West Chester, PA
"Congratulations on your engagement,” says Marie from Tennessee. “The ring is gorgeous!” “Thank you,” says Courtney, though she can’t look Marie in the eye. Marie sees Courtney’s face, but Courtney can only do her best to imagine, based on the sound of Marie’s voice, her features.
I’ve never met Courtney, but I also know about her engagement. About a year ago, Courtney’s then-boyfriend Aaron had surprised her with a trip to Cape May, NJ. This would be the weekend she had been waiting for all her life. Seeing the expectation on Courtney’s face, Aaron told her not to get her hopes up, that he would be proposing soon but not that soon. While visiting a winery during a downpour, Aaron pulled Courtney to a covered porch overlooking the vineyards, flashed the ring, and asked her to be his wife. She said, “Yes!,” of course.
In a comment on Courtney’s blog, reader Miss Peaches posted, “Be happy Courtney you have a fan family behind you.”
Courtney Cason is a program host on QVC, a televised home shopping network founded in 1986. Currently, QVC is the world’s leading video and e-commerce retailer and is available in 300 million homes worldwide. Now with tools like Facebook, Twitter, and blogging, QVC hosts can share not only their product recommendations but personal information. In my opinion, QVC’s greatest strength is the hosts’ ability to make viewers feel like they’re part of a tight-knit community, like they’re at home with a host family.
QVC’s studios are located in West Chester, PA, a town with a population of approximately 19,000 residents and about an hour drive from Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently named it as "one of the world's most perfect small towns.” Who wouldn’t want to make a home in a utopia?
At the time of this writing, Courtney has amassed more than 12,000 “likes” on Facebook, which means at least that many people follow her updates. At the end of July 2014, a banner on the QVC homepage announced: “Save the Date: Courtney Says, ‘I Do’”. By RSVPing - in other words, by entering an e-mail address - viewers will receive a special video with wedding highlights. Courtney isn’t even a seasoned host: many hosts who have been with the network for decades have devoted followings that network executives use to their advantage.
For example, former beauty pageant queen Lisa Robertson joined QVC in 1995 and is undeniably the “face” of the network. With her dazzling smile, carved cheekbones, brown-topaz eyes, and husky voice, Lisa could sell a grass clipping. Given her immense creativity, talent, and poise, her programs have been structured more like daytime talk shows and possess titles suited for network television, i.e. "The Lisa Robertson Show.”
During the holiday season, Lisa decorates her personal home in West Chester, which is used as a set to showcase QVC’s holiday offerings. She invites viewers into her living room, decked with elaborate garlands, gold-flecked bows, embroidered pillows, and a tree so carefully appointed there’s no room for any other ornaments. Light reflects off each metallic ball as if launching itself through the television and entering each viewer’s home.
“When I was growing up, my mother always made the house look so pretty at Christmas, and the tree always looked beautiful, so I just love decorating for Christmas,” Lisa reveals to Courtney, who interviews her while they stand beside the tree.
Unfortunately, some people see Lisa’s invitations to enter her personal life as an opportunity to abuse her openness and professional obligations. In 2014, an article in the Daily Mail reported that a man named Peter Ferreira has been following Lisa for 12 years. Recently, he posted on Lisa’s Facebook page, calling her “HEAVEN ON EARTH” and asserting that he would “‘COMPROMISE’” himself “for the peace and tranquility of her ‘co-workers’, friends and OUR families.” In 20 years, Lisa has had four stalkers. She has stated, “'I watch my rear view mirror when I go home at night and take different routes if I think anyone might be following me. If there is a sound at night, I lay awake wondering.” While QVC viewers watch her from the safety of their homes, Lisa is afraid to return to her own.
When I imagine QVC’s main demographic, I envision retired women in empty nests deep within midwestern states. They’re not located within reasonable distance of cutting-edge shopping malls or don’t have many friends to accompany them on shopping trips. Maybe they never learned how to drive or suffer from disabilities that prevent them from leaving the house. I base my assumption on the voices of the callers and their barebones self descriptions. However, when I searched QVC’s website for its viewer demographic, I found that my assumption is flawed.
According to the FAQ webpage, “Because the audience for each QVC program is driven by product, demographics vary significantly from one hour to the next. For example, a cooking program such as In The Kitchen With David®, draws both men and women.” Women aren’t the only beings capable of making a home.
David Venable is the host of “In the Kitchen with David,” a hybrid cooking-and-sales show. One day a week, David peddles kitchen tools, appliances, accessories, and specialty foods while he presents original recipes and demonstrates how viewers can incorporate these products into their daily lives. As someone with a tiny kitchen and limited time and motivation, I envy his access to all the latest kitchen gadgets. While he describes the way your home might smell as you stir the contents of your own pot, David prepares meals fit for the nuclear family.
Until I left for college, I had lived with my nuclear family. I’d observe my mom watching QVC almost daily and ordering items about once a month. She’d buy pots and pans for the kitchen, QVC’s proprietary diamond simulant Diamonique, clothing, and specialty foods for the holidays. As someone who always liked receiving mail, I’d also find pleasure in seeing a brown package at our doorstep, even if the label didn’t carry my name. I’d often not know what she ordered and would watch her in anticipation as she would tear the packaging tape with a scissor blade. Sometimes, my Christmas gifts, ordered from QVC, remained wrapped in their original boxes.
As an undergraduate, I enrolled in an advanced poetry class, and our project for the semester was to choose an “obsession” and devote all our writing to it. Nearly every poem I wrote centered around the obsession of shopping from home. I wrote about Jewelry Television, late-night infomercials, and, of course, QVC. As someone who felt especially displaced, like a nomad, during her college years, I looked to these sales pitches as a reminder of something familiar and comfortable, of the power of language to soothe and persuade. On sleepless nights, I’d simply turn on the television in the living space I shared with three other roommates - quietly, of course - and feel comforted by the hosts’ conviction that some material possession is so important it could change my life.
Currently, I don’t have a cable television subscription but somehow - and don’t tell Verizon FiOs - I receive a few cable channels, among them QVC and the Home Shopping Network, or HSN. Despite other media available to me - Hulu Plus, YouTube, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and iTunes video, I still probably spend most of my time watching QVC. I regularly tune into Lisa Robertson’s shows, mostly because I like to hear her familiar voice as I straighten up my apartment or prepare food that doesn’t require fancy gadgets. I like to see a smiling, beautiful face in my studio, where I live alone.
Given how often I watch QVC, one would assume I have a shopping addiction, that UPS delivers multiple boxes to my apartment door. Well, I have a confession that either speaks to an enormous sense of self control or the unique relationship I have with the world’s leading home shopping network: in all my years of watching QVC, I’ve only ever ordered one thing.
For Christmas a couple of years ago, I bought my then-boyfriend a product called “Poo-Pourri,” a toilet spray used to mask bathroom scents. Partially a gag gift, the spray was something that he could keep in his home, which became my part-time home as I spent more weekends there. Each time I would use the bathroom, I would see one of my few contributions to our shared home on the toilet tank. I’d consider the possibility of making his place my permanent home.
But QVC, with its global family, has mastered something that he and I weren’t ever able to reconcile: connection is more valuable than transaction. Connection replaces a revolving door with a La-Z-Boy armchair (a QVC product) positioned in front of the television and used for so many years that its fabric is worn and its feet have imprinted the carpet.
About the author:
Laryssa Wirstiuk teaches writing and digital media at Rutgers University - New Brunswick. Her collection of short stories The Prescribed Burn won Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Awards. Her writing has been published in IthacaLit, Hamilton Stone Review, and The Stockholm Review of Literature and is forthcoming in Barely South Review and Up the Staircase Quarterly. You can view all her work here.