Going out on South Beach can be intimidating for the average citizen whose wealth, beauty, or hipness quotients aren't quite stratosphere-scraping. Most of Greater Miami, in fact, generally avoids the place, except when carting around visitors from out of town, impressing business contacts, or trying to seduce nubile young somethings-or-other. To achieve South Beach orbit successfully is to detach from reality and succumb, whether ingenuously or cynically, to the involuntary reaction triggered by a critical mass of achingly gorgeous people, velvet ropes, and the pounding rhythms of seriously overplayed hits. Alas, though, even if you eagerly embrace the shallow fabulousness of South Beach, you can't afford the price tag that comes with the lifestyle.
But you don't necessarily have to have money. "You can maneuver through the Beach without spending a penny," advises long-time promoter Maxwell Blandford. "There are so many people here who don't have a pot to piss in, yet they are on every VIP list in town," sighs Elaine Lancaster, Miami Beach's drag queen ambassador. "Because they bring something to the party -- looks, personality, or they've got a great story everybody buys."
Want to be a VIP at überchic celebrity pit Prive? A table for two with a magnum of champagne is a mere $500. That's if you can get in. If the femme on your arm is not quite fatale enough, or if you were foolish enough to let Juan from accounting tag along with you; if your own look suggests Hialeah homeboy more than Ocean Drive hipster -- these are all reasons you will not be rubbing elbows with P. Diddy, J.Lo, or that bony blond hotel heiress whose ass everyone has seen.
Okay, so forget the VIP section for the moment. You'll settle for proximity to the alpha wolves. Even this, however, will cost you. At crobar, Rumi, or Mynt, for instance, just getting in the door requires $20. Once inside, drinks run $8 to $12 on average. So you and Juan (assuming Juan has gotten himself a decent haircut and stopped wearing that Dolphins jersey with "Marino" on the back) have three drinks and you've already spent $100 in one place. And that's before you've paid for the cab, or the tab for the hotties you're trying to pick up. Live like this often and the cash flow from your day job starts to feel mighty inadequate.
Yet you notice that there are some nightlife cognoscenti who manage to breeze through the door past a line of hopeless jerks every time. These same people seem merely to glance in the direction of the bar and a sweating glass of sweet toxicity is placed in front of them -- gratis. Take, for example, Karen Geneppa, 24, a film student and self-described girl about town. For lovely and almost pathologically outgoing girls such as she, the ropes always drop and free drinks magically appear. "I'm a big flirt and everybody loves me," she explains. "When I go out with my girlfriends, we know we have no money at all, but we're going to Mynt and we're drinking all night." She adds, "If it's not for free I don't go. It's not worth it."
But you clearly don't have the bod, the patter, or the attitude of Karen and her micro-mini'd ilk. All the usual suspects from the South Beach scene agree that most people living the high life without paying for it are the beautiful, traffickers in the beautiful, celebrities, or people from the nightlife, fashion, or music industries. "You're either well connected, or you wait in line and pay your money," says Ernesto Arambatzis, a promoter of events at the Delano and Mynt, who entered clubland a decade ago through the modeling pipeline.
Then there are the professional mooches, such as those living on the fringes of the drug world, and the media. And the amateur mooches, or "artists, hustlers, pseudo-VIPs, and scumbags of all sorts," as nightlife legend Rudolf Piper puts it. "Which is good," he adds with a laugh, "because those people are fun."
The thing to remember is that the main purpose of clubland elitism is to create an exclusive sex buffet for men of means. It also benefits the second-tier hangers-on who make them feel important in exchange for a piece of the overflow -- the extra women, booze, and obsequious service the big men don't want. Create this environment and the cash bulls stampede. Depending on whom you talk to, a relative handful of big spenders accounts for half to three-quarters of the revenue at a given club. The rest of the herd, meaning you, is considered the filler crowd.
Piper is one of the few clubland denizens with a firm grasp of the ironic nature of a business built entirely on illusion. "There are people who take the idea that being a VIP here means something," he laughs. "Five years ago it meant you had to be cool. Now you have to have money. It's all about connections."
So how does your average real estate agent from Kendall grab a piece of this action? Read on for a few lessons in how to live fabulously in South Beach without money, a.k.a. pimpin' on a budget.
Lesson No. 1: Know your terrain
If you are in this for the long haul, it pays to invest a little time and money to get to know the lay of the clubland. We're not talking about the neon-lighted tourist traps that abound on Ocean Drive, where sunburned frat boys of all ages wander into Wet Willie's or Mangos with sand in their shoes and visions of Girls Gone Wild reflected in their rum-glazed orbs. Clubland for our purposes is generally ensconced behind velvet ropes along Washington and Collins avenues, and on Lincoln Road. Also included are restaurant-clubs such as Tantra and B.E.D., and the watering holes in a half-dozen or so cool hotels, such as the Delano, Raleigh, Astor, and Shore Club.
To the occasional visitor, this world seems a fantastic, plastic playland filled with wealth, beauty, and amusing rituals of social dominance. It is that, but like any scene in a small place, it is also just a neighborhood where the same characters keep popping up. Hang out a short while and you too can become one of the "fabulous 300," a term loosely applied to a roving group of locals who aren't fabulous for any apparent reason, yet have gotten their names on all the right lists and can be relied upon to appear at any event featuring free food or an open bar.
"There are a lot of people who live on the free parties, people who know if there is a wine and cheese opening anywhere," observes Tommy Pooch, a long-time South Beach promoter who hosts a Tuesday-night party at the Astor Hotel and a Sunday soiree at the Raleigh. "You could probably stay drunk just going to condo openings." (This is another outgrowth of the redevelopment boom in downtown Miami and Miami Beach -- lots of condo-sales parties presented by former club promoters and featuring a pet artist or two as cultural beards.)
"You can't just get off the bus from Ohio and roll into a club," Pooch continues. "You gotta get yourself localized." Getting quickly acclimated to and accepted within this surreal sphere is how most of the club kids, promoters, and bottom feeders have made it in South Beach. Knowledgeable locals recommend doing a little reconnaissance on the party circuit for a few weeks. Since you don't know anyone, you'll have to lay out some cash initially, but the investment will pay off. The important thing is getting your face remembered by doormen, bartenders, promoters, club owners, and scenesters (maybe 50 or 60 people you'll see everywhere). This is the hardcore gang.
Justin Altshuler, known everywhere in clubland as Buster (he is promotions director for Party 93.1 [WPYM-FM] and a founder of Alternative TV-3, the first all-dance music video station), started out this way. Buster was just a dissolute party boy from Boston who arrived in South Beach a few years ago looking to channel his social skills into positive cash flow. He got jobs first in the industry, at clubs, and then a stint at Ego Trip magazine, a local nightlife guide. Then he had his best idea: hustling public access cable time into a new clubland career.
Relentlessly social and inventive, Buster worked his way up and through the scene. "When I first got here I could not afford this town," he recalls. "So I was cozying up to the people with the drink tickets. I learned to have a few drinks before I went out. Back in the day, I used to bring a flask with me. First I was a moocher. Then I was media, which is just a step above. You get to know people, get on the right lists."
Karen Geneppa has learned this lesson well. Like many nightlife denizens, she almost instinctively parties with an eye to marketing herself. "I try to make everyone feel really special," she says. "I introduce everyone to everybody else, guys, bartenders, management. I can go to any club alone and I'll start talking to some guy right away. They will remember my name next time."
The scene varies as parties come and go, but a somewhat reliable circuit at the moment is Tantra and Back Door Bamby at crobar on Mondays; the Astor, Rumi, and Opium Garden on Tuesdays; the Delano and Michael Capponi's party at B.E.D. Wednesdays; Skybar at the Shore Club and the hip-hop night at crobar on Thursdays; and Mynt and Prive Friday or Saturday nights. There are plenty of other places to circulate, including Nikki Beach Club, the Ritz-Carlton, Flute, and Automatic Slim's. You also find less affected types slumming at Spiderpussy, the Thursday party at Liquor Lounge; Jazid; Ted's Hideaway; or even that venerable dive, Mac's Club Deuce.
Go to these places often and bring friends, preferably female. Arrive early and chat up the bouncers and bartenders. Another advantage to this strategy is that most clubs have free or reduced admission and drink specials before midnight. Get an interesting business card and give it to everyone. Dress well and tell amusing stories. Don't be an asshole. "Don't expect to be king in a week," warns Piper. "It may take a month, but once you're in in Miami, you're in. Once you are on the lists, you're invited to the best parties." Another back door to the party lists is putting your name and e-mail address in every guestbook at every art gallery, museum, and condo opening in town. Such lists are marketing tools and they circulate. Of course the list you really want to be on is Ocean Drive's -- those parties are always teeming with fabulous freeloading opportunities.
Lesson No. 2: How to get past the door Nazis
Check your look in a full-length mirror before you go out, because in clubland, the doorfolk are evil, superficial bastards. This is a strategy designed to tap into the deeply bred regard for social hierarchy. Luca Fidenzo, who tends to the needs of VIPs at the new club State, explains: "If it's five, six guys at the door, and they don't know somebody, they're not getting in. But they will come back, this time with women. The more they are turned away, the more they want to come back. That's psychology, you know."
Karen Geneppa adds, "You have to dress up like a tart, go by yourself or with girls. No guys. They won't let them in."
Keeping the crowd fabulous isn't just capricious cruelty. It's a sound business plan. High rollers are not going to pay ridiculous sums of money to hang out with the average or the unhip. Elaine Lancaster recalls one well-known doorman on the Beach who was notorious for letting people in if they tipped him. "One night this short, fat, bald guy comes to the door and tries to get in with his friend. Of course he can't because just look at him. The guy is ignored until finally, he slips the doorman a folded $50 bill. Then he goes in and the doorman opens the bill and it says in red marker, You're Fired!!!" Personal avarice is an admired quality in clubland, but the laws of pulchritude rank higher.
Peter Ehrlich, a real estate developer, recalls a recent evening in which he had difficulties with the doorman at Mynt. Ehrlich says he escorted a wealthy financier there who had brought his own jet to Miami and arrived with two attractive women. The foursome stood outside Mynt about 11:30 on a Thursday night, but the doorman declined to let them in unless the financier bought a couple of bottles. The wealthy man eventually agreed to this. "Then the doorman asks to see his credit card!" Ehrlich exclaims. "We're standing out on the street and this guido wants to see a credit card? Meanwhile some hairdresser with no money who's friends with the bartender sails in and drinks for free. We get in there and there's like twenty people in the club."
"If you're new, dress very well," opines Rudolf Piper, a carefully eccentric dresser. "That does not mean labels -- but you have to dress cool. Don't buy clothes on Lincoln Road, buy them on Flagler or in New York."
Promoter Max Blandford (who just opened State with former Level partner Gerry Kelly) laments that these days, "half of these door guys have no style and wouldn't know it if it slapped them in the face." Yet there is a method to the meanness. It's all about creating that illusion of a wild, yet exclusive party scene. Jeans and sneakers won't cut it unless you already are famous enough not to conform to the code. So you have to either be able to carry off an eccentric or cutting-edge style, or do what most people do: wear black. "If you have to ask what to wear, just wear black," Blandford agrees. "But try to get a look. Like, for a straight guy, look a little gay. Maybe add a fabulous scarf." The idea is that in the milling hoi polloi outside the ropes, the trained doorman is looking for the people who stand out, who will add something to the party inside.
As important as what you look like, however, is how you treat the people at the door. Really obnoxious behavior generally guarantees a dismissal and a conversation with the hand. "Calling the doorman a fucking asshole isn't going to do it," says Seth Browarnik, a photographer who shoots celebrities for Ocean Drive. "It's all about how you present yourself. Be polite, go every week for a month, and the doorman is going to recognize you."
And if you're going to pretend to have connections, be smart about it. Don't say you know the owner unless you do. "I hear the most hilarious bullshit stories ever standing outside the rope line for an hour," Browarnik chuckles. "One time, this ghetto guy with a chain was standing outside Mynt, and said, 'My publicist called,' but his name wasn't on the list. And he tried to play it like, 'Aw, man, my publicist is going to be fired!' Another guy said he was an advertiser for Ocean Drive, but it was a GQ party."
Yet sometimes the psychology of the velvet rope works in your favor; doormen can't always be sure you aren't somebody important, says Michael Teak, a 30-year-old catalogue model and singer. "Ninety percent of it is the attitude," he suggests. "If you believe that you're supposed to be in there more than the doorman believes you shouldn't, then your reality wins."
Lesson No. 3: The archetypes of clubland
Beyond the maxim to go forth and schmooze, there are different strategies for tapping into the freeloading vein. All of them seem to work at least some of the time. To get into this world without being rich or beautiful, you have to have something else to offer: personality, style, the right friends, something to trade, or a really good lie. Here are the major types, although the most successful freeloaders use more than one strategy:
The reciprocator: You gotta give to get. If you have a job in the industry, this is easy. DJs, waiters, promoters, bartenders, even people who work in fashionable stores generally get and give freely. But everybody has something to offer, whether through a job or social network. If not, just being a generous tipper with the right bartenders can be well worth the investment. The key to this approach is to be cool about it and never expect a free ride. "Give good conversation, dress interestingly, and travel with other interesting people," advises Piper.
The bullshit artist: "Name-dropping always helps," allows Pooch. "Align yourself with someone with a name and become his long-lost cousin or something." Rumi owner Alan Roth counsels budding name-droppers to read the papers to see who's being written about. "Look at the pictures in Ocean Drive," he says. "Remember the faces and go up and talk to them."
The smartest way to bullshit people about your supposed importance is indirectly. "The key is that important people are insulated," says Mylo Carbia, a screenwriter who lives and plays on the Beach. "If I want to have a good time in a club here, I'll have my L.A. publicist call ahead and say, 'Mylo Carbia will be coming to your club tonight and we just want to make sure she is taken care of.' They don't know me, but they know I'm someone from Hollywood. So I can sail in the door without waiting in line. If I were to call myself and say, 'Hi, I'm Mylo Carbia, a screenwriter, and I ...'" She rolls her eyes to indicate how impressed club staff would be with that approach.
The pretender: Try to convey the impression you're a big spender. This requires flashing cash around as if you're spending more than you are. If you're going to do this, make sure it catches the attention of the appropriate VIP handlers, promoters, or club owners. "Perception is reality," offers Buster. "Go with three buddies. Get money from them all at the beginning -- say $100 each or whatever. When you get to the place, tell the host, 'I'm buying a table tonight.' So you get the juice." Bring new friends with cash and ride those bottles for all they are worth. Eventually the club will start throwing you free drinks.
Invest a few drinks in stroking the right guys. With all the people cozying up to club owners and promoters, Roth says, sometimes just being friendly works. "Sometimes by accident, someone comes up to me and I assume I'm supposed to know them," he explains. "And all of a sudden I'm buying them a drink."
Come with an entourage, one that includes more women than men. Lee Williams, frontman for band the Square Egg (also a former New Times nightlife contributor and successful scene navigator), offers this piece of wisdom: Get a table in the VIP section and invite a large group of young women to sit there and drink your booze. "But don't make moves on them," he directs. "It is all for show. What you won't get from them tonight will come back tenfold."
The promoters notice you spending cash, the women appreciate not being made to feel like hookers, and the real VIPs will grab the check next time. Plus other women will gravitate toward you, and if you play it right, "the whole illusion sets you up to roam freely through the circuit. There will be a steady rotation of disposable women to choose from every night out and you start getting let into the clubs free even when not in the company of your high-rolling friends."
Promoters acknowledge this works. "The guy who always brings fifteen or twenty girls, or they bring big spenders, you want to make sure you take care of them," concedes Luca Fidenzo. "Maybe they look broke, or are broke, but you want them there. Taking care of these people is an easy way to have access to the type of clientele you want."
Adds Pooch, "The guy who says, 'Hey Tommy, I brought ten girls tonight,' this guy is like a promoter in a way."
The parasite: The pretender, however, is sometimes just another facet of the type of person everyone hates but puts up with because he serves an important social function -- sycophancy. "There are guys I know who exist by going out being mooches," Buster says. "They know a player with a table. But the mooches, slimeballs, and leeches are so necessary ... they complete the shallowness and the hedonism of the club scene."
"There are a lot of people who basically go out for a living," notes party planner and Miami Herald Advice Diva Tara Solomon. "There are wealthy men that it's very important for them to be seen with beautiful women. There are big spenders who love to treat people. And a lot of club parasites who look for the people who love to treat. It's a reciprocal arrangement."
Most of the restaurants and clubs have deals with modeling agencies that allow the models to eat and drink for free in return for serving as part of the décor. Tuesday nights at the Astor, the theme is lots of older men mixing with young girls. Tommy Pooch's table typically includes a random assortment of VIPs. One evening an unlikely group assembled that, besides the requisite beauties, included Springsteen guitarist Steve Van Zandt, a hip-hop producer, a casino boat operator, and Miami Police Chief John Timoney.
The key is convincing the people with the money or the drink tickets that having you around is worth the expense. A lot of people do that in an inelegant fashion and as much as people say they hate it, it works. Duncan Ross, of Fashion TV and founder of Miami Beach-based Internet radio station the Womb, recalls getting his share of free drinks as a club DJ. But many people abuse the notion of their own importance. "These are people who have no shame," he gripes. "They are parasites who put club owners on the spot until they almost feel embarrassed not to give them a free drink."
"For me it's quite shocking how people are so bold," comments Rumi owner Alan Roth. "They ask for everything." Tommy Pooch is philosophical. He knows there's a certain amount of toadying to put up with from the entourage to create the illusions that lure in the big fish. "I'm here thirteen years," he says. "I'm like one big callus." Ultimately no one wants to party alone. "It's a little bit incestuous," acknowledges promoter Max Blandford. "The fabulous people are the cost of doing business."
So now you know. Get out there and be fabulous. And if that doesn't work, get a job at a local rag and write about nightlife.
A brief sampling of South Beach nightlife:
Astor Hotel 956 Washington Ave.
B.E.D. 929 Washington Ave.
crobar 1445 Washington Ave.
Mynt 1921 Collins Ave.
Opium Garden/Prive 136 Collins Ave.
Rumi 330 Lincoln Rd.
SkyBar @ the Shore Club 1901 Collins Ave.
Tantra 1445 Pennsylvania Ave.
Automatic Slims 1216 Washington Ave.
Jazid 1342 Washington Ave.
Liquor Lounge 1560 Collins Ave.
Marlin Bar 1200 Collins Ave.
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Purdy Lounge 1811 Purdy Ave.
Teds Hideaway 124 2nd St.
Macs Club Deuce 222 14th St.