In 1973, Suzanne Somers met Johnny Carson by chance at the NBC commissary and told him about the book of poetry she’d written, leading to her first appearance on The Tonight Show. “He started having me on every month. I would read him poems, and it became great shtick,” Suzanne told Closer last February.

Those comic appearances would help Suzanne land her starring role as ditzy but sweet Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company. But after being fired from the series for demanding a hefty raise in season 5, Suzanne, who passed away on October 15 at age 76 following a long battle with breast cancer, might have become a pop culture footnote. Instead, she parlayed her personal story and struggles into a wellness empire directed at women. “My constituency is from 45 to 65,” Suzanne explained. “We’re all kind of interested in the same things.”

Despite her fresh-faced beauty, Suzanne’s California childhood, with an alcoholic father prone to middle-of-the-night rages, was far from idyllic. She married and divorced very young and struggled to support her son, Bruce, born in 1965. “I was a single mother at 18, and we needed to eat,” said Suzanne, who was once arrested for passing a bad check. She saw showbiz as a way out of debt. “It wasn’t that I wanted to act so badly,” she confessed. “I wanted to make some decent money.”

After a tiny role in 1973’s American Graffiti and bit parts on TV series like The Rockford Files, she approached the opportunity to star on Three’s Company with excitement — and also dismay. “When I was told to play a dumb blonde, I thought, ‘Oh my God. Everybody hates dumb blondes,’” she recalled. “‘How do I make her likable and lovable?’ And I did.”

Suzanne also credited her easy chemistry with Joyce DeWitt and John Ritter for the show’s popularity. “Joyce is ultra-talented and worked so hard,” Suzanne said. “And I loved working with John. It was like a tennis match, where I’d hit it across the net and then he would bang it back. A lot of the laughs we created were not in the script.”

After several seasons of exceeding ratings expectations, Suzanne expected that her demand to be paid as much as John per episode would be seriously considered. Her husband, Alan Hamel, who’d become Suzanne’s manager, attended her contract negotiations. “I met him at the landing [when he returned home] and he looked me right in my eyes and he said, ‘You’re out,’” recalled Suzanne of her firing. “Laverne and Shirley had just renegotiated their contract, and [its stars] gave ABC a colonic. The network decided they’re not going to let girls think that they can get paid the same as men. Alan told me, ‘They were going to fire you the moment I walked in the office.’”

Suzanne would go on to other TV series, but not even Step by Step, which aired for seven seasons from 1991 to 1998, would approach the popularity of Three’s Company. Along the way, she also starred in a one-woman Las Vegas act and made several made-for-TV movies. Suzanne finally hit pay dirt when she became the pitchwoman for ThighMaster, a home fitness product, during the 1990s. “Alan said, ‘We’re never going to work for anyone else ever again,’” recalled Suzanne. “We sold 10 million ThighMasters, and I thought: This is good!”

Building off that success, Suzanne created a wellness empire that included exercise videos, self-help books and lines of nutritional supplements, haircare and cosmetics aimed at middle-aged women. “It started with my books. I went into menopause quite early, and no one had ever mentioned the word. Before I started writing about it, it was like, ‘Ooh, don’t talk about that,’” said Suzanne, who authored 27 books on a variety of topics. “Fourteen of them are New York Times bestsellers,” she noted.

When Suzanne revealed that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, she shared her journey with her followers. Some of the alternative therapies she endorsed were criticized by the medical establishment as misinformation, but Suzanne held fast to her beliefs. “My work provides valuable medical information for anyone over 35,” she explained. “I wasn’t trying to be a guru. I just loved helping people feel better.”

Last summer, Suzanne announced that her breast cancer had returned. “This is not new territory for me. I know how to put on my battle gear and I’m a fighter,” she shared. She was not bragging. Over the last year, Suzanne also struggled with mobility issues after suffering a fall and hydrocephalus, a build up of cranial fluid.

Despite everything, she said she’d arrived at the best time of her life. “I’m grateful, I’m productive and have acquired great wisdom. I have found the most beautiful balance amongst my husband, my children, six grandchildren and my work,” she said. “I have noticed something so interesting about the second half of life: It’s what you make of it. I believe everything that’s happened to me was supposed to happen. I think anything you want is in your grasp.”