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Matthew Lesko wears his obnoxious question-mark suit just about everywhere he goes. He wears it to business meetings. He wears it when he runs errands. He even wears it to dinner at the elite Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, where he’s a member.
Only a handful of people can get him to remove the suit—namely, the dead being honored at a funeral, a bride who doesn’t want to be upstaged on her wedding day, and his two sons—Morgan, 23, and Max, 20—who sometimes ask that their father spare them the embarrassment and leave the question marks in the closet.
But it’s another thing entirely when the request comes from corporate types at the Home Shopping Network.
For about six years, Lesko and his publishing company, Rockville-based Information USA, enjoyed a successful partnership with the television-retail behemoth. Most of the network’s airtime is devoted to the likes of Susan Lucci and Suzanne Somers, who peddle lingerie and fitness equipment, but through his regular segment Lesko sold the door-stopper reference books that have been his career for more than two decades. His titles, such as Free Money to Change Your Life and Gobs and Gobs of Free Stuff, promise to show average Americans the key to obtaining grant money from the government.
Lesko wore his question marks whenever he appeared on Home Shopping. At some point, folks at the network tired of the interrogatories. In 2000, Lesko and his marketing expert, Kim McCoy, received a letter from the company.
As the 62-year-old Lesko remembers it, the ultimatum was simple: “It was the suit or me.”
“They said, ‘It looks too much like something we don’t want [on the air],’” recalls McCoy. “This was a very lucrative account. I went up to him and I said, ‘You know, Matthew, I’d take that question-mark suit off for that amount of money.’”
Lesko crunched the numbers. His stubbornness in wearing the suit, he figured, could cost him about $2 million.
“I thought about it hard,” he remembers. “It took me so much guts to wear this. I finally got it on, and now they want me to take if off. And they’re holding millions of dollars over my head for it…. It’s an easy decision, intellectually. But emotionally, to your own [sense of] net worth to yourself, that’s all you have.” He broke off his account with the network.
The decision proved costly in the short run, but, as he perhaps instinctively grasped at the time, his books had become so intertwined with his question-mark persona that it wouldn’t have behooved him to remove the suit for even a half-hour pitch. “My business has doubled in ways I couldn’t have imagined,” he says. Since then he’s been churning out two to four “free money” books a year—most of them similar-looking volumes with dubious value—and he continues to sell them through an exaggerated advertising style that’s earned the attention of consumer-rights boards.
Regardless of what his critics say, the suit has brought Lesko a strange kind of celebrity, along with piles of cash. Today he considers walking off the Home Shopping Network one of the defining moments of his career. “When I did that, the world opened up for me,” he says. “You don’t have many chances like that.”
Outside a lonely building on a hilltop in Frederick, an eye-burning-orange Scion xB, slathered with custom black question marks, sidles into a parking space at the door of WFRE-FM, Frederick’s “Free Country” station. At 6:45 a.m., Lesko steps out of the car wearing a suit that’s half black and half yellow, with question marks of both colors sprinkled about.
Early this morning at his Kensington home, Lesko went to his closet, which is twice the size of his wife’s, and thumbed through the 12 custom question-mark suits he chooses from on weekdays. (He wears casual, but still loud, clothes on the weekends.) Most of the suits have been put together by Ava Schweikert, who does custom sewing in Baltimore. It’s a 25-hour process of cutting and stitching, made all the more laborious by the fact that she has to be careful not to sew over any pockets as she affixes the question marks. “I also made a Superman cape for him,” says Schweikert. “Red with yellow question marks.”
Some mornings Lesko feels like the jet-black suit with the fluorescent pink question marks; some mornings he feels like the turd-brown corduroy one with the orange question marks. This morning he was feeling like yellow and black. He has supplemented the suit with orange socks and green-and-yellow running shoes, and he wears multicolor eyeglass frames beneath his bushy, untamed eyebrows.
In the late ’90s, Lesko discovered that infomercials and question marks could be a highly profitable combination. That was when he started blanketing the country with his ads, in which he flails around the government buildings and monuments of downtown D.C. in his trademark suits, promoting federal giveaway programs as the answer to every working-class American’s problems. His monstrous tomes (an advertisement calls one model a “five-pound, 1,100-page guide!”) consist of little more than lists of government-funded agencies and programs taken from government sources, but his over-the-top messages have always been like a primitive sort of spam, gnawing at the insecurities of late-night television watchers who can’t bring themselves to change the channel. For every handful of insomniacs who consider Lesko a laughable huckster, it seems, there’s at least one viewer who picks up the phone and dials his 800 number. Since the early ’80s, Lesko has sold nearly 3.5 million copies of his books. They typically sell for $39.99, but with audiocassettes and videos the price climbs to over $100 before shipping costs. He spends over $3 million per year on advertising.
The purpose of his visit to WFRE this May morning is to solicit an audience for a new infomercial he’ll be shooting at the Weinberg Center, a Prohibition-era theater in downtown Frederick, in two weeks. Lesko’s producer has told him they’ll need at least 200 bodies in the 1,000-plus-seat theater to make it look like a full house after editing. Lesko’s worried. As of this morning, only 50 people have reserved seats, so he’s luring people with the promise of $100 worth of free Lesko books and DVDs.
Television and radio stations started inviting Lesko on the air more than 20 years ago, offering him prime studio time to rant about free money and drop his 800 number, often asking him to come back just a few months later. The fact that they continue to do so is a testament to his marketing savvy, though he still seems to consider himself an expendable, lower-tier celebrity used primarily to fill up airtime.
“I think they’re just happy to get anybody,” he says of his invitation to WFRE.
Inside the studio, Lesko is greeted by DJs Linda West and Dave Conrad, hosts of the morning rush hour’s Wild Wild West show. Once he’s introduced on the air, Lesko, who until now has spoken at normal pitches, cuts loose with a squawk of a greeting that startles a visitor in the studio. For 15 minutes, he gesticulates wildly, slapping his legs and yanking at his hair, running in place and beaming a relentless smile, all the while screaming about “government money available that people aren’t aware of!” Radio is not Lesko’s ideal medium; people driving in their cars can’t witness this spectacle. Nonetheless, he needs to move around in order to work his voice up to the appropriate level, convincing listeners of what they can become through the government’s help. “A billionaire!” he shrieks. “A zillionaire! Wow!”
Lesko’s convulsions are so powerful that when he’s performing, any reasonably mannered person in the room will start to feel sedate by comparison. When he’s on, others often feel compelled to join in with exaggerated banter. Today Conrad follows Lesko’s lead.
“The book is excellent. It helped me in getting my daughter off to college,” Conrad tells his audience. After the live segment, he’ll qualify that statement: “We haven’t gotten any results yet, but it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Such hyperbole has previously earned Lesko a slot on the best-seller list. It has also earned him some rebukes from disappointed book buyers and consumer-watchdog groups. Much of the “free money” that Lesko rants about actually comes in the form of loans and entitlement programs, such as welfare, and his books consist almost entirely of public-domain text culled from government manuals and Web sites. Any original material usually comes in the form of introductions and chapter lead-ins.
Edward Johnson, president of the Better Business Bureau’s metro-Washington chapter, says Lesko has received 78 complaints over the last 36 months—a number that, “as far as book publishers go, I would say is in the top percentile.” Most of the complaints revolve around misleading advertising, outdated information in books, and difficulty in obtaining refunds. (The complaints, notes Johnson, have all been answered.)
Lesko acknowledges that his schtick obscures the enormous difficulties in securing government grants, but he sees no need to apologize for it. “A degree of lying—you know, white lies—seems to be inherent in all languages and all forms of communication,” he wrote in the introduction to his book Free Money to Pay Your Bills. “It’s really not lying; it’s more a matter of not presenting the downside of a situation.”
Although his products are books and audiocassettes and DVDs, Lesko is really selling something intangible: the idea of an easy path to self-improvement. In his seminars and commercials, he’s constantly urging audiences to cut loose from their miserable jobs and follow their passions, because entrepreneurship isn’t just for the creative or the savvy, according to Lesko. It’s so basic to the American way of life, he says, that federal and local governments are willing to financially assist normal folks in launching their own highly profitable coffeeshops and dog-grooming businesses. The first step, of course, is calling Lesko’s toll-free number.
Lesko has all the necessary credentials to lecture on enterprise and self-creation. After growing up in blue-collar Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he eked his way through a computer-engineering program at Marquette University in Milwaukee before joining the Navy during the Vietnam War. He spent a year on a boat in the South China Sea—“watching the war,” he says—and later headed to D.C. to start a series of failed businesses. His first successful venture was a K Street consulting firm he launched in the early ’80s called Washington Researchers, where he and his staff sifted through government information for private companies in search of grants. The key to more clients and more money, he discovered, was self-promotion.
As a young professional, Lesko nurtured his inner jackass. He wanted to transform the dry topic of government information into something vibrant and entertaining, so he cultivated the urges that teachers had worked to suppress all his life. “All through school, authority figures were saying, ‘Don’t act like that, don’t act like that,’” he says. “Everyone’s telling me that’s my worst part, when in fact that’s my best part.”
He wore wild outfits, such as brightly colored suits embellished with bow ties. “He wouldn’t look like a traditional D.C. penguin, because he was stylish,” says Wendy Lesko, his third wife, who met him in 1982 while she was working at the Congressional Monitor. “He would stand out because of a matching kerchief and tie, very Jack Valenti. But then he got into glasses and colorful shoes.”
He’d wear his outfits to the National Press Building and pass out weird fliers on his business, hoping reporters would decide to write him up. They often did, and Lesko’s firm grew to about 30 employees. He nabbed some big corporate clients, including Proctor & Gamble. Eventually a publicity agent recommended that he write a book.
Although he had failed English at Marquette, becoming an author turned out to be surprisingly easy. “I don’t write,” Lesko says flatly. “I plagiarize.” In the early ’80s, he purchased a book from the U.S. Government Printing Office called The Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. Knowing that government text isn’t copyrighted, he cut and pasted passages relating to government handouts into his own manuscript wholesale. Here he’s careful to explain that he means “cut and paste” in the literal, pre-home-computer sense. “I remember taking that book and actually cutting out the introduction paragraph of each section. Then I’d have someone type it up.”
He devoted whatever creative abilities he had to packing the book with snappy, exaggerated chapter titles. “The government would say something like, ‘The Urban Homesteading Act.’ I’d call it, ‘Houses for a Dollar!’ Well, there you go!” The way Lesko remembers it, he sent Getting Yours off to Viking Penguin in New York, and, to his amusement, the publisher spent a half-year editing his regurgitated text. He would make plagiarism and hyperbole his book-writing template for the next 25 years.
Now he had a book on store racks that he needed to promote. For this, he looked to television and radio. He hired as his assistant Eric Yaverbaum, an American University student, whose primary job was to get Lesko on the air to plug his book. One of the first gigs they scored was in 1982, on an early-morning, Arlington-based radio show hosted by Larry King. “I’m sitting in the studio,” recalls Yaverbaum, “and Larry’s head is in his hands. He’s chain-smoking, and he’s not even looking at us. He has no interest in talking about government information.” Enter Lesko, screaming and waving and generally spazzing out on air. “I watched Larry’s face come out of his hands and light up,” says Yaverbaum, who now runs his own PR firm. “He loved him.” Lesko became an oddball scrub who could fill in on shows like The Late Show with David Letterman and The Tonight Show when a guest in the third slot had to bail.
But he didn’t achieve genuine B-level celebrity status until he started wearing the suit, sometime in the late ’90s. The folks at Harvard Business School considered it such a masterstroke in branding that they invited Lesko to speak at a lecture on the topic last spring. (“I was just trying to have fun,” he told them.)
This reporter personally came to understand the outfit’s branding power last Halloween, when I dressed as Lesko’s doppelgänger. Wearing a cheap blue blazer decked in question marks fashioned from sticky paper, I pledged to myself that I would purchase a drink for anyone and everyone who could identify my inspiration by name. As soon as I stepped into the Big Hunt on Connecticut Avenue NW, I realized I was in for an expensive night; before I could even mumble a drink order, the bartender jabbed a forefinger at me and shouted “Lesko!” with obvious delight. For the sheer volume of Lesko fans in attendance, I had to renege on my pledge.
What makes one infomercial kill and another tank is almost impossible to determine.
During this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, Lesko and his producer, Jim Miller, shot a 60-second spot beneath the blooming pink trees of D.C.’s Tidal Basin, where a typically hyper Lesko informed the capital’s enthused visitors about government grants. They ran it in a few test markets. As usual, Lesko was hoping for a 2-to-1 return on his investment. “I thought it looked great, but it’s been bombing,” he says. And yet a considerably more asinine commercial, in which Lesko, toting a fat book, chases two actors dressed as special agents around the Reflecting Pool in fast motion, has done unexpectedly well. “I’ve done a dozen or two dozen infomercials,” he says. “You do one or two that just click and people will recognize you.”
The difficulty with Lesko’s schtick is finding new ways to make it look fresh. Miller frets over when viewers will tire of him. “Has he worn out the audience with just having his over-the-top energy? Has he lost their attention?” asks Miller. Like pop culture’s other grating nerds, including Urkel and Screech, Lesko probably wore out his television welcome years ago, hanging on just to become the butt of late-night comedy skits. In fact, one of comedian Andy Dick’s most successful roles on his self-titled MTV program was that of Lesko alter ego Lyle Tillman. Dressed in an exclamation-point suit, Dick, who bears an eerie resemblance to Lesko, flailed around outside a purported government building with his book and took the free-money mantra to extremes. (“Soup kitchens equal free sex, Chapter 25.”)
Lesko loved the bit, figuring that derisive attention is still attention. His own concerns over shelf life notwithstanding, Miller doesn’t deny the benefits of overexposure. “It’s been a neat evolution,” he says. “When I first started [working with Lesko], everyone called him ‘the guy in the question-mark suit.’ But now, most people call him Lesko. ‘You’re Lesko!’”
The upcoming infomercial in Frederick will promote Lesko’s latest compilation, Free Money for Entrepreneurs. The shoot will involve his first live studio audience in years. Once, in the early ’90s, Lesko spent $200,000 to film an infomercial in L.A. with actors planted in the crowd. They were told they’d be paid more if their questions during the question-and-answer session made it into the final product, so each successive actor who stepped to the mike wound up hamming it up more than the previous. Until Frederick, Lesko hadn’t solicited another studio audience.
At a rehearsal a week before the taping, Lesko tells Jeff Smith, who’s leading the camera team, how he wants the finished product to look. “I want it fast,” he says. “If I want to run out into the audience and sit in a woman’s lap, I want to be able to do that. I want you on a train ride.”
Lesko is a pitchman at heart. Strangers who approach him in the street typically comment on his suits or his television ads; within seconds Lesko has usually steered the conversation toward government grants and getting what one wants out of life. His persona during seminars and commercials is nothing but an extension of his innate salesmanship. He never turns it off. “He really is an evangelical of sorts,” says Wendy.
In fact, Lesko is so convincing in his public talks that after he visits a town, local small-business offices will be inundated with calls and walk-in visits from Lesko proselytes looking for grants. On April 26, Lesko gave a free lecture at a public library in Flint, Mich. (Lesko spends much of his week flying to small- and medium-size cities such as Flint to do seminars on grant money.) Carol Lopucki, director of the Michigan Small Businesses & Technology Development Center, says she spent the days following his visit turning away confused money pursuers. “We know the day he’s been here, because he sends them to our offices,” says Lopucki, adding that a lot of the people who plunk money down for Lesko products are already in financial trouble.
Lopucki describes her cleanup job after a Lesko visit like this: “Breaking hearts.” She recently sent a missive to Lesko via e-mail: “The theatrics [and] the evangilist [sic] manner in which you carried people into believing that they could crawl out of poverty by listening to you was terribly disappointing. Our national network would like nothing more, Mr. Lesko, than [for] you to forget that we exist.” Neither did Lopucki care for Lesko’s apparent attempt to smooth things over with a generous offer of free books: “The fact that you’ve offered to send me boxes of junk tells me just HOW out of touch you are with reality, sir.”
Lesko’s act has become increasingly motivational over the years. Along with his shouts about free money, a listener nowadays will likely hear messages about perseverance. Lesko needs to pump up his audience because he knows that of all the people who buy his books, only a tiny percentage will be dogged enough to find grants or loans, if they even qualify for them.
“It’s hard work,” he concedes.
This past winter, the New York State Consumer Protection Board issued a 25-page report eviscerating Lesko for what it described as deceptive advertising. The report ostensibly dealt with all businesses that promise free government money, but its satirical title suggested a single target: Secrets Revealed! Let Uncle Sam Pay Your Bills! How misleading advertising is feeding a nationwide boom in government grant scams. (“It looked just like my books!” says Lesko.) The report alleged that Lesko’s exaggerated ads help to fuel a market for grant swindles, in which the unscrupulous, working through spam and telemarketing, promise gobs of government money in exchange for credit-card numbers.
In his report, Jon Sorenson, spokesperson for the board, compared Lesko’s hyperbolic lures with the finer print. Reality, in many cases, was a disappointment: The program behind “big discounts on boats, limos, and airplanes,” for example, is really just government auctions of property seized from drug dealers. Similarly, “free car repairs” are actually automobile recalls. And the “10% off your restaurant bill” that Lesko touts is nothing more than an early-bird special.
Sorenson says he brainstormed the report last year after he sent an e-mail to Lesko’s regular co-author, Mary Ann Martello. Lesko had said in his ads that there was over $350 billion in government funds available to the public, and Sorenson wanted to know the sources behind the mind-blowing numbers. The programs, Martello wrote back, were mostly food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and low-income housing assistance. “When I saw the source of it, I was blown away,” says Sorenson. “That was really the genesis. We wanted to focus on how this message is grossly exaggerated.”
Also cited in the report was a dubious claim Lesko had been making for years that he was a columnist for the New York Times. Apparently some folks at the Gray Lady don’t appreciate infomercial types implying they have a byline alongside Thomas L. Friedman’s and Maureen Dowd’s. Last fall, a Times attorney sent Lesko a letter: “It has come to our attention that on your website, www.lesko.com, and your press releases you have been promoting your products by saying you are a columnist for The New York Times. Our research indicates that you have never been a columnist for The New York Times.” Years before, Lesko had put together some columns for the New York Times Syndicate, which provides content for local papers around the country. He has since corrected his wording.
The story of the consumer board’s report was picked up by the Times, as well as some cable news stations, and for the first time in his career Lesko was fielding hardball questions from actual news reporters who weren’t looking to publicize his latest book. “It rocked me,” he says. “It’s someone saying your whole life, everything you do, is a sham. And here I am trying to help people.” Lesko, who says he’s guilty of nothing more than “hyperbole” in his ads, feels he was unfairly linked to bona fide crooks.
He and McCoy, his head of marketing, figured more television spots were the best form of damage control. He brought his high energy to a segment on a Fox affiliate in New York state, but he felt as if the routine had fallen flat. “I came out and did the typical Lesko thing, my hyper thing. I said, ‘That did not work.’” He decided it was time to “show another side” of Lesko.
In May, baited by the opportunity to air his side of the story, Lesko flew out to Los Angeles to accept an invitation from the PAX TV network to appear on its nationally broadcast show Lie Detector. In a typical episode, host Rolanda Watts interviews the media punching bag du jour (recent guests have included Paula Jones and Jeff Gannon) before strapping the guest to an actual polygraph machine, whereby the guest is either vindicated or further humiliated in the show’s payoff.
Early on, Watts pressed her guest on the accusations that he’s misleading his customers, but a pensive and subdued Lesko managed to steer the inquisition in a more promotional direction. The interview devolved into inane exchanges like this:
Watts: Can I get some of this money?
Lesko: …You could get maybe $10,000 to go back and take a course in something.
As with many of Lesko’s TV appearances, a sizable portion of the segment was devoted to airing chunks of his zany commercials, including an onscreen referral to his Web site. But before he was strapped to the lie detector, Lesko’s confidence faltered: “That’s not the important thing, whether I pass that or not,” he said. The polygraph test, however, essentially consisted of a single, ill-defined question: “Are there billions of dollars from the government that millions of consumers can apply for that they don’t know about?” Lesko replied in the affirmative. He passed.
Feeling exonerated, Lesko was visibly choking back tears on camera. “It’s not about me, this whole thing,” he said. “It’s about the country.” The show’s producers followed his patriotic lead by cueing a lilting, heart-tugging score, and Watts assured Lesko it was OK to cry.
“This is the country we love,” she said. “There’s not a darn thing [wrong with] shedding a tear. There are many who are shedding blood right now.” Lesko had nowhere further to take his role, so Watts rounded out his pitch for him. “I love that Matthew Lesko,” she said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve. What an American.”
Lesko’s book sales don’t appear to have slid since the consumer board issued its report. If anything, he figures the ordeal may have broadened his image beyond the cartoonish loon that viewers were accustomed to. Besides, he hadn’t received that much free face time on news channels and talk shows in years. “QVC, the Home Shopping Network. They’re the only honest shows on television,” Lesko says. “On talk shows, you pretend you’re having an intellectual discussion when really you’re just selling shit.”
Even Sorenson, from the consumer board, wonders whether the report, with its subsequent media swirl, may have been a bad idea to begin with. “Maybe we gave him more help than we realized,” he says.
Two hours to showtime at the Weinberg Center, and Lesko is racing through rehearsal. The suit he’s wearing tonight is green with yellow question marks—an outfit that was Miller’s executive call; Lesko personally would have preferred the blue suit with white punctuation. While the other actors work through their lines and do second takes, Lesko paces and shuffles onstage with a script in his hand, trailing off most of his monologues with “Yadda yadda yadda” or “All that bullshit.” He’s recited this content dozens, maybe hundreds of times on camera and off, and more important than what he says is the enthusiasm with which he will deliver it at showtime.
One line he does rehearse is the show’s closer: “The best things in life are getting things for free and having fun!”
After the taping, no tricky editing will be necessary to create the appearance of a full house. More than 350 people have arrived to claim their seats—in Lesko’s eyes an unqualified success. Bodies pack the front half of the auditorium and fill out much of the back. Every audience member is holding a goody bag, which includes Lesko CD-ROMs and a questionnaire for marketing purposes. They have to wait until the end of the taping to claim their free books, lest they take off with their freebies before the cameras start rolling.
The crowd consists mostly of working-class couples and families from suburban and rural Maryland; some have even poured over the border from central Pennsylvania. Most seem to have known of Lesko beforehand and heard him promoting the show on WFRE. They’ve come out because they’re either dissatisfied with their jobs or hoping to become entrepreneurs. Free money, they all agree, sounds good to them. “I’m thinking about starting my own business,” says Sue Flickinger, a postal worker who made a 45-minute drive from Gettysburg, Pa. She’s interested in buying and selling foreclosed homes. “He sounded like a crazy man,” she says of Lesko, “but he also sounded like he might have some ideas.”
Lesko’s audience is an enthusiastic one. They offer up raucous applause when he takes the stage and hardly let up for more than two hours of taping. They nod in agreement with what he says and instinctively cheer at his empowering one-liners, such as “The surest way to become a millionaire is by starting your own business!” and “Anybody can do anything in our society!” Into the crowd he throws fake bags of money, each representing an exceptional government grant, such as $400,000 from the state of Colorado to start your own real-estate business. He compares obtaining government contracts to elephant-hunting: “Once you bag one, you’ve got meat for a long time!”
During the question-and-answer session, in which Lesko refers most inquiries to government Web sites and congressional offices, one man takes the mike just to have the opportunity to publicly call Lesko “a good American.” After the show, Lesko will spend almost a half-hour signing autographs for fans in the lobby.
Once the initial taping is done, they need to reshoot only a couple of segments that were flubbed. One of the scenes is the show’s elaborate climax. After Lesko explains that the government is sitting on piles of unclaimed cash for the general public, he heaves another canvas sack with a dollar sign on it over the crowd. An actor holding what looks to be a shotgun (it’s actually an air rifle) feigns a shot at the money bag as it’s mid-air. From a catwalk high above the audience, a stagehand scatters a pile of fake bills over the first 10 rows, as if the sack had exploded.
As the production team expected, the audience revels in this particular gag, even during its second take. Cheering as loudly as they have all night, people crane their necks up and wait patiently as the oversized hundred-dollar bills flutter downward. Lesko, beaming onstage at his spectacle, watches his uncoached participants add the perfect flourish: Just when the counterfeit slips are nearly within reach, they rise from their seats and reach over one another, snatching at the bills as if they were real.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.