In this article:
- Born in a small suburb outside Pittsburgh, Billy Mays would grow up to become America’s most famous infomercial star.
- While some found his over-the-top excitement about cleaning products annoying, the infomercial king found stardom in an industry that had never expected to produce a star.
- Billy Mays died in 2009, just before his 51st birthday, likely of drug-related causes. The untimely death is a reminder that the on-screen and off-screen lives of a celebrity can be surprisingly (and sometimes tragically) different.
If you lived through the 1990s and early 2000s in the United States, there’s almost no chance you don’t know the name Billy Mays. Once dubbed “The Infomercial King,” Mays brought more energy to the small screen than probably any other figure since the invention of the television.
His on-screen antics would get you fired up about the most mundane house cleaning and home repair products, and everyone and their brother has attempted an impression of him.
I remember times in my childhood when I would fall asleep on my couch with the TV on, only to be woken up 20 minutes later by someone screaming, “Long live your laundry!” I’d open my eyes, and who would I see? The endearing, bearded face of Billy Mays smiling as he dumped OxiClean into a transparent tub of unbelievably filthy clothes.
Billy Mays held more mental real estate with the American public’s mind than anyone thought was possible for an infomercial pitchman.
Despite the countless parodies that people did of his commercials, there was a reason he appeared during nearly every commercial break: the guy was absolutely electric, and he could really sell products.
The news that Billy Mays died hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t think it was possible, probably because I thought of Mays less like a man and more like a point of cosmic energy equal to that of a supernova.
Suddenly, something was glaringly absent from daytime television, and cleaning product commercials seemed less like professional wrestling expositions and more like, well, cleaning product commercials.
It’s safe to say a lot of people miss seeing Billy Mays’s jovial smile on their television screens, and infomercials will never be the same without their king.
But Billy Mays came from humble beginnings, and the fact that he died of drug-related complications points to the fact that there was more to this man than his impeccable ability to sell household products.
In honor of the great Billy Mays, let’s take a look at his life and the circumstances that ultimately led to his demise.
William Darrell Mays Jr. was born on July 20, 1958, in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. He was raised just outside of Pittsburgh and attended Sto-Rox High School.
Mays dreamed of becoming a star athlete when he was younger. So he would run around the streets of McKees Rocks wearing sweatpants and a towel around his neck all the way up the stairs of Sto-Rox Middle School, a clear homage to Rocky Balboa.
Mays would eventually go on to become a star linebacker on the Sto-Rox High School football team.
In high school, Mays had already developed an eccentric personality. He would often put food items together that other students thought gross, and then eat them in front of them to try to stir a reaction.
After high school, Mays attended West Virginia University and was a walk-on linebacker on the Mountaineer football team. He ended up dropping out of college two years later, however, and moving back home to work at his father’s hazardous waste company.
In 1983, Mays moved to Atlantic City, New Jersey and began selling WashMatik portable cleaning devices as well as other “As Seen on TV” products to people on the boardwalk.
Mays had no previous experience with selling products, but he quickly learned a great deal from the veteran pitchmen working on the boardwalk, and attributes a great deal of his selling style to these mentors.
Apparently, one of the techniques he would use would be to act like he was looking around nervously for his supervisor, and then offer customers two products for the price of one, as if they were getting a deal that he shouldn’t have even been offering them. Genius.
Mays then spent the next 10 or so years of his life selling various products at home shows, trade fairs, and auto shows, experiencing moderate success. However, his life would change when he met Max Appel, founder of the house cleaning product company Orange Glo, at the Pittsburgh Home Show in 1993.
Billy May’s Rise to Kingship
Appel clearly saw something special in Billy Mays, as he hired him to promote their line of home cleaning products including OxiClean, Orange Glo, Orange Clean, and Kaboom on the Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Mays’s vocal-sledgehammer style was clearly very effective, and the company saw a massive uptick in sales immediately after the commercials featuring Mays aired, even if he had his critics.
Shortly after, Mays rose to stardom in a profession that had never had a superstar before.
People all over the United States and Canada began to recognize Billy Mays: his booming voice with his Pittsburgh accent, his unfathomable excitement about house cleaning products, his over-the-top on-screen demonstrations.
While some viewers were understandably annoyed by Billy Mays’s style (in fact, Mays himself even admitted that he got annoyed by his own commercials in an interview with The Washington Post in 2008), his reach was universal and his face and tone were instantly identifiable.
He would go on to form Mays Promotions, Inc. from his home in Odessa, Florida, and soon he was promoting a wide range of “As Seen on TV” products beyond just Orange Glo and their other products.
While it seemed like Billy Mays appeared in nearly every commercial on television for a while, he claims that he only chose to promote products he sincerely believed in, saying, “I don’t take on a product unless I believe in it. I use everything that I sell.”
Some of these products included Mighty Putty, Quick Chop, Tool Band-it, and Zorbeez.
At the height of his career, Mays teamed up with fellow pitchman and good friend Anthony “Sully” Sullivan to star in the Discovery Channel show PitchMen, a documentary series that followed the two pitchmen around as they searched for saleable products to promote.
The show gave viewers a deeper look into Mays’s life, showing that he wasn’t just a loud voice and a series of erratic hand gestures, but a hard worker and a profound businessman.
On June 29, 2009, Mays and Sullivan appeared on The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien to talk about their Discovery Channel series. Billy Mays was found dead in his condo in Tampa just five days later.
Long Live the King
Mays died in his sleep on the morning of June 28, 2009. His 51st birthday was less than a month away. The official cause of death, as pronounced by the Hillsborough County medical examiner, was “a lethal arrhythmia of the heart caused by hypertensive and arteriosclerotic heart disease.”
The medical examiner also “concluded that cocaine use caused or contributed to the development of his heart disease, and thereby contributed to his death.”
The Mays family refuted this claim by saying it was irresponsible and unnecessary. They hired an independent medical examiner to perform another autopsy. Dr. William Manion, the independent medical examiner hired by the Mays family, said that there was “no evidence that Mr. Mays’ death was related to acute cocaine intoxication.”
While the Mays family does not dispute that there was cocaine found in Mays’s blood, they maintain that it was not a contributing factor to his death, and that he was not a habitual user of the drug.
Whether or not cocaine use was partially responsible for Mays’s death is unclear, and in my opinion, sort of irrelevant.
While Billy Mays may have seemed more like a caricature than a human being to many of us, behind those boisterous and compelling taglines was a man with his own life, his own family, and his own problems.
Perhaps Billy Mays’s death is a reminder that we need to start remembering that celebrities are human beings too, and no matter how glamorous, powerful, or invincible they may appear to us laypeople, they have their own issues all the same.
William Darrell Mays, Jr. was survived by his wife Deborah Mays, his daughter Elizabeth Mays, his father Billy Mays, Sr., and his mother Joyce Palm. Rest in peace, Billy. Daytime TV will never be the same without you.