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

Gabriella and Brianna enter rooms like two Tasmanian she-devils. That's how it happens one Tuesday at E Squared Café, a strip-mall hookah bar masquerading as a bubble-tea outpost that a Yelp reviewer insists "doesn't belong in S.I." It's only a few blocks from where the DeBartoli sisters live with their father and stepmother, tucked in Page Avenue's Tottenville Shopping Center, and B&T filmed here frequently last summer. A little past 6, the only customers are an afterschool crew of acne-blotched teenagers taking turns with a rented water pipe. But then 21-year-old Gabby enters—stunning, with thick red lips and a beauty mark—and immediately starts shouting about how her knee-length boots are stuffed. She's talking so fast it’s impossible to keep up, and 20-year-old Brianna starts laughing, and holy crap, their arrival is like a human helicopter landing. Without looking at the menu, they order green-tea smoothies, which will arrive with no charge. "It's sweet and it's yummy wit' whipped cream!" Gabriella shouts after the attendant, as he shuffles off.

"So much for a diet," Brianna says. After this, she is headed to the gym. "It's still a diet as far as I'm concerned," insists Gabriella, who recently prepped for bathing-suit season by eating only 500 calories a day for a month.

"Your boobies look really big," Gabby says admiringly.

"Oh, it's the Victoria's Secret!" Brianna replies.

"I'm a very honest person," Gabriella likes to say, and she is. Within 10 minutes of our first meeting, Gabriella wants it known that she's a huge prude. "I date a lot of people, don't get me wrong. But literally, that area"—she says, pointing at her crotch—"was touched twice by serious people." Less than five minutes later, she clarifies why she might be talking funny. "I had my lip done for the first time—I tried, like, injections—and if I'm talking like an asshole, I apologize." This was all in one breath.

Brianna cracks up. "Usually when people get their lip injected, they don't want anyone to know, but—"

"I'm crazy, that's all right," her sister interrupts, waving it off. "I'll tell the world. This guy I'm dating, I told him too, I have no problem with it. He's the only person I told for a while. Anyway, another thing—"

This also concerns her mouth, specifically what it can discuss. None of the 10 contracted Bridge & Tunnel cast members are allowed to talk about the show. (Thankfully, Staten Island is small, and there were many witnesses.) They've signed enormously binding contracts, legal documents that seemed to be written in another language but that they accepted anyway, and they can't address those either. [See an example of a Real World contract here.]

Fortunately, other people can. Joseph Melillo, a 24-year-old general assignment reporter for WENY-TV in Elmira, was offered a role in Real World XXIII: Washington D.C., but declined once he read the contract. "My image, my life story—all that was theirs," the Trinity College grad recalls. Melillo also has Crohn's disease, and if he had agreed to the paperwork, he would've lost his HIPAA privacy rights. MTV would've had complete freedom to exploit his medical history.

Producers urged him to rethink, so his lawyer emailed modification requests for 36 of the hefty document's 250 stipulations. The network came back with one change. Under the original proposal, the crew could enter Melillo's childhood home and take memorabilia for the show at any time. With this change, Joe's mom could "say no if she was home."

When Brianna got the magic phone call, she was at the mall, working at a dog ID-tag stand. You can quit your job! the voice on the other end cheered. Your life is going to change! MTV bought the pilot! "I was going crazy in the middle of the mall, screaming! And everyone's looking at me like I just found out I'm pregnant." (Another MTV show entirely.) Brianna would continue as a focal point of Bridge & Tunnel as it unfurled in May 2010, as would on-off boyfriend Timmy, Robby the dancer, and fashionista-hopeful Alycia. But other supporting characters who'd been involved during the 18-month gestation period had moved, dropped off, or proved themselves unable to withstand the rigors of full-time filming, so new subjects were also recruited.

There was Jimmy Gambardella, one of Robby's dancer friends who'd been a hired-gun party motivator since he was 12 or 13. ("Everybody thinks I'm older," he brags, confessing that when he first started, "I was in my glory days.") Jimmy toiled at a construction job during the week, aspired to be an actor or a model, and boasted the nickname Dilla, given by girls in his neighborhood. "When I was drunk, I dropped my pants and so they called me big, ah, Dilla." There was Gabby's ex, Joseph Bonomo, a soon-to-be law student who'd been invited to audition when casting directors heard he had his own anthem, written by a friend, spoofing the Nickelback song “Rock Star.” There was Tim's friend Marykate and another girl, Jessica, and Brianna's cousin Angelo, who wasn't contracted, but proved to be so charismatic that producers kept asking him to film with the cast. (The boob-bong in the trailer was his; he's drinking from one of the nipples.)

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