A Conversation With Jonah White, Founder of Billy Bob Teeth
The gag-gift millionaire
By Kevin A. Roberts
The story of how Jonah White made millions of dollars selling novelty fake hillbilly teeth is nearly as bizarre as the product. White anticipates that his company, Billy Bob Teeth (billybobproducts.com), based in Hardin, Ill., will sell its 20 millionth set this month. His journey to this point has been relentlessly weird and fascinating, from the year he spent alone in a cave to a stint wearing a gorilla suit, an experience dining on roadkill with his future wife, and an interlude with Joan Rivers.
Your mom was Jewish, and your dad was a Native American named Five Bears, and they met in jail after a political protest?
Isn’t that awesome? Even better than that, I admit it! [Laughs.] There’s so much in my life that a normal person would never admit to. Growing up, we were so poor that one summer, I didn’t have a pair of shoes. When I saw a kid with a new pair of shoes, I thought they must be rich. My family moved to Illinois in a school bus with 20 sheep in it. I didn’t know any different. I’m proud that we didn’t have indoor plumbing or running water. I have pulled off the road to pick up roadkill, because that was the only meat we could eat.
After you realized you weren’t going to be a professional football player, as you’d once hoped, you lived in a cave for a year, deciding what to do with your life next. You looked into a fire and saw…a career in novelty fake teeth.
And people still call me Caveman. I was living in the bowels of a cave, mulling night after night over all sorts of different ideas—hundreds of them. I tried to realistically look at the pros and cons of everything, and thought about competition and longevity, and I looked into the fire and started to think about very cheap and inexpensive items that would sell for $20 or less, by mail. I felt this was something I could do in my tiny town, as a cottage industry, to support me and my parents.
Have you been in a Billy Bob teeth commercial?
I’m actually in one now for instantsmileteeth.com [co-founded by Rich Bailey]. I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV. [Laughs.] I wore a lab coat. I had to actually buy a pair of slacks for that. It was a traumatic experience.
Did the lab coat remind you of your early days, pretending to be a student at Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine to craft Billy Bob teeth in the student lab?
It kind of did—I had that sellout feel. [Laughs.] You know, when you’re running a con, you really need to con yourself. When I was at that dental school and I put on a lab coat, I myself bought the idea—I became a dental student. Until one day, the jig was up, and I had to grab my materials and run. They changed a lot of rules after I left.
The story of how you initially got the word out about Billy Bob teeth involves aggressive selling at bars and colleges, as well as to used-car dealers.
We sold them everywhere. We did not discriminate. We were opportunistic hunters, and we drew blood wherever we went. We didn’t go to a bank and get a loan and do what people do. We would be so reckless that we would take darts and throw them at a map on the wall. We hit Seattle with one, so we took a four-day weekend and drove there and back, stopping at fraternity houses along the way. Sometimes, we would aim at places that we wanted to go, but I wasn’t a real good darts player. [Laughs.] This would all make an incredible movie.
Have you sold Billy Bob teeth in a lot of St. Louis bars?
There are so many people that will read this that have been accosted by me and [co-founder] Rich at a bar wearing these teeth. My shipping manager grew up in Granite City, Ill., and she remembers seeing us selling the teeth at the St. Clair Square mall. I was wearing a gorilla suit—we always took it up a notch.
Was there a single point where you realized that this was just going to blow up into a huge success?
I had no doubt it would be huge. Still, I’ll admit I never knew it would be this big. My goal was to sell a million pieces. Ninety-nine percent of people told me I was a fool and I’d be out of business in no time. I think the company really hit its stride when we sold 2.5 million pieces. When I got the license for the Austin Powers teeth, it just blew up. I had competitors copying my every move, but we had the momentum, and we couldn’t be stopped. At one point, I was shipping 9,000 sets of teeth a day out of my parents’ house, in ’98.
Describe the psychological transformation people undergo when they put on the teeth.
My teeth are a license to be a maniac. Everyone wants to have fun. They act like they don’t, but they do. When you put the teeth on, you have a license to have fun. One thing I’ve found is that guys typically enjoy when ugly guys hit on their girlfriends and wives. Then they don’t like it so much when you take the teeth out. [Laughs.]
You wore Billy-Bob Teeth for the photo on one of your Illinois state driver’s licenses. How did you get away with that?
They didn’t know they were fake. [Laughs.] I’ve worn them on I don’t know how many government IDs. Now the design is so advanced, it’s even harder to tell if they’re real or not. They buck out almost as much as Gary Busey’s teeth.
The different styles of your teeth have great names: Deliverance, Caveman, Jethro, Huntin n Fishin, Rufus, Cletus, and so on. Did you think of all of those?
Pretty much. I thought of all of them except for Billy Bob, and Rich thought that up.
Have you ever seen someone with already-bad teeth wear Billy Bob teeth?
Sure. I’ve seen teeth that look so fake, I couldn’t believe that they were real. You can’t just automatically say to someone, “Nice Billy Bob teeth!”
Have you ever run into someone wearing Billy Bob teeth and they didn’t realize you’re the inventor?
When Rich and I were in Australia, we found a kid wearing a set of our teeth in a bar in Darwin, Australia, and actually using the joke pickup lines we had put out on a sheet years before for Billy Bob teeth buyers.
So you actually sell more novelty pacifiers than Billy Bob teeth now?
Yes, we sell between half a million and a million of those a year. I invented them in ’98, when my wife was pregnant with our first child, Sydney. I just came up with the idea of putting Billy Bob teeth on a pacifier. Now we make 40 different designs of pacifier, everything from “I Love Grandpa” to camouflage.
You sell various other novelty products, too, like hats with mullets sticking out of the back, sandals with fake toes, and a “Russian roulette revolver” that holds alcohol for drinking games.
I came up with the idea of a drinking game with a fake gun called Russian roulette. You spin the cylinder, and you don’t know who’s gonna drink it. When you squeeze the trigger, an electronic gunshot sound goes off and a light flashes. It holds 2 ounces. It doesn’t actually shoot out of the barrel; you pour it out.
You live in a huge house, on 900 acres in Calhoun County.
We probably have 50 animals living in our house, too, and it’s spotless; you could eat off the floor. We have several lambs, which we’re bottle-raising, four mini Pomeranians, a 200-pound Newfoundland [dog], an African tortoise who weighs about 50 pounds, a chicken, a macaw, several snakes, four or five snapping turtles, a fish tank, geckos, about 12 baby turkeys, four baby geese, and two rabbits. We also have a baby llama. And we’re getting ready to get a wallaby. We have a lot of other outside animals. We have a 1-year-old water buffalo who swims with my kids in the lake, and they ride on his back.
You got to hang out with Joan Rivers when she came to Hardin to film a segment for a TV show called How’d You Get So Rich? a few years ago.
She’s a really cool lady. Heck of a good kisser, too. [Laughs.]
You went to Australia in the ’90s to find a wife—and it actually worked.
I was starting to get some attention for the company; it was really growing, like 30 to 40 percent growth each month. I wanted to find a woman who spoke English and didn’t know I was making good money, to see if she would love me for the real me. My partner Rich and I went to Australia for four months. We slept on beaches and park benches and ate roadkill. I met my future wife, Honey Buns, and she saw everything. I even told her I lived at home with my parents, too, which was true. She fell in love with me for me. Rich and I were selling the teeth in bars in Australia, though, so she saw that I was making Billy Bob teeth and that I had a plan.
And you knew she was the one for you when your car hit a wallaby, and she hopped out and showed you how to butcher the roadkill?
At that point in time, I knew that she was the one I was looking for. [Laughs.] I had to persuade her to come to America and marry me. A month later, I was able to persuade her.
I understand you don’t use a computer.
I do use a smartphone. Last year, I ordered something from an online store for the first time in my life. It was a rifle stock. I did it one time just to say I’ve done it. It’s ironic, but I don’t even know what the hell PayPal is.