When the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority employed R&R Advertising’s series of hinting, Hitchcockian 30-second vignettes to sell Las Vegas to the world in 2003, the appeal was obvious. Many, after all, recall using similar phrases (“What happens at camp …,” “What happens in Mexico …”) to invoke a bacchanalian sense of mystery when telling a tale of an excursion, and what better place to go Roman than in Las Vegas? Little did anybody know that the city’s celebrated curtain of discretion would be thrown wide open by decade’s end.
Rooted in the 1950s and 1960s, when Las Vegas truly was a far-flung escape isolated by foreboding desert and a refreshing lack of Twitter and texting, the town’s accommodating hush-hush approach to celebrities was well-known. In fact, it was this practiced and shrewd judiciousness that encouraged A-listers not only to visit, but to let loose in ways that the Hollywood paparazzi—and the vulturesque scandal sheets that paid their bills—would never permit.
Sure, tales of Rat Pack debauchery found their way down the old Los Angeles Highway, but, back in the day, those tales were much like the plots of R&R’s television ads: vague suggestions of possible bad behavior, rarely confirmed and never photographed. For every staged Las Vegas News Bureau glossy of a celebrity hosting a golf tournament or playing blackjack in a pool surrounded by showgirls, hundreds of moments of undocumented naughtiness only added to the city’s appeal to celebrities.
Las Vegas might have had entertainment columnists back then, but like much of the city, they were intent on sending the message that Las Vegas was where celebrities went to escape, not to be chased around by bottom-feeding freelancers angling for real pay dirt. Saying that Frank Sinatra was seen cocktailing at the Starlight Lounge with Angie Dickinson was press-release perfection; revealing that he later left with the cocktail waitress was unconscionable. Las Vegas did its job and averted its eyes, and employees of Vegas resorts were masters at upholding this standard well into the 1990s.
It is ironic, then, that almost as soon as the “What happens here, stays here” campaign was launched, it ceased to be true.
Actually, cracks in the silence system began to form in 1999, when Norm Clarke moved to town and put up his “Vegas Confidential” shingle on page 3 of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Within weeks, Kate Maddox was hired to gossip for the Las Vegas Sun, and our Decade of the Celebrity was under way.
The old era officially died with the Sun’s Joe Delaney a few years later, right around the time “What happens here” had launched. His 35-year run as an entertainment columnist featured plugs for entertainers who needed it, and the occasional wrist-slap for those who had it coming. During the last few years of his life, there was a stark contrast between his gentle, pro-celeb style and the more salacious (some would say “honest”) reporting. Being a name in boldface here was no longer a good thing.
Meanwhile, a perfect storm was brewing. Las Vegas, always one to chase a dime, had begun overtly catering to so-called celebrity culture with red velvet ropes, bottle service, “scene eateries” and other ostentatious trappings that, while making perfect sense in Hollywood, seemed somewhat out of place in egalitarian Las Vegas. In a blink, we went from Helldorado to CineVegas, and whereas celebrities once arrived ready to relax and disappear, they now viewed our little cowtown as a suburb of Tinseltown. Instead of sunning on a public chaise in Ray-Bans like Sinatra, Paris would be “secured” in a pool cabana, while young hangers-on would unleash thousands of covert dollars to land an air-conditioned, flat-screened tent as close to hers as possible. Rather than pretend she wasn’t there, star-chasers would do everything they could to prove she was, and the rapid advance in instant worldwide technology made it possible. The tables had turned, and so had the psychology. Vegas no longer wanted the celebrities to feel like one of us, we wanted to be the celebrity. Paris feeds Perez, and vice versa.
The unfortunate nadir of this shift is the Tiger Woods “scandal.” Whereas Woods is certainly not the first person to stray from a relationship, he might be the first one to have his Las Vegas indiscretions so publicly aired. The revelation of the name and photographs (and subsequent Internet flogging) of a Las Vegas nightclub VIP manager is only part of the issue; to her credit, she refuses to make any statement about her link to Woods. It is the willingness of those other Las Vegas sources, named and unnamed, to effortlessly reveal private details not only about other people, but also the nature of how Las Vegas caters to its VIPs, that signifies the sea change. To these young climbers, it’s just part and parcel of our new tech-driven global celeb culture, but to those of us who’ve lived here awhile, such loud-mouthing is embarrassing, particularly at a time in history when Las Vegas is (again) taking a beating for its image.
So, what happens now that the curtain is pulled back, potentially leaving no tit-flash, lap dance or waitress-boinking undocumented? When MMS text photos featuring celebrities merely leaning in the direction of boobs at Vegas nightclubs can be instantly uploaded to one’s blog or Twitter, or sold to TMZ, everyone—from Wisconsin bachelorettes to hometown hotties delivering drinks—has the technology to snag their 15 minutes of fame, regardless of the cost to the people involved. The result? Not only does Las Vegas’ legendary discretion die, but it takes an important part of Vegas mythology with it. As the R&R campaign so succinctly communicated, it isn’t what the Rat Pack did in Las Vegas that is so intriguing, it’s what we think they did, and frankly, it’s better that we don’t know the whole story—about anyone.