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 MaysPlay

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."

The office said Mays last used cocaine in the few days before his death but was not under the influence of the drug when he died. There was nothing in the toxicology report to indicate the frequency of his cocaine use.

The toxicology tests also showed therapeutic amounts of painkillers hydrocodone, oxycodone and tramadol, as well as anti-anxiety drugs alprazolam and diazepam. Mays had suffered hip problems and was scheduled for hip replacement surgery the day after he was found dead.

Apparently, it was a mess that even OxiClean couldn't clean up.

Miracle Weight Loss and Cancer-Curing Drugs

It is usually said that if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. But when somebody is sick and a salesman is convincing, we often set aside good judgment.

Back in January, a federal judge ordered infomercial marketer Kevin Trudeau to pay more than $37 million in fines. It was the latest in a long string of court rulings against the pitchman. The fine was for violating a 2004 stipulated order by misrepresenting the content of his book, "The Weight Loss Cure 'They' Don't Want You to Know About."

Trudeau first ran into trouble with the government back in 1998 when the FTC filed a lawsuit charging him with making false and misleading claims in infomercials for products he claimed could cause significant weight loss and cure addictions to heroin, alcohol and cigarettes, as well as enable users to achieve a photographic memory.

Nothing prohibits Trudeau from writing and selling a book. There is freedom of speech, after all. But when he started going on TV promoting various remedies and making health claims about products, the FTC determined that he crossed a line.

The book promotes a diet that limits calories to 500 a day, requires colonics and forbids frequenting chain restaurants. It also banned the use of artificial sweeteners and sugar, medications, meat and poultry, and microwave ovens.

Trudeau said on his infomercials that after he completed the diet, he could eat whatever he wanted and not gain any weight.

"I had a big prime rib marbled with fat," he said on one such commercial. "For dessert, I had a big hot fudge sundae with real ice cream, real hot fudge, real nuts and real whipped cream."

Now it looks like the only fat he will be trimming is in his bank account.

ShamWow Doesn't Wow Hooker

Vince Shlomi, best known for hawking the ShamWow and the Slap Chop under the name Vince Offer, was charged with felony aggravated battery for a Feb. 9 incident in Miami Beach, where he allegedly punched a prostitute in his hotel room. The back story: She allegedly bit his tongue and wouldn't let go.

We guess his $1,000 purchase didn't come with the same money-back guarantee that he offers with the ShamWow.

Shlomi and the woman, Sasha Lenea Harris, 26, were both arrested, but prosecutors later declined to file charges.

After freeing his tongue, Shlomi -- apparently bleeding -- ran to the lobby of the posh Setai hotel. Security guards summoned the cops. Shlomi had suffered minor injuries, and he was treated at a local hospital. The police reported that both the prostitute and the TV pitchman smelled of booze.

We wonder what he will be slap-chopping in his next commercial.

You Could Be a Millionaire, but He Wasn't

So, he didn't break any laws or lie about any products, but Ed McMahon, who in his later years pitched sweepstakes for American Family Publishers, had his dark side, too. McMahon was said to be making more than $4 million a year during his last decade on the air with Johnny Carson. But in his last year of life, the only news was about his deep debt and foreclosure proceedings on his home.

We guess that even when you are pitching multimillion-dollar dreams to millions of Americans, you can still struggle with your own bills.