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How a drama queen turns 'Jersey Shore' into a hit

It's 3:03 a.m. in a sweat-stained nightclub in Florence, Italy, and tension is in the air.

The tension has been brewing since early this afternoon — Thursday, June 2 — when Snooki (Nicole Polizzi), a star of MTV's taboo-busting reality show "Jersey Shore," started guzzling booze, anxious about the imminent arrival of her American boyfriend.

In fact, it might have been brewing even longer, perhaps since the day before, when this reporter arrived in Florence and was brought straight to the bank-turned-apartment that houses Jersey's eight mostly Italian-American castmembers, who've been ensconced here for nearly three weeks in an ambitious attempt to return them to their ancestral roots.

Word was spreading in the apartment that one of the "guidos," just to cause trouble, might reveal Snooki hadn't been faithful — worse, may have slept with a fellow castmember. Now her boyfriend, Jionni LaValle, an aspiring teacher, is here at the club, and housemate Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino is itching to tell him the details.

And SallyAnn Salsano, 37, is itching for him to do it, too.

Five feet tall, bristling with energy, a human can of Crunk crackling jokes and expletives like fireworks, "Jersey's" executive producer paces back and forth in a crevicelike anteroom, tireless though she has slept only 27 minutes in the past 24 hours.

"F--in' retards!" she groans.

She says it with humor, but she's been trailing this bunch from club to club for hours, waiting for action, and there's not a whiff of it. She pushes past a half-dozen sleep-starved colleagues and hunches over four portable video monitors, desperate for something to happen.

And suddenly it does.

A young man is on the ground, writhing. Is it Jionni? Has Mike punched him out? Snooki freezes on the small stage where she's been dancing, her dress inching up to reveal her butt. For an instant, there's utter confusion before Salsano realizes it's just a local who has slipped and fallen. She leans back, crushed.

Then, out of the blue, Jionni bolts.

Incensed by Snooki's antics, he hurtles from the club and into the streets, followed by Snooki, JWoww, Sammi and Deena — all the guidettes — shouting and wailing as four cameramen struggle to keep up, with the Situation and his pals trailing them.

"Run, b-----s!" Salsano yells at the crew.

And she's running, too, lightning-fast in her sneakers, making sure every moment is captured on tape as the cast scatters like billiard balls, one dragging a plastic water bottle that's been punctured by her heel, until Snooki collapses on the sidewalk in a maelstrom of tears.

"We got it," Salsano exults. "We got the whole f---n' thing!"

'She changed my life'
Maintaining a sensation is nearly as difficult as creating one, as becomes apparent when Salsano interviews the Situation — aka "Sitch" — in his daily, hourlong interrogation, a staple of the series.

The day before the club incident, blunt as a Soprano, alternately caressing and cajoling, she demands to know what he's going to do about Jionni. Beat the crap out of him, Sitch says. Then Salsano subtly steers him away from the plan while planting the notion that his finest quality is telling the truth, even if doing so could cost Snooki her boyfriend.

She's equally well versed when "Papa Snooks" calls directly on her cell phone — everyone seems to have her number, no matter how vaguely connected to the show. Forbidden to speak to his daughter right now (castmembers are granted only one private call per week), he peppers her with questions — understandable, because it's been just days since Snooki crashed into that police car and made headlines.

"Yeah, we had a bit of a problem," Salsano admits of the Jionni matter, gliding over the fact that his daughter is presently a basket case. "She was kinda upset, but she's getting over it." Then they tease each other. "I just got her for two years," she jokes. "You got her for life!"

Salsano may have her for life, too.

The producer's time with the cast isn't limited to their shoots, which range from 30 to 50 days per season (filming in Florence started May 13 and will wrap June 20, before the new episodes debut in August); they call and text her constantly, stay at her small house in the Hollywood Hills; gift her with objects like a handmade iPad cover studded with sequins (a cherished possession) and ask her for help on everything from contacts to contracts.

"I love her," says Ronnie, a Bronx native who formerly worked in real estate. "She changed my life for the better. I had nothing; I came from the bottom. SallyAnn is an amazing person, and I know she loves me — I don't know why, but I know she loves me to death and would do anything to make sure that I succeed."

She's already achieved it. In the last go-around of negotiations this year, MTV agreed to pay several of the cast more than $100,000 per episode, locking them in through season six.

Even that pales beside the amount they'll make on top of their salaries. An insider says Sitch will earn between $2 million and $5 million this year alone; his friend Pauly D recently signed a DJ'ing deal at Palms Las Vegas that could bring him as much as $50,000 a night.

Whether they'll have the sense to hold onto their money is another thing. It's the one point Salsano — "Sally" or "SA" to most of those around — hammers constantly when she meets with the cast in their apartment, either one-on-one or together, as she does several times a day. She tries desperately to make them understand that this won't last.

Money is just one thing they discuss. Sitch huddles to debate whether he should invite certain friends to visit him in Florence, and Salsano cautions against it, worried about bad influences and telling me she remembers how he wept on her shoulder, soaking her clothes with tears, when his dad posted critical videos on a website. That conflict led to litigation that reportedly has since been settled.

She's not thrilled, either, that Snooki's boy toy, Jionni, borrowed his girlfriend's credit card and used it to freely dispense drinks at the club. "You think he'd be spending his own cash like that?" she queries, defiantly moral amid the seemingly amoral young men and women around her.

As to the morality of parading this antic group before the world, however, she dismisses outright any charge of exploitation, "because it's real. The worst thing you can tell a reality-show producer is that it's fake. You can say it's crass, you can say it's vulgar — but in the end, that's what it is."

She adds, "It's not like this is 1971 and this is the first reality show ever made. People at this point know why they're coming on reality TV. I feel I'm giving them an opportunity they want."

What about the outrage Italian-Americans have expressed at the show's portrayal of these "guidos"? There were boycotts not only by Domino's but also Dell computers and the Italian-American organization UNICO, which pressured corporations to pull ads and referred to the cast as "bimbos and buffoons" — though that pressure has largely melted away.

"It was insane; I did not expect it," Salsano acknowledges. "I was like, 'Why are they so mad?' If you look at the credits on the show, it's all Italian kids from the East Coast. This is our heritage; this was us as teens."

On the set
Later that Friday afternoon, an unexpected calm settles on cast and crew alike.

Some of the flatmates are working in the pizza parlor where they have part-time jobs and where the locals gawk at them as they try to figure out simple tasks — no easy thing given that only one, Vinny Guadagnino, speaks even rudimentary Italian. (Two of his co-stars, Snooki and JWoww, aren't Italian-American at all.)

Salsano takes a break and leads me out of the control room, with its multiple monitors and various producers and assistants, into the holy of holies.

I'm momentarily startled by the apartment's brightness. The place is lit like a soundstage, with fake windows, 28 fixed cameras in the corners of each room and a couple of cameramen ready to follow the cast at a moment's notice.

Inside the apartment, it's so easy to forget they're there. The eerie silence makes one overlook the outside world — which perhaps explains why the cast acts so unguardedly, with the same spontaneity it exhibited in the very first season. Despite one recent web report that some of "Jersey's" drama was staged, there's no evidence of it whatsoever during my time here.

Right now much of the cast is gathered in a large living room, next to a big kitchen that's littered with debris. Nobody ever seems to clean this place or even put food away; they just leave it out, forgetting there's a thing called a fridge. With no TV or radio, when they're not clubbing or at the pizzeria, there's little to do but eat, drink and have sex in the "smooch room," whose sheets few of the cast ever bother to change.

Ronnie looks up, happy to see Salsano. He's been desperate to speak to her and pulls her aside, a bundle of nerves. "I haven't been able to sleep," he whispers, adding that he's been jerking awake every 15 minutes, obsessing over the fact his manager hasn't called. Salsano promises she'll look into it, and if this guy doesn't work out, she'll find three other "douches" for him.

Then Sitch shows us the room he shares with Ronnie. (Vinny, Pauly D and Deena are in another bedroom; Snooki, Sammi and JWoww take the third.) To call it a mess would be kind. The bed is unmade; clothes are strewn all over the place. He leads me into the bathroom, where the sink is blocked, nothing has been cleaned and half-eaten food is tucked into corners. Is he going to fix the sink, I ask? He shrugs. "There's always others I can use."

In person, he's the least like his onscreen image. Forget the swagger and the cockiness; there's a gentleness to him that's utterly charming and a puppy-dog desire to please that never goes away. It's this kind of quality that makes you forgive the cast's behavior and see them as Salsano does: lost but truly sweet. She knows all their flaws and accepts them, from Ronnie's eternal anxiety to JWoww's ever-expanding breasts to Deena's off-kilter crooning, which floats up just a few minutes later as we wander back into the control room.

"Every day and every night/There's no need to scream and shout/We can always work it out ..."

She's oblivious to the fact that, in the control room, the producers and assistants are screaming with laughter. Most of the time, like Salsano, they lovingly embrace their stars' pathology; but sometimes — just sometimes — in moments of exhaustion, one feels they might happily take a break from these cryogenically frozen adolescents.

Deena crawls into a suitcase, trying to sleep, while JWoww gets on all fours, searching frantically for an unknown object.

"What's she looking for?" a producer asks.

"Her dignity," another quips.

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