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Models strut, bunnies talk, business buzzes

A new lingerie shop creates a downtown stir.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published February 11, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Roberta Nunemaker stood inside the heated tent on Third Avenue N Saturday -dirty martini in hand - and summed up the scene

"It is very un-St. Pete," she said. "It's fun."

There was an impromptu press conference on Anna Nicole Smith's death, and lingerie-clad Hawaiian Tropics models, Playboy playmates and B-list celebrities parading along a red carpet.

All the excitement was for the glitzy grand opening of the Maison Rouge, an upscale lingerie store in Parkshore Plaza, a business attached to a new, upscale condo complex.

For invited guest Shari Casey, walking the red carpet - surrounded by a dozen flashing cameras -was just too much fun.

"I was like: 'Me? You're taking my picture?' " she said.

Maison Rouge, part of a growing number of restaurants and boutiques in downtown St. Petersburg aimed at the hip and young, attracted more than 500 people to its grand opening. The glamor was a flashy sign that times are changing for the city.

"It's not sleepy anymore," said Rhonda Shear, the store's owner and a former Miss Louisiana. "I think we got a little bit of Rodeo Drive here, a little bit of West Palm Beach. It's a very cosmopolitan city."

As local socialites watched the models and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres, Shear, former playmates Echo Johnson and Hiromi Oshima, and Carol Connors, who co-wrote the Rocky theme song Gonna Fly Now, offered their thoughts on Smith's sudden death Thursday.

They all said they knew Smith and thought she had been traumatized by her only's son death in September.

"It's a tragedy and I think everyone feels the same way," said Johnson, who was a playmate in 1993, when Smith was named Playmate of the Year.

"She certainly wouldn't have taken her own life," Shear said.

Shear, who has been marketing her lingerie designs on the Home Shopping Network for four years, said she fell in love with St. Petersburg on a business trip and decided the city would be the perfect location for her flagship store.

"We want to bring Hollywood to St. Petersburg," she said.

Cristina Silva can be reached at 727 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.