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

Michelle and Bonomo both sought to become white-collar professionals; they viewed Bridge & Tunnel as an adventure, not an endgame. She'd studied pre-med at NYU; he'd been accepted to New York Law; she'd decided to do post-grad work this fall. No matter what, her plan was that "even if I was famous on Oprah, I was still going to school in 2011." Together, Michelle and Bonomo represented another side of the Staten Island class divide, which became another subtext of B&T's narrative arc: the difference between a "goon" and a "guido"/"gumba." As a Bridge & Tunnel one-sheet broke it down, "The goons are considered street kids who hang out on the stoops, while the gumbas are the club-hoppers." Brianna and Tim, who sat under bridges and could barely afford the cigarettes they smoked, were the goons. Michelle wasn't exactly a club-hopping guidette, but she could pass. Recently, she says, "when I was at Forever 21, a woman asked me—she had a daughter going to college—and she's like, 'What did you study?' I told her, and she's like, 'Oh, I'm sorry, you don't look like you're smart.' "

Michelle and Bonomo were not Jersey Shore, they reminded each other, and they were going to behave respectably on camera. And then Michelle found herself getting pegged with water balloons on the Fourth of July.

The DeBartoli sisters were born in Brooklyn, but have lived in Staten Island as long as they can remember. Just 18 months apart, they are best friends and perfect foils. "Gabby was always a prissy diva," says their 22-year-old cousin Angelo DeBartoli. "Brianna was a tomboy. She was a little gangsta, sweatpants and tanktops and shit like that."

The elder, Gabby, went to Moore Catholic High School for two years, where, according to the younger, she was a "straight-A, I-do-everything-right" type of student. (Gabriella disagrees, pointing out that she was so frequently in private-school detention for silly violations like chewing gum that she eventually transferred to the nearby public Tottenville High.) Meanwhile, Brianna couldn't stop getting suspended. "I was a bad child," she concedes. "My first fight was the fourth grade because someone stepped on my new Skechers. Punched them right in the face, and then it never stopped. I got punch-happy, I guess."

"Yes, she did have a couple problems like that," her mother admits. "Brianna's the type that she doesn't take crap from nobody."

So one can only imagine what Brianna's response would be when catty strangers saw cameras trailing her at clubs and, sensing a hater-cameo opportunity, threw ice chunks at her head.

Or when after years she spent filming MTV pilots that treated her as an intriguing specimen of Manhattan-commuter youth, suddenly a bunch of flimsier, cheesier fifth-borough reproductions of her and her friends are famous, and people heckle her for being the copycat.

Brianna can't talk about it, but there it is in the trailer: her getting carried out of a club, lunging; her slugging a dude in the face. "People would come up and call Brianna 'Snooki' because of the way she was doing her hair," cousin Angelo recalls. "Brianna was pretty cool with it at first, but I'm so protective of her. I was, like, 'Snooki is a piece of trash. How are they calling you Snooki? They don't know anything about you.' "

It's called Drama Island for a reason. During filming last summer, Timmy and Brianna would hook up, then argue, then talk. Michelle and Gabby seethed in each other's general direction, water balloons got lobbed at Michelle one night, and eventually they ended up in an all-out pushing fight. Gabby and Jimmy made out in an Atlantic City pool. At home, Gabby constantly reminded Brianna, "Every time we get ready, we're not getting ready for the people we're seeing tonight. We're getting ready for America!" Brianna's cell phone broke. She didn't care; she just thought, Soon I'll be the Sprint spokesperson.

"I could just see the premise, and what they were looking for there was probably going to be no different than the Jersey Shore," says Johnny Feva, a local DJ at Rhythm & Brews—a Dongan Hills bar where, Jimmy says dismissively, "you can catch the 50-year-old single mother chilling out." Feva refused to sign release forms when the camera crew came to his night. "People who were getting off the island? That's probably a good way of them saying, 'All train wrecks in Staten Island, please apply.' "

Feva was so disgusted that he made a YouTube video last August asking MTV to stay off Staten Island. Too late. Bridge & Tunnel's premiere date was Tuesday, October 26, 2010, at 10:30 p.m. Strategic timing, since the Miami-based finale of Jersey Shore's second season would air the previous Thursday. To ensure that this information didn't leak, bodyguards shadowed the B&T cast to Atlantic City. Linda Vitale planned to fly into New York for the kickoff to be with her two daughters. The production crew threw a wrap dinner with the entire cast. Gabriella, who'd been skeptical about the show's future not just because a psychic told her it wouldn't air, stood up and squealed, Is this really happening?!?

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