Here stands an opulent empire built on disposable novelty.
Over the foyer looms a giant crystal chandelier above a wrought-iron spiral staircase; a formal dining room is set off from the entry in deep red hues; vaulted ceilings give way to a plush family room with giant lakefront windows that gaze past a two-tiered swimming pool. This is the millionaire's mansion of television's Billy Mays, the king of infomercials, noted as much for his manly beard and booming voice as for his endorsements of products you suddenly need, like OxiClean and Mighty Putty.
In this case, "Hello, Billy Mays here," takes on a whole different meaning; he's closer than you might think. Tucked away in a small gated community in Odessa — one shared by several players from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Mays lives in our backyard. And he's invited us over.
In the laundry room, Mays fusses over the perfect alignment of the products that got him here — OxiClean tubs, Orange Glo bottles, spray bottles of Kaboom — and positions himself behind the washer for the perfect photo op. With each explosion of the camera's flash, Mays' hands play along in synchronized gestures — thumbs-up, pistol-pointers, open palms of persuasion — while his face remains one unmoving edifice to immediate-gratification capitalism. He is a pitchman in still life, and he keeps all of the products he shills close at hand should the need arise.
Occasionally he pauses, unzips his khaki pants and re-tucks his signature blue shirt. Gotta look the part.
For more than 30 years, Mays has been perfecting his craft, climbing the ladder to consumer ubiquity by pitching his voice to command reaction. From college dropout to 400-exposure-a-week TV personality, he's had an impressive, if hamfisted, rise. But while many people can easily say that they recognize that obnoxious guy on the tube, few can say that they actually know him. That's all about to change.
In the last two years, Mays has made an effort to position himself outside the infomercial box. He's now popping up in the kitchen with the Vidalia Slice Wizard and the Big City Slider Station ("No flipping! No flopping!"), as well as taking an unexpected turn into the topical with his commercials for iCanBenefit.com, an a la carte health insurance service for the Wal-Mart shopping base. But that's not all! Soon you'll find Billy Mays and his business partner Anthony Sullivan, of Swivel Sweeper fame, gesticulating their way into the world of reality television with an inventing showcase called Pitchmen, due to air next spring. Can Billy Mays get any more in-your-face? You bet he can.
Mays was born in McKees Rocks, Penn., not far from Pittsburgh, on July 20, 1958. He was a "high school star" of football in Western Pennsylvania, and upon graduating hoped to parlay his athleticism into a college sports career at West Virginia University.
One problem: "I wasn't big enough," he says. "It just never worked out."
After he left college he joined his father's hazardous-waste trucking business, W.B. Mays and Sons, as a salesman, learning the business of persuasion on the fly. At 19 years old, he was courting contracts from big companies like Volkswagen and U.S. Chemical and getting nowhere.
"It's kind of ironic that my first deal was with Hercules Chemical," he says. "And the Hercules Hook became one of my big `products`." (If you're not familiar with the Hercules Hook, you don't watch enough TV; it's a way to hang objects on a wall without tools.)
But when the family business grew too big for his liking, Mays got out.
One night at the local watering hole down in McKees Rocks, Mays bumped into an old friend and mentor, Mike Jones. It was a fortuitous encounter. Jones sold Ginsu knives and shammies at the Atlantic City pier and invited Mays along for the ride. With Atlantic City cleaning up its image, the ride didn't last long.
"I got there at the end of an era, when all the pitchmen would come there when they needed money," says Mays. "It was a place to come and work on the weekends, mostly; you didn't want to work during the week or at night. That was for Johnny-come-latelies like me."
"It's hard to go there to sell to somebody who's broke or drunk," he adds. "I mean, it was belligerent. I mean, they'd laugh at you."
But Mays persevered, peddling massage pillows and flower arrangers while searching for his sales niche. He got his break with a car washing "system" called the WashMatik — basically a hose and brushes — and got pointers from old-timers who would stop by on breaks from pitching their own products. Draw the crowd in tight, they told him, and don't be afraid to throw a selective discount. Mays listened and learned. Before long he was on the road, pitching products at trade shows and home shows.
He stayed on the road for 13 years, hitting every state fair or home show he could find. In the mid-'90s, a chance incident involving a broken microphone would prove to be Mays' first big break.
At a Pittsburgh home show, Orange Glo founder Max Appel's microphone malfunctioned and Mays gave him one of his "as an act of kindness." They kept in touch. Mays relocated from Los Angeles to Florida — a state he liked after seeing it so often on his tours — in 1996. A few months later, Appel hired Mays to pitch Orange Glo on Tampa's fledgling Home Shopping Network. A star was born.
A two-minute "show" (industry-speak for an infomercial) for OxiClean helped rocket Mays into the mainstream in 1999. It also upset HSN, a station he says he was carrying.
"We didn't know nothing about the business. OxiClean started on HSN," says Mays. "We begged them to do an infomercial for us, help us get on TV. ‘You can do it all! Run it for us!' HSN had an opportunity to own OxiClean and Orange Glo and everything, but they snubbed us."
Mays maintained an exclusive relationship with Appel's products (OxiClean, Kaboom, Orange Glo) and admits that over the years he grew complacent. He starred in TV spots and infomercials for the company, advertisements that he says have grossed more than $1 billion for the Appel family. He always took a lower fee on the front end to gain residuals over the lifetime of each product he pitched.
"They paid me seven figures to sit around and only go do stuff for them," he says. "I bank on me."
In 2006, the Appel family quietly sold their product line to the Church and Dwight Co., the owners of Arm & Hammer. Mays' name got lost in the $325 million deal — they claimed that he had a verbal agreement to stay onboard — and he felt betrayed.
That anger would only drive him to expand his influence. Mays eventually signed a deal with Church and Dwight that ended his exclusivity with the Appel line and shook him out of his complacency. He lined up new endorsement deals — Mighty Putty, Awesome Auger and Big City Slider Station among them — and started growing his own empire.
"I was driven by bitterness," he says. "In the beginning it was like, ‘I'm going to show them.' I'm not going to show them anymore. I'm careful what I do. In the beginning it was like, ‘It works, it's good, it's not going to break!' But now I'm very selective."
In addition to an upstairs home theater complete with an audio soundboard for recording voice-overs, Billy Mays' palatial estate naturally features a shrine to his illustrious public career. The game room's walls are lined with framed memorabilia including magazine covers, industry awards, newspaper clippings, an oversized photo of a Jumbotron screen in Times Square with Mays' mug flashed across it. One industry publication branded him a "superstar" across the bottom of a matted and framed cover. There is also a picture of him shirtless.
Littered across the floor are toys. Mays shares the home with his wife of six years, their 3-year-old daughter (both very private, he says), and his son, 22-year-old Billy Mays, who is hoping to follow in his father's footsteps. The younger Mays is enrolled at Full Sail University and intends to relocate to Chicago to work as a production assistant after graduation.
There's something humble about the whole setup. Although the 8,000-square-foot 2005 house is valued at $1.8 million, it isn't exactly dripping with luxury. The walls are textured in Mediterranean-brown rag-splotches that recall an Olive Garden; large plastic vases overflow with fake fruit arrangements; a house-wide hi-fi system whispers light rock at background noise volume in every room.
"That's about as loud as it ever gets," says Mays.
It's the kind of nice home that you'd imagine somebody from meager beginnings would consider a nice home. Toward the front of the house, there are biblical calligraphy wall hangings, presumably there for assurance. "Truth … let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action. 1 John 3:18," reads one. "Choose you this day whom you will serve … Joshua 24:15," reads another, adding, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
If you're interested, the house is currently on the market for $3 million. The Mays family is building a new house in South Carolina, he says, because the schools here are no good.
Last October, former HSN producer Chris Wilson, who has since relocated to Los Angeles to work for the Style Network, approached his former colleagues Mays and Anthony "Sully" Sullivan about creating a reality show. Mays insists that he and Sully had been toying with the idea "even before American Inventor came out." The three worked to create a six-minute teaser for Pitchmen with the idea of selling it to Warner Horizon, the Time Warner division behind reality shows The Bachelor and High School Reunion.
But chance would again play a role in Mays' career when Sully went on a sabbatical retreat in Los Angeles with the teaser in hand. Thom Beers, CEO and executive producer of Original Productions (Deadliest Catch, Monster Garage, The Rachel Zoe Project) was also there. The no-work vacation ended up in a work deal with Beers signing on two weeks later, beating out Warner Horizon. It's a choice Mays is happy with, largely because of Beers' association with the Discovery Channel. (Discovery has not yet announced any association with the show.)
"I've had people approach me about so many different things, and I want it to be clean," says Mays.
The show is based around Sully and Mays traveling the country, helping inventors market their products. The tagline: "You design it, they'll mine it."
It's but one sign of Billy Mays' maturation from screaming anomaly to pop-culture touchstone, one that finds him presenting more of himself to a wider audience. His ad for iCanBenefit.com, from whom he also receives residual percentages (and his own health insurance at a cost of $700 a month), is another.
That one came in handy. In January 2007, Mays received a wake-up call: He needed a new hip, and at 260 pounds, his blood pressure and cholesterol were an issue. He lost 40 pounds by swimming two miles a day in his pool — at the risk of losing his signature heft — and had the operation, only to have to have it done again when a staph infection was detected in the socket. These days he's a little wobbly, slimmer and going through the process of refilming some of his older commercials for the sake of continuity. Mays hopes his new weight won't affect his appeal among all sectors.
"Oh, you mean ‘Billy the Bear'?" he laughs, referring to his gay "bear" following. "I don't discriminate. We run our commercials on Logo. It's just something that's out there. It doesn't bother me. They're my fans."
As for his detractors, he's fine with them, too.
"You can read the complaints. People say that I'm too loud," he says. "But you know, if I tone it way down, sales go way off. And I think people need something to gripe about no matter what."
Outside his four-car garage — which presently houses an Escalade and Mercedes GL450 — Mays poses for the camera in front of his Bentley, making sure that the photographer "gets the grill" in the shot. He's holding a spray bottle of Simoniz, another product he both endorses and uses, and pulling the same poses. In doing so, he strikes an odd juxtaposition between store-bought and luxury, and it defines Billy Mays perfectly.
On a recent trip to New York, Mays recounts (dropping names like Brooke Shields, Michelle Branch and Liza Minnelli), he forced himself past security and onto a red carpet while wearing his OxiClean outfit. The gathered throng started questioning him about Shields' performance earlier that evening on Broadway.
"And I said, ‘Brooke Shields is unbelievable!'" he recalls. "I'm here to make the carpet clean!"
Billy Mays is like a rich man in a poor man's clothes.
"Here's the big myth. I can tell you this," he says. "I spend a lot of money. My bills are outrageous. I make great money, but compared to my mortgage? I need $50,000 a month just to crack the nut here. This place is $20,000 a month just to make the mortgage and everything. I do make a lot of money, but I spend a lot of money to help keep up this lifestyle. There's this big lore about what I make, like, ‘He's a billionaire!' But I'm not. Sure, I make over a million dollars."
He's aware of the potential pitfalls, as much as anyone who refers to himself in the third person could be. "When I was on the road, when Billy Mays didn't know that I was famous, I'd be drinking martinis," he says. "I'd be so hammered the next day and I'd have to go and appear somewhere. But the thing was, any hint of that would come out, I put myself in jeopardy. It looks bad.
"The only thing that can hurt Billy Mays," he adds, "is Billy Mays."firstname.lastname@example.org