Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: McKees Rocks, Allegheny County
For much of the early 2000s, loud and energetic pitchman Billy Mays was everywhere on television.
Known as the "Infomercial King," William Darrell "Billy" Mays, Jr. was born in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania on July 20, 1958. Mays made his mark pitching products on the Home Shopping Network, using his iconic black beard, made-for-TV smile, booming voice and thumbs-up signature to attract customers. He was well-known for hawking the products of OxiClean and Kaboom!, and his reality TV show, Pitchmen. At the age of 50, Mays had accumulated much success, but died on June 28, 2009 in his Tampa, Florida home due to untreated heart disease.
William Darrell "Billy" Mays, Jr. was born on July 20, 1958 to parents Billy Mays, Sr. and Joyce Palm in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. He was raised just outside of Pittsburgh and attended Sto-Rox High School. Mays had envisioned himself to become a star athlete when he was younger and therefore, he would get up early every morning to run the streets of McKees Rocks in sweatpants, a t-shirt, and a towel around his neck, all the way up the steps of Sto-Rox Middle School to raise his hands in triumph—a clear Rocky Balboa imitation. His hard work paid off when he became Sto-Rox High School's most valuable player as a linebacker. In high school, Mays was an attention-seeker. He would create interesting lunch combinations that appeared disgusting to some, and as he ate these strange foods his fellow peers would cheer and clap for him.
Mays went on to attend West Virginia University but dropped out two years later. During Mays' brief exploration at college, he had been a walk-on linebacker for the Mountaineer football team. He then went back home to work at his father's hazardous waste company.
In 1983, Mays moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey with a high school friend to sell "As Seen on TV" products to passersby on the Atlantic City boardwalk. It was not easy for Mays at first since he had no previous training in selling products, but in time he earned the respect of veteran pitchmen on the boardwalk who shared some of their secret tips with him on how to bring in a crowd and close the deal. Mays credits his future success to the pitchmen that taught him everything he knows selling products on the boardwalk: "I was taught to pitch by a lot of old pitchmen. That's the kind of style I have." He developed the technique of pretending to keep an eye out for a watchful boss and then offering the noncommittal buyer two products for the price of one. Mays soon earned the nickname of "Bucket Billy" because his most popular sale item was the Wash-matik, a plastic bucket with a hose inside.
Mays then spent the next 12 years selling products at home shows, fairs, and auto shows all over the United States. He got his big break at the Pittsburgh Home Show in 1993 where he met rival salesman, Max Appel. Appel is the founder of Orange Glo, a Colorado-based cleaning products company. Mays lent Appel a microphone after Appel's broke and a friendship was formed through this act of kindness. Appel eventually hired Mays to be his pitchman and national spokesman for his company. He managed to sell 6,000 bottles of Orange Glo wood cleaner in his first appearance. Mays moved to Florida to shoot commercials for Orange Glo and other products including Kaboom! and OxiClean that would appear on the Home Shopping Network. Sales increased dramatically with Mays as the pitchman, and the infomercial king was born.
In a Post-Gazette article, Mays told reporter Sally Kalson that his blue-collar accent proves he is a Pittsburgh native, as in one infomercial Mays said, "Tahrd of wrestling with ahrning boards and ahrns." He also disclosed in that interview that it wasn't his dream to become a pitchman: "You aspire to be an astronaut or a doctor, but you get to where I did by fate. I took the hard road to make an easy living."
Mays' fame rose to pop culture stardom as his iconic infomercials became recognized all over the United States and Canada. With his booming voice starting off every pitch with "Hi, Billy Mays here!" and his signature black beard and thumbs-up style, Mays became a sensation as his fan base boomed. However, Mays' popularity did not come without critics who parodied his boisterous, annoying commercials. Even Billy Mays himself admitted that his infomercials annoyed him in an interview with Washington Post reporter David Segal in August 2008. Mays had been recuperating from hip surgery and spent his time watching TV, with his commercials popping up all over the place: "If I see myself one more time today, I'm going to pull my hair out." Staff writer Frank Ahrens from the Washington Post described Billy Mays as "a full-volume pitchman, amped up like a candidate for a tranquilizer-gun takedown."
Mays was embarrassed by all the attention he was getting and horrified by the celebrity treatment as he told Mitch Stacy of the Associated Press, "I'm a sensitive guy. I don't want to be brought down, so I just leave it at that. As long as there's good and bad, it evens itself out."
A favorite story that Billy Mays liked to tell people was how he gave away 300 bottles of OxiClean at his wedding and performed the advertisement spiel at his reception. Mays only pitched products that he knew would work and that he would use in his own home: "I don't take on a product unless I believe in it. I use everything that I sell." Some of Mays' famous infomercial products include the Big City Slider Station (a mini-burger cooker), Mighty Putty (an epoxy putty adhesive), ESPN360 (a broadband service), Quick Chop (chopping device), Tool Band-it (a magnetic armband for holding hand tools), What Odor? (an odor-removing fluid), and Zorbeez (a chamois cloth).
Mays expanded his pitchman role by teaming up with fellow pitchman, Anthony Sullivan, who also hawked products on the Home Shopping Network. Together they starred in their own reality TV show on the Discovery Channel called Pitchmen, with their first episode being aired on April 15, 2009. The show followed Mays and Sullivan as they searched for must-have products that they could pitch using their direct-response marketing. Mays said in an interview with CNN reporter Brian O'Keefe that in regards to his show Pitchmen, "My hope and wish is that they get a peek into Billy Mays' life and they see that he's not just a guy who shouts. I'm not just a 'yell and sell.' I want the world to know that I'm a very generous guy. I'm a very humble guy. And I work hard."
He was the infomercial king and had it all by the age of 50. However, he was found unresponsive by his wife Deborah in their Tampa, Florida home on the morning of June 28, 2009. "Mays died from a lethal arrhythmia of the heart caused by hypertensive and arteriosclerotic heart disease," the county said in a statement attributed to Dr. Leszek Chrostowski, the associate medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Mays. Toxicology reports later found traces of cocaine that have been linked as a contributory cause of Mays' hypertension.
Billy Mays was survived by his ex-wife Dolores "Dee Dee" Mays and their son Billy Mays III, his second wife Deborah Mays and their daughter Elizabeth, and his parents.
Although Mays' untimely death came as a shock to the world, his legacy will live on as his made-for-TV grin continues to shine and his booming voice shouts, "Hi, Billy Mays here!" at late-night insomniacs from their living room television sets in the early hours of the morning.
Ahrens, Frank. "Miracle Infomercials." Washington Post 26 Sep. 2004: F1.