‘Crazy Money’

How the drawing power of celebrities—from ubiquitous Holly to Z-list train wrecks—took the Vegas nightlife industry to a bizarre new level

On the night of Nov. 15, 2001, George Maloof brought Paris Hilton to the grand opening of the Palms. And as the heiress-turned-reality-TV-star walked the red carpet in a dress made from $1 million in poker chips, a new type of celebrity was born: people paid to party.

Paris Hilton, in a $1 million dress, ushers in the dawn of the paid-to-party era at the Palms in 2001.

The Sisters K—Khloe (left), Kim and Kourtney Kardashian (not pictured)—celebrate Kourtney’s birthday at Wet Republic, which paid them to do so.

Celebrity appearances: What you’re buying

The face, the name: Permission to use pre-approved artwork and the celebrity’s name in ads and fliers to promote the event.

Transportation: If a celebrity has to travel to the event, return airline tickets for two are standard, though big-timers can (and do) demand private jets to transport entire entourages.

Accommodations: Two hotel rooms is the baseline (even B-list stars don’t like to share), but A-list talent often gets a lavish penthouse suite.

Meals: Dinner before the event at a casino restaurant and room service.

Red carpet arrival: Posing for photographs outside the venue. (Proofs subject to publicist’s approval prior to distribution.)

Press: Giving interviews on the red carpet before entering the event.

Appearance: Generally 90 to 120 minutes at the venue, although the actual amount of time spent onsite is negotiable. As far as the arrival time, that is never guaranteed—as made evident by the regular tardiness of people such as Paris Hilton and Sean “Diddy” Combs.

Bottle service: A table in the VIP section for the celeb and their guests, with two bottles of premium spirits, plus mixers, Red Bull and water.

Party favors: For birthdays or anniversaries, a custom-made cake bearing the club logo (and sponsors, if any) is usually brought out in “hi, look at me” fashion. Photos of the host with his or her cake are standard.

Perks: Show tickets, spa service, pool cabanas and other bonuses to sweeten the deal.

Extra charges: Pre-event press: Interviews with local print, TV and radio outlets to promote the event.

Pre-event publicity: Voice commercials advertising the party.

Performance: Sing, dance or do something special for the audience.

Photos: Pose for additional photos with fans, employees or products.

Wardrobe: Wear branded outfit or specific costume.

Although Maloof didn’t actually pay cash for Hilton to be his date that fateful night, he did treat her to a highly publicized trip to the jewelry counter at a Palms boutique as a reward for her loyalty. And the precedent was set. Almost a decade later, business-savvy stars are still parlaying their presence into paydays—some big, others not so big. Reality TV “stars” can be had for as little as $800, while marquee names are rumored to go for up to $100,000. If you’re recognizable, it seems, someone in Las Vegas will be willing to pay you to show up.

Steven Lockwood spent nearly five years in the Las Vegas nightlife industry, and recalls when the party stopped and the business of partying started.

“It used to be, ‘Why don’t you come to Vegas? I’ll give you some first-class tickets, I’ll give you a penthouse, some tickets to a Cirque show and a dinner,’ and that was that,” he says. “The game has changed.”

It was Pure’s former director of nightlife, Stevie “D” Davidovici, who changed the rules, Lockwood says. “Stevie D was the one who started paying all these people crazy money … $20,000 to $100,000 to show up to nightclubs. Paris, Britney, Lindsay, Ashlee Simpson, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey, Wilmer Valderrama—those were his regulars.”

Competition for celebs to show up and have a good time quickly grew fierce among the clubs, and bidding wars became commonplace.

“It was very difficult to book celebrities because everyone was throwing money at them,” Lockwood says. “You had to get celebrities locked in months in advance, contracts done, before the next guy.

“Obviously, the smaller clubs … couldn’t afford the $100,000 paycheck that some of the celebrities were getting, so it was tough.”

He recalls how one club once literally tried to buy a star’s loyalty from another club. “Another operator brought over one of his hosts with a bag with $20,000 in it to [entice] the celebrity to come over to his club,” Lockwood says, laughing. That was back in 2007, and no, it didn’t work. Not all famous people play for pay in Las Vegas.

Holly Madison is the undisputed star-for-hire of the moment in Las Vegas. The self-made, self-described “blond bombshell” is a one-woman celebrity business empire. An enterprising former Hooters girl, Madison first made a name for herself as Hugh Hefner’s arm candy and go-to girlfriend on E!’s The Girls Next Door, then used her bunny notoriety and surprising business savvy to launch herself into Las Vegas as the star of Peepshow at Planet Hollywood.

But there’s much more to Holly Madison Inc. than Peepshow and an active Twitter following: She collects handsome royalties from her work on The Girls Next Door and is about to debut her own series, Holly’s World; she’s writing a book (a guide to Las Vegas); has a line of calendars, T-shirts, posters and other merchandise; runs a popular website; and maintains an endless parade of public appearances, red-carpet openings and nightclub-hosting gigs. Despite all that, the 30-year-old Madison still takes calls from the press on her personal BlackBerry.

Hers is a daunting schedule. She laughs as she recalls how, last summer, she literally had to run from a gig as the first-ever celebrity Octagon Girl at UFC 100 at the MGM Grand to her regular gig at Planet Hollywood, before hosting a party at Privé later that night.

“I was supposed to be done with my Octagon Girl duties at 8:15 p.m. and be onstage at 9,” she recalls. “I went a little longer … and traffic was so bad that night I just got out and ran the last three blocks.”

She stops to catch her breath. She’s talking in between takes of a soon-to-air episode of E!’s Holly’s World shot at a housewarming party as friends, co-stars, PR people, talent managers, fellow Strip entertainers (including Carrot Top and the cast of Human Nature), caterers (hired Hooters girls) and barking dogs swirl around her new house and spill out into the backyard. Madison has yet to move into her 5,400-square-foot Southern Highlands home, but she and her friends have filled it with staging furniture and bright-pink party favors for the party/TV shoot. Outside there’s a small petting zoo, cotton candy and an inflatable bounce house—all too appropriate for the queen of the Las Vegas media circus.

She regains her focus and returns to her story, not missing a beat: “Vegas Strip blocks are long! We ran from the Hawaiian Marketplace, all the way through the valet at Planet Hollywood, all the way upstairs. And I made it on time, so I’m proud of myself.”

Of everything Madison does to earn a buck, the club appearances are her favorite. She shows up, lets photographers take her picture, talks to a few reporters if she wants, hangs out in the club for 30 to 120 minutes, then leaves. It’s as easy as it is lucrative.

“About a year before I moved out here, I was doing nightclub appearances all across the country and Vegas is by far the best place to do them,” Madison says.

There’s no shortage of money or work here. Las Vegas pays up to twice as much as other cities for celebrity appearances, and Madison works as many as three events a day. Got a show premiere? An envelope opening? A public event? A holiday to celebrate? A drink to name in her honor? Just say the word, and she’ll be there. The price? As much as $20,000, depending on the event, sources say.

“I don’t get paid for every appearance,” she qualifies. “A lot of them I do for fun, or some of them have a charity tie.” Thanks to the unique Vegas audience, has-beens and Z-listers can cash-in here, too.

Wet Republic booked Jon and Kate Plus 8’s Jon Gosselin to host a pool party last year, and the event proved to be a PR masterpiece: The press went wild, with news of the event appearing on the front pages of supermarket tabloids and gossip websites across the world. Another example: Tareq and Michaele Salahi, a.k.a. the White House party crashers, whom Pure Management Group booked to host at Pure in January. The announcement attracted international attention and prompted even serious papers like The Washington Post—which tend to steer clear of stars-partying-in-Vegas stories—to pay attention.

“We go after entertainers or acts that really capture the public’s imagination, and we think the Salahis have,” PMG public relations director Michael Gilmartin told the Post. “Everyone gets their 15 minutes, and people want to come to the club and rub up against that. They’ll go home and put it up on Facebook: ‘I got my picture with the Salahis!’”

Maryland-based talent agent Mike Esterman told his “Cashing in on Celebrity Appearances” audience at the Nightclub and Bar Convention in March that B-grade talent such as Lil Hood from For the Love of Ray J and former Real World housemates can be had for as little as $800 per two-hour appearance.

“Eight-hundred, 1,000 bucks—they’re all in that range,” Esterman says. “[They attract a] great crowd, guys love ’em and they’re affordable.”

Want a porn legend at your club? Ron Jeremy’s available. “He’s, like, $2,500 to $3,000, depending on where in the country,” says Esterman, the self-proclaimed “Agent to the Stars.” “Everybody wants to meet this guy. He gets along with everybody, will meet everybody ’til the end of the night, he doesn’t care how many people come to dinner as long as he’s eating, and he’s very cool.”

Although prices for celebrity appearances are usually a closely guarded secret, Esterman gives names and numbers. A Lady Gaga afterparty, like the one Moon hosted in February after the singer’s concert at The Pearl? That will set you back “$50,000 to $75,000,” minimum, according to the middleman. “Vegas will be $100,000.”

Other musicians are jumping on the appearance gravy train, Esterman says. “[The] Black Eyed Peas are $50,000 to $60,000. … if they’re on tour and they’re looking for extra cash.” TMZ reported the Peas took home far more than that on New Year’s Eve 2009. “Fergie Ferg and the rest of the Peas will be kissing some serious green come midnight—taking in more than $700,000 to show up and perform at LAX at the Luxor,” the gossip website reported, citing ambiguous (and hardly credible) newyearseve.com. TMZ also said 50 Cent took home $100,000 that night after appearing at Pure (LAX’s sister spot at Caesars), and Fall Out Boy Pete Wentz collected $30,000 for his NYE hosting gig at Jet.

Snoop Dogg? “$100,000 for a show and about $30,000, $35,000 for appearances,” Esterman says. Good Charlotte rockers-turned-DJs (and N9NE Group residents) Joel or Benji Madden? “They get $10,000 to spin,” he says, noting, “That’s a standard rate in Vegas.”

Esterman sends out a weekly e-mail promoting the stars he’s selling. One offers the ladies of Jersey Shore in his e-blast: Angelina for $3,000, J-Woww for $7,500, or Snooki for $12,000.

If the prices sound steep, shop the sales. A recent e-mail ad has a J-Woww appearance discount-priced at $7,000, and it reminds prospective buyers that midweek rates are available and prices vary by city. “Think of it like pricing car insurance,” Esterman says. “You don’t call GEICO and say, ‘How much is my Mazda?’ They need to know everything about your event before you get a quote.”

Paying celebrities to party is a necessary evil in Las Vegas’ fame-obsessed marketplace, and “Vegas pays more than anybody else,” Esterman says. “When they come to Vegas, it’s big dollars.”

Why here and not New York or L.A.? Supply and demand.

“Most of the club owners and promoters in L.A. know that if they throw a good party, celebrities are going to show up and they’re going to get the press,” says Jason Verona, Madison’s manager. “Vegas is a different climate in which few celebrities actually live here.”

“They don’t pay anybody to do anything in L.A.,” says Lockwood. “Some celebrities can’t even get into clubs. Lindsay Lohan got denied at Voyeur.”

But Las Vegas partiers apparently love L.A. train wrecks and rejects, because even Lohan gets paid to show up at clubs on the Las Vegas Strip.

The Hills odd couple Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt are other L.A. semi-notables who can’t get comped into any of that city’s top-shelf clubs, yet are frequently paid to party in Las Vegas. In fact, Montag hosted opening weekend at the Light Group’s new pool, Liquid, on April 10.

Tao, Lavo and Tao Beach each tend to book two to three celebrity hosts every month. Tao Group entertainment marketing specialist Mike Snedegar says a number of factors go into determining the success or failure of a celebrity-hosted event—from door numbers, bar sales, and pre- and post-event press to Web hits and new followers or dialogue on Twitter—but those details are confidential.

“Somebody like Kim Kardashian or Jay-Z can produce a record attendance for a weekend night,” Snedegar says. “A sports figure won’t get a lot of press, but you will get a larger draw [because] sports figures have a lot of fans that want to come out and see them.”

Tools such as Twitter are a big part of the equation. Paris Hilton, for example, has nearly two million Twitter followers, and when she hosts a party, she talks it up on the social networking site in advance of the event, then posts photos of the party as it’s going on.

When the paid-to-party pioneer posted a photo of Rehab to her Twitter account on April 25, more than 16,000 people viewed it within an hour. A day later, more than 26,000 people had viewed the photo of the Hard Rock Hotel’s palm-tree-filled tropical party oasis, and many fans responded. “Looks like so much fun!” one said. “It looks like a great party!!” wrote another.

And it’s a great party for a good reason, Hilton tells Vegas Seven. “I always make the party rock. That’s why I get hired all the time.”

Lockwood is succinct when asked about the return on investment for a celebrity appearance. “It’s the best form of advertising ever,” he says. “Fuck yeah, it’s worth it.”