Like a comet passing through Miami on its way to Los Angeles, Carlos Arias creates a trail of glitzy stardust. The aggressively ambitious scion of a well-to-do Key Biscayne family is a connected nightclub promoter and insurance broker on the cusp of realizing his dream of becoming a Hollywood producer. Noblesse oblige isn't in his vocabulary. Arias always wants more, and he always wants it now.
But this is not the story of a tumble from the top and of subsequent enlightenment. In the age of Who Wants to Marry a Billionaire Fear Factor Dad, of fame without reason and super-superficiality, Arias has stumbled onto what it takes to propel himself to an even higher profile. Naturally, a deal for a reality television show is involved.
First, a little background.... Rewind to spring. The Arias Show starts a little after 2:00 a.m. on a Friday at Mansion, the South Beach nightclub where he occasionally promotes parties and schmoozes with A-listers. Too bad there is no one filming the scene. In the rear of the roped-off VIP section The Simple Life star Paris Hilton is sobbing, frantically searching for something. Arias hands off his drink and grabs a flashlight from a bouncer. Seconds later, skinny, fair-skinned, five-foot-nine Arias is in a scuffle with a giant bodyguard. This attracts the attention of the entire room.
"Paris is crying because she lost her purse, turns out it's a family heirloom. To me, it's an opening to meet her. But the bodyguard grabs me. I convince him I'm with the club, then I get on my knees and clear all the beer bottles from under the couch. Everybody's staring. I'm thinking, You better find this purse man, you're totally making a scene," Arias recalls.
He does find the handbag, wedged way back near the wall, thus catapulting himself into the warm embrace of Hilton and her entourage, which includes pop star Nick Carter (now her ex-boyfriend), and Nicole Richie, her rambunctious Simple Life sidekick. Arias takes advantage of the opportunity to lay his line on the celebutantes. "I got this project I'm working on, it's called Miss University, and it'll be the hottest beauty pageant ever aired on television...."
Carlos Arias is a throwback. He prefers conversation to e-mail. He exudes a manipulative charm that arrives on a personality traveling ten feet in front of him. He communicates with jazz hands, always pointing and waving, maintains unnerving eye contact, and there's the bold, over-confident walk and talk about him, all of which underscore the pursuit of his dream. Arias barely has his foot in the door, yet he hardballs Tinseltown heavyweights as if he already is one. He even turned down an offer for Miss University. Most people in his position would have grabbed it, but Arias wouldn't accept a rookie split.
"I come from the nightlife industry where I've seen every kind of crook and shady move. The entertainment industry, though, is absolutely gangster," Arias says. "But I will win this Hollywood game."
Growing up in the affluent community of Key Biscayne and promoting various events since he was 17 have a lot to do with Arias's knack for networking. He gladly goes on about the dynamics of making first impressions, such as the one he attempted to leave on Hilton and her friends. "Nobody remembers the typical öHey, how you doing? I'm so and so.' You've got to make a memorable intro, calculate, come off a certain way from the get-go, and always put people on a pedestal, never pass up a chance to throw someone an alley-oop," Arias says with an I-got-it-figured-out bravado.
Though only empty promises and a closer proximity to fame came of his encounter with Hilton, Arias remains firm about keeping the "right people" in his crosshairs, much as he did while working as a promoter for infamous Liquid nightclub owner Chris Paciello.
"I was given the keys to social Miami at Liquid, greeting VIPs and celebrities, and hooking the important people up. Those were ösocial investments,'" Arias recalls.
After Liquid closed, Arias coordinated various ventures, from weekly club gigs to amateur basketball tournaments. He published a swimsuit calendar featuring University of Miami women that sold 3000 copies in two weeks.
"I grew up around rich kids, and my family has flow, but it's not like I always had all the money I wanted just handed to me. I always had to come up with schemes to make change. Luckily, a lot of them worked," Arias explains, reclining in a large leather chair inside the sleek Coral Gables office of his family's company, Aristar Services, where he sells commercial insurance policies by day.
Arias came up with the idea for Miss University three years ago, while watching what he saw as an out-of-touch institution, beauty pageants. "They lack the sexy style and demeanor of today's young women, at least the ones I'm used to. When I watched Miss America with female friends, we all agreed that the long gowns, one-piece swimsuits, elevator music, and drawn-out Q and A portions were lame. A pageant should be closer to a video, with hip music acts, hot dance numbers, young, confident women, the works."
A few months later, using those old Liquid connections, Arias was in New York, consulting with one of the country's most notable celebrity publicists, Lizzie Grubman. He thought Miss University was on its way to becoming a reality (series), until Grubman got arrested. She became the reckless party girl who'd run over a group of bystanders in front of Conscience Point, a hot spot in the Hamptons, with her Mercedes SUV. Her Celebrities Uncensored moment was all over the tabloids, leaving her no time for Arias, so he was referred to a list of entertainment brokers. One negotiation was with Mitchell Chait, then the head of Billboardlive, who, Arias says, "was a snake who wanted half of Miss University for nothing." Chait says he doesn't comment on anything having to do with Billboardlive.
More intimidating was a letter from Trump Enterprises. "I had taken all the necessary steps, incorporation, trademark, everything. Then last year Trump hits me with a cease-and-desist notification. It said the rights to Miss University were his because the name was so similar to Miss Universe, which was his organization," Arias recounts.
Arias knew he'd never beat the man behind The Apprentice in court. So the Key Rat sold his bachelor pad and his new GMC Yukon and acquired Miss University from Trump Enterprises (he won't say how much he paid, but calls it a hefty sum). "From here on in I was nervous about the control and legal aspects of show business. But I thought I knew what to expect," Arias explains.
Arias comes from a traditional Latin home (Cuban dad, Brazilian mom) and went to Christopher Columbus, an all-boys Catholic school in West Miami-Dade.
DJ Irie, the official DJ of the Miami Heat and resident at some of the biggest clubs on South Beach, has spun at many of Arias's past nightlife endeavors, and describes him as warm, not phony. "He's easy to take to, he walks right up to guys like Alonzo Mourning and his wife and just talks to them, and he always has something going."
Arias hates wasting time. He sleeps five hours a night at the most. He's perpetually brainstorming with guys like Clinton Fox, an old friend who heads Havoc Entertainment and shot the Ultra Music Festival documentary. Arias used Fox to film a professional-quality, nine-minute promo spot for Miss University, a necessity before he even considered going to networks.
Arias says he drained all of his savings and credit lines to finance the video on his own. The tab for the production alone topped $250,000. It would have gone beyond that if Arias hadn't milked close connections to secure recognizable names and pretty faces at no extra cost. Latin pop star Jorge Moreno, DJ Irie, and professional athletes Charles Woodson and Desmond Howard appear in the video. Filmed on the veranda of one of the Key's most luxurious mansions, the promo features strutting college cheerleaders and models.
Arias spent the first couple of months of this year infiltrating the L.A. social scene. He approached 23-year-old Jordi Villasuso, a soap opera actor who is now working on a film being directed by his uncle, Andy Garcia (another Key Rat). Through Villasuso and other Miami transplants in L.A., Arias was able to get in good with young network executives. Through DJ Irie's L.A. connections, Arias scored courtside tickets to the All Star game for his new showbiz friends. Characteristically, he thought ahead, filming footage of his L.A. trips for a documentary about him and Miss University. Others filmed Arias as well. A March episode of The Price Is Right shows his unmistakable mop front row, distracting contestants with wrong suggestions on prices. During the course of a few months Arias went from interesting outsider to sleeping on the couches of Hollywood players. All the while he'd twist arms for opportunities and force people to watch his promo again and again.
"When Carlos started pressing me about his pilot, I was like, What is he going to throw at me? But I got to admit, he's got something going for him. Carlos has a great rap, he has people asking, Who is this guy, why haven't I heard of him before?'" Villasuso says by phone from L.A.
Marci Wiseman, who handles legal and business affairs for various networks and production companies, took a liking to Arias after meeting him through a mutual friend, her daughter's dance teacher. "Carlos is a very interesting person, he definitely knows how to get to the right people," she says. Wiseman took Arias to Carlos Carreras, a rep at the United Talent Agency. UTA represents actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers including Johnny Depp, M. Night Shyamalan, and Alan Ball.
"I want to do to beauty pageants what P. Diddy's done to hip-hop, remix it," Arias told Carreras.
Carreras points to factors that work in Arias's favor: "Right now Miami is hot. And the fact that he's young and Latin is also working for him. He's got a good idea, his product is definitely sexed-up, we all know that sells. So we're going to get him a shot, at least one, which is more than most people get."
Now come the kind of twists and turns you could probably only find in a reality show. By June UTA and Wiseman, who had assumed the role of Arias's adviser, let him know he'd be packaged with Thomas Beers, whose Original Productions is behind some of cable's biggest reality series including American Chopper and Monster Garage. Together they'd produce Miss University. While not represented by UTA himself, Arias would fall under Beers's umbrella and retain part ownership of the property. Arias says UTA preferred to package him that way because Beers's name would make shopping Miss University easier.
Arias's plan for Miss University is to film the pageant over a season, eliminating contestants on a weekly basis, à la many network reality shows. But Arias wasn't happy with the proposed contract. He thought he was getting jacked.
"I was fresh meat with his hands on a slam dunk," he fumes.
On July 22nd Arias met with Beers, Wiseman, and UTA's head of syndication, Heyden Meyer. Beers walked in wearing jeans, flip-flops, and a Hawaiian shirt. Arias wore a crisp suit and was accompanied by an unexpected guest. Before the meeting began, Meyer asked Arias about the gentleman. Steve Muslin spoke for himself: "I'm Carlos's attorney." The atmosphere in the room chilled.
Muslin is an entertainment and defense lawyer who helped create the series New York Undercover. Arias contacted him through his son, a college friend.
UTA's proposal called for a 50-50 split of Miss University's rights between Arias and Beers, with Wiseman holding 7.5 percent of Arias's half for the life of the franchise. There was no up-front payout, which meant Arias would have to recoup the quarter-million he'd already invested off the top. Arias wouldn't take the deal. Beers walked out of the meeting.
Rather then continue negotiations, Arias e-mailed Beers a blistering missive: "What I thought was the face of a good man turned out to be a poor disguise for a pathetic person. Not only do I wish no association with you, but know this ... if you choose to steal any of my ideas regarding my Miss University pageant, or any of the beauty pageant ideas I communicated to you and your organization, my attorney and I will legally pursue you, even if it takes the rest of my life ... I will use the one thing that you tried to take advantage of -- my youth -- to make sure of that. "
Common sense would indicate that such a Growing Up Gotti attitude would torpedo a would-be producer, but Arias received a squirming apology from Beers and continued offers from UTA reps and from Wiseman. Arias says Muslin told him that the treatment he received, in spite of his brazen negotiation tactics, was indicative of his commercial potential. In other words, they didn't want to beat on a brat who's on his way up.
Here's the True Hollywood moment: Throughout this entire process, Arias was playing with a bluff hand. The trademarked rights to Miss University didn't officially belong to him until August 17 of this year. Because the trademark had been litigated over by a producer from Texas and Trump Enterprises ten years ago, the period of opposition required for any trademark application was longer than usual. Despite lacking that final seal of ownership, Arias went ahead and shopped the property to Hollywood's heavyweights.
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He says most of the television executives were mesmerized by the billing Wiseman gave him, "the kid who trumped Trump out of a property," and not one of them was the wiser. "When they'd ask me for proof of ownership I just showed them papelitos, application papers and such. I didn't want to wait for the inevitable," he explains.
Now that Arias owns Miss University, officially, he has signed with Endeavor Talent Agency, which also represents Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Martin Scorsese. Endeavor optioned Miss University in August and MTV signed off on a development deal this month. Arias will be working with Tony DiSanto, executive producer of the network's Laguna Beach. Pre-production is set for this fall, with the show likely to air as a mid-season replacement in the spring.
So what's next?
Arias holds forth: "Jordi [Villasuso] and I are penning the Miss University story, it's a natural. An inside peek into the politics of showbiz through the eyes of a first-timer. DJ Irie's Urban Entertainment Group has already raised three million dollars for it. It will be a slam dunk, dude."