Under the big white tent across from the Dairy Building, you’d think you were at the Mike Lindell Fair, not the Minnesota State Fair. The MyPillow inventor’s mustachioed face is everywhere: on signs, on sticks, on bobbleheads, on life-size cardboard cutouts and television screens playing his ubiquitous infomercials.
Lindell started his Chaska-based company by selling pillows at fairs. Nearly 15 years and 43 million pillows later, MyPillows are on shelves at Walmart and Costco, or can be ordered direct, as advertised on one of Lindell’s TV pitches, which have aired more than 2.5 million times.
Here at the fair, fans of all stripes approach Lindell: a woman in an “I [heart] lefse” tee, a guy with a big tattoo on his neck, a little girl celebrating her birthday who wanted a MyPillow for her gift (Lindell threw in a free pillowcase), an older lady with four MyPillows stacked on her walker.
“Love, love, love your pillows,” one woman said.
“Love your story,” another added.
“Thank you for being a light for Jesus,” a man enthused.
And they all wanted to know: “Can we get a picture?”
A teen livestreamed himself as he hugged Lindell and addressed him as “the man, the myth, the legend.”
Mr. MyPillow never takes the smile — the same one in his cardboard likenesses — off his face.
Lindell, 57, is what you’d call a talker. It’s like he’s never met a period, or even a comma. His raspy voice punches every third or fourth word — “passion,” “hope,” “amazing” — as all great pitchmen do. Get him going and Lindell speaks in one run-on sentence of tall tales, strong convictions and vague platitudes. He comes off as borderline manic, like someone high on drugs.
This is especially true when Lindell narrates his unbelievable life story: an addict turned pillow magnate who went from crack house to the White House.
He tells the same tales he’s shared with CBS, CNBC and Bloomberg Businessweek, with the same phrasing and anecdotes. An hour in, he repeats a story he’s already relayed. It is a good one, though, proof of his ability to prove his critics wrong: During the rehearsal the night before he taped his first infomercial, one of his producers texted the other, “This guy is going to be the worst guy I’ve ever seen on TV.”
Lindell’s producers weren’t the only ones who didn’t have confidence in him. He long suffered from a lack of self-esteem, which he traces back to his parents’ divorce, when he was 7.
After moving to a new school in Chaska, he developed a fear of talking to strangers.
“I had this fear of rejection,” he said. “I had this inner unworthiness.” So he acted out to fit in, showing off with daredevil stunts, such as the time he evaded a couple of bullies by leaping out the window of a moving school bus, he said.
After high school, Lindell went to the University of Minnesota, but dropped out after just a few months. At his five-year high school reunion, Lindell felt intimidated by his peers with college degrees and families.
To impress his classmates, Lindell told astonishing tales: the time he crashed his motorcycle and the same day had a parachute malfunction while sky diving; Mafia bookies coming to his house to collect $20,000 worth of bad sports bets; his short-lived career as a professional Las Vegas card counter.
He also liked to talk about his near-death experiences: He claims 14, including being trapped under the ice and getting electrocuted.
“I would tell these stories that were so over-the-top — and they were true — because I didn’t have anything else good to say,” he said. “I did it to bring up my self-worth and get attention, so I wouldn’t have to talk about not having a family or girlfriend.”
Over the next two decades, Lindell poured himself into various entrepreneurial enterprises: raising a herd of feeder pigs, running carpet-cleaning and lunch wagon businesses, buying a couple of bars — not the most sustainable career for an addict, he admits.
A dream come true
Lindell’s best business idea came to him in a dream.
In 2004, after a lifetime of fitful sleep, he conceived of MyPillow and enlisted his kids to help create a logo and prototype, which used foam shredded into small, medium and large hunks that would interlock like aggregate. Its advantage was that it could be shaped, like down, but its springiness offered more support.
Lindell couldn’t persuade the big-box stores of the pillow’s potential and fared only marginally better when he set up a kiosk in an Eden Prairie mall a few months later. But once he started selling at home shows, expos and fairs, sales improved. Lindell loved telling people how his invention could help them; the booth was the one place he could talk to strangers without being high on drugs.
But as the product was getting traction, Lindell’s business and personal life were on the skids. His wife of 20 years had left him. He’d filed for bankruptcy. He was addicted to crack cocaine.
Finally, Lindell’s primary drug dealer staged an intervention and ordered others to cut him off: “ ‘He told them, ‘If some crazy white guy with a mustache wants drugs, don’t sell to him.’ ”
Lindell talked to a newly sober friend, Dick Van Sloan, about getting clean. (The main thing Lindell wanted to know was: “Is it boring?”) He embraced religion and prayed he’d be rid of the desire for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Contrary to the experience of virtually all addicts, his cravings vanished.
The business’ breakthrough came shortly thereafter, through Lindell’s now famously cheesy infomercials. The first one aired in late 2011, with Lindell, dressed in a satiny blue button-up with a cross around his neck, unscripted, gesticulating wildly and raving about MyPillow.
It was the right medium for the message. As with many health issues, sleeplessness can create a certain desperation. Those replacing rest with late night television were willing to try anything, even a mustachioed maniac’s lumpy pillow.
MyPillow was an overnight sensation, and the privately owned company grew from five employees to 500 in a little more than a month, Lindell said. He gave jobs to people he knew from casinos, people who needed a second chance and once, so the story goes, as a consolation prize to a romantic suitor.
By early 2012, Lindell’s pitch became the country’s top infomercial on the independent ranking firm Jordan Whitney’s coveted list. And “the MyPillow Guy” became a household name.
Lindell’s likability may not be universal, but his celebrity can’t be denied. He’s a meme with a bobblehead. People dress up like him for Halloween.
His trademark chunky cross and Tom Selleck mustache aren’t going anywhere; he hasn’t changed his look in 40 years.
“You know, my sister, she does my hair, and she says, ‘Why don’t you try changing your hairstyle?’ ” Lindell said. “And I go, ‘I like it. Why would I change something I like?’ ”
In an era when consumers increasingly seek authenticity and transparency, Lindell’s approachable attitude appeals, said Matt Kucharski, president of the Minneapolis PR firm Padilla. The MyPillow guy’s look may be dated, but it’s him. Lindell believes his relatability is what draws people: “I’m just the guy next door and I had problems and addictions, too,” he said.
His redemption story holds an even more powerful appeal, offering hope to those seeking transformation. Lindell’s narrative turns failures and mistakes — the DWIs, divorces, bankruptcies, violation of a restraining order — into obstacles valiantly overcome. His success leads others to believe that they, too, could make an absolute mess of their lives, and somehow come out of it a happy, well-rested millionaire.
Not losing sleep
It hasn’t all been sweet dreams for MyPillow.
Last year, the Better Business Bureau dropped the company’s A-plus rating to an F due to its ongoing “buy one, get one free” offer; the BOGO had run so long that it was no longer a “deal” but the regular price. (The BBB said that it has contacted the company more than 20 times, but that MyPillow has not met its requirement that products must be offered at full price for more than six months out of a calendar year.)
Around the same time, MyPillow agreed to pay $1 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that it made unverified claims about its product’s ability to curb medical conditions including insomnia and sleep apnea.
And while Lindell says he runs his business “like a ministry, like a big family,” some members may not be feeling the love. In 2014, an anonymously posted YouTube clip showed Lindell ranting at his staff, dropping F-bombs.
The negative publicity hasn’t curbed Lindell’s public appearances. This spring, he shared his story to teens at a Christian evangelism event at U.S. Bank Stadium. (He said he also provided 50,000 MyPillows to set a Guinness record for the World’s Largest Pillow Fight.)
In July, he rode the company’s float in the Chaska River City Days Parade, joining his staff in tossing travel pillows into the crowd, like bags of cotton candy. In August, he threw out the first pitch at a Twins game and autographed mock baseball cards depicting him in uniform — “the kids all recognize me from TV; they hug me,” he said.
Those who don’t spot Lindell in person or catch his infomercials on TV can always watch his self-made documentary online. In a “This Is Your Life” riff, a talk-show hostess presents Lindell with his kids, longtime employees, key vendors and media personalities who pile on compliments about his passion, perseverance and real-ness.
Two years ago, Lindell caught the attention of another self-styled success: Donald Trump, who invited the pillowmaker to a one-on-one meeting. Since then, Lindell’s support for the president has brought increased attention from the national press.
After the once apolitical Lindell spent last Easter weekend at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, the New York Daily News dubbed him Trump’s “new best friend.” At a June rally in Fargo, Trump called Lindell “the greatest” and said he and Melania were both sleeping on MyPillows.
Lindell’s support of Trump, along with his decision to advertise on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show after she mocked a school shooting survivor this spring, spurred calls on social media to #BoycottMyPillow. (Lindell told Breitbart News that sales remained “strong.”)
Using a product’s inventor as its company spokesperson has several benefits. It can make the brand easier to identify, more personable and more credible, said Padilla’s Kucharski. But if the spokesperson’s behavior or beliefs don’t jibe with the company’s mission, its revenue and culture can be at risk. If you’re going to be the “hood ornament” of a company, he warned, “your opinions become the company’s opinions.”
The pillow as platform
The way Lindell talks about his faith in Trump (“Whenever he does stuff, he’s doing it for a reason and sometimes only he knows. When it gets to the end result, it’s going to be way better”) sounds a lot like the way Lindell talks about his faith in God.
It’s the same type of trust Lindell aspires to cultivate from his audience, telling them, essentially: You can count on me to help — whether you want to get a good night’s sleep or transform your life — without having to worry about the details.
He is fond of describing MyPillow as simply a “platform” for his larger goal of improving people’s lives.
“I want to be maybe the modern-day Billy Graham,” he said. “That’s what drives me — to be able to help people get to their own calling and find their own peace.”
He hopes to do so through a forthcoming recovery network, run through his foundation, based on gathering “stories of hope” like his own. He aims to film video testimonials and connect addicts to mentors and faith-based treatment centers.
In addition, Lindell wants to inspire people through his much delayed, self-published autobiography, now scheduled to debut in January.
“It’s going to sell 30 million copies in six months — you can write that down,” he crowed.
He’s equally optimistic about his romantic future. After a monthlong second marriage in 2013, Lindell has a new girlfriend who shares his Christian faith, and he sees nuptials on the horizon.
And, of course, he’s still peddling pillows, often from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., taking calls from the 1,000-some employees who have his cell number, while jet-setting to speaking engagements and business meetings.
His pal Tom Barnard, the KQRS Radio personality, introduces people to Lindell with the following warning: “He’s not going to sit still, and he’s always on his phone.”
Lindell’s eldest daughter, Heather Lueth, one of several family members who work at MyPillow, has had a lifetime to get used to her father’s whirlwind ways and tall tales, which she seems to view with bemused skepticism. Despite her father’s newfound celebrity, they can still go out to dinner without being mobbed. That said, she once met a woman who loved MyPillow so much that when she learned Lueth was Lindell’s daughter, she asked to take Lueth’s picture.
For his part, Lindell said, his fame hasn’t really curbed his freedom, except when he speaks at events.
“I can’t go into the crowd now because I get stuck there,” he said. “My heart wants to talk with each and every person, and I’ve got people with me that say, ‘You can’t do that.’ I forget that I’m not the common person. I’m just an ex-crack addict who wants to be right there with the people.”
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569