Rich by Design

updated 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

RUMMAGING THROUGH A PILE OF clothes in a closet in her Malibu home, Shell Kepler uncovers a red satin number that looks as if it could sashay into a Wild West saloon and throw back a shot of whiskey, all by itself. "Is this an ugly dress?" Kepler asks indignantly. "The tabloids have put me on their worst-dressed lists wearing this." She tosses it aside and chuckles. "Well," she says, "westerns are in, so what do they know?"

Not as much as Kepler does, according to millions of armchair aficionados who, while viewing the Home Shopping Club, order up flouncy dresses like the one in Kepler's closet from her Lacy Afternoon collection. The line is ringing up sales that have reached $20 million this year. Its hyper-feminine feel may well appeal to the flirt in every woman, but Lacy Afternoon banks on the allure of one flitty female in particular: Kepler, its head designer and hawker, who by day doubles as General Hospital's nurse Amy Vining—possibly the most beloved ditz on daytime TV.

The 32-year-old actress has played Nurse Vining in the fictitious town of Port Charles for 15 years—a good gig, but hardly, she is the first to admit, an impressive dramatic feat. Shell does little more than stand behind a nurses station and gab, portraying a dumb blonde with a big mouth, a big heart and, thanks to a breast-implant story line last year, big...well, you get the picture.

"My breasts are real. I have to wear an underwire bra to keep them up," she says. "But I get fan letters asking my advice on what doctor to go to for implants. It's so embarrassing." Happily her "up" time is brief. Never a major character, Kepler these days devotes most of her prodigious energy to her sidelines. The most lucrative is Lacy Afternoon. Kepler began the line four years ago after doing a one-shot celebrity shopping show on HSC. Afterward host Mindy McCortney paid her a social visit in L.A. and noticed several of Kepler's homemade dresses. McCortney helped persuade HSC to underwrite Kepler's designs (average price per piece: $65). Kepler won't reveal her share of the take, but you can bet it wasn't her day job that paid for the marble staircase and swimming pool—complete with waterfall—in the million-dollar, Mediterranean-style estate she has lived in since 1993. "I'm not doing too badly," says Kepler quite happily.

Credit for her success, she says, goes in large part to her business partner-manager-husband, Robert DeSantis, 40, whom she met three years ago at an open house when he was a Realtor. She drapes the fabrics; he crunches the numbers, the negotiators and sometimes, she sniffs, the talent. "He can push too hard," she says, laughing.

Much as she appreciates her helpmate, Kepler says, the business would be nowhere if it weren't for her late mother, Charlotte Ann. "She had me sewing by the time I was 4," says Kepler—and not just for fun. "We were very poor," she says of the tight-knit clan that included father Fred, now 64, an economics-book indexer who lives in Massachusetts, and brother Freddie, 36, an industrial filmmaker residing in L.A. Born in Painesville, Ohio, Shell moved to California when she was 10. Three years later, Charlotte Ann died of colon cancer. "I was dysfunctional," recalls Shell. "I didn't want to go to school, I didn't want to play, I didn't want to do anything."

When she bounced back, what Kepler wanted to do was act. She was 14 when she quit high school, and then, at age 17, she landed a job on G.H. "I lied about my age," she says. "You had to be 18 and I was. Almost." Play-life in Port Charles was easy; Kepler's real life often wasn't. In 1984 she married a rock promoter with whom she was, she says, "miserable" until they split in 1990. During that time the health of her brother, who at age 6 doctors found had diabetes, was deteriorating. By the mid-1980s, says Kepler, complications had him "going to the hospital constantly."

In 1990 a transplanted kidney, donated by her father, saved her brother's life. It also changed Kepler's: She was in the hospital after the operation, she says, "when I heard a tiny voice say, 'Amy?' Near the children's dialysis unit was a 3-year-old boy, so yellow, so tiny. I asked, 'How do you know my name?' And he pointed to the TV set." Far from flattered, Kepler was aghast. "He never got to go outside," she says. "No 3-year-old should know who Amy Vining is."

Today she is a spokesperson for the National Kidney Foundation. That role and her Lacy Afternoon collection keep her so busy that she is unsure if she will renew her contract with General Hospital. On the other hand, she says, "As long as I have Amy, I don't age. Then I get to be a ditz and a kid the rest of my life."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Malibu

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