade, or yoni, eggs in the vagina to boost orgasms, for example, and steaming the vagina with mugwort to “balance” female hormones and to cleanse the uterus.
Yet today, people don’t need to be famous to become health influencers; they need only a TikTok account.
Social media contains a cacophony of medical misinformation, some of it dangerous. Some of the scarier videos describe DIY mole removal, ingrown toenail removal, 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 bond between speaker and viewer, said Jessica Gall Myrick, a professor of media studies at Pennsylvania State University.
“That’s probably why Somers was so influential,” Myrick said. “She talked directly to people through mass media. She was using mass media then the way people use social media today.”
This article was produced by KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling, and journalism.