SEATTLE Once upon a time, the Mattress Queen thought she would never find her Prince Charming.
And that suited her just fine.
Sunny Kobe Cook built a mattress-store empire from scratch in the Pacific Northwest during the 1990s and became something of a local icon, thanks to her starring role in Sleep Country USA's inescapable TV commercials.
But sadly, the woman known as the Mattress Queen had no one to share her own bed.
Her first marriage ended in divorce, a victim in part of her own success and the strain it put on her marriage.
She was through with dating, she told herself and whoever would listen. Little did she know that true love was waiting in her e-mail inbox.
For years, John Murphy had been captivated by Sunny Kobe Cook from afar, watching her smiling face on his television screen. In the late 1990s, he was a high-tech executive turned author and a recently divorced dad of three, living alone in his Seattle apartment.
What the heck, he thought. He called Sunny's office, got her e-mail address and started crafting a message he hoped would strike the right note of admiration without scaring her off.
On Sunny's end, the e-mail was one of many she received from strangers. Her cheery, confident persona on her TV commercials, which often featured Sunny lounging alluringly on a mattress, attracted scores of admirers.
Many just wanted to meet her, to learn how she rose from being a secretary to a saleswoman to the owner of a successful retail chain. Others wanted to hit on her. She quickly deleted those notes.
John kept his note short, sweet and neutral. He suggested they get together for coffee.
Sunny wrote back and said she didn't meet strange men for coffee in the nicest possible way, of course. But for some reason, she didn't delete the e-mail.
John replied, saying he was not just a fan, but the author of a book called ''Success Without a College Degree.''
All of a sudden, Sunny sat up straighter in front of her computer.
John had no way of knowing it mostly because she carefully concealed the fact but Sunny had never graduated from college, and she had always felt bad about it.
She spoke to groups and met many people, but whenever anyone asked where she went to college, she quickly and artfully changed the subject.
She asked John to send her a copy of his book, and he did. When she read sentences such as ''Success comes from the heart, not from a diploma,'' she felt like John was speaking directly to her. Every chapter about how people succeed in business and life without a college degree made her think, ''Yes, exactly!''
She agreed to have coffee with John. By this time, he was dating someone else, so it was just a friendly meeting.
His first impression was that she was just as charming as she seemed in her TV commercials.
Her first impression was that John was someone with integrity, a real solid citizen. That might not seem like the stuff of a future romance, but as Sunny says, ''Anybody who has dated will tell you that's a real find.''
They fell into an easy friendship of coffee dates and phone calls and e-mails, and Sunny settled into the familiar role of gal pal.
As a woman working in the furniture business, she had always had plenty of male friends. They would ask her for advice on things like what to wear on a first date.
Sunny and John shared similar outlooks on life, and John would sometimes ask her advice on his relationship. Sunny happily dispensed it they were friends, and it seemed perfectly natural to her.
Then one day John sent the second e-mail that changed both their lives.
''Red flag,'' the subject line said.
Sunny read the subject line and froze.
''Red flag?'' What did that mean? She had no idea what the e-mail was about, but she panicked. Had she done something wrong? She searched her mind for anything she'd done lately that could be construed as a red flag, but came up blank. Her heart pounding, she opened the e-mail. ...
And it turned out to have nothing to do with her at all. John was talking about something completely unrelated.
''Oh my God,'' Sunny thought. She felt like she had just narrowly missed a car accident. ''What does this mean?''
She called a friend. What did it mean? Was she getting emotionally involved? Was that bad? What should she do?
He told her to stop analyzing it and enjoy it. Oh my goodness, Sunny thought. This could be love.
Soon after that fateful e-mail John broke up with his girlfriend, he and Sunny got together and they haven't been apart since.
They married on July 22, 2000, in front of about 130 people at the Paramount Theater in Seattle. Her favorite wedding picture shows the two of them in front of the theater marquee, which declared: ''A Royal Wedding Starring Sunny Kobe Cook as the Mattress Queen, John Murphy as Prince Char-ming.''
In February of 2000, Sunny sold her chain of Sleep Country USA stores for a tidy profit. With John's encouragement, she wrote a book on employee motivation called ''Common Things, Un-common Ways.''
Sunny is, exactly as her name implies, a bubbly, friendly woman who shares her stories easily and rapidly puts strangers at ease. She talks in complete sentences and with expressive hand gestures, like the accomplished public speaker she is.
John is, as Sunny first perceived him, a solid man in looks and manner. Barrel-chested and grounded, he pauses to think before carefully answering questions. His guard goes up, subtly but undeniably, in front of strangers.
His latest project is their joint project, a talk show on Tacoma's public television station, KBTC, called ''Success Without a College Degree.''
They taped 26 episodes this summer, and the first show airs on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
They interview guests from all different fields who have, you guessed it, succeeded without a college degree. Their goal is not to discourage education, but to show people who lack formal education what they can accomplish.
John taught himself video production and edits all the shows.
''I orchestrate the show; she's the one with charisma and star power,'' he says.
Meanwhile, Sunny says being married to John is the easiest thing she's ever done. He never minds when people ask for her autograph or want to talk to the famous Mattress Queen. In fact, she says he's the one who taught her to realize how special she is.
''It was like breathing or walking,'' she says about falling in love with John. ''It's hard to explain to people, it was just so natural.''
They share a mattress now in their West Seattle home, where they wake every morning to a magnificent view of the Seattle skyline and Elliott Bay. Sailboats and ships and ferries cruise past their windows, full of people who are just like they once were, people who never know when love might take them by surprise.
Their plan, of course, is to live happily ever after.
On the Net:
Sunny Kobe Cook at http://www.sunnykobecook.com
John Murphy's Achievement Dynamics Inc. at http://www.thisismychance.com
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