By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
Danielle Colby doesn't remember the object that she and Mike Wolfe argued over about 10 years ago.
Maybe it was a chair or a lamp or who knows. What really stuck out about the meeting was the lesson she learned and the friend she made.
"I met him at a yard sale, and we were interested in the same thing," Colby said. "I wasn't sure whether I was going to buy it or not, so I set it down. He yanked it up. I told him that I was still looking, but he said, 'Looking isn't buying.'"
From there, the two agreed that each one was kind of an ass. Of course, they struck up a great friendship.
So great that when Wolfe pitched the idea of "American Pickers" as a reality TV show, he wanted Colby to work in the office of his antique store.
In its fourth season, "American Pickers" is one of the featured shows on the History Channel's lineup. It debuted in 2010 with 3.1 million viewers, breaking the channel's record for highest-rated debut since "Ice Road Truckers" in 2007.
The show has taken off like crazy since then, propelling Wolfe, Colby and Frank Fritz to a high level of fame and success. Wolfe and Fritz go on the hunt and visit people, trading cash for what they call "rusty gold," while Colby holds down the fort and hunts down potential sellers the two can investigate.
The show is filled with antiques, trivia, nostalgia and playful ribbing between the three main characters -- without the freak-show, train-wreck aspects of other reality TV shows. The show's success, and Colby's small role in it, has altered her life, she said.
"It's still shocking on a daily basis," Colby said. "It's a lot like having children, because you get the best and worst at once. This is like a supernova of awesome s***storm. I just hold on really tight and take it moment by moment instead of day by day."
Colby will appear today in Miami as part of the Retro Signs Antique Advertising Show and Sale at Buffalo Run Casino. She will speak and meet fans of the show.
Colby does anywhere from one to four of these meet-and-greets a month across the country, and she views them as critical to understanding the show's audience.
"Some in the industry have told me that I have a brand and that I shouldn't soil it by doing stuff like this," Colby said. "To me, this is the best way to keep in touch with the people who actually pay my bills and watch the show."
Before getting picked
Colby grew up in a strict Jehovah's Witness household in Iowa. Her father was an artist, whose success led to periods of having and not having that influenced her sense of style.
Her parents also influenced her own sense of business. She recently opened a boutique store in Chicago -- 4 Miles 2 Memphis opened in February in the Wicker Park area and features handmade clothing, jewelry and antiques.
The success from working in the office, on the show and watching her father's experience taught her to never judge a book by its cover, she said.
"Some of the fanciest looking people are starving," Colby said. "The trick is to market to people and give them the best experience they could possibly have when they come in. My dad told me that people want an escape from daily life, so when they walk into your shop, they should feel like they've been transported somewhere else."
She is also known for her tattoos -- one of her more recent ones, a tribute to artist Frida Kahlo, got coverage in celebrity media websites. Now numbering between 20 and 30, Colby said she lost count of how many she has because they all blend into big ones. But she refuses to have any redone, especially her first one.
"Just like every good Iowa girl, I got my first tramp stamp on my lower back," Colby said. "It's a tribal butterfly, and I love it to death to this day. I don't believe in redoing tattoos. I have every original tattoo, because they tell stories of my life. I collect these."
In addition, Colby owned a roller derby team and started a burlesque show, "Burlesque Le' Mustasche," in which she dances under the name Dannie Diesel. Dancing came to her after watching a show in Chicago, where one of the performers was Margaret Cho.
The entire show inspired her to start dancing.
"It was tongue in cheek, naughty and fun, and at the same time it was a beautiful and emotional experience," Colby said. "I left with an idea of sensuality and sexuality that was different from how I was raised. The things we find naughty, they are thought of that way because they inspire laughter."
Atypical antique dealer
Colby was hired by Wolfe to work in the office of Antique Archaeology specifically because of her personality. According to an interview posted to YouTube, Wolfe said he chose Colby specifically because she had the same skill set as he, and she didn't look like anyone who worked in an antique shop, because he wanted viewers to look at antiques like they were fun.
Recording each show is a "laugh riot," Colby said. And while she acknowledged that the show requires multiple takes of some moments, all three characters keep their personalities and working relationships intact.
"We call it 'reality in five takes,'" Colby said. "In order to get a proper flow, sometimes you have to do something three or four times. Or the producer loses footage, so you have to reshoot. It's not always as organic, but we're trying to create an educational experience. All of us have worked really hard to maintain the reality of our lifestyles, and continue to be the solid, reliable, kind, affectionate people that we like to run into."
The audience of the show has led to Colby's background opening up like one of those rusty sheds full of junk on the show. Not everyone likes what they see, Colby said -- especially the burlesque bits. Some regularly criticize her for doing it, saying that she's just cashing in on the show's success -- ignoring the fact that the dancing came before the show.
But if anyone disagrees, she says that's their problem. She'll keep dancing, she said. Burlesque isn't about a picture-perfect woman, she said, noting that performers range in appearances and weights.
"They don't realize that burlesque is about empowerment," Colby said. "They'll get on there and rant and rave ... about my stretch marks and my fat ass. But that's exactly why I'm up there."
Want to go?
Danielle Colby will be featured in a meet and greet from 4 to 7 p.m. today at the Retro Signs Antique Advertising Show and Sale. The event will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. today and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.
The event will feature vintage signs, advertising, gas pumps and more. A two-day pass, which includes the Colby meet and greet, is $25. Details: 405-409-1324.