Three Days in the Life of a Drama Queen
Sleepless on the set in Italy with "Jersey Shore" producer SallyAnn Salsano as she oversees the wildly successful MTV hit -- and plays Mom, shrink and shoulder to cry on to an even wilder, out-of-control cast.
It's 3:03 a.m. in a sweat-stained nightclub in Florence, Italy, and tension is in the air.
The tension has been brewing since early this afternoon -- Thursday, June 2 -- when Snooki (Nicole Polizzi), a star of MTV's taboo-busting reality show Jersey Shore, started guzzling booze, anxious about the imminent arrival of her American boyfriend.
In fact, it might have been brewing even longer, perhaps since the day before, when this reporter arrived in Florence and was brought straight to the bank-turned-apartment that houses Jersey's eight mostly Italian-American castmembers, who've been ensconced here for nearly three weeks in an ambitious attempt to return them to their ancestral roots.
Word was spreading in the apartment that one of the "guidos," just to cause trouble, might reveal Snooki hadn't been faithful -- worse, may have slept with a fellow castmember. Now her boyfriend, Jionni LaValle, an aspiring teacher, is here at the club, and housemate Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino is itching to tell him the details.
And SallyAnn Salsano, 37, is itching for him to do it, too.
Five feet tall, bristling with energy, a human can of Crunk crackling jokes and expletives like fireworks, Jersey's executive producer paces back and forth in a crevicelike anteroom, tireless though she has slept only 27 minutes in the past 24 hours.
"F--in' retards!" she groans.
She says it with humor, but she's been trailing this bunch from club to club for hours, waiting for action, and there's not a whiff of it. She pushes past a half-dozen sleep-starved colleagues and hunches over four portable video monitors, desperate for something to happen.
And suddenly it does.
A young man is on the ground, writhing. Is it Jionni? Has Mike punched him out? Snooki freezes on the small stage where she's been dancing, her dress inching up to reveal her butt. For an instant, there's utter confusion before Salsano realizes it's just a local who has slipped and fallen. She leans back, crushed.
Then, out of the blue, Jionni bolts.
Incensed by Snooki's antics, he hurtles from the club and into the streets, followed by Snooki, JWoww, Sammi and Deena -- all the guidettes -- shouting and wailing as four cameramen struggle to keep up, with the Situation and his pals trailing them.
"Run, bitches!" Salsano yells at the crew.
And she's running, too, lightning-fast in her sneakers, making sure every moment is captured on tape as the cast scatters like billiard balls, one dragging a plastic water bottle that's been punctured by her heel, until Snooki collapses on the sidewalk in a maelstrom of tears.
"We got it," Salsano exults. "We got the whole f--in' thing!"
Just a few years ago, reality TV was nothing like this.
True, Jersey's MTV predecessor The Real World had made fly-on-the-wall docudramas a genre of their own, but reality had become dominated by such competition programs as Survivor and The Bachelor. Big Brother led to some debate, but it never approached the zeitgeist-altering controversy of Jersey Shore, a show you loved to watch, even if you hated yourself in the process.
From Jersey's first season in 2009, its eight participants -- a big, lovable, screwed-up slice of America, housed under one roof at the Jersey Shore and for one season in Miami Beach -- were ubiquitous. The Situation went on Jay Leno and provoked laughter when he couldn't name the year of American independence; Snooki thought Reagan's "Tear down this wall" comment referred to a Denver dam.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Jersey revolves around four young men and four young women who give new meaning to the word "sloth" -- drinking, squabbling, sleeping with one another, tanning and clubbing -- and whose mind-boggling shenanigans have become water-cooler essentials.
Incidents like the occasion when Snooki was punched in the face at a bar or when Jennifer "JWoww" Farley brazenly cheated on her boyfriend inflamed critics, even as they couldn't tear themselves away. The cast's every move has become fodder for the tabloids, with plenty more here in Italy -- from Snooki crashing into a cop car to reports of a fistfight between the Situation and roommate Ronnie Ortiz-Magro. Young audiences have lapped this up, much to MTV's delight.
Written off as a has-been pre-Jersey, the network -- which took over the show while it was in development at sister network VH1 -- discovered it had a genuine phenomenon on its hands when Jersey launched two years ago. Instead of scrambling after pop culture with derivative productions such as one more wedding show after Newlyweds and yet another dating series, MTV was setting the agenda once again, while other networks raced to create copycats like Style's Jerseylicious.
"MTV had been viewed as becoming somewhat passe -- a child of the '80s," Wunderlich Securities analyst Matthew Harrigan says. "Having the No. 1 show for the 18-to-34 demo creates a big ability to create programming flow and market other new shows. It is great buzz creation."
"It's a giant hit show," says MTV head of programming David Janollari, "and that's great for any network. It's definitely brought excitement back to our channel."
Jersey was part of a calculated move MTV made to return to its origins. About three years ago, he says, "we really did a deep dive and tried to understand who this millennial audience was and what kind of entertainment was going to connect with them. And largely, they came back with the notion that they really wanted authenticity, anything that was the opposite of fake."
In its third season, the most recent to air, Jersey garnered an audience of 7.9 million total viewers, up from 5.8 million in season two and 2.7 million in season one. And that paled in importance compared with its audience in the key 18-to-34 demo, which reached 4.3 million in season three. The network has high hopes for Jersey's two spinoffs, though no date has yet been set for when they'll start shooting, according to Janollari. Season four debuts Aug. 4.
The series -- once boycotted by advertisers like Domino's Pizza, which objected to its portrayal of Italian-Americans as ignorant and uncouth -- now brings millions of dollars in advertising revenue. It has helped MTV generate about $580.2 million in operating profits for 2010, according to estimates by SNL Kagan, which anticipates the network will earn $665.9 million in 2011.
Its stars, including a DJ (Paul "Pauly D" DelVecchio) who never earned more than a few hundred dollars a week and a former assistant manager (the Situation) at a fitness center, have become mini-industries unto themselves. One has cavorted on Dancing With the Stars, another has grappled on WrestleMania; each generates $20,000 to $50,000 per personal appearance alone. Three have already signed for spinoffs (Pauly D will feature in one, Snooki and JWoww in the other), which will start shooting when season five wraps, sometime this summer or in the fall. Not even The Hills -- MTV's last big hit, with its celebration of all those beautiful young things -- ever came close to this success.
Jersey's combination of shock and schlock has changed the lives of its cast and rocketed Salsano into the realm of reality superstars.
Two-and-a-half years after she was hired to develop what was conceived as an all-male competition series called Guidos -- when she wasn't even sure her company would survive, after being kicked off two shows -- she has seen her Burbank-based 495 Productions grow from just a dozen colleagues five years ago to about 250 employees.
"I have the most amazing staff," Salsano says. "But 495 is not the cool kids' table. I've always looked at this company as the Bad News Bears. A lot of people that work here were fired from other places or got shit on along the way."
Like Salsano herself.
Look at her, and she vaguely resembles Snooki. Listen to her, and that salty speech makes you spin. Spend a few days with her, and you fall in love.
Born and raised on Long Island, N.Y., she says: "I was a guido in high school -- that was the name of our group. I had the giant hair, the car with the pinstripe and my name inscribed in the door, the Italian horn that hung from the rearview mirror. As cheesy as it sounds, I really did that."
The daughter of a part-time nurse and a hardworking father who rose to become superintendent of sanitation for the Bronx, she was -- and remains -- exceptionally close to her family. "My mom and I are best friends," she adds, "and I'm a daddy's little girl to the end."
She inherited his work ethic but also an ambition no one, not even she, can fully explain. Yet it wasn't until she was close to graduating from the University of Missouri -- studying to become a CPA, of all things -- that her drive really kicked in. Up till then, she'd been the class clown, a motormouth nicknamed Sally Jessy Raphael by her schoolmates, with ironic prescience.
"I was in a bar called Harpo's," Salsano recalls, "and Sally Jessy's face came on the TV screen with the words, 'If you're looking for a college internship, dial 1-800-93-SALLY.' As drunk as they come, I go to the pay phone, and I'm like, 'Hi, my name's SallyAnn.' And they say, 'Great, come in for an interview.' "
The young woman they encountered was a fireball with an astonishing ability to make things happen. What other Catholic girl could have gotten herself voted president of her university's Jewish sorority? Who else could persuade a job interviewer, as she did Raphael's staff, to sign a form saying she'd completed her internship before she began?
The internship led to a full-time position with the show, and by age 22 Salsano was producing some of the highest-rated segments of Sally Jessy Raphael while still living with her parents.
During her five years at Sally, she formed a tight bond with the talk show host that continues to this day.
"She'll grab something and never let it go until it dies," says Raphael. "Among all our producers, she was the most tenacious. Many times we would put guests in a hotel, and she'd stay with them all night because she was afraid another show would steal them. I adore her."
Despite that, it all came crashing down in April 1999, when Salsano was fired by new management, a blow that still rankles.
"I'm a love-her-or-hate-her kinda girl," Salsano explains faintly, with a vulnerability that all the "retards" and "bitches" out of her mouth can't hide.
At 25, the wunderkind was jobless and not even close to penetrating the burgeoning field that was becoming her passion: reality TV.
Attempting to do so, she moved from New York to Los Angeles in June of that year and found work on The Richard Simmons Show, among others, while struggling to get into reality. Almost everyone turned her down -- not least one of her idols, Survivor's Mark Burnett -- before she served as a producer for eight seasons of Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
In 2006, she launched 495, named for the Long Island Expressway her father took when he drove her to work. Soon, she had two hits, Design Star and Dance Your Ass Off.
Then, in September 2009, she was dismissed from both within a week. She was devastated -- and her raw emotion makes you understand her deep connection with Jersey's cast: "I remember thinking, 'How does this happen? People just don't like me?' I take stuff personally."
She adds: "There's nothing I'm not insecure about. Every single show I launch, I'm like, 'Oh my God, is this going to be the one that does me in?' "
Salsano was terrified her company would fold, a fear that still haunts her. Everything now depended on the sole series she had in the works, whose first season she'd just wrapped: Jersey Shore.
Brought in by VH1 executive Shelly Tatro when the project was being developed at MTV's sister network, Salsano had counseled against making it an elimination contest. "One week it was fist-pumping, one week tanning -- all kinds of craziness," she says. The producer was convinced just getting the right cast and following their antics would be entertaining enough.
So she searched the tristate area, boiling contenders down to a final dozen, reduced to eight the day before shooting commenced Aug. 1, 2009. (Deena Cortese, who later replaced Angelina Pivarnick, was in that first group but had to drop out because her grandmother was ill.)
Now Salsano had to confront another problem: There wasn't a single New Jersey city that would let her shoot, except Seaside Heights. "If it hadn't been for Seaside Heights," she marvels, "we wouldn't have a show."
But she did, and when filming began, to Salsano's amazement, she got enough material in five days to fill three episodes. She was convinced what she had was gold; still, would others think the same? Because if they didn't, her company was doomed.
"I sat down with my head of production and said, 'My life is shit,' " she recalls. " 'If Jersey Shore doesn't hit, how long can we keep the doors open?' "
The show debuted Dec. 9, 2009, and became a sensation.
Maintaining a sensation is nearly as difficult as creating one, as becomes apparent when Salsano interviews the Situation -- aka "Sitch" -- in his daily, hourlong interrogation, a staple of the series.
The day before the club incident, blunt as a Soprano, alternately caressing and cajoling, she demands to know what he's going to do about Jionni. Beat the crap out of him, Sitch says. Then Salsano subtly steers him away from the plan while planting the notion that his finest quality is telling the truth, even if doing so could cost Snooki her boyfriend.
She's equally well versed when "Papa Snooks" calls directly on her cell phone -- everyone seems to have her number, no matter how vaguely connected to the show. Forbidden to speak to his daughter right now (castmembers are granted only one private call per week), he peppers her with questions -- understandable, because it's been just days since Snooki crashed into that police car and made headlines.
"Yeah, we had a bit of a problem," Salsano admits of the Jionni matter, gliding over the fact that his daughter is presently a basket case. "She was kinda upset, but she's getting over it." Then they tease each other. "I just got her for two years," she jokes. "You got her for life!"
Salsano may have her for life, too.
The producer's time with the cast isn't limited to their shoots, which range from 30 to 50 days per season (filming in Florence started May 13 and will wrap June 20, before the new episodes debut in August); they call and text her constantly, stay at her small house in the Hollywood Hills; gift her with objects like a handmade iPad cover studded with sequins (a cherished possession) and ask her for help on everything from contacts to contracts.
"I love her," says Ronnie, a Bronx native who formerly worked in real estate. "She changed my life for the better. I had nothing; I came from the bottom. SallyAnn is an amazing person, and I know she loves me -- I don't know why, but I know she loves me to death and would do anything to make sure that I succeed."
She's already achieved it. In the last go-around of negotiations this year, MTV agreed to pay several of the cast more than $100,000 per episode, locking them in through season six.
Even that pales beside the amount they'll make on top of their salaries. An insider says Sitch will earn between $2 million and $5 million this year alone; his friend Pauly D recently signed a DJ'ing deal at Palms Las Vegas that could bring him as much as $50,000 a night.
Whether they'll have the sense to hold onto their money is another thing. It's the one point Salsano -- "Sally" or "SA" to most of those around -- hammers constantly when she meets with the cast in their apartment, either one-on-one or together, as she does several times a day. She tries desperately to make them understand that this won't last.
Money is just one thing they discuss. Sitch huddles to debate whether he should invite certain friends to visit him in Florence, and Salsano cautions against it, worried about bad influences and telling me she remembers how he wept on her shoulder, soaking her clothes with tears, when his dad posted critical videos on a website. That conflict led to litigation that reportedly has since been settled.
She's not thrilled, either, that Snooki's boy toy, Jionni, borrowed his girlfriend's credit card and used it to freely dispense drinks at the club. "You think he'd be spending his own cash like that?" she queries, defiantly moral amid the seemingly amoral young men and women around her.
As to the morality of parading this antic group before the world, however, she dismisses outright any charge of exploitation, "because it's real. The worst thing you can tell a reality-show producer is that it's fake. You can say it's crass, you can say it's vulgar -- but in the end, that's what it is."
She adds, "It's not like this is 1971 and this is the first reality show ever made. People at this point know why they're coming on reality TV. I feel I'm giving them an opportunity they want."
What about the outrage Italian-Americans have expressed at the show's portrayal of these "guidos"? There were boycotts not only by Domino's but also Dell computers and the Italian-American organization UNICO, which pressured corporations to pull ads and referred to the cast as "bimbos and buffoons" -- though that pressure has largely melted away.
"It was insane; I did not expect it," Salsano acknowledges. "I was like, 'Why are they so mad?' If you look at the credits on the show, it's all Italian kids from the East Coast. This is our heritage; this was us as teens."
It's early Friday afternoon, just hours after the drama that exploded last night and seemingly moments since Snooki -- not a teen but actually 23 (most of the cast is in its 20s and 30s) -- sobbed herself to sleep, hugging a stuffed animal, Crocodilly, to her chest.
Salsano has barely slept. Since I left her at 6 a.m., more drama has ensued -- notably a punch-up that might have legal ramifications for the show. It didn't include any of the key castmembers, but it did involve someone close to them, and there's much discussion about whether MTV and 495 are legally responsible. For half the day, Salsano has been on the phone with lawyers, figuring out their next move.
What drives her to deal with this is a mystery -- let alone deal with all her other shows (MTV's FriendZone, TV Guide's Nail Files and Spike's Repo Games, as well as five pilots in active development), among which she pingpongs back and forth, subsisting on only three to four hours of sleep each night.
"It's easier to say what she's not driven by," says Stephanie Lydecker, her head of development and a close friend for whom Salsano cooked 14 days' worth of food in a row after she gave birth to a baby -- the sort of kindness that makes her staff so ferociously loyal. "She's not driven by money or applause. And there's something to be said for watching TV all your life then knowing you've created a phenomenon."
There's also something to be said for fleeing the intimacies of normal life.
"Life is always messy, muddled and complicated," says Raphael. "And you don't have to bother with that when you're working in television" -- and Salsano didn't, allowing a weight problem to continue unabated for years, just recently shedding 140 pounds.
"Once I started gaining weight in my 20s, the only things I could control were my shows," she acknowledges in a rare moment of reflection, noting the weight gain began after she stopped being a competitive swimmer. "I've always struggled with it. Whenever I went on a diet, I lost weight. But I would never take the time. I'd say, 'I can't go to the gym because I have to be in an edit bay.' "
Two years ago, before Jersey aired and even before Salsano was fired from her two other hits, she looked at herself and realized something wasn't right. "I had a boyfriend that loved me. Everything was great. But I was like, 'Something's missing.' "
Salsano didn't go into therapy; she never truly dug deep into herself -- action, not analysis, is her dominant mode. But she knew it was time to change. So she broke up with her boyfriend, revamped her house off Mulholland Drive and started seriously to tackle her weight.
"I made a commitment to myself," she says, pointing to a treadmill that sits slap-bang in the middle of the control room, separated by a thin wall from the guidos' apartment.
I never see her use it. The show, not the treadmill, is everything.
Later that Friday afternoon, an unexpected calm settles on cast and crew alike.
Some of the flatmates are working in the pizza parlor where they have part-time jobs and where the locals gawk at them as they try to figure out simple tasks -- no easy thing given that only one, Vinny Guadagnino, speaks even rudimentary Italian. (Two of his co-stars, Snooki and JWoww, aren't Italian-American at all.)
Salsano takes a break and leads me out of the control room, with its multiple monitors and various producers and assistants, into the holy of holies.
I'm momentarily startled by the apartment's brightness. The place is lit like a soundstage, with fake windows, 28 fixed cameras in the corners of each room and a couple of cameramen ready to follow the cast at a moment's notice.
Inside the apartment, it's so easy to forget they're there. The eerie silence makes one overlook the outside world -- which perhaps explains why the cast acts so unguardedly, with the same spontaneity it exhibited in the very first season. Despite one recent web report that some of Jersey's drama was staged, there's no evidence of it whatsoever during my time here.
Right now much of the cast is gathered in a large living room, next to a big kitchen that's littered with debris. Nobody ever seems to clean this place or even put food away; they just leave it out, forgetting there's a thing called a fridge. With no TV or radio, when they're not clubbing or at the pizzeria, there's little to do but eat, drink and have sex in the "smooch room," whose sheets few of the cast ever bother to change.
Ronnie looks up, happy to see Salsano. He's been desperate to speak to her and pulls her aside, a bundle of nerves. "I haven't been able to sleep," he whispers, adding that he's been jerking awake every 15 minutes, obsessing over the fact his manager hasn't called. Salsano promises she'll look into it, and if this guy doesn't work out, she'll find three other "douches" for him.
Then Sitch shows us the room he shares with Ronnie. (Vinny, Pauly D and Deena are in another bedroom; Snooki, Sammi and JWoww take the third.) To call it a mess would be kind. The bed is unmade; clothes are strewn all over the place. He leads me into the bathroom, where the sink is blocked, nothing has been cleaned and half-eaten food is tucked into corners. Is he going to fix the sink, I ask? He shrugs. "There's always others I can use."
In person, he's the least like his onscreen image. Forget the swagger and the cockiness; there's a gentleness to him that's utterly charming and a puppy-dog desire to please that never goes away. It's this kind of quality that makes you forgive the cast's behavior and see them as Salsano does: lost but truly sweet. She knows all their flaws and accepts them, from Ronnie's eternal anxiety to JWoww's ever-expanding breasts to Deena's off-kilter crooning, which floats up just a few minutes later as we wander back into the control room.
"Every day and every night/There's no need to scream and shout/We can always work it out …"
She's oblivious to the fact that, in the control room, the producers and assistants are screaming with laughter. Most of the time, like Salsano, they lovingly embrace their stars' pathology; but sometimes -- just sometimes -- in moments of exhaustion, one feels they might happily take a break from these cryogenically frozen adolescents.
Deena crawls into a suitcase, trying to sleep, while JWoww gets on all fours, searching frantically for an unknown object.
"What's she looking for?" a producer asks.
"Her dignity," another quips.
How much longer audiences will remain interested in indignity is the great unknown. When word surfaced last month that the cast might be dropped, MTV instantly proclaimed it wasn't true, an indication of just how much weight it places on the show, which has "changed the fortunes of [parent company] Viacom broadly," says David Bank, analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
Salsano is crucial to that success.
"She's incredibly important to this series; she is the real lifeblood of it," Janollari notes. "She is a powerhouse producer of the highest caliber, a fountain of pure energy and creative enthusiasm."
Perhaps not today, however.
It's Saturday at 2:45 p.m. There's been yet more drama, inevitably: Jionni's reappearance at the local train station, about to hightail it out of town; another club outing; and the presence of a stalker (well, a girl Sitch claims is stalking him but that he may be sleeping with).
In the control room, for the first time since I arrived, Salsano seems exhausted. She's only slept a few hours, in a makeshift apartment constructed for her right above the cast's. This morning, she says, "I didn't even have enough energy to take a shower."
She'll need all the energy she can muster this evening, when she plans to tell the cast they'll go straight from Florence to shooting season five in New Jersey. Various agents, lawyers and managers have been informed, and MTV is about to go wide with a press release. But Salsano knows, after the intensity here, the eight young men and women will likely rebel.
"They're gonna hate me," she sighs.
What is this life? What is this endless cycle of highs and lows? It's already cost Salsano two long-term relationships (though she's now in a third that seems to be working); it's kept her away from home all but 19 nights this past year; and it's made some of the most dysfunctional young men and women on the planet her buddies.
"Documenting other people, you realize how crazy it all is," she admits. "Going from here to New Jersey, I'll be with the kids 100 days in a row. I don't know how I'm going to feel at the end of it." She pauses. "I'm so not in control of my own life."
For a fleeting moment, one almost believes her.
Then she glances up at the monitors -- and Snooki is drowning her sorrows in the biggest bottle of beer you've ever seen, and JWoww has broken down in tears -- and Salsano starts to laugh at the sheer absurdity of it all.
"It's all coming together," she gloats, her sheer lust for life irresistible. "Kumbaya, my Lord. It's gonna be great!"