The day after my senior prom, I arrived in Seaside Heights to see a car plowed through the lobby of a motel where my friend, who I'd given a ride, had a room booked. My class had come to drink after the dance, as well as sever relationships we would abandon anyway, when some of us left for college in a month. We'd traveled from my Central New Jersey suburb to Exit 82, 70 miles down the Parkway in standstill traffic, amid blaring horns, electronic music, and arms flailing from open windows. I idled in the parking lot, as we debated whether or not he wanted to stay in this crumbling structure. There was a man outside, presumably the manager, talking to guests, and we watched people going in and out of their rooms. It was safe enough, we rationalized, and, at the time, this beach town was known for its general atmosphere of lawlessness. He decided to risk it. Twenty minutes later, he would get thrown out—for dealing pot with his door wide open—but this anecdote became one of those I always told about the Jersey Shore, when someone asked if the so-often-hyped debauchery was real. This was in the early summer of 2009, the same month eight “guidos” first came here for MTV and changed reality TV forever.
“I remember that,” Paul DelVecchio, known throughout the world as simply Pauly D, says, laughing, when I tell him the entire tale of vehicular carnage. “Was the guy drunk?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “We never asked anyone.”
He hadn’t either, he says, and now, nine years later, DJ Pauly D and I are in Viacom’s headquarters in Times Square on a Wednesday afternoon, reminiscing about all the worst things we’ve witnessed down the shore. Most of the worst things we’ve witnessed involve fighting: someone getting knocked out on the street, someone getting knocked out at the bar, someone getting knocked out on the boardwalk. In the room where we’re talking, there’s a full dinner set up at the end of the table for some reason, as if an English king had just been here eating a feast, and Pauly catches me glancing at it in the middle of our conversation.
“I was taking pictures,” he explains, as if that explained it.
“For Instagram?” I ask.
“Nah,” he says. “For fun.”
We suddenly share a kinship, it feels. This, after all, is the power of the shore—the intoxicated brotherhood you have with strangers; the emotional, and sometimes violent, ups-and-downs; the shared, sloppy, almost mythical past. The place is an orgy of contradictions—goofy and obnoxious, terrifying and joyous, loud and serene. It is a never-ending bash, and though Pauly D may have left the Garden State for the moment, he certainly hasn’t left the party. It’s followed him—and he’s staying, clearly, for as long as he can. In his own words: “Yeah, buddy.”
In fact, he seems to keep getting bestowed with more and more party favors. He is, objectively speaking, the most successful of his tanned brethren. By far. According to Cosmopolitan, he is currently worth $20 million, $16 million more than the second-richest housemate, Snooki; in a 2012 profile, Forbes cited him as making $11 million that year alone, placing him, then, number 7 on its “top-earning DJs list.” He has DJ residencies all year long and all across the country, in Las Vegas, Chicago, and Atlantic City. He wears gold chains I’m not certain I could bench press. His mansion, outside Sin City (“away from the madness,” he clarifies), is Cribs-level in its ostentatiousness. He owns a tanning bed and high-end cars with personalized plates, and, at my request, quantifies a couple of these possessions.
“I have, like, 20 motorcycles,” he says. “Some of them are so nice, I don’t want to ride them.” He has one, designed by Orange County Choppers, next to his fireplace.
Pauly’s evolved into a caricature of himself, and he happily revels in it. He tends to speak quickly and in catch phrases—“I was born a guido”—and he sounds equally shocked and grateful for how his life has turned out. His origins, as the Pauly D we all know, are biblical in their simplicity and miraculous in their unwarranted level of outside intervention: A former used car salesman for almost ten years, he was DJing local Providence clubs at night for $100 a pop and studying to become a fireman during the day (“I could have been a firefighting DJ,” he says, cracking himself up), when he got a MySpace message from a production company out of nowhere. They informed him that he had the right “look” for a pilot they were going to shoot. They came by, shadowed him for a day—gym, tan, laundry, DJing—and months later, he received a call to go to Seaside, having no clear idea what was happening. A native of Rhode Island, he had never even been to the Jersey Shore until shooting the initial season. He’s learned, however, to relish being in the spotlight—even if, he says, TV wasn’t ever something he felt worth pursuing, had cameras not literally shown up at his doorstep.
“It was eerie, when I first saw myself on TV,” he says. “It was [in] a commercial, and I was doing my hair. My TV was on, while I was doing my hair. So I was watching myself do my hair, as I was doing my hair. It was like The Twilight Zone.”
Now, of course, he’s used to it, and after half a decade, the series has returned. The premiere of its newest iteration, Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, has brought in almost 3 million viewers an episode, and even if it’s not the ratings bonanza of the original—at its peak that was attracting 8 million viewers per episode, to the chagrin of Chris Christie, Dominos, and national Italian American organizations—it’s still a win for MTV. (And, really, who gives a shit about the old governor’s opinion of the beach?) The second season of Family Vacation was renewed before the first episode of the reboot even aired, and although its destination is currently unknown, Pauly says it'll have more of a documentary feel, with longer segments about all of their outside lives.
"I want it to be in Vegas," he says.
This time around, the network has reunited almost all of the cast, now as (nearly) fully formed adults in Miami: Both Nicole LaValle and Jennifer Farley, “Snooki” and “JWoww” in common parlance, have tied the knot with men they met on the show and had children; Vinny Guadagnino has moved out of his mom’s, even if she lives a convenient-enough distance away to pick up and drop off his clothes; Deena Cortese got married and lost her father; Mike Sorrentino, a.k.a. “The Situation,” is soberly awaiting sentencing for tax fraud; and Ronnie Ortiz-Magro became a father shortly after shooting, though not to Sammi Giancola’s kid. (It also appears he’s single again.) As they all repeatedly say: In the end, they’ve changed, and they haven’t changed. (Pauly’s now a dad.) The only one who’s missing is Sammi “Sweetheart,” Ronnie’s former seven-year-long flame, who declined to fly to South Beach, saying in a statement that she’s “currently extremely happy in every aspect of [her] life and want[s] to avoid potentially toxic situations.” (Pauly did, in a running gag throughout the season, replace her with a sex doll that, he insists, “weighs as much as an actual human being.”)
“I think she might regret not doing it,” Pauly says, when I ask. “This, it’s just a fraction of your life.” Fans, he believes, could create their own narrative for her absence—and, he continues, “I would live in a house with all my exes.”
It’s not necessarily difficult to understand why Sammi wouldn’t want to be under the same roof as Ronnie—if your memory’s hazy, just watch him belligerently redecorate their bedroom—but it’s also not hard to acknowledge Pauly’s line of reasoning: They were given an unheard of opportunity to promote themselves, and now, after only five years off the reality circuit (not counting the numerous spinoffs), it's knocking once more.
This logic, I come to realize, is the epitome of Pauly D: He’s business-minded, transparently aware of how lucky he got. His dreams, quite literally, slid into his DMs, propelling him from a local New England DJ to a frequent guest on Ellen. He hasn’t forgotten it, and no one even questions his rise any longer. He’s Kardashian-esque, famous in the most modern of ways: famous because he’s famous.
I wonder, however, who he ultimately appeals to.
“Ninety-eight percent female” he says, laughing, before citing the actual analytics. “Seventy-three percent, though, according to Instagram—I always tell the fellas, they got to come.”
Two days later, he refreshes me on this exact point in front of a live audience. I’ve been invited to observe him in action. It’s 2 AM on Saturday, when Pauly D ushers me onstage during his performance at Lavo, a club in Midtown Manhattan. I’m sitting at a table with Pauly’s friends and agents. They have “table service,” which I discover is a euphemism for having to mix cranberry juice with overpriced vodka for yourself. Meanwhile, Pauly’s drinking Dom Perignon out of glow-in-the-dark bottle and pulling a truck horn. He’s playing the hits, all the ones you’d expect, one after the other, on a laptop that has multiple stickers of his face. When it’s my turn in the lineup of people Pauly has to say “hello” to in the midst of his set, he gestures toward the crowd.
“See,” he says. “All girls.”
“Are they the only ones who come?” I respond. “Or are they the only ones you let inside?”
He smiles, and shrugs.
I finally stare out at the dance floor. I hadn’t really been paying much attention. There are a lot of girls. It looks like a Sweet 16 party being held for a host of 20-somethings. At one point, Pauly plays Lil John’s “Get Low.”
“That’s the wall,” he says, pointing to a wall. “And that’s the window.” He points to another wall. (This is a key demonstration of his improvisational skills, as there are no windows.) He then proceeds to shout out more people than I’ve ever met in my entire life—among them, his label boss 50 Cent, fellow cast member Vinny, and the owner of the nightclub. He hopes, wherever Avicii is, that he’s resting in peace.
When I leave around 3 in the morning, DJ Pauly D is still spinning. Men and women are still waving their arms to the repeated sounds of a truck horn. Bodies block my path. I weave my way around them, settling into a lane. It reminds me of a congested highway, going down the shore.
Eventually, I find my exit.
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