I like to think of my four years at QVC as something like the seven years that Gladys Knight and the Pips spent at Motown -- they were a talented singing group who struggled for recognition, good songs, and good producers, while the Supremes were treated like royalty. From 1991 to 1994, I was a host on what was a new channel for QVC, the Fashion Channel. There I was a small fish in a big shopping world, struggling to be recognized.
“Welcome back to the QVC Fashion Channel. My name is Dale Madison, and I have the honor of taking you through an hour of fashion formulas.”
That was how I usually opened my shows, by saying “I am honored” or “I have the honor.” I really was honored to be on daily television -- even if it was on a shopping network.
My good friend and storytelling buddy from Umoja SaSa!, John Hall, had seen an ad in the Baltimore City Paper that called for hosts for QVC’s new channel, a channel dedicated entirely to fashion. John was also an actor and a performer, but he felt the job would be perfect for me because of my experience in costume design. Acting, like sports and politics, is a cutthroat, competitive field, so I was grateful for the tip. The nationwide search was coming to Baltimore, so I sent in a standard headshot and emphasized my background in fashion.
A few days passed before I got a call from the head of talent for QVC, John Eastman. He scheduled me for an audition and told me to prepare a six-minute selling presentation of a fashion item. “Sweet!” I thought. “This will be a piece of cake.” At that time I was designing and making all of my clothes, as well as the costumes for my Umoja SaSa! Storytellers performance troupe. The influence of the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing had the black fashion world in the midst of Afro-centric wear; it was all about kente prints and drummer pants, and I had a closet full of drummer pants.
By that time, auditions had become a way of life for me. The flexibility of my schedule with Umoja Sasa! allowed me to audition for movie roles, print ads, and television shows. Most auditions occurred in an agent’s office or in a business meeting room. However, John Eastman told me that I would be meeting him in his hotel room. This I did find strange, but I decided to go anyway. I arrived and noticed that food and dishes from the previous night were outside the room. When I knocked on the door, a huge 6’3” white man answered and introduced himself as Eastman.
“Come on in,” he said. “Sorry about the mess -- the maids haven’t picked up my dinner from last night.”
I stepped over the dirty dishes and gazed up at the deep-voiced Eastman. He sounded like a voice-over, projected through speakers. I thought I must have been the first audition of the day, as he was casually dressed and the room was a little in disarray. He asked if I had any questions, then explained how hosting on a shopping channel works: the host gives an audience the basic information about a product, including price, measurements, and available quantities, then fills the remaining six to nine minutes with talk of the product’s features and benefits.
“Show me what you’ve got and keep it in between six and nine minutes,” he said. I launched into my spiel.
“I’m sure you are wondering about the colorful pants I am wearing today. They are ‘drummer pants,’ sometimes called ‘parachute pants,’ and have become quite the must-have fashion statement. Popularized by entertainer MC Hammer, they are also known as ‘drop seat pants.’ They were originally worn by African drummers, musicians who must wear loose pants to accommodate the large jimbe drums they place in between their legs. Most pants are made of cotton with an elastic waist, as I have here, or a waist made in a drawstring style. The pleats across the front and back allow for a flat waist design, with a broad sense of flowing fabric as the line of the pants moves downwards. When you are looking for comfort, you are not going to find anything that gives you the ease of style that a set of drummer pants gives you. A wonderful benefit I find is that I never have to worry about gaining or losing a few pounds, because drummer pants can be very forgiving.”
My ad-lib made Eastman laugh. He was a big man, and I could see that he related to waist sizes. He told me, “When I audition regular QVC hosts, I give them a pencil and have them sell it to me for the entire nine minutes.”
I was glad that I had my pants to sell, instead of a pencil. He was impressed when I told him I had made the pants I was wearing and that I specialized in making clothes for plus sized and petite women. He confirmed what I had already suspected -- the Fashion Channel would have special hours dedicated to unique-sized fashions.
I was so excited about the opportunity for a television-hosting gig that I never questioned why I would audition for a national television show in a hotel room. I was glad it did not turn out like the night I auditioned to be a roadie on the Jacksons’ Victory Tour in 1984. At that time, I was still working as a front desk agent for the Hyatt Hotel, and the guy who claimed to be interviewing roadies for the tour had been a regular guest. He told me he was a “marshal” of some sort and showed me a badge, then said we could talk about the job after I got off work.
He picked me up from the Hyatt and drove me out to a cheap Route 40 motel. He talked about the deal all night as he undressed, smoking a stinky cigar. I took off my clothes and imagined he was Jackie Jackson, the oldest brother of the Jackson 5, testing out the roadies before show time. I never saw him again.
However, this wasn’t like that -- John Eastman made no advances and I heard from him within a week. He invited me to West Chester, Pennsylvania, for the next round of interviews with the human resources department. I took a train from Baltimore to West Chester and stayed in a hotel with all expenses paid, courtesy of QVC. I interviewed with two other people, and it was like a standard job interview. During the interview, the head of the human resources department asked, “If there was something you could change about yourself, what it would be and why?”
Having been asked this question before, I had a standard answer. “If I could change one thing about myself, it would be my ears,” I said. “I am the only one in my immediate family whose ears stick out.”
I was being totally honest with this answer. I used to be extremely self-conscious about my ears. Now I thank God for Will Smith because he has made big ears sexy. One cosmetic change I did end up making six weeks after that interview was closing a gap in my front teeth. I thought it would look better on film.
I had never watched “shopping television” before, including QVC, which stands for “Quality, Value, and Convenience.” Shopping channels never did anything for me because I like instant gratification and don’t buy things I can’t see, touch, and smell right in front of me. From time to time I had run across the Home Shopping Network (HSN), QVC’s major competitor, on UHF TV late at night when everything else had gone off the air. QVC was available only if you had cable, which suggested its viewers had more disposable income because they could afford the additional monthly cable bill. Eastman explained that QVC had higher-end products than HSN. I knew that HSN hosts were hard sellers; they urged you to pick up the phone “right now” and were constantly slashing prices on already cheap merchandise, sounding like sideshow salesmen selling water to people in a desert.
QVC had been in operation since 1987, their offices located in a West Chester office park. By January 31, 1988, the end of their first full fiscal year, the company had achieved $112.3 million in sales. QVC spent the next couple years strengthening its position in TV shopping through the acquisition of additional channels, property on which they built a call center, warehouses for inventory, and talent. John Eastman had been one of those talent acquisitions. He was a former shopping host for HSN and was one of the first hosts for QVC.
Eastman explained to me that QVC used a soft-sell approach. Hosts chatted with the audience, talked about themselves, and then worked the product into the conversation. No one ever said, “Act quickly -- while quantities last!” QVC strove to be the family of which viewers wanted to be a part. It was fun and entertaining, and very personality driven. People called in and bought the products because they liked the hosts. HSN hosts earned commissions, which made them eager to sell, while QVC hosts were salaried and did not make commissions on sales. However, I later learned that QVC hosts received bonus checks twice a year, based on customer surveys and overall sales. I was excited about the potential of earning even more money, based on popularity.
About a month later, I got a call with good news. The QVC family was adopting me to be a part of their newly acquired offshoot, the Fashion Channel. I received a formal offer a week later. It would be the most money I had ever made, and I would receive a wardrobe allowance of $4,000 per year. I imagined all the drummer pants I could buy with that! Manicures and haircuts were reimbursable. QVC sent me tapes of previous shows and background information on the network. It would be the first time I would actually watch a QVC show. Up until that time, I did not have cable, and had not understood the difference between HSN and QVC.
QVC hired a moving company to make my transition from Baltimore to West Chester a smooth one. I did not have to lift a finger, and that made me feel like a star. I wouldn’t learn until later on that my wardrobe allowance, haircuts, travel, and moving expenses would be added to my income at the end of the tax year and I would have to pay taxes on them.
My lover at the time, Andre, was ecstatic. He hated Baltimore. He was approaching twenty years of working at Johns Hopkins Hospital and wanted to retire to try a new career. He could not draw retirement because he was not yet fifty, but he knew it would be waiting. He looked forward to settling down in a new city where he could be a house-husband and take care of me. We had a huge send off party with all our friends and family present before moving to West Chester into a cozy townhouse less than a mile from the QVC studio.
Andre kept a beautiful home for us. I barely remember cooking in those days, because he owned the kitchen and the rest of the house for that matter, complete with huge paintings and statues. He banished my Diana Ross memorabilia to a single wall. I paid little attention to all that, because I was primarily concerned with establishing my television career.
Training to be a host was fun. We learned about the various products and how to “showcase” them, such as how to turn a jeweled ring and make it sparkle in the right light. We rehearsed in front of the camera and took test on-air phone calls, learning how to get viewers to say wonderful things about our products. In addition, we also learned how to deal with on-air callers if they said something off-color:
“Hi, you’re speaking with Dale. To whom am I speaking and where are you calling from?”
“Hello, Dale -- this is Sally from Houston. I just bought that beautiful silk blouse you talked about in the last hour.”
“That’s wonderful, Sally. Do you have a special occasion on which you plan to wear it?”
“Other than rubbing the silk fabric against my breasts and feeling sexy, no special occasion I can think of.”
Immediately, the caller would be disconnected and the remarks edited out of the show, thanks to our five-second delay. I would keep the flow of the show going by simply saying, “Thanks for calling in today, Sally,” and would not react or respond to her remark. Hopefully, the camera would pan away from my face and to the product so that my face wouldn’t give me away!
The first day I arrived at QVC, I met all of the regular QVC hosts. They were all quite fun and different in their own way. Clarence Reynolds was one of them, and he was the only other black host on the network. We became fast friends. He gave me a warm hug when we met and said, “Thank God -- I’m not the only black guy anymore. The pressure is off me!” We laughed and I knew that we would get along.
Clarence was one of my main champions while I was at QVC. He taught me how to get around the city, told me where to get a good haircut, and made helpful suggestions on my presentations. Clarence was always immaculate, tailored, and very conservative. He always wore a suit and tie, while I would wear earrings and a vest and jacket with lots of pastels. I think I was the only male at QVC with pierced ears and the first male at QVC to wear earrings on the air. I had to fight for that in 1992. I could not comprehend a channel that sold jewelry but did not encourage male hosts with pierced ears to wear it.
Kathy Levine -- considered one of the most successful salespeople in the world -- was the prime-time diva at QVC. She sold more than $150 million worth of merchandise, annually. Kathy was named “Best Television Presenter” three years in a row by the Electronic Retailing Association, and was also named one of the “25 Most Influential People in Direct Marketing” by Direct Response TV magazine. She went on to publish two best-selling autobiographical books, It’s Better to Laugh: Life, Good Luck, Bad Hair Days & QVC and We Should Be So Lucky.
Kathy had what was considered the prime time slot. She appeared live east coast time, from eight to midnight, and got the best products, the most promotion, and the most popular guests. Now don’t get me wrong -- just because the network treated her like royalty didn’t mean she let it go to her head. Kathy was not a bitch. She had paid her dues in the industry and had become a favorite among viewers. She was closely associated with Diamonique, the QVC brand of cubic zirconia, which was a fancy way of saying “fake diamonds.” She was the undisputed star of the network. Funny, friendly, and warm, in real life she was the same person she showed to the audiences -- real and accessible.
Clarence came on at midnight after Kathy went off air. This made him a popular prime time host on the west coast. Host Mike Rowe, another Baltimorean who had probably been at QVC about a year or two before I arrived, usually followed him. Most of the original QVC hosts, including Bob Bowersox, Steve Bryant, Molly Daly, Paul Kelly, and Toni Price, were still there.
During the launch of the QVC Fashion Channel, there were technical difficulties and a lack of product that scaled back the already scant twelve-hour programming and prevented some of the new hosts from going on-air the first week. (Although QVC operated twenty-four hours a day live, the QVC Fashion Channel would be live only twelve hours a day, with taped repeats playing overnight.) A beautiful black model/spokesperson named Sharon Swainson, hired out of Washington, D.C., only lasted with the Fashion Channel for five days. Ironically, she and I had done a print advertisement together for Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall earlier that year. Her goal was to work for ESPN and she was more comfortable in sports. She looked at the product we were supposed to peddle and told me, “Honey, I can’t sell this stuff. It’s polyester. I’m outta here.” She quit and the search was on for new hosts.
Even though I knew that the channel wasn’t yet up to twelve hours of programming, I was uncomfortable with how management kept delaying my appearance, even after that first week. I had been hired for my fashion expertise, but I soon began to feel like QVC was wavering in its confidence in me as a host. One day, John Eastman called me into his office and explained that I would be getting a unique opportunity.
“Dale, we’re gonna give you a shot on the main channel. This will expose you to many more viewers than on the Fashion Channel.”
“Does this mean I won’t be on the Fashion Channel at all?” I asked.
“No -- it’s only temporary until all the programming is ready for the Fashion Channel. But I do need you to present a more conservative look. The types of things you’ll be selling won’t be fashion driven. The experience will make you a more rounded host.”
I was appreciative of the opportunity, but I took his words as a subtle hint that I should change my image. I had never tried to hide the fact that I was gay. I was proud that my gay fashion savvy had gotten me the job.
I prepared myself to debut at three in the morning and be on-air for three hours until 6 a.m. My days alternated with Mike Rowe, who also worked on a local real estate show in Baltimore. Mike, who was a well liked “ladies’ man,” showed me a stack of erotic Polaroids women viewers had sent him. He never seemed to care what went on at QVC and seemed happy with the on-air schedule in the middle of the night where management seemed to leave him alone. I felt panicked because, with the skeleton crew that was present in the wee hours of the morning, I could not get advice as quickly as I needed it. At first, I tried to convince myself that it would all be a good thing, because by being on QVC, my family would definitely be able to see me on television. The QVC Fashion Channel was in limited markets so, even if my family had cable, there was no guarantee that they would have had access to the Fashion Channel. Hosts on QVC were not to mention the Fashion Channel while they were on-air, for fear that it would frustrate or confuse viewers who did not get the Fashion Channel in their area.
Working on the QVC channel meant that I had to understand tools, home appliances, gym equipment, sports memorabilia, toys, games…just about anything. Entertainment Weekly, People, and most fashion magazines became reimbursable expenses. John Eastman told me, “As a QVC host, you will always be the life of any party. The seemingly useless trivia you will learn here will be perfect for most social occasions.”
The drill seemed simple enough. Hosts arrived about two hours before their segment aired to preview products lined up for each hour of their show. A show block could be three or four hours. Each hour had a different theme and one hour always included jewelry, which was QVC’s mainstay. My schedule required that I arrive at QVC around midnight, when most people were gone. My live shows were taped, and John Eastman critiqued them with me weekly.
I have to admit that I was bad my first few weeks on-air. I remember receiving comments from the bosses that I used the words “like” or “umm” too much. I tended to talk too fast, but quickly learned how to slow myself down by talking to the models and crewmembers on the set. As a live theater person, they gave me something to play off of. I needed a sense of connection with the people around me, and not just with the camera.
Another thing that posed a challenge for me was that I hated the crap I had to sell. A part of me wanted to tell my viewers, “You can find most of this stuff at your local K-mart.” I was obviously uncomfortable selling anything related to sports. Because I hated sports so much, I refused to research the topic. The producers knew that and always tried to give me sports facts via the earpiece I wore. It was painful to come up with selling points on a basketball jersey when I hardly understood the sport of basketball. I often mispronounced the names of the athletes or the teams, or associated the wrong teams with the wrong city. I would look at the jerseys and my mind would draw a blank. I wanted to say, “It’s a shirt. It’s somebody’s number. Buy it.” The backstage crew found it so hilarious that I cared nothing about sports and did not even try to pretend otherwise. Those were the times when a six-minute sell felt like six hours.
I would get home around eight in the morning and feel completely beaten up. If during the day I had to go to a vendor meeting, show host meeting, or do research on a new product, I might not get a decent sleep in before my shift. Andre would make me a huge breakfast when I got in from work and would have a huge dinner waiting for me when I awoke. One day after an early morning shift, I came home and answered the phone.
“Hello,” I said.
A strange voice on the other end of the line whispered, “Are you Dale Madison, that new host on QVC?
“Yes, I am,” I replied.
“I didn’t know how easy it would be to get your telephone number. You have such a wonderful voice.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Every time you talk about fourteen karat gold, I stick my finger up my pussy. You make me cum.”
I quickly hung up and had the phone put in Andre’s name the next day. You may think that it would have turned me on, but it was the first obscene phone call I had ever gotten. Frankly, it freaked me out.
Eventually, my work schedule made my sleep pattern crazy. One time, after being off work for a few days, I had a dream that I forgot how to sell all the products I had already learned. When I awoke, my heart was racing and I felt dizzy. I ended up in the emergency room, having a panic attack. Also, the migraines I had been diagnosed with when I was eighteen got worse while working at QVC. On one occasion, they were so bad that I had to leave in the middle of a show. I thought it had to do with the studio lights. I took a series of medical tests and found out that peanut products were triggering them -- and peanut butter had been my comfort food to get me through the days at QVC. Once I gave up peanut butter, my headaches decreased about ninety percent.
While working the late shift, I met Richard Simmons, one of many celebrity guests who appeared on the channel to sell a particular product. My body clock was still all off, due to the odd hours, and I was eating horribly. I had just shoved a handful of potato chips into my mouth when Richard walked up behind me and said, “Dale, I have two words to say to you -- Luther Vandross.”
I swallowed the chips and kept on going. The image of the overweight soul singer still sticks in my mind today, years after his death. High cholesterol runs in my family, and my father was already injecting insulin for diabetes. My weight fluctuated a lot, as Luther’s did, while I was in my thirties. Before I joined QVC, I would start working out and then stop for months. I never exercised while working at QVC. If anyone should have signed up for a Richard Simmons Deal-A-Meal plan it was me, but I did not. However, Richard was always a pleasure to work with because he made every host on every shift feel like he enjoyed being on the air with them.
Joan Rivers, on the other hand, insisted on working or not working with certain hosts. Joan and Kathy Levine bonded quickly, and I think Kathy even used a plastic surgeon that Joan recommended. The producers were always running around to cater to Joan’s whims, using special lights on her face and allowing her tiny, yappy little dog to run all over the place. Joan had to be lit just so, and it always left the studio hot and uncomfortable.
The oddest of the bunch of QVC hosts was Jeff Hewson. He looked a bit like a short Tab Hunter, a movie heartthrob of the 50’s. His perfect hair, combined with his dazzling smile and clean-cut chiseled features, made him an instant favorite among the older ladies who shopped on QVC. At my first QVC host meeting, he arrived wearing a pair of Daisy Duke hot pants, which someone referred to as tennis shorts. Imagine -- a grown man showing up to a staff meeting in tight-ass short shorts! All I could think of was the old James Brown song that goes, “Hot pants…smokin’!” Rumors of his sexuality soon became fodder for backstage talk. He had already caused the studio to become a flurry of excitement because he was engaged to host Judy Crowell, who was your typical girl next door. I was not too concerned when I had heard staff people making remarks about Jeff’s questionable sexuality because, after all, I had married a woman a few years back and my wife had known I was gay. I just hoped that Judy knew about the rumors and was comfortable with what possibly lay ahead of her. Of course, all of the viewers were caught up in the Jeff / Judy romance. Gifts poured in, as if Diana was getting married to Prince Charles.
Most of the QVC hosts attended Jeff and Judy’s wedding. The Fashion Channel hosts did not receive an invitation, since we had just arrived and obviously had no connection to the couple. When they returned from their honeymoon, there was definitely a different air around the studio. A huge public relations issue surfaced when their marriage fell apart as quickly as it had happened. Everyone wanted to know why the cable-shopping network sweethearts were breaking up. The National Enquirer had already approached some hosts for stories as we walked to our cars, so extra security was hired. We had to take a course on how to answer questions from the media. It reminded me of the extra polishing that Motown artists went through in order to know how to properly deal with the public. It wasn’t the Maxine Powell etiquette class that the Supremes endured, (Maxine Powell was the etiquette consultant for Motown Records), it was the Jack Franchetti Speech and Media Training course and it was mandatory. A tip I will share that I learned from the course: if you are ever bombarded on the red carpet with questions from the media, questions you’d rather not answer, repeat their question back to them or ask them to explain it in a different way. This will give you a second to think of an appropriate answer, instead of saying the first thing that pops into your head. For example:
Reporter: Which products would you rather not see sold on a home shopping program, products that really don’t meet your standards?
QVC Host: I don’t understand your question. Could you repeat it?
Reporter: Presumably, you sell whatever they give you to sell. You can’t possibly expect, by any stretch of the imagination, that everything you sell is a great product. Which things do you think are inferior and should not be for sale?
QVC Host: There are products that I would not use, but someone else might find them very useful.
Reporter: Would you not use them because they are inferior or just because they’re not your style?
QVC Host: QVC has a high standard of quality control and inspects everything. I would never call an item inferior -- I would rather say something is not in my personal taste.
(See how I dodged having to say, “Hell, no, I wouldn’t buy any of that shit!”)
Right after the Jeff / Judy split, Jeff boycotted Judy’s show. He refused to do a walk-on, which is when a host drops by another host’s show to tell the audience what is coming up in their hour. Jeff would shoot his walk-on on a separate set, so that he would not have to be on the same set with Judy. He eventually left QVC, and Judy stayed. She gained sympathy from viewers, and her popularity increased. There were all kinds of rumors about Jeff’s erratic behavior and eventual disappearance. The stage crew often complained about how he spoke to them. When he moved from the area, people would joke about “Jeff sightings” in much the same way that people talk about seeing Elvis.
About two months passed before the QVC Fashion Channel finally expanded to its full twelve hours, and John Eastman told me I would have a nice noon to 4 p.m. time slot. I was so relieved to be back in fashion where I could shine. I was also ecstatic that I would have a normal sleep pattern. The QVC Fashion Channel sold clothes, jewelry, makeup, and hair and beauty products. One of my first celebrity guests was the gracious and lovely queen of daytime drama, Susan Lucci.