Backstage in a meeting hall on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, from the MTV reality show Jersey Shore, is changing from one outfit (purple velour, kind of a tracksuit) into another (a dress, very low-cut, very clingy-hootchie, very much her preferred style), getting ready to make an appearance in front of about 1,200 students. She's tiny, not even five feet tall, but in almost all other ways she is some kind of powerhouse. She can take a closed-fist punch in a Seaside Heights, New Jersey, beach-town bar and bounce right back, tears be damned; she can drink herself into oblivion with only an arrest record to show for it; she can wear about 10 pounds of makeup and not sink to the bottom of a hot tub under its weight; she can spend hours producing one of the fakest-looking fake tans ever, and still be proud of it; she's supergood at being on the alert 24/7 for the beefed-up gorilla juicehead of her dreams, despite failing at love repeatedly; she's super-duper good at beatin' up the beat, and fist-pumping, and suggestive pickle slurping, and smushing (or at least appearing to smush), and padding around in pink fuzzy slippers, and all the rest of it that has helped to turn Jersey Shore into the most popular show in MTV's 30-year history, with 8.5 million viewers tuning in every Thursday night to see what drunken, horny-hot, fun-time trouble she and castmates JWoww, the Situation, Deena, Pauly D, Vinny, Ronnie and Sammi will get into next.
Right now, though, Polizzi has to take a leak. Off she scampers. Meanwhile, one of her handlers, a stocky chatterbox named Bryan Monti, is sorting through a bunch of questions submitted by the Wake Forest kids for Polizzi to field in a few minutes. He's frowning. He's not liking what he's reading. "How much wood would a Snooki suck if a Snooki could suck wood?" they want to know. And, "How many Snookis does it take to screw in a light bulb?" And, "Do you swallow?" And, "What is your IQ?" And, "What state are you in?" And, "Is Vinny's dick really that big?" Clearly these questions suggest what most of the country, Jersey Shore fans or not, think of Polizzi – that she's an oversexed vacuous bubblehead if not a garden-variety simpleton idiot – but now is not the time to get into that, and into the trash they all go. Finally, Monti finds one he can get behind – "How do you suggest we could Snookify Wake Forest?" – and shouts, "OK!"
Suddenly, it's time for her to go on. She struts into the spotlight, ascends a riser, waves that cheesy glamour-girl wave of hers, and crosses the stage, soaking in all the cheering and the echoing shouts of "Snooki! We love you, Snooki!" "Hey, Snooki, you're so hot!" "Oh, my God, Snooki!" And then, for the next two hours, it's all about Snooki, her life and times, her hopes and dreams, and her answer to the question of why she's so popular: "I say what's on my mind, and I'm real. And I'm tan." The audience goes bananas.
It's everything Polizzi has ever wanted. "I've always wanted to be famous," she likes to say. Then again, it'd be nice if she didn't have to spend all those hours in front of a camera, being filmed all day and night, trapped in a house with no escape, until it almost begins to feel like torture. Or if she didn't get those nightmares. Or if people would stop calling her Snooki so much. Or if she didn't feel compelled to watch the show every time it comes on, no matter how bad it makes her feel.
"I guess I watch it just to help the ratings," she says later on. "But if I do something stupid, which is pretty much the whole time, I hate it. I just hate it. Obviously, they're only going to put the good stuff in, and the good stuff is us drunk, so all I'm seeing is me drunk and falling down. That's how I am when I party. But some of the stuff I do is, like, 'Really, Nicole?' I look like a freakin' alcoholic. I'm like, You're sweating, your makeup is running, you look gross.' I just look like shit."
If only people could see her for who she really is, as opposed to the carnival sideshow she appears to be. "When I look in the mirror, I see Nicole, I see me," she goes on. "Then I sometimes see a crazy nut job that just wants to party. So, there's two sides. I'm still understanding myself. I'm still trying to get myself. I mean, it's hard for people to see you one way, but you're really the other way, so it's kind of like, 'Who am I, who are you?' Sometimes," she says finally, "I confuse even myself."
Jersey Shore was a hit pretty much right out of the box, with viewership rising steadily throughout its 2009-2010 first- season, nine-episode run, going from 1.35 million to 4.83 million, based primarily on two things. One was how the kids on the show constantly referred to themselves as "guidos" and "guidettes," which infuriated lots of Italian-Americans, who made a big stink about it, calling it racist stereotyping, thus ensuring a sizable initial audience. Then came Episode Four, the one titled "Fade to Black," in which some meathead in a bar pops Polizzi in the face and down she goes, sobbing. Up until that moment, she had been the show's outcast, due to her drunken, slutty, vomitous behavior, but after the punch, and after the others came to her aid, everything changed. Now they were a family, sniping and snarling at each other ("from, like, 'I hate you, I hope you die,'" says Polizzi) but always coming through when it counts ("to then it's like, 'Oh, my God, I love you, I can't live without you'"). It's the only thing redeeming about the show. Family matters most. And people watched. It gave them the real-life happy ending, while allowing them to talk about how awful it all was the next day.
What's curious, though, is how Jersey Shore's popularity keeps rising. It shows no signs of leveling off. Right now, it sits at the top of the ratings pile for all shows from every cable network in the core demographic of 12-to-34-year-olds. Apparently, no one can get enough of watching Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, 25, get a rectal exam and continue his pointless bickering with hysteric girlfriend Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola, 23; or Deena Nicole Cortese, 24, prove herself a worthy successor to despised departee Angelina Pivarnick, 23, by claiming she doesn't bang guys she just met and then doing just that; or Paul "DJ Pauly D" DelVecchio, 30, bring his drink-throwing stalker back to the house for a little reconciliation; or Jenni "JWoww" Farley, 25, pee behind a bar or act as concerned therapist for a freaked-out, post-arrest Snooki; or Vinny Guadagnino, 23, turn a big honking vuvuzela into a "grenade whistle"; or Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, 29, make yet another tiresome reference to his abs; or Polizzi posit whale sperm as the reason why the ocean is salty. And, lucky us, they're all about to pick up and take themselves to Italy, to film Season Four.
But what is it about this gang of knuckleheads that is so compelling and makes them so worth their reported paychecks of $30,000 an episode? Last year, The New Yorker spent 1,732 words on this very topic – seriously, how is it possible that a show in which the participants "don't do anything except sleep and party and drink and hook up and spend quality time with their hair" can capture so many viewers? – and eventually concluded, "Somehow." There's always the everybody-loves-a-train-wreck theory, of course, and the it's-the-end-of-the-world, sign-of-the-times theory, but even combined neither seems up to the task of justifying the size of the Jersey Shore juggernaut. Not for nothing, then, this is probably a good time to blow the dust off of old Gustave Flaubert and give him the last word: "Stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions." So unless you're a competing network suffering at its hands, perhaps the best thing to do is to relax, give your brain a rest, and simply look at Jersey Shore as a kind of inexplicable natural phenomenon, much like sperm whales when they're doing their mating thing and spewing salt all over the sea.
At 23, Polizzi is the youngest of the Jersey Shore eight – and its biggest star, center stage when the cast rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, parodied on South Park, caricatured on SNL, chided by Sen. John McCain for not wearing sunscreen. She's become a single-name pop-culture staple who in the past year has spent most of her off-camera time trying to monetize that happy circumstance. She's got a line of Snooki jewelry and is already moving vast numbers of Snooki Slippers. She's written (or at least phoned in some ideas for) a roman a clef-type novel, A Shore Thing, about two girls doing the beach thing, which has spent a month on the New York Times bestseller list. She also does public appearances, making between $15,000 and $25,000 for two hours of her time, as she did last night both at Wake Forest, and then, later on, at a club called Allure. Plus, she's filmed a pilot for a Jersey Shore spinoff with her pal JWoww, about their Laverne-and-Shirley efforts to find a new home in suburban New York.
"Nicole has this innocence to her that I wish I still had," says Farley. "She's naive to the world and day-to-day things. All she's about is having a good time, which is how it should be, and our show is going to be about us just being us."
"And then, when Jersey Shore ends," Polizzi says, "I'm going to do more spinoffs, and if MTV doesn't want them, another network will. Like, 'What does Snooki do now?' or 'Snooki's getting married!' What I'd like is to turn out like Jessica Simpson, with her whole brand. She makes millions. It's only been a year, but I'm actually very smart about this business. I'm trying to build an empire, because after this, I cannot get a normal job. I mean, how do I go and sit behind a desk? It's insane. I can't. I'd like to finish my degree as a vet tech, but just to do that? I mean, what am I going to do?"
She's saying this up in her downtown Greensboro, North Carolina, Marriott hotel room, leopard-print Snooki Slippers on her feet, pouf not yet constructed, wrapped up tight in a snug pink Hello Kitty robe, facing the day after a relatively easy night of drinking, no blackouts involved. On the show, she sometimes looks like one of those grenade girls the guys try so hard to avoid. In person, she's much prettier, more delicate, not as jagged around the edges, despite the resilient, unwavering squawk of her voice. She seems pensive, though, and it's odd to hear her expressing anxiety about the future, because her normal stance is that she only exists in the now. "If I had a motto, it'd be, 'Party it up, live it up, and don't be sad over stupid shit,'" she says. And usually that's exactly how she is: upbeat, outgoing, ready to drink, dance and make out with all comers, probably texting and tweeting at the same time. "The first time I met her, I was like, 'Oh, my God, this girl's just like me – I'm having a freaking blast!'" says Cortese. "The minute we met each other, we were taking shots." But now she's not like that. She's quiet, or, more accurately, speaking softly, because when it comes to gabbing, she is second to none and can spend hours engrossed in talking about Jersey Shore, revealing numerous compelling and hitherto unglimpsed facts and shocking tabloid-worthy secrets along the way.
For instance, it's been reported that the cast made $5,000 to $10,000 an episode for the first season; in fact, according to Polizzi, the only money they took in came from working at the T-shirt store. It was like the early days of rock & roll.
"We were naive," she says. "We didn't know what was going on. They put us in a room and gave us, like, 500 pages of stuff to read. Nobody read the contracts. I'm 21, what am I going to read? We just signed away. I really didn't care about the money. I just wanted to be on TV. I was just like, 'Yay!'"
And then there's how it is for her and the others during the filming of the show. None of it is apparently staged. But they all know what's expected of them, and they do their best to deliver.
"The first season, we definitely amped it, because we didn't know if the show was even going to air, so we went all out," she says. "But I kind of party a little bit too much, to where I don't want to, but if I don't, I know I'm not going to get airtime, and if you don't get airtime, that hurts you in the end." And despite all the airtime it earned her, getting arrested for public drunkenness last July was especially upsetting: "I was very depressed, and then having the camera in your face all the time doesn't help the situation."
And there are lots of cameras. According to show co-creator and executive producer SallyAnn Salsano, the lineup includes 35 cameras in fixed locations around the house, run by remote control; 12 hand-held cameras; one big IMX camera; and six DV cameras. "We're wired a couple of miles down the boardwalk, too," Salsano says. "If they're on the Ferris wheel, I can watch them." And watched they are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the two months it takes to film a season.
"Yeah, they have cameras everywhere, all the time," Polizzi says. "In my bedroom, they're in all four corners, small ones up high, so they can get everything. They zoom in and out. You can hear them moving all night. You're always being watched. You kind of get a little paranoid, because you're like, Who's watching me?' Well, there's 10 people watching you even if you can't see them. When it's over and I'm back home, I'll dream that I'm still in the house with a camera in my face, and I wake up and I feel like I'm still in the house. It's trippy. It messes with your head. But that's why we go crazy. That's why we fight with each other. That's why we drink. We're living in a house for two months with that shit. We can't have cellphones, TV, radio or the Internet. If the president died, we'd have no idea. There's no normalcy. It's just like a prison, with cameras. The only time we're not on camera is when we're in the shower, and that's why we all take three-hour showers, just to get away from it. Another reason is, if you masturbate, you probably only do it in the shower. Otherwise, you'd know that people are looking at you. That's awkward."
She's beginning to look a little exasperated. She says that the way the show is edited, she seems like maybe the world's biggest slut, but it just isn't so. "The only person I've had sex with on Jersey Shore is my boyfriend, which is in an upcoming episode, and that's the only time. The guys you see me bring home, we're only cuddling and making out like any other person would do, but we're on camera and the whole world's seeing it, and it does look like I'm having sex."
Unloading like this, she suddenly seems vulnerable in a whole new way, and very fragile. She's no longer the "Party's here!" girl. She's some other kind of girl, with more smarts, more insight, more confusion, more anxieties. What else is she going to do, indeed. She's trapped, she knows she's trapped, and she knows she's going to stay trapped, until Jersey Shore's inevitable last call and its final late-night drunken stumble down the Seaside Heights boardwalk.
Actually, like many of the Jersey Shore gang, Polizzi is not Italian and not from New Jersey. She's Chilean. She was given up for adoption at six months, and was raised by Andy and Helen Polizzi, of Marlboro, New York, a small upstate hamlet on the Hudson River. She was frisky as a kid, always getting into trouble, stealing checks from the bank so she could play banker at home, stealing paper bags from the Shop Rite so she could add them to her paper-bag collection ("I was 10. I actually collected shopping bags. Isn't that weird?").
Around seventh grade, she started getting called Snooki; contrary to popular belief, the nickname is derived not from her exploits as an early teenage make-out artist, which was yet to come, but from a character in the movie Save the Last Dance.
In eighth grade, on weekends, she would go to teen nights at a club called Matrix across the river that was frequented by lots of dolled-up Italian-American babes from Long Island. They dazzled her. "I'd never seen girls like that before. I envied their style and attitude and confidence. I mean, I already had confidence, but this was different. While everyone else went emo or goth, I evolved into the guidette lifestyle, with the tanning, the pouf high hair and the hot clothes, and everyone was like, 'Oh, my God, you look so hot,' stuff like that. It was sexy."
Luckily for Polizzi, both her father, a volunteer firefighter and auto-salvage supervisor, and her office-manager mother took a more or less hands-off approach to child rearing. "If you tell kids what to do, they get resentful and do just the opposite," says Andy Polizzi. "We just tried to guide her in the right direction and let her mold herself. Do I agree with some of the things I see on the show? Definitely not. But you stick by your children."
That summer, Polizzi kissed a boy for the first time, skipped home afterward, and "was, like, 'Yay!'" she says. "And then after that, he and I would just make out like freaks. I like kissing. Kissing is important. But if a guy sticks his tongue down your throat, it grosses me out and makes me want to throw up and I'll be like, 'That was gross,' and I walk away. Why would I keep doing it if I didn't like it?"
In ninth grade, she ran afoul of the older girls in her high school, who hated her, she thinks, for the crime of being so popular. "They made up a rumor that I had got it in the ass by one of the seniors. They were calling me Stinkin' Incan for the longest time. I was like, 'I've never even had sex, he didn't put it in my butt!' Then they wrote 'Nicole's a slut' on the walls and made my life a living hell. I think that's why I'm such a strong person today."
In 11th grade, at prom, she lost her virginity. "When I saw him again in class, he ignored me. I was like, 'Cool. This is what life is? Great.' I definitely regret my first time. It sucked."
After graduation, she went to community college to become a veterinary tech. But what she really wanted to become, and always had wanted to become, was a household name. She didn't know why. She just did. So when she read on Face-book about open auditions for an MTV reality show called Is She Really Going Out With Him? she grabbed her then-boyfriend, made the cut, appeared in an episode, loved everything about it, read about another MTV open audition, this one held at the Jersey Shore, where she just happened to be that day, went on a bar crawl, downed a few Long Island iced teas, and wound up in the basement of another joint, trying out for Jersey Shore. "I was wearing leggings and a fur coat and I walked in like I was hot shit, because I always think I'm hot shit, and I had my big pouf, and they were like, 'What is that?' – because I was so out of this world. I've always been crazy and outrageous and spontaneous. I've never really cared what anybody thought about me."
The producers were thrilled.
"The minute Nicole walked into the room and began talking, we fell in love with her," says Salsano. "She was very wide-eyed, and she was very pure in what she was looking for at the Shore. She said she was destined to find a guido to marry, live in a McMansion, have a couple of kids and be all set: 'Come on, what else am I going to do?' It was not a joke. She was totally serious. She's one of the most honest people I've met in my entire life."
And so that's how she got to where she is today.
Well, let's not forget about the drinking. The drinking has been instrumental in her rise, too. She says she started when she was 16, the same year she threw a party at her house where booze was involved and a boy who got drunk there died in a car crash. She was charged with prohibited sale of alcoholic beverages and paid a fine. The incident was sealed due to her status as a minor, but last year, someone told RadarOnline about it. Polizzi has never spoken openly about what happened, until now.
"I definitely want to clear that up," she says. "People think I served him alcohol. I didn't supply any alcohol. Everyone brought it themselves. His name was Mike, the guy that passed away, and he brought his own beer, and we were all having fun. Then he got drunk and into a fistfight with one of his friends, and my boyfriend, Tommy, told him he was too drunk to drive and drove him home. That's when he got in his car and drove and crashed. The next day at school, everyone was like, 'Oh, my God, our friend died.' It was a very bad week. I had to go to see investigators, because they wanted to charge me for his death. It was so bad. I have the worst luck ever, I swear to God. I was like, "What the hell, I didn't do anything.' I got charged for selling alcohol at my house, but it was a friend who did that. She only sold it to one person. Her parents would have killed her, so I took the heat. She owes me, big-time. Then after the show came out, what happened came out publicly. Maybe his mother did that, because obviously she's going to get pissed when she sees me partying on TV and she's like, "Yo, my son died at her house from partying.' I totally understand that. But Tommy and I tried our best. Mike made a bad decision. Anyway, after the party, my parents started to get really strict with me. I was like, 'All right, maybe we shouldn't drink until we're 21.' But it didn't stop. I never got into a car or drove with anyone who was drunk. But I still went to parties and did those experiences." And it's those experiences, as much as anything else, that really got her to where she is today.
Today, she is signing copies of A Shore Thing at the Greensboro Barnes & Noble, sitting between Bible and Science Fiction/Fantasy, next to her friend (and occasional Jersey Shore guest and hot-tub make-out partner) Caitlin Ryder. Fans come up, most of them young girls.
"Could you write 'Happy birthday'?"
"Do you do shout-outs on Twitter?"
She glances down, then over. "Ryder, can you be on nipple patrol?"
"Sure, I'll be on the lookout for those pervs staring at your boobs."
"I have a headache," Polizzi says some 200 signed books later. She used to sign them "Snooki" but has recently switched to "Nicole Snooki," doubling her workload. "My hand hurts," she says.
A guy walks past.
"I would do that."
"What, you wouldn't? Did I say that too loud?"
Another girl. "Hi, Snooki. Wow. Oh, my gosh."
"Oh, why are you shaking?"
"Snooki, you are my idol."
"But I feel bad. Oh, don't cry, girl. Why is she shaking?" she asks Ryder.
"She's happy. She loves you."
"I just don't get it," Polizzi says later. "I just don't get how people are so fascinated by me. I'll never get it."
Nor will The New York Times. No big surprise there, of course, but in a profile of Polizzi, the paper found itself so frustrated by its inability to get her that it decided to trash her instead. It went after her intellect, concluding that "trying to hold a conversation with Snooki is a little like getting down on your hands and knees with a child." It went after her looks, describing her as "not conventionally attractive . . . busty and short-waisted with small legs; sort of like a turnip turned on its tip." It called her manner of dress "atrocious," and, in summary, said, "Like a rare, unstable gas, she is not likely to last much beyond the moment." Deliciously amusing stuff, but it misses the point. The point is, people find Polizzi fascinating largely because of those things and because she has the confidence to not be apologetic about them. This also explains why she is the breakout star of the show. All the others are recognizable both in appearance and in attitude. But Polizzi stands apart. Sometimes it's weird and unsettling, like in her whole talk about the death of her friend and how being investigated for it was such "bad luck." Plainly, she's got issues. But like an arcade Wack-A-Mole, she will not go down easily.
Back in her hotel room, Polizzi has decided she wants a cigarette.
"There's three smoke detectors right there," says Monti, her handler. "You could get fined $500."
"OK, well, I'll pay it. I want a cigarette."
Calmer heads prevail, however, and soon enough, she's outside smoking her cigarette and telling more about her life and times. She is afraid of the dark and would prefer to sleep with a TV on all night; while filming Jersey Shore that's not possible, of course. Sometimes during moments of stress, she'll sit down in front of her computer and spill her guts into the webcam lens, replicating in private the debriefing sessions that occur in public on Jersey Shore; afterward, she'll watch these webcam moments and think, "Damn, I'm entertaining!" The most soothing word in her vocabulary is "cuddle." She often has nightmares about the end of the world: "Just, like, a fire starting," she says, "and it keeps going, and everyone burns."
She really would like people to stop calling her Snooki.
"I miss people calling me by my real name," she says. "All I've been hearing is Snooki, so now when people call me Nicole, it's like, "Yes, that is my name.'" She takes a drag on her cigarette, lets out a drifting plume of smoke. "I mean, it's worth it," she goes on. "Look where I am now. Opportunities like my own clothing line and my book, which I would never get if I was just a normal person. I bought my mom a new BMW, I'm trying to buy my dad a truck. I got myself a BMW to replace my crappy Honda. My grandma was 10 deep in debt, and I paid that off. What's going on now makes up for those two months of torture. I had no idea where I was going in life. Now I'm sure where I'm going to end up. One day, I'll be able to say, 'Grandma was famous at one point, famous for her hair and partying at the Jersey Shore.'"
Now who could have a problem with that?
This story is from the March 17th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.