Like eunuchs guarding a harem, the giant bouncers part, letting pass a wee sex goddess on platform silver heels. Tila Nguyen marches past and into the noisy sanctum of Atlanta’s nightclub Studio 72—tossing dirty-blond hair, flashing tawny bare limbs and cleavage, drawing gasps and pointed fingers from clubgoers along her path. She lights up the darkness, this tiny MTV star, a hentai Tinkerbell in a shimmering cocktail sheath. “I feel like a dyke in a dress,” Nguyen says of tonight’s wardrobe. “But this is my job, you know? I fell into this whole sex-icon thing, and now I have to dress up to play the role.”
And with a fanfare from the DJ, tonight’s performance begins. “Tila Tequila in the building!” his voice booms over blasting hip-hop. At which several hundred female voices rise as one: AAAAAH!
This much you learn fast when rolling with Tila: The boys stare, the girls go insane.
“The guys are more in the background, more nervous,” Nguyen says of the gawkers she’s been attracting since her MTV dating show, “A Shot at Love,” gained fame through its conceit of men and women both competing for her hand. “Maybe because I made it easier for people to say they’re gay or bisexual, girls are more comfortable feeling drawn to me now,” she continues. “So girls are, like, sticking their tongues down my throat, grabbing my breast, trying to rape me.”
Safe for now, Nguyen mounts the stairs by the DJ booth to enter a glassed-in V.I.P. section. There she takes a proffered mic and hollers to the crowd. “What’s up Atlanta-aaaaah! You came to partaaaaaaay?!
Atlanta, who did indeed, says: AAAAAH!
And for the next two hours Nguyen does her job: being Tila Tequila. She gyrates, bumps and grinds like a pro video girl. She squats down to perform a bravura booty-clap. She stands up, plants both feet and sends shock waves outward from her core. She gives the crowd the Internet-phenom/cheesecake-model/blogpal reality star of 2008. She even performs her new de facto theme song, “Fuck Ya Man” (“I ain’t tryin’ to fuck ya man/Everybody know he my number one fan”), from yet another iteration of the Tequila brand: a recording artist of stripper-pole hip-hop, scouted for a deal by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am, collaborating with Lil Jon and releasing an indie EP titled, with characteristic subtlety, Sex.
On a break, Nguyen comes over to join me on a banquette. She tosses back a shot of Patrón and takes a drag off a cigarette. And then she does something more amazing than her booty-clap: Loosely holding a digital camera, Nguyen throws out her arm in a careless stretch, takes a quick glance over her shoulder and— flash—snaps a random self-portrait. She shows us the image: a beautifully composed, perfectly centered photo that looks like it was shot by a pro and selected for a head shot—either a hell of a party trick or just one tool in a unique professional skill set.
“Oooh, yeah,” says Nguyen looking at the screen—then gives it a long, salacious lick. The inevitable steel-drum plinks of “Crank That” come through the speakers, augering a new crunk surge. Nguyen picks up a mic.
“I love you, Atlanta!” she says.
AAAAAHH! says Atlanta, who loves her for at least the next hour.
Tila Tequila. Man, is there truth in that namesake: stuff that sends your spirits soaring, gets you acting like a moron, leaves you sick and full of shame the next day. After blazing into fame as a MySpace sensation—where her softcore photos and diligent accessibility won her a fame-launching 2 million friends—Tila is now enjoying a new kind of celebrity: an obscure object of desire, playing havoc with young libidos on “A Shot at Love, “the highest-rated show on MTV last year. With “A Shot at Love, ” Tila has become a bona fide American phenomenon, a lightning rod for national discussions about gender and desire, reality and illusion, mud-wrestling and Jell-O shots.
“Love”—or at least its ADD-plagued, MySpace-floating avatar—is the engine of this particularly cutting-edge reality show. Like “Flavor of” and “Rock of,” “A Shot at Love :assembles an array of twenty-something exhibitionists to co0habitate, lounge about in swimwear, compete in messy challenges and try to win the sole affections of the star. Its deceptively simple twists are that: a) the star is not an aging neo-Hefner but a young purportedly bisexual woman; and b) the competitors, both male and female, genuinely lose their minds.
There’s no sign of pathology at first. But by episode four, a rejected male schoolteacher has been bounced from the house for brawling with a rival and is banging on windows and lowing like a steer. By episode six, a rejected dancer has leaped upon a blond rival to yank her hair, gotten dragged off by producers and dropped sobbing on the carpet. All the while, the phrase “I’m in love with Tila” gets tossed around like “Where’s my sunscreen?”—a testament to the irresistible, omnisexual, brain-addling magnetism of a four-foot-eleven enigma wrapped in a thong bikini and named after a Mexican liquor. So it’s not without some fear that I come calling on this Tila Tequila. If the show is any indication, there’s a serious danger that I, too, will fall in love with her.
We arrange to meet in public, in the lounge of a posh Atlanta hotel. A jazz trio plays John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” and lilacs fill the tables around us, as Nguyen, suited for later duty as party hostess, enters to sit demurely across a table by the wall—so chosen for its relative inaccessibility to Tila freaks. Right off the bat, I share my concern about falling for this succubus of reality TV.
“You mean you’re not in love with me yet?” asks Nguyen, mock scandalized. “Well, maybe after we kiss.”
In person, Nguyen comes off smarter and cooler than the somewhat eerie prize-girl she plays on “Shot at Love.” “She’s so magnetic, and she has got a brain on her, “ says Linda Strawberry, an L.A. musician who met Nguyen through Billy Corgan four years ago and became her best friend quickly afterward. “The perception of her is this crazy bikini model, but she’s a lot different from her public persona.”
Tonight she looks me in the eye, laughs easily and loudly, and obligingly explains some tattoos. One on her shoulder depicts a winged musical note sitting atop crossed machine guns. “Those symbolize my time growing up in Texas,” she says of the gats. “They represent that hard lifestyle I used to live, and the music represents my new life, where I’m more feminine and there’s more hope.”
Born October 24, 1981, in Singapore, Tila grew up in Houston after her parents moved there that same year. She describes her family as “a little fucked up” and her childhood as being full of fights, rebellion and insecurity. “My parents were really struggling with their life, working at the swap meet in Texas,” she says. “I worked there with them. When other kids used to sleep, I’d have to wake up at 6 in the morning to help them set up outside. And I was embarrassed growing up. I was very popular at school, but no one knew that I was very poor. So I had these two lifestyles that I had to keep up.”
Wayward school years took her into petty crime, drugs. At 16, she ran away to New York, then moved to Hollywood and began modeling for Playboy and working as a bikini model at car shows. She turned her energy to the still nascent world of social media, dominating it with a distinctive mix of sex, candor and friend-adds. By 2006, she had more friends than anyone on Earth, but, she says, no love. The characters on her leg that say summer love are there, she explains, “because I’d always find a love over the summer, and then it would be over.”
More often than not, these loves were women. “I think every girl is born bisexual,” Nguyen says. “Before I was 10, I had had experiences with girls. But when you’re that young you don’t think, Oh, I’m having sex! I’m a lesbian! Still, I always knew. I didn’t have my first kiss with a guy until I was 15. I was with women long before that.” Although she didn’t declare herself bisexual until the show’s debut, Nguyen says she was open about it with friends and recalls getting no static. “I think a lot has changed,” she says. “It’s not the ’90s anymore. I think the gay community is a lot more accepted these days.”
Of course, the hot-female gay community is especially accepted—as anyone can see from a quick visit to Howard Stern, “Girls Gone Wild” or countless other venues where MySpace lesbians canoodle for male delectation. “Prior to the show, people might have thought I’d be one of those girls,” Nguyen says. “Like, ‘Ooh, look at my tits!’ ‘Let’s eat strawberries out of my mouth!’ But people see that I’m real. I know the lesbian community was worried at first, but once everyone saw how I am, they felt differently.”
Indeed, the show took MTV’s already strong track record for promoting tolerance and improved it: presenting one character’s bisexuality as a simple fact of life, revealing a surprising camaraderie between straight men and gay women, and showing that attraction, at least, is a far more slippery creature than most media would have us believe.
Still, I surely speak for my fellow lesbians when we ask how Nguyen could possibly have turned down sweet, grounded female firefighter Dani Campbell for callow pretty-boy Bobby Banhart, winner of the show’s final love-off. “That was a hard one,” she says. “I think I was just scared. I’d been with lipstick lesbians but not so much with the more tomboy-type girls, so I picked something that was more predictable. Guys are a bit more predictable.”
Predictability was in short supply chez “Shot at Love.” “You’re in a house with 35 people, you can’t make calls, no magazines or Internet, so every day you’re focused on these people,” Nguyen says. “When you’re scared and lonely, your only friends are these other contestants, and you kind of lose it, man.”
And soon start pledging love while trying to kill your rivals. That’s the thing about “A Shot at Love”: the fights, tears and anguished declarations have a palpable impact, the frisson of genuine mental illness.
How did Nguyen get people going so crazy in love? “I think it’s because I’m very real,” says Nguyen, emphasizing the only word she seems to like as much as love. “When you sit down and talk to somebody and you look them in the eye, you can sense how real it is. And then people start to fall in love.”
Love? Dr. Drew Pinsky has another phrase for it: cluster B.
“The kind of people selected for a reality show are … well, they have issues,” says the therapist-host of the sex-advice radio program “Loveline “and the VH1 show “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.” “They tend to be what we call ‘cluster B’ personalities. That’s narcissist slash borderline sociopath. They’re people who are exhibitionistic, have poor boundaries, are trauma survivors and want to be famous not because they have something important they want to do for society but because: ‘Hey, it’s me!’”
If you want people going crazy for love, find people who are halfway there. “Producers actually do psychological testing to find people who are of this sort of makeup,” Pinsky explains. “But not so sick that they’re going to kill themselves or somebody else. Then they put them in an isolation tank—away from their usual anchors, in this very intense environment with someone they’re attracted to and encourage them to have intense feelings for them. Well, guess what happens? I’m surprised it’s not even worse.”
But such cold analysis finds little traction in Tequila-land. When I ask Nguyen to name her favorite part of the whole “Shot at Love” experience—the hot-tub threesomes? the Cancún zip-line?— she again breaks out the L-word. “The best part of it for me was actually falling in love,” she says. “It has its good sides and bad sides, because you fall in love with more than one person. But once it happens you feel like, Wow, this really happens.”
In the end it happened with 25-year-old Banhart, a Baldwinishly handsome film student from rural upstate New York. “I feel like I just got married, and we’re about to go on our honeymoon or something,” Nguyen marvels in the last episode, as the camera trails her and Banhart right up to her bedroom door. It closes discreetly on the new couple whose shot at love seems like it will be taken imminently.
Truly a Hollywood ending. So naturally, fans were crestfallen to learn this love didn’t last. “He broke up with me,” Nguyen told the crowd as she hosted MTV’s New Year’s Eve show, right before announcing there would be a second season of “A Shot at Love.”
What went wrong?
“Well, as time passes, he gets back into his world and I get back into mine. And we try to keep in touch, but it gets too hard for him to understand that I had a life outside of that show, I have work to do. And he’s still from … wherever he’s from.”
Worcester, New York.
“Right. So it started clashing a little bit. People like to twist the story around and make it out like the breakup was all planned, but it wasn’t.”
At least not by Banhart. Shortly after the season ended, his MySpace ran this message: “Everyone wants to know, so here it is. She never called me after the last show, and no one would give me her number, so pretty much I feel like an ass.”
Banhart responds to my e-mail with a kindly “Hey Bro” and gives me his cell number. He’s in Houston, making a nightclub appearance as Bobby B from “A Shot at Love” and sounds torn over just how real to keep it concerning l’affair Tequila: “Um, It’s hard for me to answer because of contract reasons.”
Banhart had auditioned for the show as a lark—hardly expecting to develop feelings for the exotic host. But soon enough he was in trouble. “Everything that you guys saw was real,” he says. “None of it was scripted. They tell you reality shows are fake, but being on one firsthand, I can tell you that this one was absolutely real.”
This is the exact opposite of what you hear from vets of most reality shows, but Banhart insists that his emotions, at least, were almost too genuine. “Tila’s probably one of the coolest girls off-camera—when we just talked and stuff,” he says. “And as it went on, I got more and more attracted to her. I remember asking, ‘Look at me, look right in my eyes—is this real?’ And she says, ‘If you want it to be, it is.’”
He did. And then went right through the looking glass. “When the show was over, when everyone was telling me, ‘This is real, this is your girlfriend’—that’s when I really opened up,” Banhart says. “But then when I could never talk to her, I thought, Well. Maybe she’s not my girlfriend.” Banhart explains that when he found out “A Shot at Love” was casting a second season as the fifth episode was just airing—well, donkey-like feelings commenced.
Despite that lingering last shot of the bedroom door, Banhart says he and Nguyen never even, as it were, sealed the deal. “I think people automatically assumed that we did. So I have to say: No, we didn’t.”
That may sound surprising for a show whose attractions include S&M dungeons, naked pool parties and a dildo-constructed chandelier. But Tila Tequila’s career is built more on the promise than the delivery of sex. She maintains she’s real, but she also knows she has to dress up to play the sex icon for the fans she can never afford to lose touch with, even for a moment.
Even now, correspondence with fans is, Nguyen says, “my whole life. Every minute I have off. I post bulletins, there’s a fan number that I call. It’s just cool to have all these people at your fingertips.”
And soon she’ll have even more. “A Shot at Love 2” promises to be even crazier, seamier and more violent than the first. (“One of the guys breaks another guy’s jaw,” says Tony DiSanto, head of programming and development for MTV.) “I came in here, brokenhearted,” Nguyen says in the trailer, her voice cracking. “Giving love another shot.” She sniffs, barely able to get the next line out. “And that’s not easy for me.”
So now, with the second season wrapped, I must ask what millions wonder: Did she find true love this time? “Well,” she says, coyly. “I definitely … don’t want to give the show away.” Nguyen shifts in her chair, takes another sip of coffee.
“Are you in love yet?” she asks. “It’s been about an hour.”
I’m definitely in…something. Awe? Thrall? Fear? How else to feel about someone so adept at manipulating today’s culture, who has more “friends” than you have brain cells, who can play the media game like a harp and just might be more in on the joke than you are?
“She’s created this split personality,” says Linda Strawberry. “She’s got this duplicity in her reality—she struggles with the world’s perception of her. I think she could really shed her persona after this show and become in public who she is in private.”
But for the moment, the persona holds. I ask her about the future, and her answer is unwaveringly on message. “I’d like to find love and stick it out with that one person,” says Nguyen, offering a shrewd soundbite for someone whose love life and career have now fused. “I just want to look for someone who’s in it for the long run.
“I know it sounds crazy coming from me,” she says, a Mona Lisa smile filling her tiny face. “But it’s true.”