I’m a little nervous,” I tell Wayne Bernath when I sit down for an interview. I can’t quite say why—maybe it’s the almost bewildering fullness of his life in the crosshairs of Vegas pop culture. Or maybe it’s that he once made a living exposing secrets that people didn’t want exposed. Not that I have anything to hide, but still …
Bernath got his start as a newsman for the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the 1970s, but in the ’80s, as entertainment editor for the Las Vegas Sun and Showbiz magazine, he took a hard turn into the world of celebrities. Soon he was writing pseudonymous tabloid copy for the National Enquirer, starting national teapot-tempests over such matters as Oprah Winfrey’s weight or Magic Johnson’s time with the Crazy Girls. Later still, he was one of the Strip’s busiest publicists, including a 15-year stint as right-hand man to magician Lance Burton.
Bernath doesn’t really understand why I’m nervous, either, so he just blinks and dives into his story.
His face is alight with amusement as he describes the hell that broke loose when one of Siegfried & Roy’s lions sniffed out a lamb during an R-J photo shoot. He admits his surprise over the big Oprah scandal (or, rather, the scandal over Big Oprah). He laughs out loud to remember how the Magic Johnson story both caused Crazy Girls ticket sales to spike and landed him a PR job at the Riviera. He’s proud of his ADDY award for the show’s “No Ifs, Ands or Butts” campaign. And the bronze, naked Crazy Girls statue that tourists rub for luck? Also his idea, he says, with a twinkle in his eye. Of Burton, Bernath says, “He’s the nicest entertainer of them all.” These are the stories that sit in the forefront of Bernath’s mind—perhaps because he’s recently written a biographical essay detailing them, or perhaps because he still mourns his past. I want to understand the man behind the yarns, but the man behind them just keeps spinning more.
“How did Vegas change you?” I ask, because it seems he is somehow a creation of this town, an emanation of its glittery soul. How could he still just be a Jersey boy at heart, a kid who went to a Methodist school in Kansas? He arrived in Las Vegas in 1973. Surely that’s where he became who he is.
“I’m still the same as I was before I got here,” he says.
When Burton retired in 2010, it sent Bernath to the sidelines, too. He spent more than a year looking for work, for a way back in. In November, he returned to PR.
“Did you ever feel bad?” I ask, referring to his six-year tabloid stint. (He’d told me about a suburban wife and mother whose life was ruined because she was also the prostitute at the center of a Pat Sajak scandal that he and the Enquirer team broke.)
“No, because it was all true,” he says. “And we always held back the worst.” With the interview coming to a close, I start to panic. I want to know who Wayne Bernath is, separate from his colorful stories, separate from his work. I stammer out a question to this effect.
He looks confused again. “Work is who I am,” he tells me. “It’s what I am, and what I do.” Suddenly, I understand.