I had never seen Susan Lucci before she made her guest appearance on my show, because All My Children aired opposite The Young and the Restless, my favorite soap opera of all time. Susan was promoting a hair product when I learned she would be my guest. I wanted to learn as much about her as possible, so I researched all the soap magazines and called my soap-watching friends for help. I was ready when “Erica Kane” hit the QVC Fashion Channel stage. She laughed and flirted when she arrived, making me feel at ease. I announced, “I’d like to welcome back the gracious Susan Lucci, who would travel through rain or snow to be on my show today.”
“Nothing could keep me from being with you today, Dale,” Lucci assured, giving me one big ol’ hug and kiss.
“I met your husband, Helmut, outside of the studio today, and he introduced himself as the ‘real’ husband,” I joked. “I did not see him in the studio yesterday, but he keeps walking back and forth today.”
“That’s because yesterday he saw the two of us on camera,” Susan suggested, seductively.
I enjoyed the comments from viewers who responded favorably to seeing me on-air with Susan. It had always been my secret dream to appear on a soap opera, and I wanted so much to ask her to pull a few strings. I never did, but later I learned that some of the QVC hosts had made guest appearances on All My Children. This was not a door open to QVC Fashion Channel hosts. The hosts on the QVC main channel were seen by more viewers nationally, thus they could attract more viewers when appearing as daytime television guests. They had more celebrity guests on their shows, got to travel to location shoots, and vendors were always trying to court them with new products to sample. Fashion channel hosts were limited to dealing with fashion, jewelry, and cosmetics vendors only. We did not get many celebrity guests on our shows, because many of them figured the limited exposure we had did not merit the time it would take for them to walk across the hall from the main channel to our set. Susan fortunately did not take this kind of attitude. She would spend the entire weekend on the network’s soundstages and make appearances on the shifts of every host who was working. When she came to my show, Susan had just lost another Daytime Emmy. I said to her, “By tomorrow, people will forget who won the Emmy. But because you have lost so many times, you will always be remembered.”
It sounded clumsy and awkward, but she understood what I meant and knew that it was coming from my heart. The night she finally did win the Emmy, I cried as hard as I did when Halle Berry won the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball. Susan’s win was even more personal because she was someone I knew, even if it was only as a celebrity guest.
Since I had already welcomed one beautiful diva to my show, I sought to bring on the ultimate diva, Diana Ross. In 1993, she released a collection of her hits on the album Forever Diana: Musical Memoirs, and a book of memoirs called Secrets of a Sparrow. With her two new products on the market, I thought it would be my opportunity to interview the famous Supreme herself on QVC. I checked with the network’s book and music buyers, and we had indeed received an advance copy of both Diana’s book and her four-disc CD collection. I petitioned management to host a show with her, and was excited about the possibility of appearing with my favorite icon. I thought that surely QVC would have to let me do the interview, because no one knew Call Her Miss Ross, (Diana’s 1989 unauthorized biography), better than I did. It was going to be my dream come true. Then the bubble burst. The Ross people were happy to sell the book on the air, but she would not make a personal appearance. QVC knew that without Diana, the viewers would not be interested. Dayeem! Dayeem! Dayeem! A few weeks later, Diana Ross and one of her daughters, Rhonda, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah was gushing and asking all the questions I had wanted to ask.
Surprisingly, I was happy that Oprah was seeing her dream come true in meeting Diana Ross. I felt strangely connected to the experience because I had known Oprah before she moved to Chicago. In the early ‘80s, Oprah had been a reporter on the local WJZ channel in Baltimore. I was a front desk agent at the Hyatt hotel downtown, and Oprah was often at the hotel on business. I would arrange to have her car spotted out front so that she would not have to park in the garage. She was always kind to me, and we would often run into each other at the Downtown Athletic Club. One time, Oprah called me at the hotel to say that she wanted to reserve a room to get away for the weekend. With the hotel almost sold out, I pulled some strings and saved her a nice harbor view suite. Later that day, singer and Broadway actress Melba Moore showed up with her child and asked for a room, without a reservation. She was very popular in the Baltimore/D.C. area at that time, since her song “Lean on Me” was a big hit on the radio.
However, I told my friends, “I turned Melba away so my girl Oprah could have a room!”
Now my girl Oprah was interviewing my diva, Diana Ross. Even though I was happy for her, I still screamed at the television, “That should have been MY interview!”
Working on-air at the QVC Fashion Channel, I became more expressive about my image and felt much more like myself. Female hosts were required to wear many of the clothes they sold, but since we sold very few men’s fashions, I could wear whatever I pleased. I already assumed that women viewers would find me a credible fashion expert, since I had acquired knowledge of fashion through designing clothes and producing fashion shows. However, I also received comments on my personal wardrobe. I might dress up a suit with a colorful vest, or throw on an Afro-centric handkerchief. Sometimes, I would design and wear a multi-colored, African patterned tie, just to make a statement. Although my attire was a hit with the audience, my fashion choices often conflicted with management’s idea of how a host should dress. The big wigs upstairs thought that viewers would be distracted by what I was wearing and would not focus on the products I was trying to sell:
“Thank you, caller, for buying our beautiful crocheted vest today. I am sure you are going to look lovely in it.”
“And may I tell you, Dale, how much I enjoy watching what you wear.”
“Well, thank you. I get memos on what I wear all the time.”
“You wore a stunning black and white outfit when you were on with Susan Lucci last week.”
“Funny you say that, because the last memo I got was on that very same outfit.”
“Well, you tell the powers that be that we enjoy watching you as much as we enjoy buying their products.”
“Thanks, I’ll let them know.”
It was natural for me to express my African heritage through my dress, since I had been a storyteller. Afro-centric awareness was also at its height around the early ‘90s. I was keenly aware at that time that QVC did not court African-American consumers. One executive let it slip to me that QVC saw its audience as “mid-west, trailer park conservative,” and very white. The suits at QVC did not believe that black people shopped on television, but they would never admit it. The channel offered shows themed around regions like Ireland or the South Dakota Black Hills, but the rich African culture was ignored.
Around that time, Andre was getting bored and antsy. He needed something to do, something other than taking care of me. We received an invitation to an AIDS benefit in Baltimore and were 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!
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. Although Andre was a big man with big hands, he seemed to master creating small jewelry. This he did for his contribution to the dolls.
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.
Clarence and I shot the promotional spots for the show in his home, complete with John Hall playing a jimbe drum in the background. Since John had turned me on to the hosting job with the Fashion Channel in the first place, it felt good to include him in the project. I felt like, in some small way, I was paying him back. If John had not of brought my attention to that ad, I would not have been seen by millions of viewers. Now I was making a cultural statement through my dolls and promoting Umoja SaSa! at the same time. Life was good, and it was getting better.
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!
Meanwhile, around that time, Barry Diller became CEO of QVC. He had formerly been Chairman of Paramount Pictures and had organized the Fox Broadcasting Company for Twentieth Century Fox. When Diller left Fox in 1992, he purchased a $25 million dollar stake in QVC. Diller is the man who tries to get Diana Ross to leave the stage after the rainstorm begins during her famous concert in Central Park. He takes off his white blazer, and she wears it over her wet body suit.
When Diller took control of QVC, everyone feared change coming. We didn’t know what he was going to do with the QVC Fashion Channel. The channel was not a big revenue maker, nor was the network actively trying to break the little channel into new markets. When I first met him, Diller congratulated me on the success of Destination: Africa, but did not comment on my work on the QVC Fashion Channel. I had heard that he was gay-friendly, so I took a bold step -- I wrote him a letter explaining that my partner and I had been in a committed relationship for four years, and asked if Andre could have the same benefits extended to him as any heterosexual husband or wife. Within days, I got a call from the QVC human resources department, on behalf of Mr. Diller, requesting documentation to verify that Andre and I shared bank accounts and household bills. After providing the necessary information, Andre was immediately included in all my benefit plans. I was pleased that I could do that for my stay-at-home husband. I was told by other gay employees that it was the first time QVC had ever granted partner benefits.
I continued to travel to trade shows on my days off from the Fashion Channel to promote my dolls. And as a result of my own self-promotion, I was asked to host special events on QVC. I hosted numerous doll-collecting shows on the main channel, and was very happy when I did a show on Singer sewing products. I was very confident in my hosting skills. Viewers recognized my expertise and wrote letters asking why they did not see more of me. They didn’t realize the preparation it took to speak off the cuff about a new product -- it was like studying for an oral exam on a new item every time you arrived at work.
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.
One day, I received an invitation to a producers’ meeting to explore more Afro-centric marketing. I wanted to host a show with jazz legend Nancy Wilson, who had already been on the main QVC channel to promote Flori Roberts skin care products. One producer turned to me and said, “Isn’t she one of the Supremes?”
I answered, “No, that’s Mary Wilson.” I thought to myself, “White people -- they think we all look alike.”
As I approached my fourth year at the network, the decision finally came down from Diller to shut down the QVC Fashion Channel. He had already started to make subtle changes in the programming and sets of the main QVC channel, but there had barely been any changes going on at the Fashion Channel. So we all saw the writing on the wall. A new, hip channel called “On Q” would replace the Fashion Channel completely. All the Fashion Channel hosts were led to believe that we had a chance of hosting on the new channel, but were expected to audition. A number of us found this extremely insulting. Regardless, I put on my most youthful pair of hip jeans and showed up for the Saturday group audition. Management videotaped the entire process, during which they put us through a number of theater games; this allowed them to see how fun and youthful each host could be, and whether or not we possessed that “reality show” quotient. Diller was obviously skewing for a younger audience, and he ended up hiring young, MTV-like hosts. The On Q channel was to be headquartered in New York, and I heard later that Tracee Ellis Ross, one of Diana Ross’ daughters, was hired as a model.
As for the rest of us, Diller forced us out with severance packages that offered us some money. But the longer we delayed at signing the severance agreement, the less money we would receive. At the same time, even if we signed the severance agreement, we were required to work until the channel was officially off the air. That was also a big slap in the face.
In a last ditch effort to salvage my job, I put together a detailed proposal to create year round, culturally themed programming that would air once a month as a special event on QVC. Many of the producers and product buyers for the network offered suggestions and support, and many people felt that if anyone had a chance of moving back to QVC, it would be me. Then I made a fateful walk-on appearance on the Fashion Channel, during host Phyllis Lampkin’s show.
“Dale,” she asked me, “What do you have coming up on your show?”
“Phyllis, I have some lovely silver heart pendants coming up in my jewelry hour.”
“That’s wonderful. Hearts are still wonderful gifts, whether it is Valentine’s Day or not.”
“That’s right, Phyllis. But let’s not forget the St. Valentines Day Massacre, too.”
I was joking, referring to the fact that it had been on Valentine’s Day that management had told us our channel would be cancelled permanently.
“Dale, you are a bad boy!” Phyllis blurted out, laughing. She immediately got my joke.
“Phyllis, all I am saying is that we need some love year round, not just on Massacre Day…I mean…Valentine’s Day.”
Phyllis could not stop laughing and neither could I. The producers also caught the joke, and they had to laugh to keep Phyllis and me from crying. The QVC suits did not see the live broadcast, but they did see it air during the early morning repeats. Phyllis and I received reprimands and had to sign a written warning. I thought, “Okay, you are firing me in a couple of months, but now you are reprimanding me. So if I get three warnings before you officially fire me, does that mean an early termination?
On April 26, 1994, I got a letter from Doug Briggs, President of QVC:
Mr. Diller passed your recent letter on to me and asked me to respond. As you know, we do not have a “permanent host” for the Destination: Africa program. In fact, there are only a few shows on our schedule for which we use the same host each time they air. You were considered as a possible host, on a freelance basis, for upcoming programs. After considering your proposal, as well as monitoring your appearances on the Fashion Channel and discussing your performance with management, it was decided that your freelance proposal is not the best for us.
That correspondence confirmed the fact that I would be leaving QVC. Some of us banded together and hired a lawyer in an attempt to negotiate our termination agreements, but it did little good. We were still required to stay until the channel officially shut down a month later. It was like being fired while still having to smile on camera. By the time we were in the last few weeks of the QVC Fashion Channel, it was like hosting a bargain basement, going out of business sale. Each show, every hour, had the same products from the day before. You did not even have to show up early to your shift because you knew exactly what was going to be on your show. I was sick to my stomach and depressed whenever I went into the studio. On July 24, 1994, I was one of the last hosts to sign my severance package.
After getting away from QVC, I was determined to take both the good and the bad that had come out of the experience and move on. But sometime later, when I was no longer with the network, I received a second slap in the face.
“Chile, are you watching QVC?” a friend of mine asked one evening, calling to give me a heads up.
“You know I don’t watch QVC when I’m not there,” I reminded her.
“I think you might want to tune in. Kathy Levine is hosting your Destination: Africa show.”
I turned on the television and watched in what could only be described as horror. Kathy was indeed hosting the show and was interviewing the guest, Princess Asie Ocanssey of Ghana. It was like watching Joan Rivers interview rap artist 50 Cent at the Grammy Awards. The regal Princess Asie was dressed in her African splendor, trying her best to explain to Kathy the origin of a product.
“So, you call this kente cloth?” Kathy asked.
“No, Kathy,” the princess said. “That is a mudcloth.”
“Oy vey!” Kathy exclaimed. “Well, whatever it is, it is beautiful. I really believe you can be Jewish and still appreciate this!”
I couldn’t watch any more. I turned the television off. It was like the feeling you get when you watch an all-star black movie written and directed by a white person. Something is missing. What is it? Soul. A white shopping network trying to sell black products without having a black host seemed fake and insincere. I heard they tried one more time using one of my former, African-American Fashion Channel models, Rene Ellison, but the show lost audience support.
I was determined not to go down in a cloud of smoke. I tried very hard to be picked up by other networks as a regular host and figured it would be simple. There were so many new channels starting. I had a wealth of experience and four years of tapes -- four hours a day, five days a week -- and thought that someone would have to recognize that as solid experience. I submitted to every channel I could think of. After very few responses and a couple of rejection letters, something slowly leaked into my consciousness -- there was no respect for shopping hosts outside of shopping networks.
Theater people look down on movie actors, movie actors look down on TV actors, and prime time actors look down on soap opera actors. In the cable-shopping industry, hosts are not recognized as “real talent” because we sell fake diamonds. I’d had a faint hope that the entertainment industry would start welcoming shopping hosts with more recognition and give them greater credibility. But when it was all said and done, the world viewed me as just a glorified retail clerk. Mike Rowe and Clarence Reynolds were probably the only two hosts I know of who went on to have successful television careers outside the world of home shopping. Clarence became a popular anchor in local news, and Mike went on to host the popular show Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel. They both told me that they removed home shopping from their resumes.
A friend once asked me if I enjoyed working for QVC. I had to answer that I loved it and hated it at the same time. I loved the fame it brought me. I loved that when I went out in public, people recognized me. However, I hated what I did. I hated that I peddled products to people who were starving for a connection with someone. And they were willing to spend money on useless products to get it.
In a 1998 Eddie Murphy movie, Holy Man, Jeff Goldblum plays Ricky, the head producer of a shopping network that has been turning out horrible sales numbers. By accident, he and his girlfriend nearly run over the spiritually enlightened “G,” played by Eddie Murphy. After Ricky and his girlfriend take G home with them, G offers to help save Ricky's job; Ricky then puts G the air as a spiritual, home shopping guru. Although G’s behavior initially gets Ricky into trouble, sales numbers start to go up and G becomes a star in the world of home shopping. Eventually, when Ricky decides to give up home shopping in the name of love for his girlfriend, he convinces G to leave the exploitation of the business and go about his spiritual journey. Clarence Reynolds even makes a cameo as a shopping channel host!
The film didn’t do well at the box office, but for me it brought back memories. Moreover, its message resonated with me in a profound way. I knew deep down that home shopping exploited the shopping addictions of its customers. I also knew people would spend their entire days and nights watching us sell fake diamonds and the latest George Foreman grill or the latest celebrity hair product. I had heard stories of people who watched the show for so many endless hours that the QVC text burned into their TV screens. Another familiar story I heard over and over again was that of a family member going in to clean the home of a deceased loved one, just to discover dozens of brand new QVC boxes, unopened.
What did I feel when I heard those stories? Sadness. Frustration. Guilt. Did I sell out my own standards by working on a shopping network? Was my quest for job security and fame so strong that I’d convinced myself we were friends to those lonely people at home watching QVC and buying products they didn’t really need or want? I had actually written to a number of talk shows, asking them to address why people shop on television and the psychology behind it. I thought that home shopping was a unique topic to examine in film or on TV. Unfortunately, none of the talk shows ever responded.
I was proud of my Destination: Africa show because it was a first. It had given African-Americans an opportunity to see their products in a venue that had previously been unavailable. I had been proud to showcase our culture and beauty, and to talk of Africa’s rich heritage. Destination: Africa to me was more than a shopping show; it was my prime-time special, my shining moment on television. I sat beside a real African princess adorned in gold leaves. I received an invitation to go to Ghana and participate in an African naming ceremony, only to be disappointed when QVC refused to let me go.
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. QVC had not found a use for me when the Fashion Channel ended, but while I was there I got as much out of the experience as possible.
Rather than going through the hoopla of saying goodbye to everyone in those final days at the Fashion Channel, I called off sick for the last two weeks and left for New York to work as an extra in the movie To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. The next chapter of my life was beckoning, and I teased my wig for my next role…a drag queen.
"We are always selling something in our lives. Will you be proud of what you have sold, or ashamed? Are you selling knowledge, wisdom, and pride, or fake diamonds and sequined sweaters?”