SOUTH BEACH, Fla., Friday, March 18, 2004—If you ever watch television when you have insomnia, then you are already familiar with Girls Gone Wild. Late at night, infomercials show bleeped-out snippets of the brand’s wildly popular, utterly plotless videos, composed entirely from footage of young women flashing their breasts, their tushes, or occasionally their genitals at the camera, and usually shrieking “Whoo!” while they do it. The videos range slightly in theme—from Girls Gone Wild on Campus to Girls Gone Wild Doggy Style (hosted by Snoop Dogg)—but the formula is steady and strong: Bring cameras to amped-up places across the country—Mardi Gras, hard-partying colleges, sports bars, and, of course, spring break destinations—where young people are drinking themselves batty, and offer T-shirts and trucker hats to the girls who flash or to the guys who induce them to do so. I am in just such a place.
It’s 11 on a Friday night in never sedate but usually upscale South Beach, and the area has been taken over by sunburned spring-breakers in tight, synthetic clothing. An SUV passes by and two blond heads pop out of the sunroof like prairie dogs, whooping into the night sky. On the front porch of the Chesterfield Hotel on Collins Avenue, a GGW crew is assembling for a night of filming. They were out last night, too, and they made a new friend, a local who has offered to take them to a club in nearby Coconut Grove. “That’s Crazy Debbie,” says Mia Leist, GGW’s 25-year-old tour manager. “I love her. She’s like a Girls Gone Wild groupie. She gets so many girls for us.”
Crazy Debbie is a 19-year-old personal trainer by day. She wears body glitter, white stilettos that lace up to her knees, and a rhinestone Playboy bunny ring. “I did a scene for them last night,” she says proudly, which is to say she masturbated for the GGW cameras in the back of a bar. “People watch the videos and think the girls in them are real slutty, but I’m a virgin! I just think this is fun. Miami is one of the few places where people aren’t ashamed of their bodies. And yeah, Girls Gone Wild is for guys to get off on, but the women are beautiful and it’s fun!” A song Crazy Debbie likes is blaring from the bar inside, and she starts doing that dance that you sometimes see in music videos, the one where women shake their butts so fast they seem to blur.
“She calls that vibrating,” says Sam, a shaggy-haired cameraman who’s here from L.A. “She told me, ‘I can vibrate.’ “
Another cameraman, Puck, a very handsome, surprisingly polite 24-year-old, is loading equipment into the car when two stunning young women who are already very close to naked approach him. They notice his Girls Gone Wild T-shirt and hat and ask him if they can come along with him if they promise to make out with each other later, possibly even in a shower. Alas, there is no room for them in the car, but the crew is unfazed: This happens all the time. “It’s amazing,” says Leist. “People flash for the brand. Debbie got naked for a hat.”
The brand is so popular they will soon launch an apparel line, a compilation CD with Jive Records of GGW-approved club hits, and a restaurant chain. “It’ll be like Hooters with better food,” says Bill Horn, a 32-year-old in Pumas who is GGW’s vice president of communications and marketing. Justin Timberlake has been photographed in their hats, and Brad Pitt gave out GGW videos to his Troy cast-mates as wrap presents. Horn won’t tell me how much GGW is worth (he doesn’t have to; it’s privately owned), but a few years ago founder Joe Francis told Variety that he pulled in $4.5 million in 2001.
The company’s success doesn’t surprise me much. For the past year, I have been working on a book for the Free Press about how all the things that feminism once reviled—Playboy, strippers, wet T-shirt contests—are currently being embraced by young women as supposed symbols of personal empowerment and sexual liberation. To most of the girls I’ve met (at CardioStripTease classes in Los Angeles, at CAKE parties in Manhattan, at shopping malls outside of Chicago), bawdy and liberated are synonymous. Girls Gone Wild is only an extreme example of what’s happening in our culture all the time in more subtle ways. Think about the popularity of Britney and Christina and their porn-y aesthetic (and poor Janet’s desperate halftime attempt to catch up). Think about the ubiquity of thongs (in this country, the tiny garment’s sales rose from $570 million in the period between August 2001 and July 2002, to $610 million for the same period the following year according to the market research firm NPD Group). Bimbos are back. But this time, women—like Mia Leist—are behind the scenes as well as in front of the cameras.
“It’s not like we’re creating this,” Leist tells me once we get to Crazy Debbie’s dance club in Coconut Grove. “This is happening whether we’re here or not. Our founder was just smart enough to capitalize on it.” As if to emphasize her point, two girls at the table next to us start giving a double lap dance to a young man who seems pleased by his good luck.
Bill Horn doesn’t even notice them. He is staring across the room at a phalanx of blondes in tops tenuously fastened by lots of string ties. “Now those are some girls who should go wild,” he says. “Jesus, listen to me; this job is turning me into a straight guy.”
Puck and Sam pass by with three young women who have volunteered to do a “private” out on the balcony. “Here we go,” says Bill. “There’s some part of me that always wants to shriek, ‘Don’t do it!’ ” But he doesn’t, and they definitely do. The trio starts making out in a sort of ravenous lump. It all looks very much like interpretive dance. Ultimately, one girl falls over and lands giggling on the floor—a characteristic endpoint for a GGW scene.
On their way back inside, I ask one of them, a blonde in a turquoise miniskirt and now, of course, a hard-earned GGW hat, what they do when they are not on spring break. “We’re grad students,” she says, with only a slight slur. “It’s sad. We’ll have Ph.D.s in three years.”
In what, I ask.