I haven’t watched an entire season of reality TV since Survivor premiered in 2000. My sister had to explain the widespread appeal of The Bachelorette. It was literally last week when I learned that Vanderpump Rules is about a restaurant owned by a Real Housewife, and I still refuse to find out who or what a Property Brother is. You could say the entire genre has passed me by in the last 20 years or so, but I harbor an unlikely attachment to one commanding central figure in it — an icon who made $7,000 more than Hillary Clinton for a speech at Rutgers University: Snooki of MTV’s Jersey Shore.
As with most shows like it, I only ever caught bits and pieces of Jersey Shore when it aired between 2009 and 2012. I think they worked in a boardwalk T-shirt store or something? And for sure I couldn’t tell you which guy is which. But Nicole Elizabeth “Snooki” Polizzi (now LaValle) wasn’t just a breakout star onscreen. She seemed to be one of the earliest reality favorites to recognize that her personal brand was bigger than any single premise — which explains her string of spinoffs, appearances at award shows and WWE events, three books, well-paid speaking engagements, nearly 7 million Twitter followers, and combination lifestyle blog/fashion line. Even if I wasn’t watching her on TV, I could read in the Daily News that she and her husband went on a very hungover McDonald’s run the morning after their Great Gatsby-themed wedding. And it was impossible, as someone on the internet, not to learn of her most iconic, inimitable turns, from yelling “Where’s the beach?” as she ran alongside it and wailing “I’m a fuckin’ good person!” when she was arrested for disorderly conduct to phrases like “Let’s get wastey-pants” and epiphanies such as: “Tofu, I thought that was like ‘touché.’”
The fountain of her wisdom never ran dry, and she was always willing to share it.
What do I love about Snooki? It’s hard not to appreciate, as the New York Times points out in their review of the brand-new reboot series Jersey Shore Family Vacation, that she’s managed to stay “perpetually and jubilantly tipsy” in the decade or so we’ve known her. But being a Jersey boy myself, I know it isn’t mere drunkenness that earns her a spot in my heart. Being adopted by an Italian-American family from Santiago, Chile, when she was just six months old, she clearly seized an identity for herself, and that confidence is intoxicating. From growing up in the pizza belt, I also have the regional reverence for a tiny woman with a huge personality: she shouts to be heard above the urban fray, and men twice her size are brought to heel. At 4’8”, Snooki could be, inch for inch, the most powerful mom on the planet. Add to that her radical candor — she Instagrammed the moment she explained pregnancy stretch marks to her kids and uploaded YouTube videos detailing the pros and cons of her breast augmentation surgery months after the fact — and you’ve got some raw inspiration. Who else but this heroine is brave enough to try cheerleading again after a 7-year break?
When I see non-Snooki reality shows (whether based around dating, cooking, real estate, or just being rich), the characters fall into two distinct camps. There are people who would like to come off well, who want you on their side, and who appear to weigh tough choices as though the sticky ethics of the medium aren’t a controlling factor in the decision. They might be assholes, but they can always fake a concern for manners. Then there are the born villains — the brash, backstabbing, not-here-to-make-friends egomaniacs who incite the messy drama we crave. These loudmouths, for all we know, may not be half as bad in any other context. The mistake is to see only the latter approach as a Machiavellian pose or grasp at celebrity; both sides orient themselves to the camera and play the part they think will carry them up the ladder to true fame.
If Snooki ever modulated her personality for producers, we’ll probably never know it. And if there was artifice to the presentation — if “Snooki” is a performance — than it is history’s most brilliant portrayal of a woman who can’t be anyone but herself. She wanted to funnel beers at 10:30am, sure, but she also wanted to snuggle in bed with her best friend JWoww and was looking forward to domestic bliss (not to mention MILFdom) and had a relatable need to poop whenever she got excited. She even forgave the blacked-out douche who clocked her in the face at the bar: “I mean, shit like that happens at bars sometimes.” You could think her crass or childish or “not conventionally attractive,” but she’s charming because of all that. When you imagine a scenario wherein Snooki won a beach vacation in a house with assorted twentysomethings, yet without anyone filming, you’re forced to conclude that she’d have done it all the exact same way. Viewers were equally appalled and compelled by the same inkling: that Snooki was the star of her own story long before MTV came calling.
It’s fitting that the worst insult in reality TV land — a pop universe made up of brazen misrepresentations — is “fake.” It dredges up the anxiety of simulation, of a failure to sell the scenario being acted out. Snooki’s outward aesthetic may hinge on fakery, from the tan to the eyelashes to the boob job, yet no one could credibly pin the epithet to her. She even embodies a realness about the fake stuff, and that is what makes her one of a kind. Respect and protect her at all costs, for we shall not look upon her like again.