Step inside the high-stress world of QVC food styling.
"These people work in a cave," says Liz Shockley, a former food stylist who herself logged three and a half years in the cave.
This West Chester cave is better known as QVC, the international shopping channel that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and always when there's nothing else on TV at 3:30 in the morning.
QVC's extravagant windowless studio is fashioned like the interior of a suburban cookie-cutter home with a disconnect in the center where a cluster of cameras can rotate from room to room.
It's a surreal nonstop world where everyone is way too cheery and eager to talk, as long as it doesn't interfere with the taping. Directors don't hesitate to shush loudmouths, and people run off midsentence to have their makeup done, get briefed about the product they're presenting, or pop on camera to introduce the upcoming segment.
"I kid you not, these stylists are just short of magicians," says Mimi Mackenzi, the bubbly and heavily made-up NordicWare spokesperson. "There are very few people who can work under such pressure in this tight format."
Bonnie DiTomo--a freelance food stylist who's also done work for CN8, Fox and The View--says QVC is a "really intense forum of food styling because there's a lot of money riding on the line."
According to DiTomo, within an eight-minute cookbook segment (the standard time allotment), they can sell more than $100,000 in product.
QVC is a billion-dollar moneymaking machine. And food stylists grease this machine with Pam--lots of Pam. It's their secret ingredient to make everything look shiny. They spray layers upon layers of Pam on all eight or 12 or even 14 versions of whatever they're presenting. (Each product must have at least eight "beauties," which are simple but appealing examples of food dishes.)
Ten castle bundt cakes sit on a table outside the kitchen. There's a pink and white frosted princess castle with Belle, Cinderella and Snow White figurines perched in the surrounding courtyard; a safari castle atop shiny rocks with tigers and other wild animals; a Rice Krispie treat castle decorated with marshmallows; a red, blue and yellow frosted castle with small balloons sticking from its peaks; and two jello mold castles.
Inside the kitchen the Cappellis, a three-person styling team hired by NordicWare, prepare fresh samples. Bobbi Cappelli fixes the king on yet another castle. Her daughter Holli jokes with all the people running around as she fiddles with the cakes outside the kitchen. Their assistant Jane Cattle, who looks the perfect homemaker in her apron and flowered turtleneck, melts marshmallows for a Cocoa Krispie castle.
Although the hosts always sample a few dishes on-air, many products are inedible. A ham or turkey might be reused up to five times, "more if we can manage it," says Paula Bower, QVC's broadcast culinary manager. With the massive quantity of food prepared for the set, food costs are substantial. That's why her goal is to reuse everything until it's lost its fresh, glossy look. (This once led to a gut-wrenching, pungent beef stew that turned everyone's stomach each time the cover was opened.)
Food stylists are well-paid--one source says a vendor might pay $1,000 a show, another says she makes about $35 an hour--but the hours are unpredictable.
"When you have a relationship with a vendor and they're notified they have an airing, the first person they call is you," explains DiTomo. "It doesn't matter if my daughter is getting married on that day--I have to be available for that show. You really can't say no."
Since QVC is 24-hour programming, the 50 hours of cooking time allotted each month sometimes fall in the wee hours of the morning.
"Some days you have to get up at 2 a.m.," says Shockley. "Your ass is dragging, but you just do it."
When there's a food-related "Today's Special Value" item, beauties need to be ready throughout the day until the product sells out. Once when styling for Kansas City Steaks, Shockley had to have a perfectly steaming, bloody steak ready at 3 a.m., 7 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. "Talk about major meat anxiety," she laughs.
Twice a year there's 24-hour food programming. "Our stylists will be up for more than 36 hours straight," says Bower. But with no windows, there's no concept of time. "When exhaustion sets in, everyone starts getting bitchy," says Shockley, "then they get punch-drunk."
Add to these excruciating circumstances yet another strain: the food vendor who sees QVC as their big break. Working with a moneymaking machine could mean a hefty return--if the product sells. "You're dealing with a client who just mortgaged their home to get on TV," explains DiTomo. "They've been waiting a year to get here and have their whole life riding on this."