The Seedy Underside of TV Pitchmen

It's late at night. Your eyelids are growing heavy. You hear some sales pitch on the TV for the next great miracle product. You pick up the phone, give out your credit card number and eagerly await the postman.

Why? Because you trust that man in the TV. You've seen his face and heard his voice so many times, it's almost like he's part of the family. But what you didn't know is that off-camera, he might have a seedy personal life.

Billy Mays

This has not been a good year for the TV pitchman. First we learned that Vince Shlomi, the man better known as the ShamWow guy, wasn't so squeaky clean after all. Back in February, he was arrested on felony battery charges for allegedly punching a prostitute in the face because she intentionally bit, and refused to release, his tongue. The charge was later dropped.

And the other day, news broke that Billy Mays, best known for hawking cleaning products Orange Glo and OxiClean, had a dirty past. Apparently, the energetic Mays had been a cocaine user, something that a Florida medical examiner listed as a "contributory cause" of his death.

These two men are just the latest in a long line of late-night TV pitchmen -- and a few women -- whose reputations have been stained when their shadowy actions came to light.

Miss Cleo and the Psychic Friends Network

We start our trip down memory lane in the late 1990s with Jamaican psychic Miss Cleo and the Psychic Friends Network. You remember her thick Caribbean accent and colorful clothing? Well, it turns out that Miss Cleo was born Youree Dell Harris in Los Angeles. She might have been born near the water, but it was clearly a different ocean. And how about her parents? They hail from California and Texas.

Psychic Friends Network

In 2002, the Federal Trade Commission and the Florida attorney general went after the company behind Miss Cleo and the Psychic Friends Network. They accused Fort Lauderdale-based Access Resource Services of deceptive advertising, billing and collection practices. Among the allegations: That callers paid $4.95 a minute to speak to telephone solicitors posing as psychics and that the company billed people who didn't call and sent collection letters that made illegal threats. The FTC said there were 6 million victims in the case.

Miss Cleo said that she just helped the company with some TV spots and was nothing more than the company's spokesperson. The state attorney general, however, said that her appearance as a Jamaican mystic was part of the deception of consumers. When she was brought in for a deposition about her birth certificate, Miss Cleo repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. The company eventually settled the cases.

OxiClean and That Other White Powder

Billy Mays was energetic, loud and exciting when pitching products such as the Awesome Auger, Mighty Mendit, Orange Glo and, of course, OxiClean.

But maybe it was more than the products that led the bearded and boisterous Mays to shout, "It's amazing."

The 50-year-old king of the infomercial died June 28 at his Tampa condo. He was found in bed by his wife. The cause of death was ruled heart failure.

But wait, there's more.

The other day, the Hillsborough County medical examiner's office released the results of its autopsy. The medical examiner "concluded that cocaine use caused or contributed to the development of his heart disease, and thereby contributed to his death."

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