A former high-school football player, Billy Mays dropped out of West Virginia University and worked for his father's hazardous-waste trucking...

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A former high-school football player, Billy Mays dropped out of West Virginia University and worked for his father’s hazardous-waste trucking company. In 1983, he ran into a friend who was heading to Atlantic City, N.J., to sell Ginsu knives on the boardwalk, then the pitchman capital of the United States. “He said, ‘I’m on my way to Atlantic City, want to come?’ ” Mays recalls. “I went home and grabbed my suitcase.”

He’s done nothing but peddle miracle mops, chamois cloths, kitchen choppers and hundreds of other products ever since. Mays first worked for a company called International Housewares, which in the ’50s basically pioneered the form, content and style of the gadget pitch that would later evolve into the TV infomercial. (Ed McMahon also put in some time at this school of the hard sell, moving vegetable slicers to put himself through college.) Mays worked for Cris Morris, the son of the company’s founder, and the first product he sold was WashMatik, a hose that could pump water from a bucket without being hooked up to a faucet. You could wash your car without being near your house.

“We called him Bucket Billy because he was doing demonstrations with a bucket for five or six years,” says Morris, on the phone from the Wisconsin State Fair, where he was setting up a handful of sales booths. “All the pitches he does on TV now are just like the ones he did in Atlantic City.”

Mays, who’s filming a reality series, “Pitchmen,” this fall, says he initially stank at his job. He spent too much time describing the product and not enough time “chilling ’em down,” that is, getting the audience to pony up. Pitchmen are generally supercompetitive, but Mays seemed so sincere, helpless and dedicated that his colleagues gave him lessons. (“They said, ‘Here’s the baton, kid, we see something in you,’ ” as Mays remembers it.) One taught him a lengthy patter that always worked.

“You start by asking yourself a question: How much are these?” recalls Mays, switching to pitch mode. ” ‘I’m glad you asked. You can buy them in stores right now, for $29.99, and they come in this beautiful gift box. But before 12 o’clock today, the boss says I have 50 to sell at $15 apiece. But for the first 10 people, they cost one 10-dollar bill. Now, who is first?’ And then you just point to the nearest guy, the guy who seemed most eager, and say, ‘You are number one.’ And that guy always went along with it. It was amazing. And then someone would raise their hand and say, ‘I’m number two,’ and pretty soon, you had 10 people handing you money.”

After a few years with the WashMatik, Mays sold the Ultimate Chopper for five years, with a demonstration that ended with him making salsa. He traveled around the country to home shows and state fairs, “ballying,” as the pitchman sales banter is known, at full volume for hours on end. Along the way, he met Max Appel, an inventor and pitchman who was selling Orange Glo, a wood-polishing liquid. When Appel asked Mays to pitch Orange Glo on the Home Shopping Network, 6,000 units were sold in 11 minutes, at $18 a pop.

He moved to Florida, where HSN is based, and became an all-purpose sales guy for the channel. If a program wasn’t making its numbers that day, a producer would call Mays, who’d drop whatever he was doing and bolt to the studio.

“Back then, it was, ‘Go out there and pitch, kid,’ ” says Mays. “I’d go for 18 straight minutes if they had enough product. I’d be selling $40,000 worth of mops in one day. In between, I’d sell a scooter. Then Wolfgang Puck would show up and I’d taste some of his creations.”