RON POPEIL HAS ALREADY ENJOYED a long, prosperous and slightly silly career as TV's pitchman extraordinaire. It was he who coined the deathless Veg-O-Matic promo, "It slices! It dices!" And it was he who developed, marketed and hawked a parade of offbeat products in almost 30 years of late-night commercials: Mr. Microphone! The Buttoneer! The Smokeless Ashtray! The Pocket Fisherman! But only recently has he found true celebrity. "It's kind of cute," says Popeil (rhymes with spiel). "I was on an airplane last night, and there were some kids across the aisle and, you know, they recognized me." That's when Popeil decided to give his fans a thrill. "I went into my briefcase," he says, "and took out a can of GLH."
GLH—short for Great Looking Hair, a spray-on compound that camouflages bald spots—is what has made Popeil, 57, a household face (or pate). That, and his strangely mesmerizing half-hour infomercial in which he enthusiastically sprays volunteers' heads with GLH, a nontoxic powder that tints the scalp while turning feeble wisps into a hairlike puff that lasts until the user's next shampoo. (And it comes in nine colors! And don't forget the finishing spray! All for $39.92!)
In the seven months since Popeil's company, Ronco, Inc., began sales for GLH, he has sold 500,000 kits—one of the biggest hits of his career. Although Popeil has created many of his own products, this one, he says, was developed more than a decade ago by a balding European rock roadie. Popeil heard about it when a friend brought a can back from abroad, then bought the rights to file a patent. And that's not all! Since Popeil's own silver mane is thinning on top, he uses the product himself. (And, no, he notes, "I am not self-conscious about my own thinning hair.")
The one product Popeil doesn't care to pitch is an autobiography. "Home life was not there," is about all he has to say about growing up in Chicago, where he was raised by his paternal grandparents after his mother, Julia, and father, Sam, divorced by the time he was 4. "I grew up in my grandmother's kitchen, always watching her cook," Popeil remembers. (This helps explain Ronco's dedication to kitchen products: the screen that keeps oil from splattering out of pots, the Egg Scrambler and Seal-A-Meal.) Of his father, a gadget manufacturer, Popeil says, "He died about seven years ago. I wish I knew him better." He can thank Dad, at least, for inventing the Chop-O-Matic—progenitor of the noble Veg-O-Matic—in the '50s. Popeil got his start hawking the gadget at Wool-worth's in Chicago while still in his teens.
Popeil proved himself a born salesman, handsome and smooth and with the hortatory genius to describe a slice of tomato as "so thin it has only one side." Says his friend Steve Wynn, chairman of the board of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (where Popeil, a member of the Mirage board, has a two-bedroom getaway that complements his 25-bedroom Beverly Hills mansion): "He can convert ideas into words without thinking about it. Ron has a knack for convincing you that you need something."
Take that skill and put it on TV, and you'll say, Amazing! Popeil started filming ads for his own products in 1964. (His debut item was a spray gun that used special attachments for different domestic chores: "It washes! It waxes! It kills bugs!") And if he can sell that in a minute, just imagine what he can sell in 30! The infomercial, which was born in the mid-'80s after the Federal Communications Commission relaxed restrictions on ad length, has proved to be the perfect Popeilian formal. He first sold something called the Electric Food Dehydrator (with grosses in excess of $80 million, his most successful product to date), then GLH.
Popeil isn't cocky about his newfound stardom ("I'm not Michael Douglas") or his hot infomercial. "Nineteen out of 20 people who go with infomercials today will lose their shirts," he says. "You hear about guys like me making tens of millions, but they don't talk about the people who go broke." Even though he says he is a millionaire in the double digits, Popeil lives quietly, happy to tinker with dozens of prototypes for new products. He doesn't care to talk about his three marriages, the most recent of which ended four years ago. (He has two daughters, Kathryn, 35, and Shannon, 32, from the first marriage, and one daughter, Lauren, 10, from the third.)
He does indeed have a woman friend, but not to talk about. He will say, though, that his significant other inspired his latest product one morning, when she was having trouble slicing a bagel. "Bagels are big," Popeil thought to himself, "getting bigger...a gigantic market"
So—coming soon to a TV near you: the Bagel Slicer. And guess what? It's amazing!
JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles
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