Too Tan to Fail: Pauly D's Next Episode

'The Jersey Shore' is over, but the party is just beginning for DJ Pauly D.


“Are you gonna eat some balls?” Pauly D asks me, busting out a smile so bright it’s unclear if he has extremely white teeth or extremely tan skin. Probably both. 

“Pauly, you just gave her a headline,” his publicist says, floating me a nervous frown.

He’s talking about meatballs, of course. The baseball-sized meatballs from Martarano’s Italian restaurant, which are displayed in graphic detail on every last Harrah’s hotel room key with a close-up of lumpy red sauce, less appetizing than it is gory.

Pauly orders one of the balls for himself as his friends, and friends of friends, filter into the curtained-off back room where we’re sitting. Louis Prima’s “Che La Luna” is playing as he stands up and greets them, saying, “Party’s here!” It is one of many moments throughout the evening in which Pauly is impossibly on-brand.

This almost cartoonish persona might read like the natural extension of reality TV fandom, but Paul DelVecchio is adamant that he was Pauly D long before the words Jersey Shore came to symbolize a polarizing microcosm of Italian-American culture. At the very least, his mother, Donna DelVecchio, can corroborate that he was gelling his hair as early as the seventh grade.

“I was all tan, I had gel in my hair, but i had no idea what the show was going to be.
that was just me being me.”

Jersey Shore’s producers discovered Pauly after stumbling upon his Myspace page back in 2008. At the time, it was an emerging project for VH1 titled simply “Guidos.” Producer SallyAnn Salsano began building the concept based on her own summers spent at the shore. She took co-creator Anthony BelTempo’s idea for a competition-style show, and flipped it into a slice-of-life docuseries, despite warnings of how difficult the subgenre could be.

“I made friends, I made enemies, I had the time of my life,” Salsano told me on the phone, wrapping up a few memories with what may as well have been a tagline for the show.

The formula of the show was relatively slack—one of the only rules was that the cast had to work in a t-shirt shop. And yet, it was extremely deliberate in the pieces it pulled together to breed something organically entertaining. The cast was based on archetypes within the guido culture (or, less theoretically, a bunch of people Salsano knew grewing up), allowing for nuanced intricacies to play out under the umbrella lifestyle. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent group of kids—the initial intention was to rotate in new faces each season—but Salsano knew she had to map out the right personalities from the very beginning. Pauly entered the scene as “the guy who you didn’t know, who you kind of wanna murder,” the one who seems like a self-involved jerk, but proves you wrong by being the nicest guy in the world.

The MySpace that drew Salsano to Pauly was a portfolio for the character we met on TV. He was DJing in one picture, holding up his shirt to display his abs in another. When Salsano’s crew reached out to see if they could film his daily routine for a sizzle reel, he almost ignored the message, initially mistaking it for spam. After talking on the phone with producers though, he agreed to give them a glimpse into his day-to-day, taking cameramen to the gym, the club, and his house, where he kept his personal tanning bed.

“This guy is the real deal,” Pauly remembers one producer saying on the phone at the end of the day, though he wasn’t sure exactly what that meant at the time.

“I was all tan, I had gel in my hair, but I had no idea what the show was going to be,” he explained. “That was just me being me.”

Pauly has a sense of humor when recounting this story, and about himself in general. He chuckles when he notes that the Italian flag tattooed on his back may have been part of the reason why he was picked for the show. A few moments later, he talks about his current tanning habits with a twinkle in his eye, as if to prod me in the ribs and say, “I’m Pauly D, of course I’m talking about tanning,” while also very seriously talking about tanning. (He knows about cancer and all that, but also a good tan really does make the difference when it comes to muscle definition. You know, everything in moderation.)

The DJing and bronzed complexion are as crucial to Pauly D’s essence as a base tan at the beginning of a New Jersey summer. He is fairly certain the impressive endurance of his post-reality-TV success can be attributed to the fact that he showed up knowing exactly who he was, and what he wanted to do.

“I wanted to be a successful DJ since I was 14 years old,” he tells me back in his suite after dinner. Not a DJ, mind you, a successful DJ. He’s one of the most profitable DJs in the world, making over $11 million dollars a year. Perhaps the lack of an adjective is where all our childhood aspirations went wrong.

Pauly often mixes a sense of pride in his hard work with garish displays of wealth. The things he’s earned function as receipts proving just how far he’s come. When he tells me he lives in Las Vegas now, for example, he specifies that he has a very nice house—“It’s a mansion”—with a basketball court. He flashes his diamond-encrusted watch, noting no less than three times that Rick Ross has the same one. He also makes it a point to show off his diamond-encrusted cross, as if anyone could possibly miss the two-by-four chunk of sparkles hanging above his belly-button, noting it was an long-awaited upgrade from the jeweler in Philadelphia who he’s been going to forever (“for-ev-ah”).

It would seem that Pauly’s thrill over his own profile would be the result of the kind of celebrity that fell into his lap, though it didn’t quite happen overnight.

Growing up in Rhode Island, Pauly bought his first set of cheap DJ equipment at age fourteen. He practiced on-and-off in his room for four years, before landing his first job at a friend’s sweet 16. From there, he got more party requests, soon building enough of a reputation to land spots at local clubs. He capitalized on a series of owners giving him a shot and made a name for himself, delivering the “party rock” atmosphere he still considers his calling card.

Meanwhile, he was selling cars at a job that was an accomplishment in its own right. He climbed his way up the ladder at the dealership, where he started washing cars at 17, before working in the recon department, then as a service advisor, then as a salesman, becoming the used car manager 10 years later. 

Along the way, he planned to go to college. He had phenomenal grades in high school, and perfect attendance. One year, there was a ceremony recognizing the students who had earned such accomplishments, but Pauly slumped down in his seat, ignoring his name when he was called to go up on stage. “I didn’t want people to know, because I wanted to be with the cool people,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a nerd.” He and his mother shrug off the question of why Pauly never considered higher education, though avoiding it certainly allowed for the hair-spiking legacy of coolness that has since followed.

Pauly was using all that stealthy intelligence and dogmatism to build himself a DJ circuit, while still relying on his car dealership income when he decided to pursue what would become the Jersey Shore. He had little idea of what the show would be like and didn’t much want to be on TV. Still, it didn’t fail him that exposure might help his career. He drove down to the house with the Italian flag on the garage and brought along his DJ equipment, just in case he had the chance to show off his skills. Within his first week at the house, he was making the call to set up a job and eventually DJing on-screen at Karma, earning $200 for the night.

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After The Jersey Shore ended, things revved up, though only gradually. His first gigs outside of Rhode Island were in Connecticut. He used those jobs as leverage to showcase himself as a performer, and played up his skill set by refusing to do basic club appearances. Showing up to drink and pose for photos can be a rather lucrative post-reality gig, but he wanted to distinguish himself. Whenever a booking opportunity would come up, he’d turn it down unless he was also able to DJ.

“It probably didn’t even occur to him at first, like, why they didn’t have him DJ,” Salsano laughed, preparing an endearing rendition of Pauly’s accent. “You know, he was probably like, ‘Why do they want me to just sit there?’”

“All the other [cast members] could do club appearances, because they couldn’t do anything else,” said one of his two managers, Larry Rudolph. “The last thing Pauly would want to do is these club appearances where he just shows up and sits on the couch.”

As Pauly sees it, coming in with a talent is what set him apart from the more common trend of reality TV fame burning out into some bloated iteration of everyone’s 15 minutes. “I wanted to work to my dream, not just be some reality show DJ,” he said. “There are still some skeptics, and how I prove them wrong is just with my DJ skills.”

Reality fame is a double-edged sword which Pauly continues to navigate. Although, he started off with an advantage by landing a pair of managers who worked with legitimate artists like Britney Spears, Steven Tyler, and Avril Lavigne. When Rudolph and his partner Adam Leber sought Pauly out, they knew he would be an anomaly for their area of expertise, and yet sensed Pauly had that something beyond entry-level reality fame. He was a DJ, who just so happened to be charming and really, really good-looking, and on a show that everyone in America was talking about.

“We saw Pauly and thought he had incredible star appeal,” Rudolph said of signing Pauly, “But the thing that really separated him from the rest of the cast is that he actually had a talent.”

“I'm known to rock a party.
I'm a party rock dj.”

The brand that followed is compelling in its simplicity. “I’m known to rock a party,” Pauly tells me, when I ask him to sum up the way he sees his reputation. “I’m a party rock DJ. You’re gonna hear a little bit of everything and I interact with the crowd. You’ll see that tonight.”

The phrase “party rock” comes up only slightly more frequently than the references to Rick Ross and his watch. It’s as if he’s cycling through a series of verbal flashcards with a rapidity that only increases as he downs a vodka Red Bull or his first shot of Five Hour Energy. And yet, “party rock” is more than some dopey sounding thing a frat boy might say while pre-gaming. It’s also a formula for engaging with audiences, one that has earned him a certain amount of respect among the DJ community.

“I wouldn’t separate personality from the live performance,” Pauly’s agent Yoni Goldberg told me. “There are three things that make Pauly a skilled DJ: his technical ability, his ability to read the crowd, and the skill with which he engages the crowd.” 

Listening to Goldberg explain each area of expertise would be enough to make even the most chaste classical music aficionado develop at least a slight appreciation for DJ-ing as an art form. “Could anyone go up and play songs and be a DJ? Yes,” he said. “Could anyone be a good DJ? Absolutely not.”

Performing at Harrah’s is routine for Pauly. He’s had a residency there for the past five years, returning to their Pool After Dark club space about once a month to a mix of unbridled excitement and apathy. Walking down to the venue, some casino dwellers are unfazed by his presence, while others scream and rush over requesting photos. As Pauly pauses for another group shot, I watch as a platinum blonde in a suede skirt sidesteps a morbidly obese man wearing a T-shirt that reads, “It is what it is.”

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It is, to be more specific, quite possibly the most heterogeneous group of middle class white people ever to congregate in the same cigarette-drenched air. Very few people are smoking, but the smell is so oppressive, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a layer of wet tobacco beneath the wallpaper. And yet, despite these surroundings, Pauly is smiling ear-to-ear, delighting his fans. He’s like a beam of energy, treating this as if it’s his very first red carpet, and not some sparkly, more depressing version of purgatory.

A  few impromptu meet-and-greets later, it’s show time. I’m filtered to the side of the stage along with the rest of the entourage as Pauly peels off to make his entrance. The crowd is given a few minutes to build anticipation before he appears on stage. “Ladies and gentlemen, grenades and non-grenades,” bellows the loudspeaker. “Get ready for DJ Pauly D!”

Raised phones emit their flurry of flashes. Pauly was ready for exactly this. He knows the first half hour is all about taking pictures, and he bears with the crowd, waiting five songs in to request they put their hands up in the air, seeing as everyone is currently using their hands for Instagram. He starts out with obvious Top 40 hits like “Formation,” segueing into EDM music mashed up with clips of viral videos. “Damn, Daniel,” says that too-familiar voice, signaling the bass is about to drop. Squeals swell up from the crowd. It’s amazing how much excitement is bred from familiarity.

He takes a swig of the Dom P. sitting in a bucket of ice next to his Technics 1200s. He appears to be both warming up the crowd and himself, only peeling off his bright blue Adidas track jacket after phones have returned to pockets and purses. Occasionally, he’ll sing along or lip sync. More often, he’ll refer to himself in the third person, reminding the crowd who is in the house.

Pauly is not alone in the job of tone-setting. He is flanked on either side by dancers dressed in rhinestone bikinis with pink tassels and plastic white boots, meant to look like patent leather. Their faces are plastered into a sultrier version of the Miss America grin, as they gyrate along to the music. “I’m pretty sure the strippers are working harder than the DJ,” a man yells to his friend behind me midway through the set. They’re not strippers, and Pauly would have you know he was working very hard, but neither is a particularly difficult mistake to make.

Being a DJ looks easy, and sometimes just having a recognizable face and a pair of headphones is enough to land a gig—enough C-list names come to mind to avoid the cattiness of providing definitive examples. Although, Pauly is quite certain there’s more to it than his fame. He knows how to read the audience, how to catch them off base with a surprise song, how to maintain the vibe and make sure every last person in the room is having the best possible time.

“Like anything else, practice, practice, practice makes a good DJ,” he explained before the show. “But what makes a great DJ is knowing what to play and when.” And then, there’s that interacting with the crowd part he told me to look out for. 

Sometimes, it’s obvious, like when he demands one woman smile. “Hey you, why aren’t you smiling?” he nods at her with a chuckle for the microphone. “Security! Take her away, she’s not smiling.”

Then there are more subtle instances, like when he signals for certain audience members, specifically pretty, skinny ones with silky hair, to be brought back stage. Security guards escort them out of the crowd, most noticeably assuaging a woman who spent a solid 45 minutes pressed up against the barricade, not dancing or singing, just unflinchingly attempting to achieve sexy eye contact.

When the set is over, the group of women who have assembled in a pocket behind Pauly are ushered along with him out of The Pool. As we separate, I debate asking if he knows any of the ladies he’s chosen to bring back to his suite, or what the rest of the night will look like, but he throws me off with an extra-sweet goodbye.

“You ask interesting stuff,” he says over an endearing smirk. “It’s not the usual stuff. It makes me think.” And with that, security whisks him into the employees-only set of elevators.

The next afternoon, I relayed that last quote to a friend, who proceeded to launch into an accent-heavy impression. “You, uh, you make me think the thoughts,” he aped.

I laughed, but more at how compelling this perception of Pauly is than anything else. The joke was that he’s an oaf who stumbled his way into the spoils of reality television, as if by accident. But Pauly isn’t the result of dumb luck. Far from it. With a multi-million dollar income sewed from DJ-ing alone, not to mention a tanner, cologne, and clothing line, he couldn’t possibly be.

There’s a cynical version of this profile where Pauly is a glammed-up savant bopping around in over-sized headphones to the tune of mansions and diamonds. In the glowing alternative, there’s a brilliantly calculated formula beneath his bronzed sheen of success. Either way, the most fascinating part of Pauly’s brand is that fans and detractors alike see him as a man who was able to capitalize on oh-so aggressively being himself. Whether that’s the result of superficial nonsense or the hard-wrought product of charisma and talent is subjective, though there’s no argument that five years after his initial spotlight windfall, he’s done a spectacular job of refusing to let the party come to an end.

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