ST. PETERSBURG — It's tough to catch Kathy Wolf speechless. Except maybe that time as a teenager when she was playing baseball with her brother and got a forkball in the throat. The accident permanently lowered her voice and left her nearly unable to talk for about three months. She has been making up for it ever since. In the past two decades, Wolf has logged more than 22,000 hours pitching products on live television as a host on HSN, the Home Shopping Network. That's a lot of time selling exfoliators, vacuums and slenderizing dresses. A St. Petersburg native, Wolf joined HSN in 1992 a few years out of college. Bob Circosta, the original home shopping host, hired her after one "torturous'' screen test, and she never looked back. She considers her colleagues and loyal viewers like family. After a three-hour show from HSN's studios in St. Petersburg, Wolf, 44, chatted with the Times about her tenure with the company, the evolution of home shopping and the unpredictability of live TV.
Why has HSN been so successful?
Back when I first started you could only order the item while it was on the screen. You can now order anything at any time. It's baffling to think that the second it went off the screen it was no longer available. If you were on the phone, sales were cut off. Why it has become what it is, is because of the leadership and management we have in right now. Under (CEO) Mindy Grossman, she's absolutely outstanding. I know they would love to promote her elsewhere and take her to other companies, but we can't afford to lose her.
What makes home shopping so popular with consumers?
We become like friends. Instead of seeing a box in a store or a sweater on a rack, we bring it to life. We get to show you what's so great about it.
What's your most memorable moment on air?
Sept. 11th, and it still makes the hair stand on my arm. I was on with Billy Mays, who has since passed, and we were selling his products. He kept running over to the TVs, which was very unusual because he was always very focused. I'll never forget hearing someone run through the call center and I screamed and said, "What just happened?''
With that, all of our executives came on air and our CEO at the time, Mark Bozek, said, "You have no idea what's going on do you?" I said, "No.'' He said find a quiet place and a television and go get your kids. Then he went on air and said, "In light of recent events, HSN is currently suspending its program.'' You talk about something that stops your heart.
Wasn't that unusual for HSN?
We have done moments of silence before, but it was the only time we have ceased programming. And the only reason we went back on air was for the customers. They wanted a way to take their mind off it. HSN changed its entire programming the next day. We sold comfort food, and a slow cooker became today's special. It was a little more somber. Everyone just wanted to snuggle in and be with the people they loved. They wanted to make their home better.
How much interaction do you have with viewers?
A lot. They used to write personal letters – and every once in a while we'll still get a personal letter with a self-addressed stamped envelope – but obviously now we have Twitter, Facebook and our own emails. I respond personally. Someone will ask, "I loved that blouse you had on. Is it available through HSN?'' Most often it is, right down to my nail polish color that's Baby Love by Deborah Lippmann. And if it's not available at HSN, I let them know that, too.
Is most of what you wear from HSN?
I have a good balance, but it's guaranteed that if you tune in I will have something on from HSN, whether it's the mascara or a dress. I love the products, and I know the quality that we have … and you don't always have to spend more money to get it.
How much preparation goes into each show?
Typically for a three-hour show, it is anywhere from one hour per one hour to about three hours. I do all of my prep the day before. I write a lot of notes, and it commits to my brain once I've written it down. It's that safety in case something happens. Items sometimes change while you're on air. You just roll with it.
What do you prefer to sell?
I'm one of the few who likes it all. I like the variety. I like the change. I want it to be new. I find it more of a challenge if I sell electronics. I'm not that electronically inclined.
How does someone log 22,000 hours of live TV?
It's something like that. I think they went through the pounds of lipstick I've used. (Laughs) We're typically on for 15 hours of live television a week. And if you think about somebody on a 30-minute news show, they speak maybe for six minutes. We talk nonstop for three hours, and there are no breaks.
Do you ever run out of things to say?
Someone asked me once, "How do talk about something for so long?'' It's so much easier now. The information we have access to is so different. We used to sit there with books, and our computer screens had green letters. In the '90s, when you're selling a gold rope chain for 21/2 hours, you get creative. (Laughs) Now there's a lot more variety, and you don't stay on one thing for as long. And when it's selling, it's a lot easier.
They call Bob Circosta the billion-dollar salesman. What do they call you?
Probably the lady with the heaviest purse. (Laughs) I typically hear that. "Gosh, what do you have in here?" Everything. I never know what I'm going to need: shoes, pantyhose, earrings, nail polish, quick dry.
Do people recognize you on the streets?
I was on a tour bus in Jamaica once and someone in the back goes ''Kathy Wolf,'' and I turned my head around and they said, "I knew it was you.'' And that was by my voice, not my face.
How have shoppers' habits changed?
They have the knowledge and the power, and we have to maintain and stay a step ahead. They used to get the Sunday circular and they could see that we have the best deal. Then, they had to get out of bed and go to their computer to see if we had the best deal. Now, they don't even have to get out of bed. They can use their phone. If our Today's Special Value is not the best price, she knows it. So we better have it. You don't ever want to have to eat your words. That's where you need to do your research.
Any item that has been particularly exciting or not so exciting to sell?
I was on the air with Frankie Avalon one time and he had a protein shake he was offering. He went to put it in a blender and the blender didn't go. He tried it again, and it still didn't go. We finally get the blender going and the lid was not on. (The shake) goes everywhere. He and I are laughing uncontrollably. I just put my head on the counter. I said, "Wow, if you ever wondered if we were live, we would have retaped that.''