In the parking lot of a Chili's in Edison, New Jersey, a small crowd is congregating, staring through the windows at Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi. The 22-year-old Jersey Shore star lives in Poughkeepsie, New York, but asked me to meet her at this particular Chili's because it's the site of her date with a guido juicehead who lives near here. "We're gonna smoosh later," she says, sliding her tiny tan self into a booth, wearing a blinged-out trucker cap and clutching a frozen margarita in a large mug. In the background, the staff sings the Chili's happy-birthday song to a patron, and Snooki gets lost in reverie. "I love Chili's," she says. "I got kicked out of Chili's last time I was here. I had too many of these, and I got up on the bar and knocked over all the bottles of Chili's liquor. They kicked me out for two days, until they realized who I was and brought me back." Snooki had reason to party: "It was Sunday Funday," she says. "Where you say, 'It's Sunday, I'm going to get drunk.' Is today Sunday?"
It's a Monday evening in June. But for Snooki, the pint-size princess of reality TV, every day is like Sunday. Snooki, with her baked skin and cartoonish pouf, has been living her dream since last December, when MTV's Jersey Shore became the highest-rated show among young people and Snooki became an instant star. Each week, almost 3 million viewers gaped as the eight self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes lived, partied, tanned, hot-tubbed, brawled, smooshed and fist-pumped their way through a summer together in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Yes, Pauly "DJ Pauly D" DelVecchio's gel-hardened Heat Miser spikes look pretty silly. And, yes, it's crazy that Jenni "J-Woww" Farley engages in a tanning practice called "the Triple Threat," where you go from a tanning bed into a spray-tan booth and then into a standing booth to cook a little longer. Snooki's preference for "gorillas" with muscles that at least appear to be chemically enhanced defies explanation. And it just doesn't seem possible that Mike "the Situation" Sorrentino could be that obsessed with his abs. (Oh, but he is.) "It's like a car wreck, but it's one of those car wrecks you just can't stop watching," says J-Woww, the show's female sex symbol. "But we're not one of those Real Worlds where they put opposites all together: We're all in the same scene, we all love the same things and we're just very strong personalities."
Because the show's popularity rests largely on the appeal of this particular group of affable idiots, the cast members have reportedly demanded as much as $100,000 for the second season, which begins July 29th. And for months, they've been making appearances around the country for about $10,000 a pop. DJ Pauly D even secured the Palms Las Vegas residency left vacant by the late DJ AM. "Mash-ups are hot right now, so I'll throw a rock mash-up into my set out of nowhere, like Bon Jovi with a dance beat, and the crowds go insane," he tells me at a Manhattan diner late one night. "The next thing is you dip into the studios, do a bit of producing and put out your own albums." He just recorded a track for the Jersey Shore soundtrack, which, he says, "is sick."
Not surprisingly, of course, all this has totally gone to their heads. The Situation's got a million stories about celebrities fawning over him: Leonardo DiCaprio hugs him and tells him he's awesome, or Jennifer Love Hewitt waves him over to her white Bentley in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard. "You find out how popular you are when you go to L.A. and you're amongst stars," he says. And while Snooki's still tight with friends from before the show, now that she gets to mingle with stars like Diddy and Lindsay Lohan, other folks just seem so lame by comparison. "At first I was like, 'Is this what my life is going to be like now — hanging out with celebrities?'" she says. "But now I'd rather party with them than normal people." She catches herself. "Not normal, but you know what I mean. When you're with people that are going through what you're going through, then it's fun, because they're not freaking out."
The cast members are all remarkably confident that Jersey Shore will bring them long-term success in any field they choose. J-Woww, for instance, hopes to transition from Jersey Shore to a career as a clothing designer. The 25-year-old plans on selling her line, Filthy Couture, on jwoww.com. At the Franklin Square, New York, home she shares with her boyfriend, Tom, a pair of yappy dogs and a framed painting of the Sex and the City women, she shows me her array of skimpy cocktail dresses, on which the fabric is adorned with swirls of puffy gel she applies by hand. It's hard to imagine them looking good on anyone other than someone named J-Woww. "This is the one I wore on the MTV Movie Awards," she says. "I have the non-cut-out version for weddings and proms."
Even Ronnie Ortiz-Magro and Sammi "Sweetheart" Giancola, whose on-again/off-again relationship got boring halfway through Season One, believe they've each got a future in entertainment. "I want to do acting, maybe pursue a career in fitness," Ortiz-Magro tells me, as Giancola sits by his side on the deck outside his father's house in the Bronx. "I'm artistic," she says. "I like art, I'm very unique like that. I like designing, maybe clothes and styling."
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