On a Saturday night earlier this month, the QVC host Shawn Killinger kicked off another episode of “Shawn Saves Christmas,” the seasonal series she hosts live at QVC’s gargantuan 24/7 broadcast center in West Chester, Pa., about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia. But by the end of the first segment, it seemed like Shawn was going to sink Christmas instead.
As I watched from behind the cameras, she accidentally tipped over a rolling tote bag, shattering a wine bottle loudly enough to be heard on air. “We are going to need a mop,” she said with a cringe and levity, owning the oopsie, as did the camera, which lingered on the aftermath for several seconds. As the screen cut to a photo of the product, Killinger hustled to another part of the set to talk about mascara as the crew, panicked-looking but resolute, made the mess disappear in minutes.
Having talked to Killinger quite a bit by that point, I suspected she was mortified by the disaster. When she is presenting on QVC, she had told me earlier, she feels like she is “pedalling a unicycle uphill through a rancid windstorm while juggling flaming swords while chewing gum and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.”
But if she was, she didn’t show it. And the secret to that friendly composure is what brought me to QVC HQ.
“I’m not a salesperson,” Killinger said. “I’m a storyteller.”Credit…Christopher Leaman for The New York Times
Most TV shows are trying to sell you something, whether it’s the Lexus in a conventional ad, a product-placed luxury watch or just a Netflix subscription. But on QVC — it originally stood for “Quality Value Convenience,“ in case you’ve ever wondered — the selling is the entire point, and many of the products verge on the nutty.
Nobody needs a mega tub of skin cream that smells of “gilded pear.” I know this, but I’ve got two of those suckers because Killinger convinced me to hand over $68.57. I wanted to see how she did it.
I only started watching Killinger closely this year, but already my New Year’s resolution is to be like her. I set my calendar to Shawn because I don’t feel like she’s hustling me, as I do when I watch other QVC hosts. And she doesn’t go for the hard pitch the way my salesman father hawked metal plating services in Northeast Ohio. Her style is mac-and-cheese comforting.
I want to emulate how she makes salesmanship and public communication look effortless, assured and girlfriend-y, whether she’s talking up mukluks or just talking to her audience. I want others to see me as I see her: persuasive, confident, free of impostor anxiety, fun.
I’d invited myself to QVC so I could learn from Killinger, who stands 5’6” and on this night looked on-brand kicky in a dandelion-colored cold-shoulder sweater from her signature collection, plus bluejeans and white fashion boots.
“The big secret is that I don’t sell,” she told me, first thing. “I’m not a salesperson. I’m a storyteller.”
She turned out to be not a Harold Hill but a self-deprecating Gen X-er from the Midwest, same as me. Now in her 17th year at QVC, she said she is finally at peace with being able “to go on camera and be savage vulnerable and talk about chin hair.”
Autocorrect and English teachers will tell you that “savage vulnerable” is ungrammatical, but that’s another reason to admire Killinger. A self-described “verbal acrobat,” she freestyles marketing-speak that on paper looks out of left field but comes across on air as offhandedly inventive. In her dictionary, “gabillion” is an adjective, “novelty” can come in a top or bottom and “pajama fatigue” is no joke. She’s a pitcher-poetess.
“I am much more comfortable letting it all hang out,” she said, “which frankly is hysterical because for the first 40-plus years of my life I was terrified to do that.”
Killinger is from Grosse Pointe, Mich., a Detroit suburb, but spent a chunk of her childhood in Mexico City, where her father, who worked for Ford Motors, moved the family when she was 11. She was bullied there for looking different and bullied again back in America when she pulled up to Grosse Pointe South High School — preppy Izod city — looking “like a combo platter of Debbie Gibson, big bangs, shellacking hair spray, blow dryer to keep them up, white frost lip gloss.”
In 1995, she graduated from Penn State with a marketing degree and later worked in television, including on air in local news in Albany, N.Y., and Orlando, Fla. In 2006, Martha Stewart fired her from “The Apprentice.”
A self-proclaimed homebody, she likes to spend her free time with her husband, Joe Carretta, and adopted daughter, Jagger, who is 6. She also cares for her mother, “who’s 84 and lives with me and is not great and requires a lot of care, and trying to be a mom to a 6-year-old, who, by the way, I’m 51, so I started a little late there.”
Search for Killinger’s name online and the first results are articles about a cheeky on-air debate she had in 2017 with her frequent co-host, the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, about whether the moon is a star or planet. (It is neither.)
I called Mizrahi, and he agreed that anyone who wants to learn how to be more breezily authoritative, or come across like it, should watch what Killinger does with a pullover.
“The confidence that I exude is more like bravado, like a fake confidence,” he said. “Whereas when she puts on a jacket or a little sweater, she looks amazing in it because she’s so committed to how great it looks on her that she really looks great.”
Daniel Pink, the author of “To Sell Is Human,” a book about the science of sales and persuasion, didn’t know who Killinger was before I called him up. But he said that the very best sellers build community with their audience by legitimately believing in their products.
“My hunch is that she’s an effective seller less because she’s a good storyteller but because she actually, sincerely believes in what she’s selling, and she thinks it will make people’s lives better,” he said. “That’s a difficult thing to confect.”
Killinger said she has some say but no veto power regarding which products she sel—— sorry, tells stories about. (QVC wouldn’t say how much money Killinger brings in.) And if she has to pitch something she doesn’t like? I didn’t ask for relationship advice, but I got it.
“If I’m looking at a blazer, I may not like the color of that blazer or the cut of that blazer, but man I love the buttons on that blazer,” she said. “I think the art form and the skill of it is to know that there’s always something that can fascinate you, intrigue you, make you fall a little bit in love, even if it’s not the whole thing.”
The collected Shawn I see onscreen — the one I had just seen barely break stride after accidentally smashing a wine bottle on live TV — isn’t the Shawn she sees on playback. She assumes that when people watch her, they see “just sheer chaos, madness,” she said, and then imagined viewers’ reactions: “‘Does she have a point? Is she just riffing? Or is she anchored in a purpose?’”
“By the way,” she added, “I am.” And what is that purpose? It’s not to peddle.
“When you’re watching, I want you to love that story about my husband manscaping because I want you to be my friend,” she said. “I want you to know that on [expletive] days I’ll be here. You don’t need to buy anything. Just tune me in.”
As I left the QVC compound, I wondered if I was asking myself the wrong question. Maybe my resolution shouldn’t be to sell myself harder but to be myself better. Killinger told me this without telling me this when she recalled this advice she had given herself:
“Why are you trying so hard to fit in when so clearly you’re meant in another way to stand out? Stop trying to put on the party dress and use the right fork, and just talk to everybody about how you’re 51 now so yeah, I think I just tinkled when I laughed.”
Bring it, 2024.