As a life drawing model for the Maryland Institute Collge of Art (1978-1985) Dale Madison was the subject of many art projects, but he longed to create art himself.
I posed for anatomy, watercolor, sculpture, and photography classes, but my favorite class was “drawing for the clothed figure.” I would come up with interesting costumes such as a tuxedo, Arabian sheik, a prohibition gangster, or an English count. The instructor loved that I came up with my own ideas. I looked forward to those sessions and wanted to be the artist doing the drawing. I felt like I was contributing something as well as trying out some of my costume designs.
I had been given a sewing machine by a neighbor and I started teaching myself how to sew. I know it sounds so Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, but I got together some friends and we said, “Let’s produce fashions shows!”
Years later Dale took that love of costume design a step further by creating cloth doll versions of his designs and became a nationally recognized doll designer.
One afternoon, my mother’s boyfriend came over and saw me playing with my Captain Action figure. I really loved that doll. He had two changes of clothes and could change into Superman or Batman. I used to make fashion clothes for him out of old socks and scraps of fabric that my grandmother had given me. My favorite outfit was a furry vest similar to the one that Sonny Bono wore back in the heyday of Sonny and Cher.
When my mom’s boyfriend saw me with the action figure, he made a nice comment about it. However, later I heard him say to my mother, “Don’t no boy supposed to be running around playing with no dolls.”
When I came home from school the next day, my Captain Action was gone. I was crushed. I vowed to get my doll back one day. Twenty-five years later, I found a Captain Action doll at a collector’s show and paid over one hundred dollars for him. Then I started collecting more rare action figures, like O.J. Simpson, Mr. T, M.C. Hammer, Dennis Rodman, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Jackson, and any black G.I. Joe or Ken doll. I usually only purchased black dolls, but on one occasion I ran across a white doll made in the 70’s called “Gay Bob” that I had to have. He had a blonde Afro and was anatomically correct. By the 90’s, there emerged a collection of male dolls with penises called “Billy.” The penises on those dolls were a bit more pronounced in comparison to those on the Gay Bob dolls. From the Billy collection I added “Tyson” (black) and “Carlos” (Latin) to my stable. (See what your boyfriend made me do, mother? If I had just been allowed to keep my doll, I wouldn’t be collecting action figures as a grown man!)
When I became host on the QVC network in 1991, I received an invitation to an AIDS benefit in Baltimore and was asked to bring a gift for the auction. I decided to create a pair of dolls using leftover African fabric I had used in making costumes for Umoja SaSa! my storytelling company.
Diana Ross’ character in Mahogany designed fashions for herself, drawing inspiration from Chinese images. I was inspired to create a line of dolls with an Egyptian influence. Egyptian art and profiles had always fascinated me, so I drew a silhouette of a body profile then made a pattern and stuffed it with cotton. I then stitched little “doll versions” of the costumes I had created for my storytelling troupe. I sewed in artificial hair that was braided or styled in an elaborate head wrap.
Suddenly people were requesting my dolls and it became a business. Once the dolls became popular, it was like a rollercoaster ride. I sold the dolls to QVC, produced a show for QVC on African art, and began traveling to doll shows all over the country to sell our line. When I was booked as an extra in the movie Philadelphia, I “pitched” our dolls to the background casting director, referencing their popularity on QVC.
The scene did not make it into the movie. Neither did my own background role as a random client in the law office, but it was a big thing for us at the time. I also gave the dolls as gifts to various celebrities or entertainment professionals like Susan Lucci and Nancy Wilson. I saw that one of the characters on the sitcom Martin had black dolls in her bedroom; I sent a doll to Hollywood casting director Robi Reed, who I believed was casting the show at the time. When Andre told me that Ms. Reed called to personally thank me for the doll, I was ecstatic. I kept thinking she would fly me out to guest star on Martin, but that did not happen.
An idea was born out of my need to showcase products that appealed to people of color. I wanted to sell more African-themed products on the Fashion Channel, so I took the idea of an African / African-American themed show to QVC management. I was surprised that they were receptive. They agreed to let me do the show, as long as I co-hosted with the other black, male QVC host, Clarence Reynolds, on the main channel. I was thrilled, because Clarence had navigated me through the process of pitching my show idea to QVC.
Everyone thought it would be a great idea if I made a limited collection of my dolls to sell on-air during the new show. I believe only Kathy Levine had ever sold a product directly associated with her on the network. Our new show was originally called African Marketplace, but after two airings it was renamed Destination: Africa. This was because of a dispute over title credit -- a vendor of one of the show’s products claimed that she had given the network the idea for the title African Marketplace.
The mechanics of creating five hundred handmade dolls almost made me lose my mind! Andre and I took out a business loan to cover the costs associated with manufacturing. My friends and family in the Philly area helped me with the sewing. My attic became a sweatshop with three machines going at all times. At last, five hundred dolls were packaged and shipped to the QVC warehouses, according to specifications that required boxes, labels, and certificates of authenticity.
Our two-hour showcase debuted on February 24, 1993. It moved like a dream. Clarence and I opened the show, and then alternated back and forth selling products on different sets. It was as if we were seasoned reporters. When it was time to sell my dolls, we shared the set. I explained the origin of the African names given the dolls, and displayed the certificates of authenticity. It was a great teaching moment and a great selling moment. My dolls sold out in five minutes. The rush of accomplishment and success that I felt filled me with enormous pride. The experience of hosting that show was my Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar, all rolled up into one.
The original show generated $311,000 in sales and brought in 221 new QVC members. This was very successful for a new show. QVC wanted to repeat our success and air the show as an annual Black History Month event, but I tried to convince them to honor black culture all year. I would host four more of the Destination: Africa shows by the time I left QVC.
The final show I hosted alone, as a three-hour event, and had a real African princess from Ghana as my special guest. The final, total sales from the show were over a million dollars, and the show had brought more than 2,000 new viewers to the shopping channel. Ebony Man magazine even did a piece on Destination: Africa, and included a picture of Clarence and me. It was my shining moment -- the fashion channel guy had gone over to the big channel and had shown them his stuff.
To gain greater exposure, I traveled to Black Expo USA shows around the country, selling dolls, signing autographs, generating my own press, and getting recognition. I persuaded QVC to pay for a trip to New York, where Clarence and I did promotions for the channel and made contact with viewers. New York was one of the few markets that aired both QVC channels, so I was finally being recognized. And it felt good!
I was approached by Macy’s in Pentagon City to do an in store event with my dolls, and to do a performance with Umoja SaSa! Storytellers. It was wonderful to reunite with my former troupe. Virginia Commonwealth University also invited me to speak to a class of students about television retailing, and explain how I had conceived of my African-themed shows. My visit had me on the front page of The Richmond Times. Rumors of cancellation of the QVC Fashion Channel were starting around that time. I was certain that, with the publicity I was generating for QVC, management would find a way to keep me. I was sadly mistaken.
QVC helped me see my dreams of being a name on television. The little boy who played with dolls as a child had grown up to sell dolls successfully on television.
Being a host on the QVC network gave me a level of fame I had always dreamed of. But when my contract ended in 1994 and I was not picked up immediately by another channel, I decided to return home to Baltimore. One of the vendors from my QVC show, Destination: Africa, offered me a job as manger of a store he wanted to open in my hometown called “Out of Africa.”
After a few months, I decided to buy the owner out and take full ownership of the store. I leased the Baltimore store for four years. It felt good to have something I could call my own. I was able to give back to the community and became a role model for other gay men. I added more gay friendly products to my store’s selection, and changed the name of the store to the business name that was used for the dolls, “A.N.D.”
The A.N.D. store gave me a venue to sell not only African art but also art directed towards the gay community. I launched another special line of dolls, a limited collection called “Damn Good Man.” There were twelve doll designs in all, and the eventual goal was to do a calendar of them; each doll would represent a sexy male image for each month of the year. What also made the dolls special was that I gave them penises, bulging hard-ons you could feel through their costumes. I even put beads in their sacs so they could have testicles. The line was my urban alternative to my African dolls.
Today I consider myself in semi-retirement. I still collect dolls that peek my interest although I don’t produce anymore of my own creations. My mother treasures the dolls I have made for her over the years. We have a good laugh over her comment, “Don’t know boy supposed to be running ‘round playing with no dolls!”