5 Strange Realities of Life With a Famous Dad
In the 2000s, it was hard to find a TV channel that didn't have Billy Mays on it. His unique form of salesmanship involved shouting his love for OxiClean right into the faces of our hearts. He gradually grew from yet another TV pitchman into a cultural icon until his death in 2009. We sat down with his son, Billy Mays III, to learn just what life was like living with a father who cranked the volume on capitalism all the way up to 11. Here's what we learned:
We Actually Used Everything We Marketed
My dad sold things for a living. So it made more sense for him to endorse a product than, say, Flavor Flav shilling Timex's new Big Black Clock. But it wasn't just lip service: In the Mays' household, we had every single thing he yelled about in those infomercials. We used OxiClean, Mighty Putty, the Awesome Auger -- our cabinets looked like your TV at 2 a.m.
If you've never grabbed 10 of these things and ran around
the house playing Edward Augerhands, you just didn't have a childhood.
And as Billy Mays' kid, I was literally swimming in cleaning supplies. I could spill wine just for the hell of it -- my dad was the spokesman for OxiClean. We had but to mention that we were low, and a truckload would be on its way the next day. My family never abused this sacred trust, of course. I shouldn't have said "literally" earlier. I completely deny rumors of our OxiClean swimming pool.
People would see my dad around and jokingly ask us for OxiClean, his most famous product. Little did they know that, if he didn't have any with him, he would take fans to the store and buy them OxiClean. It was a shockingly common occurrence. People would ask "Does Mighty Putty really work?" and my dad would just reach in a bag, give them some, and then say "You tell me!"
"On a totally unrelated note, can I borrow your truck for a minute?"
They must have thought he was some sort of infomercial leprechaun, able to reach into another dimension of unlimited as-seen-on-TV products.
There Are Hardcore Billy Mays Fans
Fandom is a strange thing. You can never tell which celebrity people will go nuts over -- you're going about your life normally, and suddenly something about the lead singer from Chumbawamba just speaks to you; it demands fan fiction and loving portraiture.
Me too, Mr. Chumba. Me. Too.
My dad was no stranger to it. Fans mailed us tons of letters and packages. So many that my dad couldn't physically go through each and every one (although he really appreciated them all). So I took up that challenge. And it's amazing what people send. My dad passed on five years ago, but the letters keep right on coming.
I've received enough fan art pieces over the years to fill a few bizarre theme galleries, and enough Internet artwork to fill an entire website. It's not all from crazed amateurs on the Internet, either: I have paintings of my dad by nationally known artists like the Vitale Brothers.
All he needs now is a posse.
And sometimes the fan fiction and portraiture combine:
At least my dad would clean up after himself.
Celebrities themselves are protected by agents and publicists, but their kids rarely are, so you get handed things by strangers all the time. I should clarify: Good things! That sentence sounds seriously ominous without that elaboration. Cool knickknacks, the aforementioned paintings, food -- you get boxes and boxes of things dedicated to your parents.
On the one hand, it's great to see how many people love and remember him. On the other hand, I am now an involuntary Billy Mays-themed hoarder. Where am I going to store this stuff?
WITH THE AMAZING ULTIMATE UNDERGROUND BUNKER!
IT HOLDS FIVE TIMES THE PRICELESS ARTIFACTS AS OTHER BUNKERS YOU'LL SPEND TWICE AS MUCH ON!
Even Billy Mays Had Secrets to Keep From the Tabloids
My dad wasn't hosting the Oscars or anything -- the paparazzi weren't exactly chomping at the bit to get candid photos of the OxiClean guy eating a burrito -- but we did have a few secrets. One that the always tragedy-hungry press probably would have loved was that, for the last three years of his life, he was in constant pain. He had two failed hip replacement surgeries and was going on his third. That was a big deal for us, but besides him using a cane, it wasn't something that was too widely known. You can see it in outtakes now, though:
"High energy" would be a polite way of describing my dad's pitch style. All those commercials wore him out, and often put him in physical pain, but he did them because it's what he loved to do. Another "secret" was that his hair and beard were grey since before he was even on TV. The black was dye. You can imagine what the controversy the tabloids might have made that out to be.
Some tabloids are more sensational than others.
But stories like that would've ruined the mystique. His whole image was that of the tireless, endlessly enthusiastic pitchman. If people had known of his health stuggles, it may have taken away some of the magic of the ads. We chose not to talk about these problems with the public. He wasn't the enthusiastic, perpetual motion salesmaniac to me. He was my soft-spoken, gentle, and over-worked dad, and sometimes simply standing too long cause him a lot of pain.
And just so this entry doesn't end on a down note: Sometimes I helped my dad hide less tragic secrets. The biggest one that nobody knows about was a multimillion-dollar commercial deal with Taco Bell that he was just about to sign before he died. He literally would have been their new face of the company -- the smiling, bearded alternative to the Taco Bell chihuahua.
"BILLY MAYS HERE WITH THE 7-LAYER BURRITO! THAT'S RIGHT. NOT ONE, NOT THREE. FIVE?
GET OUTTA HERE! SEVEN! SEVEN LAYERS! ORDER NOW AND GET THE EIGHTH FREE!"
That was almost a reality.
Even Pitchmen Have Feuds
Celebrities need to maintain a persona, and they're always aware that a careless comment could become a media circus. And not the fun kind of circus -- one of those bizarre German circuses where the acrobats are really doing performance art about the futility of life or something. It was often hinted at that my dad had issues with another pitch man, Vince Offer -- the ShamWow guy. He rarely said anything in public, but it was there: My dad felt that Offer was trying to "knock off" his products and style.
"You're gonna love my fist in your nuts, jerk."
Years later, I actually met Vince at an infomercial award ceremony (surprisingly, an actual thing), and he turned out to be a great guy who spoke nothing but praises of my dad. Success spawns imitators, and Vince was just doing his own thing, and clearly my dad was one of his major influences.
I mean, they were never out there dueling with Billy Mays' Awesome Auger vs. Vince Offer's Slap Chop Kung Fu Style -- it pretty much came down to a simple misreading of the situation -- but every industry has its rivalries, and infomercials are no exception.
It's on Me to Maintain His Legacy
My dad didn't take himself too seriously. He probably would've wanted his funeral to be a celebration of his life, and those ads were a huge part of that life. So you better believe we all donned blue shirts and khakis. Some thought we were making fun, but it was our way of paying respect to all he was able to accomplish.
We used Orange Glo to ensure his casket had the most beautiful wood possible.
I enjoy continuing his work in my own way. Today I'm a musician under the name Infinite Third, but during the down times, I still keep a tribute website for him and do the odd job or two for the infomercial industry, because he loved it, and it still holds a special place in my heart. I've even had the honor of accepting a few lifetime achievement awards on his behalf.
Of course I'm busy, and it can be difficult to make time for that kind of stuff, but here's the type of guy my dad was: I have always been a huge fan of Conan O'Brien. In 2009, my dad was booked for the show, and as soon as he got the news, he called me and said, "We're going to LA!" We had the time of our lives. I even met Conan backstage. My dad died only a few days later, but that was my final memory of him; sharing the perks of his success, humbly enjoying how far he had come in his career and selflessly fulfilling my dream.
He sadly left us before pitching a hair-growth product that would've helped Conan.
Keeping in touch with his fans and telling his story is the least I can do to maintain the legacy of a guy like that.
"HUGE BLUBBERY TEARS RUINING YOUR FAVORITE SHIRT? HAVE I GOT A PRODUCT FOR YOU!"
Billy Mays III is a talented artist (check out his music), and continues to show the world that Billy Mays is still alive in all of our hearts and minds here. Evan V. Symon is the interview Finder Guy for Cracked. If you have an awesome experience/job you would like to tell Cracked about, hit up the tip line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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