Mayer has studied the young cameramen, who, she says, often sign up because they hope to break into Hollywood. Usually, she says, they end up disillusioned after spending night after night with women who lose their inhibitions for a T-shirt. "As much as it would be easy to see this as a simple relationship of men treating women a certain way, there are mutual relations of exploitation. I kind of feel like both sides could be seen as exploited."
She's concluded that the winners are "the owners of these companies who are contracting cheap labor and free talent for a media product."
Francis arrives at the nightclub outside Chicago and is waved past a long line of people that snakes in front of the low-slung building. His crew follows him, single file, as he pushes his way through crowds of young women encased in a synthetic Victoria's Secret sexuality and swarms of young men who, though pimple-faced, exude an Abercrombie & Fitch confidence.
His entourage heads for the bar, bypassing an expanse of empty tables, to climb up to a narrow platform surrounded by a metal fence. This is the VIP section. Women in fishnets greet the crew wearing "Girls Gone Wild" tank tops and not much else. They are writhing against one another, their faces fixed in dazed sexual stares. Everyone clusters around a small table stocked with Red Bull, vodka and pitchers of fruity punch. When I turn to the flock of pretty girls, Jillian Vangeertry, a 21-year-old student, offers me a warm smile. I feel as if I'm in a bed of kittens. Why, I ask, is she here?
"Anybody enjoys the attention. T-shirts, hats--we got all the accessories," she says. I ask if she plans on going wild for the cameras later. She shrugs. "If you do it, you do it," she says confidently. "You can't complain later. It's almost like your 15 minutes of fame."
I sip my awful fruity cocktail, one of two that I'll nurse that evening, and turn to Francis' road manager, Chris Parisi. He says his boss is nothing short of brilliant. "He created a monster: the name, the image, the brand--he created something that everybody knows or wants to be a part of. Even my dad knows 'Girls Gone Wild.' The name itself is so powerful, and he's powerful. They all want to feel like they are a part of Joe's world."
Francis returns from his dance-floor foray. He's hyper, like a kid on sugar, talking fast. He says he's discovered the ultimate quarry: a girl who says she will be 17 for just a few more hours and who wants to get wild for the cameras the minute she's legal. "Girls Gone Wild" crew members can receive a bonus of $1,000 if they discover such a treasure, he shouts happily.
I follow Francis and his bodyguard through the crowd to find Kaitlyn Bultema. She's dancing on a podium and leaps off at the sight of Francis. She's wearing a skirt-and-shirt ensemble that exposes her stomach, most of her breasts and much of her bottom. I ask her why she wants to appear on "Girls Gone Wild" and she looks me in the eye and says, "I want everybody to see me because I'm hot."
It's then that it hits me: This is so much bigger than Francis. In a culture where cheap and portable video technology lets everyone play at stardom, and where America's voyeuristic appetite for reality television seems insatiable, teenagers, like the ones in this club, see cameras as validation. "Most guys want to have sex with me and maybe I could meet one new guy, but if I get filmed everyone could see me," Bultema says. "If you do this, you might get noticed by somebody--to be an actress or a model."
I ask her why she wants to get noticed. "You want people to say, 'Hey, I saw you.' Everybody wants to be famous in some way. Getting famous will get me anything I want. If I walk into somebody's house and said, 'Give me this,' I could have it."
Above the dance floor, the stage is full of girls who rotate, twist and shimmy their way up and down three strip poles. One of them is Jannel Szyszka, a petite 18-year-old who prances around the stage like a star. At her feet, a crowd of hundreds is gyrating to the pounding house music. Dozens of polo-shirted boys shout up to her, making requests like "shake your titties" and "get crunk" (meaning crazy-drunk).
Szyszka tells me later that as she was spinning around the strip pole that night, Francis appeared, grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. "You are so going on the bus later," she recalls Francis saying. "I was like, 'Um, OK.' I was shocked. I was like, 'Whoa--Joe's, like, trying to talk to me, like out of all the girls in here.'" Francis invited her back to the VIP area to do shots with him, she says, and she said yes.
Szyszka says the more shots she drank, the cloudier her judgment became. She says she agreed to join Francis and his crew on the "Girls Gone Wild" bus. "I thought 'Girls Gone Wild' was like flashing, and I thought I would flash them and be done. And so when I'm walking to the bus, that's all I'm thinking is going to happen."