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Joy Mangano, real-life inspiration of 'Joy,' has an empire based on extroversion, and mops

Just before midnight on a recent Saturday at the headquarters of HSN, the home-shopping pioneer Joy Mangano had a time-sensitive mission.

Mangano had just wound down an hour, in heels, of striding around a set, pitching a space-saving closet contraption she devised called Huggable Hangers. About 60 seconds later she was due to go live on another set several hundred yards away‎. Mangano is lithe, with long legs, but even they were no match for the labyrinthine corridors and stacks of blenders‎, skin-care products and ergonomic pillows that lined her path.

So an assistant handed Mangano a mini-box of coconut water and strapped her into a wheelchair. Then the assistant got behind the chair and, like an airline porter trying to get a late passenger onto a red-eye at Heathrow, took off, a half-dozen HSN and Mangano employees running behind them.

The chair and its precious cargo arrived at its destination — a gleaming faux interior splashed with various stains, surfaces, buckets and liquids — with about 10 seconds to spare. Mangano climbed out of the chair.

"Now,” she said with perfect cool to an assistant holding a set of props, “where’s my mop?”

As millions of HSN devotees — and a growing number of fans of the new  David O. Russell film “Joy" starring Jennifer Lawrence — are aware, Mangano, 59, is the inventor of the Miracle Mop and many other twists on familiar household products.

Mangano has an uplifting back story. About 25 years ago, as a single mother with three young children and no business experience, she expended a small investment and a lot of sweat equity to get the mop — a foldable, durable contraption that made soaking up floors easie‎r — out into the marketplace, eventually turning it into a sensation on QVC.

The effect on the retail world was significant. Before Mangano, home sh‎opping was at best a niche business; it certainly never inspired a mass following. As she came to create and endorse dozens of products, first on QVC and for the last 15 years on HSN, Mangano’s message to people around the country, toiling grimly to maintain their homes, was simple: There is someone looking out for them. They have been willing to pull out their credit card on her word ever since.

It is a history that has helped turn Mangano into a kind of retail folk hero — a Paul Bunyan of suburban basements — and earlier this week contributed to Lawrence earning a Golden Globe for lead actress in a comedy/musical. (The star thanked Mangano from the podium.) On Thursday, Lawrence landed an Oscar nomination for ‎lead actress.

On this night, Mangano was attempting an unlikely feat — she was relaunching the Miracle Mop. You wouldn't think there's much to improve about a mop. But in a quarter-century, a lot changes in fabric and plastics, and Mangano had spent the last two years making her product more efficient.

“This is so easy, you're gonna wanna mop everything,” she said as the cameras rolled.  She moved across the floor as an assistant set up a stain of apple juice, then performed a quick sweep and held her product business side up as she extolled its absorption capabilities. “Look at this. LOOK AT THIS,” she said. “This is mop heaven.”

While Mangano addressed a host and a group of models scattered around the set, she never took an eye, literally or otherwise, off the audience. She spoke extemporaneously and often in fragments, but the pitch had a structural simplicity: a) You have cleaning pain b) I feel that pain c) This mop I invented will ease that pain.

Just out of the camera's eye, cue cards reminded her of the pitch talking points. “We need to be mopping again, not wiping!!,” was one directive, underlined in red, a point she sandwiched in so quickly you barely realized she made it, let alone had time to think about it too deeply.

Through all her enthusiasms — "I'm possessed about tech styles,” she said, using a favorite verb, and “Are you not crazy about this already?!” — Mangano never let the viewer forget the purpose of her appearance: “As I talk, you need to buy,” she silver-tongued in amid the demonstrations and touting of the mop’s reach and low pain quotient.

During the 90-minute live session and an additional 30-minute segment for another product that followed, she never stopped talking, moving, gesticulating and wringing. Even morning-show hosts get to throw to a reporter in the field once in a while; Mangano takes no breaks. A few hours of sleeping time aside, she ‎would repeat a version of the Miracle Mop pitch every other two-hour period for the next 24 hours.

Mangano lives on Long Island, N.Y., but she flies down to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area every month to do this for a set of products, even owning a home here so she could have a regular presence at HSN. The network has a number of on-air personalities with their own product lines. But as the on-air calls this night made clear, few enjoy the fan base that Mangano does — or have what executives describe as a kind of intuitive consumer empathy.

"Joy taps into a zeitgeist of what other people’s needs are, for things they don’t even realize they need,” said Mindy Grossman, the CEO of HSN. “On my Facebook page all my friends are buying mops. Half of my friends don’t even know how to use a mop.”

Hawking products on television would seem easy. Offer a flatteringly lighted set, some strategically applied hairspray and a few modest discounts, and watch the sales roll in.

But if you're going to sell thousands of units in a matter of minutes, as many launches are designed to do, a more sophisticated tack is needed. HSN carefully calibrates its approach, from the promotions before a launch to the helpful/stressful countdown clock while it’s happening, so that you feel like the item blowing past you must be grabbed before it's gone. Long before the term's current vogue, the network capitalized on the concept of FOMO.

Every night at midnight a new special is launched — it’s a time of high viewing and easy spending — and Saturday night is the highest and easiest of all. It’s why Mangano and Grossman chose Saturday night to re-launch the Miracle Mop, its creator’s flagship invention.

That choice was also, incidentally, why a number of producers and Mangano were anxious. HSN has never sold the Miracle Mop, and Mangano hasn’t pitched any mop since the 1990s, let alone touted one as a major improvement. A nervous energy filled the HSN offices — would anyone buy this thing?

In a control room, Matt Hoke, Mangano’s longtime producer, jiggled his leg nervously from an office chair. In front of him was the usual bank of screens featuring various camera angles from the set. Above him hung a more specialized screen. It contained a mix of ever-changing numbers, superimposed on bar graphs. HSN, which is live every day of the year except Christmas, is a minute-by-minute business — fans of the movie will recall that a product falling flat is abandoned in as few as 60 seconds — and the number of phone and digital orders coming in tells producers right away whether a sales pitch is working or falling flat.

The scene offered a kind of snapshot of modern American capitalism — at once fiercely digital and granular but also rife with good old-fashioned showmanship. Mangano is a feminist symbol‎ to her fans too, and if identity-through-the-acquisition-of-household-cleaning-products suggests a certain paradox, Mangano breezes through it with a businesswoman's self-empowerment, or at least a lightness of spirit.

Hoke shifted his gaze between the on-set cameras and the data screen, as he does every few minutes when Mangano is on the air. If he sees a number spike—as he did on this night when Mangano demonstrated the mop’s wide circumference without moving — he tells her to stay with the bit longer.

When the numbers aren’t ticking up fast enough — as was happening when a model waved the mop in the air to show how lightweight it was — he radioed in crisply and urgently to move to another gambit. (There are similarities in this to Bradley Cooper’s QVC executive from the movie. Cooper's Neil Walker character also gives bits of directions based on the numbers — though Hoke is not out on the set, the ticker has grown considerably more nuanced since the early 1990s and phone operators are working out of their homes around the country, not at HSN.)

”You’re playing detective. The data tells a story about how a show is going,” Hoke said in an interview. “And you’re trying to take these little subplots and follow them to the demos so you see what’s connecting.”

He added, “With Joy, she’s just as excited off air as she is on air, so you really just need the customer to see that.”

Hoke would know. Mangano is not just his on-air talent — she's his mother-in-law. In the pitchwoman’s all-in-the-family business philosophy, Hoke began dating Christie Miranne, Mangano’s oldest daughter (and a character in the movie) after years of working with her mother. The couple are now married with a newborn.

Christie, incidentally, works with Mangano too, as a senior vice president of brand development, merchandising and marketing strategy at the latter's company, Ingenious Designs, and as an all-around aide-de-camp. Christie, who shares many of Mangano's intensely outgoing qualities, says that for as long as she could remember there was something different about her mother. "I call it the Joy effect. it's just the ability to know what people want, the way some people can play the piano," she said. "When I was young, friends would call the house and they'd ask to speak to her, not me. It was a little weird but I got used to it."

Mangano’s middle child, son Bobby, 32, also works at the company, as an executive vice president of business strategy and development. He is making the rounds this night too, marveling at the camera angles and his mother’s perseverance. "You've never seen Joy in action?" he said enthusiastically to a reporter before the mop pitch begins. "Just watch." Only Mangano’s youngest child, her daughter Jackie, 30, is not involved in the family business, though she's also come to show her support.

Christie said the months leading up to the Miracle Mop relaunch have been nerve-wracking. “It’s been like the first day of school. I said to her, ‘But you know everyone. You’ve been to this school before. It’s all the same people.’ It doesn’t matter. Joy is still nervous.” (Christie refers to her mother in the third person.)

On air, Mangano showed no signs of concern, pitching and talking and moving, no break in sight. The next day, though, she admitted that for all the selling, the evening brought with it a certain poignancy.

“It feels like I've completed a circle, you know?" she said, taking a green-room breather between two-hour blocs. “When I stood there and said, for the first time in many years, ‘This is the only mop you’ll ever need to buy,' it took me back to my days very long ago standing in front of 10 women at a flea market talking about something they’d never heard anyone talk about."

Mangano, who is more voluble and demonstrative than the Lawrence character in the film, said she had been intrigued by the idea of a relaunch even before the movie was coming out. "It wasn't monetary. It was about making something more amazing and groundbreaking than all the imitators,” she said. “And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if it was the same price ($20) as 20 years ago? When I told my team, the whole room said, ‘Get it out of your brain.' But I couldn’t get it out of my brain. I was possessed.”

Hoke says that this constant mental churning is a hallmark of life with Mangano.

“She’s always thinking about products, even when you think she’s not thinking about it,” he said. “You’ll wake up in the morning and see 10 emails from her at 4 in the morning, because she’s sitting awake thinking of ways to make bedposts on the bed better.”

Russell, too, came to see unusual aspects of Mangano's personality when he met her. He and Mangano would talk for hours, every day for nearly a year, as he was prepping the movie, the director trying to get at the person under the extreme extroversion, trying to find out what kept her going when those outside roadblocks -- and a few family-related ones -- would intrude.

"Joy has been the most un-anxious  presence in the room since childhood,” Russell said in an interview, citing a line about her from the movie. “Every family has someone like that. You know, that person who is an old soul. No matter their age, there’s something unflappable and tolerant and patient about them. Joy has that. She could persist no matter how many times people try to take something away.”

As for the big question -- how much does Russell’s on-screen interpretation, in which he never mentions Mangano by name, mirror real life? -- the answer is, well, complicated. "I severely inspired it," Mangano says when asked about it, laughing as though she's keeping a secret, but not very well.

Growing up, Mangano's family did own a junkyard that she used as a base of operations, as the movie has it. And it was next door to a shooting range. Mangano also does have a father who’s a colorful and, er, gleefully frank figure, a la Robert De Niro's character. She did face plenty of obstacles. She does not have a conniving half-sister. Other flourishes were invented for the film too.

And Tony Miranne, Mangano’s ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez in the film) did become a close friend and ally -- if not as easily as a few minutes of multiplex time suggest. “They are the best divorced couple in the country,” Christie said. “It just took them a while to get there."

Then there's the ending. It  involves a particular instance of cutthroat shrewdness, the kind that has audiences delighted, or critics eye-rolling, or a little bit of both. So is it true? “Like I said," Mangano noted with a knowing laugh, “I  severely inspired it.”

She offers some biographical insight.

"When I ‎was going into inventing, it wasn't a dream the way someone goes into nursing or dancing," she says. "Because there's a path with that. It’s very different when you say, 'I have an idea and it doesn’t exist.' It’s a very different path. Let me tell you, looking back, you have no idea how hard it was.”

A moment later, though, the bravado softens and she flashes a rare instance of vulnerability. Her voice turns quieter, and for a moment the energy is lowered.

"I feel more pressure today. You'd think I'd feel it more then. I don't. There are expectations. There's a lot of pressure to make products better. I don't feel freer."

Back on the set, those headwinds are apparent. Mangano is in full pitch mode, describing the wide scourge of stains, and the salvation of the Miracle Mop.

At one point her mop grows too sticky, and Mangano, continuing the voice-over even as the control room quickly cuts away from her, slides to a spot where a production assistant hands her a new mop off the wall. She grabs the object with the quick, businesslike nonchalance of a hockey defenseman taking a new stick from the bench during a penalty kill.

As she does so, another production assistant slips behind the camera, carrying what appears to be a large plate full of various colored substances. They are indistinct at first, but then their identity becomes clear--they are for the various stains that Mangano will wipe up, a kind of Van Gogh's palette of housecleaning.

Finally, the first two-hour bloc is over, at just past 2 a.m. Mangano keeps chatting with several HSN employees from behind a faux counter, even though the cameras have stopped rolling. Finally she starts walking away from the set. "How did I do?" she asks, not quite concealing her nervousness.

She would later find out she had sold 60,000 mops in those first two hours, an average of more than eight mops every second. It is a record for the network (she shattered her own previous mark). Her son, Bobby, rushes over. "You did so well it broke the counter. The computers couldn't even keep up with the orders!" he said excitedly.

"That's great!" Mangano said, looking at once relieved and like she expected it. Then an assistant motioned to a wheelchair. She turned to it, took a box of coconut water and sank into the chair one last time, ready to be wheeled, in heels, across the building to the control room, where she would receive a set of notes from Hoke. "I just really wanted this to be special," she said. The idea, she added, made her possessed.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

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