Meet the Original JWoww and Snooki, Would-Be Stars of Bridge & Tunnel

Brianna and Gabriella almost escaped from Staten Island. But MTV pulled the plug on the original Jersey Shore

Meet the Original JWoww and Snooki, Would-Be Stars of <i>Bridge & Tunnel</i>
all photos by Chad Griffith
Getting ready for their close-up: Brianna and Gabriella DeBartoli. More photos of Brianna and Gabriella DeBartoli here.

The first time Brianna and Gabriella DeBartoli made plans to meet for this article, they canceled on account of a hangover. "Hey so my sister is, um ... detoxing?" Brianna wrote over Facebook that morning. "And can't leave the house." It was Mother's Day.

This is the sort of introduction you'd expect from two sisters first delivered to the world screaming, sobbing, slapping, carousing, clubbing, and cursing on Perez Hilton's trash-culture site last fall. On October 6, 2010, the Queen of All Media posted an "Exclusive!" video of Bridge & Tunnel, a reality series about Staten Island kids for which MTV filmed 12 episodes, but execs inexplicably canceled a month before its long-incubated premiere.

"We implore them to RECONSIDER," Perez pleaded. The accompanying trailer showed male cast members shaving their chests, swinging fists, and double-team sucking on a beer-funnel shaped like breasts. Their female counterparts said "youse" instead of "you," complimented one another's cleavage, and tossed drinks in peoples' faces. "Prepare to meet the classiest bitches along the New York Thruway!" Perez declared. "They make Angelina"—a widely despised twice-discarded Jersey Shore shrew who's parlayed her trashy Z-list fame into a TNA wrestling spot—"look like Michelle Obama!"

The leaked clip was deliberately sensational, a highlight reel of emotionally exaggerated explosions designed to distract MTV execs away from their hot-tub-and-hair-gel juggernaut Jersey Shore. But even in that minute-plus montage, Brianna and Gabriella DeBartoli were the undeniable stars. Gabriella, the endlessly preening elder sibling, enunciated like a sexy Fran Drescher, teetered around in heels and a tiara to Beyoncé's "Diva," and said amazingly quotable things like, "I can't really date Staten Island boys—I've dated all of them." Brianna, her street-smart little sister, smoked adorably and flipped people off. The trailer closed with the younger blonde bidding, "Have a good night! Fuck yooooooou!"

Fisticuffs, tans, the melodrama of youth—it certainly seems like MTV's bread and cocoa butter. And it was. Rough drafts of the show had been floating around the Viacom property since 2008. In fact, Bridge & Tunnel was presented, piloted, and sold to MTV before Jersey Shore ever aired. But while Bridge & Tunnel evolved real-time as the story of thickly accented working-class kids struggling to get off Staten Island and to make it in Manhattan—it was the anti-Hills, a blue-collar rebuttal to the grossly loaded California clan that begat plastic-surgery monster Heidi Montag—another show with similar accented archetypes rebooted under the MTV banner in 2009. Jersey Shore funneled eight self-identified guidos and guidettes to a "Nu Joisy" vacation house, where their sole ambition seemed to be disgracing Italian-Americans. The results were slapped on air by the year's close, and faster than one of Snooki's juicing gorillas, the original Bridge & Tunnel cast watched caricatures of themselves become White House–hold names.

In a sense, the DeBartoli sisters are the original JWoww and Snooki: sharper, prettier, kinder, more discriminating, less scatological, but no less entertaining. They, too, tease their hair and speak at high volume. They, too, vacation in Atlantic City. They, too, are owned by MTV, though you'd never know: While Bridge & Tunnel hangs in programming purgatory, the DeBartolis are hamstrung by Draconian network contracts that reportedly don't allow them to have agents or managers or even talk about any of this publicly for five years. So while JWoww shills her own black bronzer line and Snooki slams into Italian police cars for $100,000 an episode, Gabriella and Brianna have been working respectively as a secretary and a pizza-order girl in Staten Island.

The papers they signed as passports off Staten Island are effectively keeping them there.

"I want MTV to know that what they did was not right," says Brianna and Gabriella's mother, Linda Vitale, who lives in Las Vegas with her daughters' stepfather, Mario. "They can't say this, but I can: 'To hell with MTV!' "

You won't find the Bridge & Tunnel pilot that persuaded MTV to spend millions shooting an entire season anywhere. But such internal pitches circulate among industry back channels, and the Voice scavenged a copy. It is excellent and heartfelt, a verité testament to lower-middle-class insularity that conjures Saturday Night Fever's desperate ennui. Here are the first 10 seconds: "I'm from Staten Island a/k/a Drama Island," says Robby, a young man with a metal chain outside of his shirt. Another voice, belonging to a baseball-capped young man with steely eyes, adds soberly, "What we're all lookin' ta do is get out of heah."

Their biggest obstacle is inertia. Like with Timmy. As we learn in the next 28 minutes, Timmy once watched his friend J.D. get stabbed in the lung (it wasn't fatal), and the crisis made him want to be a paramedic. After telling everyone with ears that he's enrolled in EMT training, he procrastinates the application process so long that the fall deadline passes. Ambulance-technician training represented Timmy "getting his act together," so when he breaks the news to his Christian mother, reassuring her that he'll "just get a car, be a pizza dude" until the winter semester, she is indignant. "Why do you have to settle for that?" she protests. "Why can't you just get another job? Like, Wendy's?" Robby, whose father is a firemen, wants to be a millionaire. In the meantime, he's a party motivator—a PG-rated stripper—and one night cameras follow him to the Staten Island Hotel, where he strips down to black pants and a bowtie, and gyrates with feather-boa-festooned women who tuck singles into his waistline. It's all very 21st-century Tony Manero. In the longer term, Robby thinks that financial advisory is the path to Corvettes and Floridian property, so he seeks counsel from a professionally successful friend who tells Robby to read the Wall Street Journal. Instead, he sits on his bed and counts his cash.

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