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?"
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