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The most controversial figure in New York' s music scene is sitting in a T.G.I. Friday's on West 34 th Street,eating some disgustingly delicious fried food. Sarah Lewitinn, the blogger, published author, DJ, VH1 commentator, and a&r rep known professionally as Ultragrrrl, is five foot one, with chin-length, bobbed brown hair (the previous color, purple, is long gone), and looks not one iota like one of "the most influential people in music," as New York magazine dubbed her last year. She doesn't look like the kind of girl who'd inspire bloggers and Internet denizens to hate her with a passion so great they create message-board threads with titles like "I Want to Shoot Ultragrrrl in the Face." Nor does she seem like one of the "50 Most Loathsome People in New York," as the New York Press once dubbed her.
For now she's just a normal girl digging in to a heart-attack-inducing mealcrispy green-bean fries and a fatty Tuscan portobello melt. She sits with the singer of Permanent Me, one of the signees to her new label, Stolen Transmissionthe Long Island pop-punk band has just played for 2,000 people across the street at the Hammerstein Ballroom, opening for Fall Out Boy. There are two hours to kill before the headliners go on, so we eat our greasy food with relish.
When we head back to the venue, she looks for a kid in need of a ticket. She has an extra, and wants to make someone's night. She eyes a teary blonde teenager who's outside the front door crying hystericallyeither she just got kicked out or the guards won't let her in. Looking like a teenager herself, Lewitinn, slightly disheveled in a black-and-white polka-dot dress, mussed-up hair, and smeared eyeliner, takes up the cause; Lewitinn tries to convince the authoritarian security guards that she's not some desperate girl trying to get a stranger backstage.
"I work for the label," Ultragrrrl says, pointing to her all-access pass.
The security guard's stern expression doesn't change, and the blonde becomes more despondent. Lewitinn continues to argue. "But why? Let her inthis is a legitimate ticket. I work for the label." She thrusts the ticket into the girl's hand.
The guard gets more annoyed with each pleading cry from both ladies, though, and for a second it looks like nobody's getting in. Reluctantly, Lewitinn gives up, and we leave the teen to her own devices as we head inside.
"I used to be that girl, up in the front row, jumping up and down," Lewitinn says a little wistfully. "Now I'm in the back."
But the farther back she gets, the closer she gets to the spotlight herself. Ultragrrrl now has to sell records with the same enthusiasm and magnetism she once used to sell herself.
Lewitinn first got national attention in 2003via her blog, Sarah's So Boring Ever Since She Stopped Drinking (now located at ultragrrrl.com). Then came Making Out With Ultragrrrl, her minuscule but influential column in Spin that ran from 2003 to 2004. She's won Paper magazine's People's Choice award for Best Party and Best DJ (sharing the latter honor with her DJ partner, Karen Plus One) two years running, and in 2005 wrote The Pocket DJ, a book of playlists for different genres, moods, and occasions. It sold 38,000 copiessuccessful enough that she's signed to do a second book, The Pocket Karaoke. She's working with a screenwriter on a movie script partially based on her life. Her growing profile nabbed her a recent write-up in Vanity Fair (written by her good friend and former Spin mentor Marc Spitz, which spurred a bit of controversy) and more media attention than any other a&r rep in town when she started Stolen Transmission, a subsidiary of the Island/Def Jam label empire. But her main claim to fame is the early discovery of New Jersey goth punkers My Chemical Romancea band she briefly managedand her similarly prescient championing of Las Vegas dance-rock sensations the Killers. She also provided early support for such bands as Muse, Franz Ferdinand, Fall Out Boy, and Stellastarr(whom she also briefly managed). She has shown an unsettling ability to call the next big thinga soothsayer for teenage girls, middle-American music fans, and even hipsters who would like to think they know better.
photo: Chad Griffith
Lewitinn just turned 27, but she seems perennially 21, a happy-go-lucky party girl who just really loves music. She's not much different than when I first met her eight years ago, playing records at a LES bar with Spitzshe got so drunk she had to be carried downstairs to the bathroom, leading to an incident that earned her the nickname "Buckets." She just really loved music then, too, but back then no one paid much attention to her opinions.
At that time, she was the office mascot at Spin, an intern who would tell the unimpressed, uptight indie-rock music nerds working there that a then unknown band was gonna be huge, with the unfettered, unabashed enthusiasm of a cheerleader. While the nerds were griping that she couldn't write, her ear for whether a band's sound would resonate beyond the four walls of her LES apartment impressed superiors far older and more experienced than her. "She had a really uncanny, almost terrifying ability to wander in the office and say, 'I saw this band; I think they're gonna be really bigthey're called the Strokes,' two years before anyone had heard of them," says Michael Hirschorn, a former Spin editor who's now a vice president at VH1.