A STAR IS BORN IN THE WEE HOURS MIKE LEVEY: KING OF THE INFOMERCIAL, HEARTTHROB TO THE WORLD
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Mike Levey is a TV idol in the Netherlands, and while he hasn't made a huge splash in the U.S. yet, surely you've heard of him. No? Here's a hint: Auri car polish. No dice? Well, then, a dead giveaway: the Spanek vertical roaster.
Oh, well. You clearly don't know what you're missing on late-night TV. Channel-surfing insomniacs get their minds expanded every night by Levey, the neighborly, bespectacled star of the infomercial series Amazing Discoveries! Feigning breathless enthusiasm over marvels such as Spanek roasters, the relentlessly grinning Levey looks less like a TV star than like a manic dweeb. But the looks are deceiving: His international fans are legion, particularly in the Netherlands. Leveymania is taking off in Japan and New Zealand too.
Seated in his dressing room prior to a rehearsal of an upcoming infomercial (the topic is a secret "for competitive reasons"), he recalls the first time he got an inkling of his Jerry Lewis-like following abroad: He was browsing in an airport gift shop in Amsterdam and suddenly heard "Mike! Mike!" issuing from a throng of people. "I figured, 'Okay, I must have dropped my wallet.' But they all wanted autographs."
Unlike most TV viewers here, those overseas don't automatically switch channels when infomercials come on. To consumers in Indonesia, the protracted ads are a kind of window on the American dream--and its wondrous array of jerky makers, tooth whiteners, and vertical roasters. Besides, their regular programming isn't great.
So there's an international appetite for infomercials. But how did Levey become the infomercial Elvis?
First, he's probably the most experienced practitioner of this arcane little art form. A former electrical engineer and direct-mail copy writer, Levey got into the business at the dawn of the infomercial age. In 1988 he founded his own company, Positive Response Television, and began turning out infomercials of distinction--Levey boasts that five of seven he does are profitable, vs. one of 30 produced by most of his rivals. Last year National Media, an infomercial player with global reach, bought his company for $23 million. Now Levey is flogging goods in 60 countries and 14 languages.
He's won a following in the U.S. too, at least with insomniacs--some 40% of his business is domestic. A peek at his fan mail reveals that American viewers have run the full gamut of human emotions while watching their idol:
--Euphoria: "Amazing Discoveries! has gained cult status on the Ithaca College campus...MIKE LEVY [sic] FOREVER."
--Despair: "Late one cold Alaskan evening...I decided that my life would not be complete without a Le Snack. I phoned, I paid, it never arrived. I'll tell you, Mike, Sparky (my elkhound) and I had some pretty lonely days waiting for the Le Snack that never came."
--Longing: "I am presently serving a two-year sentence in a California state prison...You profiled a young lady on your show named Susan who printed and assembled personalized children's books with the help of her PC. I was wondering if you could possibly put us in contact with her?... [S]he needn't fear for herself or her business."
Levey may have a Dutch cult following, a cadre of loyal American fans, and a hit TV show that, as he puts it, "can never be canceled." But when you come right down to it, isn't he still just hawking juicers to bleary-eyed zombies clicking through the weird wasteland of snooze-time TV?
Not to his fans. Check out this letter: "Mike is my perfect man: sharp dresser, boyish looks, and tons of energy... Would it be possible to get an autographed glossy of my darling Mike? Make it to Heather, with love."
No wonder the man can't stop smiling.