By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007
A doctor in a white coat ambles down a hospital hallway. Suddenly, an old lady attacks, whacking him with her metal cane. Pow! He collapses, falling face-first on the floor. Another old lady kneels over him, rummaging through his pockets, stealing vials of pills.
"That's me in drag," says Matthew Lesko, Washington's infomercial king, the self-proclaimed Guru of Government Giveaways. He's watching one of his latest ads on a laptop computer in a funky College Park coffeehouse, pointing to the "old lady," who is actually Lesko in a blue dress and a pink hat.
On the screen, the doctor-mugging scene disappears, replaced by the image of Lesko standing in front of the Capitol, wearing a garish blue suit speckled with big white question marks. "You don't have to take extreme action to get the health care you need!" he's yelling. "There are THOUSANDS of programs available for people of all ages, all incomes, with or without insurance -- FROM THE GOVERNMENT!"
In the ad -- in all his ads -- Lesko's voice is a high-speed, high-pitched shriek that falls somewhere between Fran Drescher calling her hogs and dental drills piercing your eardrums.
"I'm Matthew Lesko," he bellows in this ad. "For 25 years I've been studying government programs. My new GovernmentMoneyClub.com is the country's largest source of government benefits and includes THOUSANDS of health programs. . . . If your insurance company tells you no, there may be a government program that will COVER YOU!!" He turns and points at the Capitol: " They're not going to tell you -- but I WILL!"
On the screen, a graphic reads: "Only $19.99." It's a typical Lesko ad -- eye-catching and ear-bashing. But there's one problem with it.
"It didn't work," says Lesko, 64, smiling placidly as he sits in the coffee shop. "I don't know what works. You try something and you get lucky once in a while. I'll try anything."
He's speaking in a normal human voice, thank God, but he is wearing one of his 15 question-mark suits. This one's tan with orange question marks. He always wears these suits, except at weddings and funerals. Both of his family cars are festooned with question marks. So is the scooter he rides around Washington. His life is an ad for himself.
Lesko's here in the coffeehouse to meet with his director, Mike Fleg, who has an idea for a new ad. No geriatric muggers this time. This ad will feature Lesko rapping.
Rapping? Is the world really ready for Matthew Lesko rapping about how to get free money from the government?
Fleg thinks so. He's 23 and he just graduated from the University of Maryland. He's here with Elijah Harvey, another new grad, who raps under the name "XL." Together, they explain their idea for the ad: Lesko's walking through a funky neighborhood in his nerdy question-mark suit. A gaggle of gangbangers spot him, and one of them -- to be played by XL -- starts rapping about how lame Lesko looks. Then Lesko starts rapping back, talking about how he knows how to get free money from the government: "I got billions in free money and it's waitin' for you / So come get your money and your life will be new." And pretty soon, the gangbanger's girlfriends desert him and flock to Lesko because he's got free money. Then the music swells :"Getcha money! Getcha money!"
Lesko smiles and sings along: "Getcha money! Getcha money!" Then he says, "I like that. But the beginning is too long. How do we get to the 'getcha money' faster?"
They discuss that for a while, exchanging ideas in a brainstorming session that's interrupted briefly when a guy who recognizes Lesko from TV stops by to shake his hand. Finally, after a half-hour of tinkering with the script, Lesko is pleased.
"Let's just shoot the bloody thing," he says, "and see how it goes."'I Didn't Write a Lick'
"I was just named fifth-best infomercial of all time," Lesko says.
He's sitting in his kitchen in Kensington, drinking a giant cappuccino that his wife, Wendy, just brewed for him. He rummages around, finds his copy of Stuff magazine and flips to a story called "15 Greatest Infomercials Ever!" Sure enough, his "free money" infomercials are ranked No. 5, right behind the famous Ginsu knife ads and just ahead of Miss Cleo's Mind and Spirit Psychic Network.
What an honor! It's a fitting testament to the genius who made a career out of what might be the ultimate advertising slogan -- free money! For decades, he has used that enticing slogan to sell books that are basically just lists of government programs that may or may not be able to help you out.
It all began back in the 1970s, when Lesko, a Navy veteran with an MBA from American University, founded Washington Researchers, a company that ferreted out information about government programs for corporate clients. In 1982, he published his first book, "Getting Yours: The Complete Guide to Government Money."
"I plagiarized the whole thing," he says proudly. "I didn't write a lick."
He took the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, an 1,100-page government guide to grants and loans, condensed it to 300 pages, added a few snappy introductory paragraphs and -- voila! -- he was on the New York Times bestseller list.
A year later, he produced another book cribbed from government documents -- "Information USA," a 1,000-page guide to getting free info from the feds. That one also made the Times bestseller list -- the same list that included "The Color Purple" and "Garfield Eats His Heart Out."
His business model is simple: "I get stuff for free and I sell it for as much as I can get."
He didn't work very hard writing the books, but he hustled like crazy promoting them. Pimped out in bright red or yellow or chartreuse clothing -- he hadn't invented the question-mark suit yet -- he'd appear on any TV show anywhere, from a Podunk morning show to Oprah, Letterman and Larry King, and he'd start yelling about how his latest book tells you how to get free money! Lesko understands the secret of being a successful talk-show guest: "Just act like an [expletive]."
He sold his first half-dozen books to New York publishers, but after that, he figured he could make more money printing them himself and selling them with 800-numbers advertised on infomercials. It worked: He's sold more than 3 million copies of 100 different books, tapes and DVDs, he says. All of them are about getting stuff free.
"It's always free money and information," says Mary Ann Martello, his researcher for the past 20 years. "Matthew comes up with a title and I find things to put in the book."
"They're all basically the same," Lesko admits. "All that changes is the title."
And even the titles don't change very much -- "Free Stuff for Seniors" and "Free Stuff for Busy Moms" and "Free Money to Quit Your Job" and his personal favorite title, "Free Money to Change Your Life."
About a decade ago, Lesko started wearing his question-mark suits, not just in infomercials but everywhere. At first his wife and their two sons -- Morgan, now 25, and Max, 22 -- were a little taken aback, but now they're used to it. "It's fun," Wendy says, "particularly in this town where everybody dresses like a penguin."
To create his first infomercials, Lesko spent a lot of money hiring Hollywood professionals. Now, he hires eager young kids who shoot cheap and edit on laptops. "They're terrific," he says. "They work for dirt and they're excited and they have good ideas."
Lesko found Fleg, his latest director, by putting an ad on Craigslist. Fleg answered it and agreed to produce ads for $1,500 apiece. At that price, Lesko can afford to shoot an ad, then test it on cheap rural cable stations, and toss it out if it doesn't sell.
"I remember his ads from when I was a little kid," says Fleg, "so it's nice to be actually directing him."On Location . . . in Laurel
Holding a boombox in one hand and his script in the other, Lesko dances across the handicapped parking spaces of a bowling alley in Laurel, bouncing from one leg to the other, trying to learn the lines of his rap before Fleg starts shooting the new commercial.
You say you spend big money
And you buyin' all that bling
But I got more money
And I'm riding limousines
Today, Lesko's wearing a blue suit with bright yellow question marks. Fleg walks over and hands him a piece of cartoon bling -- a necklace made of a foot-high styrofoam question mark that's been spray-painted silver and sprinkled with glitter.
Lesko laughs and puts it on. Immediately, his suit is speckled with glitter. He takes it off and hands it back to Fleg.
"Let's let it dry for a while," he says, smiling as he picks a fleck of glitter off his nose.
The bowling alley parking lot is getting crowded now with the college-age kids Fleg recruited to serve as unpaid extras in the ad, which he'll shoot in a weed-infested vacant lot nearby. The guys are dressed to look like gangbangers, the girls like, well, sexy women. They stand around eating bagels and bananas and watching Lesko bounce back and forth, practicing his rap: "You need to get your money? Then you gotta follow me!"
The kids watch him and laugh. For some reason, they think a gray-haired guy in a question-mark suit carrying a boombox and rapping is funny.
"Who is he?" an extra named Lauren Blick asks Fleg.
"He's Matthew Lesko," Fleg says, smiling. "What else can I say? He's the government info man."
"I've seen his ads," an extra named Tiffany Toney tells her friend Aliesha Zynda. "They're for -- what? Loans?"
"Government money," says Zynda.
"Government money?" Toney says, suddenly interested. "I'll have to ask him about that."The Cost of 'Free Money'
Yeah, what about that government money? Do the people who buy Lesko's books really get free money from the government?
"Some do, but I don't know how many," Lesko says. "Not the majority, because it takes some effort. You don't just buy a book and make a phone call and get a check next Tuesday. There's money available but it takes some effort."
In 2004, the New York State Consumer Protection Board issued a report claiming that Lesko's ad were "misleading" and "peppered with exaggerations and half-truths about government grants."
The report quoted a Lesko ad claiming that the government gave away $350 billion of "free money" every year. "What Lesko doesn't say publicly," the report stated, "is that the vast majority of this money comes from public assistance programs, such as Food Stamps and Medicaid."
The board focused on one Lesko book -- "Free Money to Pay Your Bills!" -- and found much creative hyperbole. For instance, when Lesko mentioned getting "10% Off Your Restaurant Bill," he was referring to "early bird specials for senior citizens." When he wrote that you can "Get $600 for Each Child," he was referring to the standard federal income tax deduction.
Lesko eagerly admits that he engages in hyperbole. "If we're going to start crucifying people for hyperbole in this society, there's going to be a long line," he says. "If I was writing a diet book, I wouldn't say, 'It's going to take a lot of work and it'll be a pain in the [butt].' I'd say, 'Thin thighs in 30 days.' "
Lesko claims that he refunds the money of any customer who sends back one of his products -- and about 10 percent do. But other customers write to tell him that his books worked.
Barbara Sheperd, a librarian in Michigan City, Ind., says an article in a Lesko newsletter led her to a state program that gave her elderly mother a low-interest loan to put a new roof on her house.
Ronnie Brandt, a New Jersey folk singer, says he saw one of Lesko's infomercials and bought a book that helped him get state and federal grants to perform historical songs in schools. "I think his books are great," he says, "but you've got to do the work."
And then there's the Zufall family, who are dairy farmers in Lisbon, N.Y. Two years ago, they bought three of Lesko's books and a DVD called "Free Money for Everybody." From the DVD, they learned of a local government program that gave them $12,000 to help pay for a gravel walkway for their cows.
"It gets them out of the mud," explains Levi Zufall.
But a $12,000 government grant for a private cow path raises other questions for taxpayers: Which would be worse -- if Lesko is exaggerating how much "free money" is available from the government? Or if he isn't?'Go Getcha Money!'
Now, Lesko's standing in the lot behind the bowling alley, waiting for Fleg to start shooting the ad.
"Thanks for coming out," he tells the two dozen extras who are gathered around him. "I just hope I don't look like some old guy trying to look hip."
He doesn't. Actually, he looks like an old guy standing in a forlorn vacant lot wearing a question-mark suit and a necklace made of a spray-painted styrofoam question mark.
With a hand-held video camera, Fleg shoots the scene of the gangbangers laughing at Lesko. Then he shoots the scene where Lesko does his rap --"You need to get your money? Then you gotta follow me." Then he begins to shoot a musical number in which Lesko and a group of hip young people -- who are wearing bright yellow T-shirts with black question marks glued to them -- dance exuberantly to a catchy little jingle:
Step with it -- go getcha money!
Slide with it -- go getcha money!
Stretch with it -- go getcha money!
It's quite a show, and a couple of local guys wander over to check it out.
Marcus Sanders, 34, thought he recognized the man in the question-mark suit, but he was mistaken. "I thought he was Bob Barker," he says. He looks a tad disappointed.
"Hey, that's the money man!" says Fleming Rice, 59, who says he's retired from the D.C. Department of Mental Health. "I've seen him on TV."
Rice takes a couple steps closer to Lesko and the dancers.
"Hey, can I borrow a dollar?" he yells to Lesko.
The money man doesn't answer.
"Just a dollar," Rice yells. "Help me out with a dollar."
"Let me finish here," Lesko says.
"Just a dollar!"
Sanders starts walking away. "Come on, let's go," he tells Rice.
Rice doesn't move. "I wanna see him dance again," he says.
Lesko calls over an extra in a yellow question-mark shirt, and instructs him to take a present to Rice. It's not a dollar, it's a DVD titled "Free Money for Everybody." On the back of the box it is touted as "a laugh-out-loud fun ride to a mountain of money!"
Rice puts on his glasses and studies the DVD for a long moment.
"Free money!?!" he says. "Where's it at?"