Etsy.com, the online marketplace where thousands of crafters peddle their handmade wares, has been largely responsible for sparking a DIY renaissance. If you visit the site at any given moment, you'll find a rotating roster of beautiful, boutique-worthy pieces gracing the front page — everything from handmade soaps and jewelry to fine art photography and couture clothing.
But don't be fooled: unconventional, bizarre, and not-so aesthetically-pleasing items are lurking there too — they're just harder to find. Lucky for us, April Winchell, an L.A. radio personality and voice actress, has taken to unearthing them.
In October of 2009, with little fanfare, Winchell launched the website Regretsy.com, featuring puzzling and peculiar items paired with uproariously funny commentary written under the pseudonym "Helen Killer." The site was an instant web phenomenon and the recently published book is endlessly entertaining.
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April Winchell: I was a big fan of Etsy, and I was buying all kinds of things. Obviously there are a lot of beautiful things on that site, but I'm also a big fan of things that are... misguided or miss the mark in some way. I love bad singing, bad acting. One of my favorite movies is Showgirls. I love stuff that's kind of kitschy and unconventionally wonderful. Some friends and I got into the habit of buying these sorts of things and sending them to each other as hostess gifts. The worst one was when they sent me a white kitchen rug from South Africa with a really bad drawing of Barack Obama stenciled on it, and it said, "Yes, we can." It was just terrible. It came postage due, addressed to a nickname they had for me that I had no identification for, so it took me 10 days of going to the post office every day to try to get it. When I finally did, it cost me 30 bucks. I sent them an email and I told them what an ordeal it was, and they wrote back and said, "Well, you have our Regretsy." And, I thought, "Oh my God, that is a website!"
I bought the domain in May, then forgot about it until a few months later when I thought, "I'm just going to do this. This is going to be fun." My intention in the beginning was to just have something to do and to make people laugh and to be funny, and I thought if I did it anonymously at first, then it might have a better chance of doing well. I had something of a profile online, and I thought people might be predisposed to liking it or not based on how they felt about me.
So, I put it up, and I thought, "Etsy will probably give me a cease and desist in a few days, but I will come out swinging." I had 10 posts up, ready to go, and I threw it all up there. That afternoon I was buying a coffee pot and my friend texted me and said, "You're on the front page of Buzzfeed." I thought, "Well, that's interesting." And when I got home I saw it was on Gawker, Gizmodo, and Apartment Therapy. The next day, I got an email from the Wall Street Journal, and they profiled me twice in two weeks. Within three days I got an offer to just buy the site outright, which I turned down.
Megan: Just three days?
Winchell: Yeah. In the first week I had 30 million hits.
Megan: Wow. So, how did you handle all this?
Winchell: It was really, really weird. You can really kill yourself trying to get people's attention and spend a lot of money, and spend months in development and art direction and writing. I mean, God knows I've done a lot of that. And nobody cares. Nobody — it doesn't capture the public's attention for one reason or another. And then you do something just to amuse yourself — which was really my only purpose — and that's the thing that puts you on the map. You just never know how attention is going to come to you. There are people that I feature on the site that are making a living now selling embroidered toilet paper, getting great offers. A woman who does pornographic pillows is doing them for a sex museum. You just never ever know. There's a woman who did the road kill painting that I featured at Christmas. I just did a story for Nightline and they went to her house. So, you just have to take your opportunity where it comes, and recognize that you have an opportunity and go for it. If I'd known I could have done this, I would have a long time ago.
Megan: What are the qualities of your ideal Regretsy item?
Winchell: It keeps changing. In the beginning anything made with a tampon made me laugh, or if people drew a picture of Robert Pattinson on shoes or a T-shirt or whatever. The Twilight jewelry and all that stuff was hilarious to me. But as the months go by, it's like, "Oh, another tampon crucifix, big deal." It's like drugs. You have to keep getting crazier and crazier to get that high going. But, there are a few things that are always great. I love misspellings. I love bad photography. When it's really blurry and you don't even know what you're looking at, that makes me laugh. I love an annoying description that's usually overly emotional, filled with purple prose about the whole experience of creating this thing. And it's usually ugly as hell.
But the most important thing is is that it has to be really, really sincere. If it's too self-aware or they know they're being funny or silly or happy, it doesn't really amuse me as much. So I look for stuff that's really genuine, when the person really believes that they're making something important or wonderful. And, to me, that's where the comedy is.
Megan: What do you think drives people to make cat toys shaped like fetuses, or hummingbird feeder hats?
Winchell: I think those two pieces are motivated by two very different things. I think the woman who makes the fetus cat toys, and the other woman who makes the dirty diaper cat toys and the crazy giant vaginas stuffed with catnip — those particular women aren't doing it, in my opinion, to be outrageous. They're just doing it because they think it's art. Her motivation is very different than, say, the guy with the hummingbird feeder hat who really lives on a little island somewhere and really loves hummingbirds. He came up with this thing to enhance his own experience watching them feed. That's what I mean by sincere. He's so unaware of what that looks like to the outside world that he's willing to take a risk, and make that thing, and put it out there. He has a YouTube video and he's so sincere in it. The hummingbirds come use the feeder, and you see him very slowly lift his hand up to give you the thumbs up. It's just a hilarious piece of footage. So I think everybody's reasoning is maybe a bit different, but I guess at the heart of it they're all trying to create art that they think that you are going to appreciate. The people who try to be outrageous are generally not that interesting.
Megan: At first you didn't link back to the sellers' actual listings on Etsy because you thought it would be cruel. But they complained, you started linking, and the items you featured started selling. You've said that this was sort of a turning point. Do you think that that positive element is vital to the formula now? Would you still be doing it if the sellers weren't getting anything out of it?
Winchell: That's a really good question. I don't know. There's a big charitable component to the site; it doesn't make any money for me personally, everything goes to charity. That might have been enough to keep me interested. I think that it's possible I might have burned out if that hadn't turned into what it is now. Now it's a participatory thing. There are a lot of people who are collaborating and it has developed a sort of big community as a result. You're waking up and doing something every day that people get something out of. In the beginning, I didn't link to anybody because I thought people would harass them, or send them emails complaining about their work. And that still happens to some extent, but if I find out that they're doing it I usually ban the person who's harassing the seller unless there are other circumstances. But I don't condone people approaching sellers for any reason other than to buy stuff. That to me is not funny.A site like Regretsy really needs to be able to do a lot of good. I call it offsetting my asshole footprint. [Laughter]
Megan: You talked in the book about how you tried to be crafty yourself, but failed. What happened?
Winchell: Well, I don't know. My dad was a fantastic painter, and a great sculptor, and a fantastic toy maker. He was a puppeteer and made all of his own puppets. He was really, really gifted that way. My mother was a comedy writer and couldn't sew. I remember being in Girl Scouts and she was supposed to sew my troop numbers to my sleeve. In the morning, my dress was hung up on my doorknob and she had sewn the number on my pocket instead of my sleeve. But she had fed the whole dress into the sewing machine and had sewn my dress closed. There was no way for me to get into it. I think I have her genes. But I did try. I got a sewing machine. And Etsy really appealed to a crafting pleasure center in my brain and I wanted to make things. I made a lot of dolls, pretty poorly, actually. I sold them for charity but they were dreadful. I think people felt sorry for me.
Megan: Can you explain how the blog has been adapted for the book?
Winchell: It was really important to me that it was not just repackaging. I worked for television, and won a lot of advertising awards — I really do write for a living, so I wanted you to take it home and look at it, and feel like you were reading a book. And that maybe had more to do with my desire than what I thought people were expecting from me. But I didn't want to just repackage my blog. So there's a certain amount of stuff that's been on the blog, and then there's material that sort of mimics the way the blog is laid out. A big chunk of the book is essays that I tried to make kind of self-revelatory. I thought that was only fair considering I'm beating up on people. I wanted to be vulnerable also, and reveal a lot about myself, and make it clear that I don't think that I'm really any better than anybody. Someday I'd like to do a book with more words than pictures, though. [Laughter]
Megan: So, sellers had to agree to be in the book?
Megan: I was reading their comments in the back of the book, and most of them seem pretty good-natured about it. One of my favorites was a woman who said that it was hard to be too serious about making fairy toilets. Is that generally the response that you got from people you approached to be in the book?
Winchell: By the time the book deal happened, the site had gotten a lot of press and a lot of people were talking about it. But the wisdom of participating wasn't really that clear yet. So the people who signed on were very bright, and they knew that no publicity is bad publicity. They knew it was going to be good for them in some way or another. None of them knew what I was going to say about them, and they all just jumped in and I so respect those people for doing that. I think I'm a good deal gentler in the book. And my own comments tend to be a lot gentler than what the readers leave on the site.My intention is not to do a hatchet job on these people. I really like these people, and I like the work too, in my own twisted way.
Megan: So now that you're a few months in, are you having trouble maintaining the quality of the posts? Is there still an endless wealth of material to feature or is it harder to find these items?
Winchell: It only gets hard if I start second-guessing myself. If I look at something and it makes me laugh for whatever reason, I decide that that's sufficient. If I start second-guessing — that's dangerous for any writer, when you start trying to write for your audience and not for yourself. You really lose something.
And sometimes I go too far. You know, sometimes I choose things that I don't think are very funny but that I think are going to please people for one reason or another. And those are always the pieces that don't go over. So, as long as I just try to amuse myself — which is the whole way this became popular in the first place — I tend to do okay.
Megan: Do you think that people are making shitty art on purpose just so you'll feature them?
Winchell: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I see a lot. People on the site call it "Regretsy bait." And you can tell. It's generally just trying way too hard. I saw one the other night, a bracelet kit made from a plastic fork and a balloon. It was $85. And then there's another woman who was trying to get me to do her necklace. It was a string with a hot dog — a real hot dog threaded on it. And there's a picture of a cat looking at it and it's $100. I'm like, no — this isn't real. This isn't the real thing. I don't think that those things are unfunny, I guess — they're just not the right kind of funny. So I generally can tell. On the other hand, sometimes people can get one past you. It doesn't happen very often, but sometimes it does. But if you had to invent a persona for Etsy, and open a store, and write descriptions, and stock a store with 20 different pieces of crap — create all kinds of shit to get my attention — then, okay. I've got to hand it to you.
Megan: Do you have a favorite item of all time?
Winchell: I have several. I love the hummingbird feeder hat, obviously. I love the embroidered toilet paper. I've hired her to make embroidered pantiliner bookmarks that I give away at signings and stuff. I'm also really fond of, and I was just reminded of this the other day, a maternity skirt that this woman made, that looks like she just split a pair of sweatpants.
Megan: Is this the one that's laced up in the front?
Megan: I've seen that, too.
Winchell: I asked about the ribbon and she says they are French.I said yeah, that's very French to be fishing your ribbons out of the toilet or tying this thing around you while you're shuffling around the drugstore looking for enemas. This is the ugliest thing I've ever seen. It was great. It was a great one. I'm trying to make a treasury of my ten favorites.
There's also a genre of crafting, where people up-cycle old sweaters into coats. So they'll cut up sweaters into squares and make this giant, weird patchwork coat with long elf hoods. And they're just so ugly. And they're purple and green and all different shades of horrible, they're just dreadful. So I'm trying to come up with a collection of those. I like that a lot. And I also love things that are made out of garbage. That really cracks me up. The woman who made like a hedgehog out of a Tostitos bag for her kids to play with.
Megan: I think my favorite one of all time is the "Just Married Wedding T-shirt." It had a distorted silhouette of a bride and groom on the front, and you could have it personalized. The art made it look like the lady had a leg like coming out of her neck.
Winchell: Oh, I love that one. The veil makes it look like an Elephant Man with the giant trunk leg. That was a great one.
Megan: We're really excited about your event in Portland on June 19th.
Winchell: Oh, I am, too! I'm really looking forward to it. The one that we had in New York was great. We did an auction for charity, and it was so much fun. We raised a lot of money.
Megan: I saw photos from the event you had in Glendale, where the woman came dressed as a giant penis.
Winchell: She's the woman who makes the turd soap. God bless her.
I spoke to April Winchell by phone on May 5, 2010.
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Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures on Tumblr.
Books mentioned in this post