4 Infomercial Superstars (and Where They Came From)

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I've discussed the various products hawked on late night TV in a previous column; this week takes an in-depth look at some of those personalities who've invaded our living rooms with such regularity that they feel like family.

1. Mike Levey has an "Amazing Discovery"

Picture 101.pngMike Levey graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering, but after a stint as an advertising copywriter, he discovered that his true love was sales. He founded Direct Response Television in 1988, and a year later his infomercial brainchild, Amazing Discoveries, hit the airwaves. Armed with more enthusiasm than his Technicolor sweaters could contain and a compensated ($60 per person per show) studio audience, Levey spent the next several years convincing viewers around the world that they couldn't live without a stained glass craft kit or a vertical roaster. Levey's company sold billions of dollars worth of products, and the Sweaterman himself received fan mail from Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and several American prisons. In 1993 the Federal Trade Commission took a closer look at Amazing Discoveries and decided that a few of the products pitched were misleadingly advertised. Financial settlements were hammered out, Direct Response's stock price fell, and AD quietly went off the air. Mike Levey succumbed to cancer in 2003 at the age of 55.

2. Miss Cleo Senses Opportunity

During the early part of the new Millennium, Miss Cleo was the conduit between ordinary humans and the Fates. A self-proclaimed Jamaican shaman, Miss Cleo wore elaborate head wraps and broadcast her infomercials from a set filled with wicker furniture, candles and fake palm trees, which was evidence enough to convince insomniacs in Des Moines that she possessed supernatural powers. Miss Cleo was employed by Access Resources Services in Florida, which racked up $400 million in annual sales at the height of Cleo's popularity. But then those spoilsports at the Attorney General's office got involved and discovered that Miss Cleo was actually Los Angeles-born Youree Dell Harris, the daughter of American-born parents and who had previously gone by half a dozen aliases in various money-making schemes over the years. Luckily for her, when the lawsuits started flooding in, they were directed at her employer and not her personally, so she won' be doin' her readin's in prison, mon. In a 2006 interview with The Advocate, she came out as a lesbian, just in time to promote her appearance on VH1's The Surreal Life.

3. Billy Mays Cleans up his Act

If Billy Mays' onscreen sales technique reminds you of the "Step right up!"-style banter of a carnival barker, you're not far off the mark. Shortly after graduating from high school, Mays took a job selling a household device called the Washmatik on Atlantic City's Boardwalk. He then spent 12 years traveling the U.S. and selling everything from vegetable choppers to cleaning products at state fairs and home shows. Along the way he carefully studied the veteran pitchmen in neighboring booths and copied their shtick. In a nice slice of serendipity, Mays happened to be working across the aisle at a show from Max Appel, the founder of Orange Glo. Appel's microphone broke just prior to a presentation, and Mays graciously gave him one of his spares. The two struck up a friendship, which led to Mays becoming the national spokesperson for Orange Glo. That gig led to spots for OxiClean and Kaboom! and a recognition factor that automatically guarantees millions of dollars in sales for any product.
(nb: this video may be NSFW since Billy utters a discouraging word near the end.)

4. Anthony Sullivan: A HSN star is born

Anthony "Sully" Sullivan comes by that British accent legitimately "“ he spent the first 21 years of his life in Devon, England. Much like Billy Mays, Sully had an entrepreneurial spirit and eschewed college in order to study the street vendors in London. He soon developed a keen eye for the "next big thing" when it came to household gadgets, and started hawking products on his own. During a surfing vacation in Hawaii, he happened to discover a small company marketing a device that he immediately realized would be perfect for, say, scraping wet sand off kitchen floors. He got a job selling the Smart Mop at home shows, and was "discovered," Lana Turner-style, by the Home Shopping Network. Sullivan became an HSN celeb in his own right, but craved bigger and better things. He formed Sullivan Productions in 1999 and, like Mike Levey and others before him, scopes out the "next big thing" and pitches it with his own unique spin "“ mainly that authoritative accent.

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May 14, 2008 - 3:00am
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