Billy Mays: The Death of the Infomercial King

2017 July 1
by John

Famous people are currently dropping like flies. Without doubt the highest profile death in the history of popular music occurred just last week, and we will now have to deal with the fallout of that for the next couple of months as the news stretches the story out for absolutely everything it’s worth – although they won’t be spoiled for choice, as Molly Sugden recently passed on, and I’m sure half the cast of Two’s Company are keeling over as I write this. It’s a bad time to be famous.

But the celebrity death that genuinely surprised and saddened me more than any other, and thus the only one that I’m going to attempt to deal with at all sensitively, was undoubtedly the one that got the least attention – if any – in the UK, and that was the death of American infomercial king and renowned pitchman Billy Mays. Billy Mays may not be a name known to the majority of the PULP readership, or indeed to the British public at large – but I knew who he was. I had spent a week with him in 2003.

When my family moved to the flat just outside Cardiff – in which I currently reside, when I’m not in my apartment atop the Beetham Tower – we decided to get Sky television, which to us was this earth-shattering novelty (as opposed to the cumbersome, unwatchable mess it would later reveal itself to be). However, the equipment arrived and was installed a good week before our account was authorized, as a result of an administrative mishap – thus we only had access to the channels that were free. And they were the terrestrial channels plus the home shopping channels, with which we were unfamiliar.

For days, all we could see were adverts for the most comically atrocious jewelry – sold by fat women on QVC with patchy tans and fingernails like hockey sticks – sunglasses that transformed into a car, and products from the abominable Chef Tony that allowed fat Americans to honey-glaze half a ton of beef in ten seconds. That was all we could see and within a week we were praying for death. We were allowed a brief respite, however; once an hour, on one of the channels, came an advert for this stuff called OxiClean. The OxiClean commercial was actually an “infomercial”, the first of its kind we had ever seen – and we were utterly bamboozled by it. First we were shown a series of messes that no lone human could produce – a gallon of red wine on a white carpet, a shit the size of Gibraltar in a toilet – and then came this miracle man with a tub of white powder to restore the universal balance, all for the low low price of £19.95 plus shipping and handling. “But wait, there’s more!” he would cry, sweetening the deal to the point where, had the deal been any sweeter, it would have given us diabetes – we were utterly transfixed by the man on screen, bellowing at us to buy this magical powder and lift ourselves from a life of squalor, mess, and red wine stains on white carpets, giving big, boisterous demonstrations in massive glass tanks of water. That man was Billy Mays.

I can’t explain why I held Mays in such high regard – his larger-than-life character, his incessant bellowing; maybe I just found him an amusing and likeable caricature of a strange part of American culture, one for which I have a great deal of affection (while being simultaneously glad that the infomercial has yet to take indigenous root in the UK). And of them all, Billy Mays was undoubtedly the king – he gave you the distinct impression that the item he was selling would solve all your problems. A potato peeler from Billy Mays would be a revolutionary item in the world of kitchen appliances that would give you the time you needed to write the Faustian novel you’d been planning since your teens. He was a pitchman, but like no other – others would make a series of embarrassing, unlikeable quips or mentally berate the viewer into thinking that a rotisserie oven is exactly what their trailer is missing. Billy Mays, on the other hand, substituted greasy smarm with a beard that was as black as the back of the fireplace, a voice that measured on the Richter scale, and an enthusiasm for his products that was easily transmitted through the screen. Which may explain why Mays died a multi-millionaire. Others popped up, most notably Vince with the Shamwow and the SlapChop (and, some time later, the unfortunate propensity for beating the shit out of hookers), but none held a candle to Mays, not least of all because it would have soon been extinguished by the force of his voice. Even UK cult figure Barry Scott – famous for demonstrating the terrifying power of Cillit Bang – paled in comparison to Mays, a man who could have sold Nick Griffin a Qu’ran, had the fancy ever taken him.

Before he died, he was working on a show called Pitchmen, which looked at the life and times of Mays, as would-be pitchmen approached their lord and saviour for help in promoting their product. If you can find it – and by find it I mean download it, illegally, from the internet – I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so, because it’s fascinating television. And from it, you get the feeling that Billy Mays – for all the hype, and frankly deafening instructions to call in the next thirty seconds – really enjoyed what he did. He appeared on numerous talk shows and always came across as a nice man, in an industry that places very little emphasis on kindness as a virtue. Which may be why, upon news of his death at the age of 50, there was a real outpouring of affection in the US that would perhaps not be afforded for others of his ilk who lacked his charm and charisma.

Billy Mays died on June 28th 2009. May his voice deafen the Gods.

John Tucker

Billy Mays, deafening the employees of a McDonald’s drive-thru.