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.
Alycia recently distanced herself from Frank, an unseen suitor whose desire for commitment threatens to prevent her from pursuing a career. “I wanna do my dreams,” she declares, her hair blowing in the Staten Island Ferry wind. “I wanna go to the city and become a fashion journalist.” As she wagers on fashion-merchandising LIM College, she enjoys the company of Vinnie, Carmine, Mike Nunziata, Anthony, and various others, but sums up her unwillingness to get serious thusly: “Am I gonna sit here when I’m 40, and my children are fricking annoying me, and my husband is on the couch picking his ball sack or something, and I’m gonna wonder what if?” No, she will not. Except that she just realized she’s in love with Vinnie.
The pilot’s dark horse is Timmy’s ex-girlfriend, a Newport-sucking toughie who dreams of becoming a music producer. One day, hanging out with Tim and two other friends under a bridge, she fantasizes about life with money. “We could all just take the ferry, go to the city,” she muses. “Eat in a nice restaurant, like ESPN Zone or Planet Hollywood. Somethin’ wit’ a theme.” That’s Brianna.
The episode’s delivery date was October 26, 2009. Jersey Shore would debut December 3, 2009.
Brianna DeBartoli’s relationship with reality TV began, like many broken promises, on Craigslist. Her father cut off his two daughters at 16, and the 17-year-old high school dropout was searching for employment. She spotted a casting call for Tool Academy, a VH1 show “dedicated to taking the most arrogant, dishonest, thoughtless and unfaithful boyfriends and transforming them into husband material,” according to an extant online synopsis. Conveniently, Brianna had a long-term boyfriend, future EMT wannabe Timmy, whom she believed deserved a surprise trip to “relationship boot camp” and applied. Tool Academy was full, but the casting director rerouted her to another project in development for Viacom, a very early incarnation of Bridge & Tunnel. (It’s worth noting that Tool Academy producer SallyAnn Salsano is the woman ultimately credited with Jersey Shore‘s success.)
Bridge & Tunnel wasn’t originally limited to Staten Island. Conceived as a documentary-style reality show about New York kids growing up in Manhattan’s shadow who wanted more—whatever more was—but didn’t know exactly how to get it, Bridge & Tunnel originated at the independent production company Ish Entertainment. In the spring of 2008, Ish hired Doron Ofir, the same L.A.-based casting director who would later recruit Jersey Shore, to interview outer-borough kids and to film them throwing parties. Brianna became a test subject.
You wouldn’t get this from the sloppy catfights posted on Perez Hilton, but empathy, not ridicule, inspired Bridge & Tunnel. Naomi Bulochnikov, the show’s stiletto-heeled creator, was raised in a two-bedroom Brooklyn apartment with her grandparents, her parents, and her older sister. “I always had that feeling of ‘How am I gonna get out of here?’ ” Her objective with Bridge & Tunnel was to humanize that struggle. “There’s a reason why these kids are the way they are,” she says. “They have to adapt to their environment. If you grew up in Staten Island, you fist-pump. That’s what you do.” Her older sister Stella escaped to Los Angeles at 18, eventually co-founded Ish with Michael Hirschorn and now executive-produces the Starz original drama Boss starring Kelsey Grammer. The kids Bulochnikov wanted to depict didn’t have this kind of role model. “What do you do when you have all these dreams and all these goals, but you have no way of getting them, you have no one to guide you? You have no money. You have no way of getting out. Manhattan to you is a world away.”
A Bridge & Tunnel 13-minute “sizzle tape” presented to MTV in the fall of 2008 was so well-received that a pilot for the network began shooting in January 2009. At one point, a source close to the production reports that MTV network execs suggested throwing the cast in a house with a hot tub, titling the show Staten Island, and seeing what happened. Bridge & Tunnel‘s producers declined. This was a series about kids with stories, not kids whose only stories were the show.
Rough-draft clips appeared during MTV’s April 2009 upfronts, the annual period when networks unveil their upcoming projects to lure early advertising dollars. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Choire Sicha proclaimed Bridge & Tunnel “the greatest show you’ve never seen” that “deeply scratches an itch you don’t even know you have.”
Meanwhile, MTV ran for the sandpaper—Brianna even remembers her casting director asking if she knew any guidos for a new show. Over at VH1, there’d been a project floating around about Jersey stereotypes, one of whom was a former mortgage broker named Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. The Spam-skinned douchebag who would make the unseemly acronym D.T.F. (Down To Fuck) a catchphrase, the Situation became the only returning cast member when the series moved over to MTV under SallyAnn Salsano, best known for Shot of Love, a kind of bisexual Bachelor starring MySpace boob-stick Tila Tequila. Sorrentino went off to Seaside Heights, where he and seven other cartoons underwent the Real World‘s Molotov-cocktail approach: hurl volatile characters at a Jacuzzi-furnished house-share and immediately get them lit. Nicole Polizzi, an aspiring veterinarian nicknamed Snooki, had just watched a horse fart (not a euphemism) on an episode of MTV’s inverse-matchmaking reality show Is She Really Going Out With Him? This was apparently exactly what MTV wanted out of 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.)
Meanwhile, Gabby was living in Vegas. During spring break, she’d fallen in love with a handsome Sin City stranger named Nate. Staten Island felt severely claustrophobic, Vegas was the Capital of Second Chances, and her mother lived there. She uprooted to Nevada and went to cosmetology school. “I got very successful in hair out there,” she says. Out there, Gabby crossed paths with the Situation and Pauly D—there are photos of them all on TMZ. Brianna felt lost without her. “I was like, ‘Gab, I would really like it if you could just come here.’ ”
She flew back, on MTV’s dime, to stay for two weeks. On her first day in New York, Gabriella recalls, “I fought with my stepmother, my father, my best friend Amanda. I went to a surprise party. All of my friends attacked me, cursed me, ripped me a new asshole. Literally, within 24 hours of me being back in this psychotic island? The world fought with me and attacked me. Within one day. One day!”
Gabby and Brianna both wanted to escape from the nonsense, so they planned an Atlantic City sojourn with the cameras in tow. They went to the Cabana Club, a venue equipped with a pool that’s closed at night. Gabby didn’t care; she felt sweaty, disgusting, and wanted to go for a swim. “I have no problem taking out my hair, lying it on the table with the bottle of vodka next to it, and going swimming in my heels and dress,” she says, as if it’s a matter of principle. She demanded that her microphone be removed, detached her extensions, and leapt into the water. Gabriella was signed on as a Bridge & Tunnel cast member the next day.
On December 14, 1977, the New York Times quoted Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell explaining why he had to depart an elegantly overstuffed party in honor of a French viscount’s wife and head to his six-month-old club. “On the weekends, we get all the bridge-and-tunnel people who try to get in,” the rigidly discriminating door inspector announced. Someone asked who the bridge-and-tunnel people were. “The people from Queens and Staten Island and those places.”
Eventually, the term came to mean any déclassé nightlife tourist. Jim Fouratt, an ex-manager of Danceteria who’d been hired to promote a new wave/punk club in Long Island’s West Hempstead, told New York magazine in 1981, “What I learned is that the so-called bridge-and-tunnel crowd is a state of mind. There are just as many bridge-and-tunnel minds in Manhattan as anywhere else.”
Pranksters Jeff Greenspan and Hunter Fine agree. “We don’t have any hatred for people from these places—it’s the certain behavioral traits that seem to manifest themselves when they wind up in Manhattan,” Greenspan offers. This past March, as a skewering public-art stunt, the downtown-based collaborators set Bridge & Tunnel Traps, fake-steel foothold-trap jaws baited with PATH train tickets, Drakkar cologne, hair-spiking glue-gel, a Long Island Rail Road schedule, and a gold chain. “Everything [B&T kids] do becomes cartoonish,” explains Greenspan. They laid B&T traps outside notorious hot spots like Pacha, the Hotel Rivington, and the since-shuttered Mason-Dixon Bar. Some observers assumed they were Jersey Shore traps, despite the LIRR nod. The targeted behavior was the same. “Putting on some cologne is fine; bathing in it, not so much,” Greenspan reasons. “A little bit of yelling is fine, but everything they do is on 11. Again, a limousine is fine. A Hummer limo? It’s ostentatiousness, but without any class. They’re just amplifying horrible taste.”
About her experience deflecting the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, Vice fashion editor Annette Lamothe-Ramos, who also DJs Fridays at the West Village’s Jane Hotel, says, “They’re always the snobbiest, most stuck-up people at the bar! They’re pushing rank at the door, trying to take pictures with their friends on their cell phones, posing in the middle of a room.” A Manhattan native, the 25-year-old has driven through Staten Island only after a wrong turn. “It’s annoying,” she says about B&T kids. “They just ruin the night for everyone.”
This reputation for bad manners, however deserved, is exactly what drove Bridge & Tunnel. “These kids are so misunderstood,” says executive producer Naomi Bulochnikov. “You tune in because you hate them. You stay tuned because you start falling in love with them.”
Michelle Ippolito, 24, had never heard the pejorative “bridge and tunnel” before she got cast in the show. An alum of Staten Island’s St. Joseph Hill Academy High, a private Catholic school with a 14-acre campus and a token gazebo, Michelle very quickly became Gabriella’s onscreen arch-nemesis last summer. She was also a stunning, stick-thin brunette with a pharmacy-aisle tan. She, too, cavorted with a blond sisterly sidekick, a Canadian model named Natalie, which fostered a tag-team rivalry with the DeBartolis. Michelle had also briefly dated Gabby’s ex Joseph Bonomo, Bridge & Tunnel‘s self-appointed Brody Jenner, and the two continued to be close friends.
Bonomo is known for his “mouth, my abs, and a few other parts of me that we can’t talk about,” he jokes when we meet for an afternoon drink at the Murray Hill location of Caliente Cab Company, the local Mexican chain owned by his close friend’s uncle, where Joe bartended last summer. The 23-year-old St. John’s grad doesn’t lift his powder-blue polo shirt to unveil his abs (or anything else anatomical). Though there are photos of him shirtless on Facebook—in one, he’s holding a giant bottle of Dom Perignon and a Super Mario hat—and his rock-ribbed stomach is, admittedly, impressive, more like a Ken doll’s plastic six-pack than that aggressively dented tummy of that other MTV guy whose solar plexus is internationally famous. For that comparison, Joe already has a cheeky sound bite. “I’m not the Situation, I’m more like a Solution.”
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?!?
The psychic was right. On September 22, 2010, producers learned that Bridge & Tunnel was officially shelved. One week later, longtime MTV execs Tony DiSanto and Liz Gateley announced their departure from the network.
As the president of programming, DiSanto oversaw the zeitgeists of Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant. The former had just wrapped shooting its third season; and now the latter’s second season would debut on Tuesday, October 26, 2010, filling Bridge & Tunnel‘s time slot.
“It was probably the best thing that it didn’t air,” says DJ Johnny Feva. “The show is pretty much what you would expect,” wrote the blog Staten Island Dump. “Staten Islanders acting like assholes. Thank Jesus that your children don’t have to grow up in a world where these people represent their hometown.” (The Staten Island Borough President’s Office would not respond to requests for comment.)
Reportedly, the reasoning behind dismissing Bridge & Tunnel at the eleventh hour was that the premise was now too similar to Jersey Shore‘s. The network supposedly didn’t want to be the next Bravo, a business built on programming franchises like Real Housewives and Top Chef. Then, this past April, under a new regime, MTV would announce that it had greenlit two 12-episode Jersey Shore spin-offs, one starring Pauly D and one co-starring Snooki and JWoww. The following month, the Situation landed a separate development deal with the station. (MTV representatives could not be reached for comment.)
At first, the DeBartoli sisters bought a laptop and started a Bridge & Tunnel Facebook fan page. They gained 10 pounds. They didn’t realize they were still contractually forbidden from talking publicly about Bridge & Tunnel even though it didn’t air, so they spoke about it on camera. “The trailer does look like all we do is hook up with a bunch of guys and punch people in the face,” Brianna told Chance TV. “I look like the bitch, it’s terrible,” Gabriella acknowledged grinning.
But they’re innately stars. Brianna was recently approached for another reality show. “It was about this guido girl trying to not be a guido anymore,” she recalls. “She had to stop drinking, stop smoking, start covering up her boobs—and I had to be the best friend that was like the bad influence on her.” The idea was stupid, Brianna thought, but she couldn’t consider it either way. Both Gabriella and Michelle have been approached to model, but had to refuse. Even though the show wasn’t broadcast, contracted B&T cast members did get paid between $1,500 and $2,000 an episode. But the DeBartolis still had to find jobs. Brianna called and confirmed food orders at MyPizza.com until quitting this past Saturday. “That’s pretty much what I’m doing with my life since the show has left. I just went downhill.” (Within two days, she scored a new job as a restaurant bartender.)
“I just recently completely left the hair industry—I’m over it,” Gabriella says. We’re back at E Squared. “Until I figure out my next move,” she explains, “I’m an executive assistant … CEO … some administrative—some pretty word for a secretary.”
“Administrative assistant?” offers Brianna helpfully.
“CEO is in it!” Gabriella insists. “Whatever it is, I like it—it sounds classy!”
Gabby and Michelle Ippolito are now famous friends. Michelle works in a Manhattan entertainment law office. She just got engaged to 27-year-old Adam, a Duke grad who once had a blowout and says he frustratingly gets mistaken for the Situation even though he’s far better looking; so far two reality dating shows have solicited the couple, including the one that hatched Snooki. Joe Bonomo attends New York Law full-time, clerks for a Kings County judge, hits the gym twice a day, and recently bought a Harley. Jimmy Gambardella, whose Twitter handle is @LadykillerJMG, toils away in construction, earns $150 plus tips a night to dance at sweet-16 parties, and recently auditioned for an American Pie reunion, but didn’t get the part.
Brianna still aspires to be a music producer. Her MTV persona would have made that easier. “Now I have no connections. I have no money. I’m working a dead-end job to get the money to live my dream. I’m back to before I got that phone call. Screaming at the mall. I should have kept my job.” She’s all too aware of her situation. “It was all a big tease.”
Gabriella believes this is just a temporary setback. “We still have these dreams. We’re still gonna get them. It’s just a slower process.”
Brianna is engaged, not to Timmy, but Billy Bonamo. They met last December 4, her birthday eve, at Staten Island’s Lava Lounge. Billy was drunk, he hit on her, and she thought he was cute. Four months later, Billy proposed. They were arguing about a male buddy she’d kissed before they met. She tried to drive away in her Scion but had an anxiety attack. “I’m in the midst of breaking up with him,” Brianna remembers. Standing by her headlight, Billy beckoned her over. “I’m like, ‘Why do you need to see me right now? I’m yelling at you!’ ” Billy descended to one knee, pulled out a ring, and said, verbatim: “Shut. The Fuck. Up. And Marry Me.” Brianna said yes.
“We’re going really, really fast,” she admits. “Whole new life.” The couple has matching tattoos: His name inked on her ass, her name stamped “right above his penis,” she says, “where it belongs.”
We say our goodbyes at E Squared and head in separate directions until Brianna realizes her interviewer is hoofing back to the Staten Island Railway on foot and circles back. “I’m so sorry! I went off blasting my music, not realizing that you were walking!” They offer up the backseat.
Driving past banners for BLOWOUTS and BOOZE (specifically liquor-store eye-opener discounts, from 8 a.m. to noon on Monday through Thursday), Brianna switches on LMFAO’s “I Am Not a Whore,” the party-rock club-jam that repeats I! Am Not! A Whore 20 times. “This is me defending myself from Staten Island girls,” jokes Brianna from the driver’s seat, then singing along with the subsequent disclaimer, “But I like to do it.” (There is a 2011 YouTube video of Snooki, JWoww, Deena, and Ronnie duck-faced voguing to this very song.)
The white Scion turns the corner to the Nassau station; the train is already there. Like a tongue-waggingly hot poodle, Gabby sticks her head out the window and screams loud enough for Manhattan to hear, “Hold the TRAAAAAAAINNNN!” New York railways do not wait for people who aren’t even on the platform, but Brianna is insistent. “No—quick, quick, quick—seriously, go!”
Like on TV, the train waits. Holding the door, the smiling conductor says, “Just for you girls.” What he means: just for those girls.