Who would you want to star in the movie of your life? That's a question single mom Joy Mangano never thought she'd be asked. But when Jennifer Lawrence was tapped to play her in the new film , she couldn't have been more pleased.
It's the perfect meeting of superpowers: shopping-TV's star moneymaker (Joy can clean up $1 million an hour on HSN) and Hollywood's It girl. This truly dynamic duo joined forces to tell Joy's inspiring rags-to-riches story of how some serious elbow grease, ingenious thinking, and pure grit helped the nice girl finish first.
The morning after a marathon 23-hour session selling pillows, body massagers, and air deodorizers on HSN (formerly Home Shopping Network), Joy Mangano opens the door to her Tampa home and greets this GH interviewer like a blood relative. "Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? What can I get for you?" she asks, all in one breath. Blond and perfectly made up, Joy, 60, looks a bit like Kathie Lee Gifford and exudes the BFF warmth of Hoda Kotb.
As befits a woman who has dedicated her life to household management, her place is immaculate. Joy heads into the spacious kitchen, where she's put out a tray of crudités, crackers, and cookies on a marble-topped island. Opening the fridge, she reveals shelves so neatly stocked with healthy eats and fruit-flavored water, it looks like Whole Foods Market five minutes before it opens.
Looking around her six-bedroom, six-bath crash pad for when she's on-air at HSN (her main home is a 40,000-square-foot French-country mansion on Long Island), you can tell Joy genuinely lives — and loves — the vision of domestic life she sells on TV.
On the stove is her , the eco-friendly, nontoxic, nonstick ceramic pots and pans she developed with celebrity chef Todd English. In the powder room, a (whew!) is at work, peacefully pumping its Fresh Linen scent through the house.
In the den, her vintage contraption Totally Tables is set up in front of a sofa (but can convert into a card table or a six-foot dining table in minutes). There are two guitars displayed — one from each of her lines with music stars Keith Urban and Randy Jackson. On the television? HSN, of course, with the sound turned off.
"I can't help it — Iman's there today," she says, referring to the modeling legend who became her celebrity partner in 2013 when they .
Star collaborations and her new movie fame aside, Joy is almost maniacally focused on making everyday women's lives a little bit easier. "When I wake up, I think, What can I do to help others?" she says. "I think we all owe the world something. That's the way I am when I'm designing a product."
Her inventive streak surfaced early, when, at 12, she tinkered with her family's toaster in an attempt to get it to roast as well as toast. "It kind of blew up," she confesses. She also constructed a skyscraper of a treehouse. "It took me two summers to build and had seven distinct stories," she says. "The boys in the neighborhood loved it."
Born in Brooklyn to Italian-American parents, Joy cites her "nurturing, beautiful" great-grandmother and her "hardworking" grandmother, a waitress, as her primary influences. In real life, as in the movie, Joy's own mother, a clotheshorse who worked in fashion and loved to shop, was "not as grounded as they were," she says. "I was the caretaker in my family."
She shouldered that role after her parents divorced when she was in high school. "It was dysfunctional for a very long time," she says. "I became like the parent early on — the harmony keeper. When [my parents] finally really did break up for the last time — after many times — my mother became dependent on me emotionally, and it changed a lot of decisions in my life. I didn't want to leave her alone."
Around this time, Joy had her first eureka moment, which foretold the inventor she'd later become: At 16, working part-time in an animal hospital, she was horrified by the number of pets she saw that had been hit by cars at night. She pitched the idea of a glow-in-the-dark flea collar to a group of veterinarians. They loved the idea, but "I didn't know how to do it," she says. When Hartz launched its fluorescent flea collar a year later, Joy took it as a lesson learned.
In the movie, Joy's mother holds her back — an echo of what happened in real life as teenage Joy buried her early ambitions to focus on caretaking. Although she was a straight-A student and could have had her pick of colleges, Joy felt pressured to stay close to her family, attending Pace University and commuting from her family's home in Queens, which she and her mother shared after the divorce.
"Remember, this was a different generation," she says. "Divorce wasn't commonplace, and it was devastating to her. [My mother's] definition of life was through a husband and children. No matter what, you hold on to the threads of that. It made me look at life in a different way than someone who didn't have this awareness at a young age."
While at Pace, Joy met a "dreamer," Tony Miranne, who helped her life feel lighter. In what seemed like no time, the two were part of a family of five living in the suburbs. "I had a vision of a beautiful family and all the things that come with raising children and being a mother," says Joy. "But Tony was not in the same space as me. He was still being free and having a fun life." An aspiring singer, "he attempted [performing] in various forms," she says. "Finally, I was like, This cannot go on; it's killing me. It was like holding somebody on a ledge and letting go. It's so hard to do."
The couple split. In the movie, Tony remains in her life as her best friend and confidant, even moving into her basement and playing a key role in encouraging her desire to invent things. In real life, he wasn't around much at first.
"I don't think there was a lower time in my life," says Joy. It was 1989, and as a single mom, she waitressed nights and weekends; worked in airline reservations while her mother watched the children; and sold homemade grapevine wreaths — all to scratch together enough money to keep food on the table. The bills didn't always get paid on time. "I really had to say [to myself], How are you going to take care of these kids? Focus; pull it together," says Joy.
If ever there had been a time to reignite her ambition, this was it. One day while cleaning the floor, she wondered to herself why there wasn't a self-wringing mop that would keep her from bending over and getting her hands dirty. Cue the lightbulb over her head: The concept of the Miracle Mop was born.
"People I told were like, 'Who cares?'" she says. "The aha moment for me was that people didn't even realize they'd care about it. [I've been told] I think about things we need and want before we even know we need and want them."
She turned to her father for help. Like Joy, he'd always been a doer, but in a different way. "He had a history of having and losing businesses," Joy says. "He always aspired to be a big kind of successful, to show everybody his success, whereas I am under the radar. I look at life through product, and my goal is to impact people and make their lives better." Over time, her dad came to believe in Joy's mission.
Joy's father in the film, played by Robert De Niro, gets money from a rich girlfriend and gives it to Joy; her real dad gave her a bit of money (and yes, girlfriends were involved). She banged away on her prototype at home and later moved her office into his auto-body shop. She also blew through her savings and tapped other family and friends to scrape up the funds she needed to manufacture mops.
It was a big risk — the mops sold for $20 each at a time when regular mops were less than $5, and they weren't an immediate success. Joy made back virtually nothing through sales at flea markets, but customers who did buy the mops loved them, so she knew she had a potential hit on her hands. Desperate to reach an audience, she turned to the world of TV shopping in 1992, persuading QVC to take 1,000 mops on consignment. Sales were disappointing, but Joy convinced execs to let her go on the air to personally evangelize her life-altering kitchen tool. "I knew it was a great product and, as with anything else, it had to be shown the right way," she says. She sold 18,000 in 20 minutes. "People wanted it like candy," remembers Joy.
A star was born, and so was her company, Ingenious Designs. Joy followed her Miracle Mop with organizational products for jewelry, travel, baked goods, and more. Her biggest hit: Huggable Hangers, with 700 million sold to date. (They're HSN's number one seller.)
But it isn't only her products that appeal — HSN shoppers tune in because they buy into the idea of Joy herself. Her best selling hours are in the dead of night, when harried moms finally have time to kick back with (and buy from) someone they trust and relate to. "The customers believe they're her friends," says HSNi CEO Mindy Grossman. "I walk through the airport with her. People run up and say, 'Joy! You've changed my life!'"
The feedback validates Joy's mission. "The selling is not 'selling' to her," says daughter Christie, 33. "It's a way to connect to customers to enhance their life."
In 1999, Joy's success caught the eye of billionaire Barry Diller. That year, his USA Networks, the parent company of HSN, bought Ingenious Designs. In 2014, HSN netted $2.47 billion in sales, $150 million of it reportedly from Joy Mangano items alone. Her products are also sold by Amazon, Target, The Container Store and, most recently, Macy's.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Joy runs her business like it's an extension of her family. An early decision was to reconnect with Tony and put him on the payroll as a sales executive — a strategic move to get him re-involved with the kids. "We're the best of friends," says Joy, adding, "so again, I'm the caretaker, right? I can deal with Tony because I know he's a great friend, not a great husband. People ask me how I balance work and personal life — I don't, and this is a perfect example of how I blend them together. I get a salesman, he gets a job and everything kind of works out fine."
As the kids grew up, they joined their parents in the business: Christie is senior VP of brand development, merchandising and marketing strategy; Bobby, 32, is a lawyer who oversees the company's business development and global strategies; and Jackie, 30, is a model regularly featured in HSN style segments. There's even an ex-brother-in-law who manages Porto Vivo, Joy's Long Island Italian restaurant. With a personal fortune reported to be near $50 million, Joy has made sure both her parents have benefited from her success as well.
Joy's instinctive need to connect with people led her to the Hollywood movers and shakers who saw big-screen potential in her scrappy drive. Early in her career, Joy was a judge on a competition show featuring inventors, and she hit it off with the show's producer, Ken Mok. After she told him her life story over a long dinner together, "Ken looked at me and said, 'I'm going to promise you something: One day I'm going to make your movie.' I was like, 'Oh, come on!'" A few years later, Joy's phone rang — Ken had made good on his promise and connected her to moviemaker David O. Russell, whose Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle nabbed multiple Academy Award nominations and an Oscar for Jennifer Lawrence (for Silver Linings) — a feat he no doubt hopes to repeat with Joy. (At press time, Joy had received two Golden Globe nominations.)
As research for his script, Russell spent hours grilling Joy about her childhood, family and earliest inventions. "I have absolutely no need for therapy in life ever again," laughs Joy. "We became a special kind of friends. He ended up knowing more about me than the people who have come through life with me."
Russell's next move was to reach out to Jennifer Lawrence. "[Russell] texted me at I think four in the morning, and he was like, 'I think I want to make a movie about the woman who invented the [Miracle] Mop. You want to do it?'" Lawrence said during a 2014 appearance on Live! Kelly & Michael. "I was like, 'Yeah!' I could just imagine David looking at somebody mopping and being like, 'That's my next screenplay.'"
When she and Joy met for the first time, it was love at first sight. "You know how you are meeting somebody and all of a sudden you're finishing each other's sentences?" says Joy. "It was like that."
"I was really inspired by Joy," Lawrence said more recently. "She's so imaginative and powerful, but she put all of her dreams on hold and put everybody else first."
That's a habit Joy just can't shake. Although she remarried, the union, with a high school principal, lasted only a short time. (Tony also briefly remarried and divorced.) There has been nobody particularly special in her life since.
"I've been told I miss every pass made at me!" laughs Joy. "It would be wonderful to have a partner, but in my mind, it has to be like making a product. The product has to be meaningful, impact people — it has to be a great product."
In the movie, Joy is shown as a little girl, playing with a shoebox dollhouse she made herself. Another child asks her if there's a prince in it. "I don't need a prince!" answers the big-screen Joy. Ultimately, neither does the real Joy.
"Generations ago, you weren't complete until you got married and had children," she says. "But you can't truly be [complete] until you know yourself. You have to trust your instincts in life. There are so many times I'll be talking to executives who are afraid to say the right thing — and I will be the one who says, 'Hey, listen! You know what...?' It's paid off every time to be courageous and not sit in the background."
Having the courage to believe in yourself is a theme that threads through every aspect of Joy's life. "I would love to see every woman feel that she knows who she is and how she wants to lead," she says. "Every part of me is passionate about having the ability to do what I never could do when I was young." She pauses. "But if some amazing guy plops out of the sky, that's OK, too!"
Joy's Best Advice for Aspiring Inventors
Be Inventive. When Joy perceives a problem that affects people's lives, "I wonder if there's a way to solve it with a product."
Never give up. "Multitudes of people tried to get in the way of my dream," says Joy. "If you can't go around a rock, go over or under it."
Find a Cheerleader. "My friend Ronni was there for me," says Joy. While others scoffed at her mop idea, "Ronni said, 'That's great!' So I knew I wasn't crazy."
Get help from Joy! The Joy Mangano Foundation () champions inventors who aren't sure how to get their concepts off the ground.
This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of GolfHr.