11 Aralık 2007 Salı

Behind the velvet rope

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — Holly and Molly lean into each other.

"Kiss, kiss, kiss," a man urges on the reality-TV stars of Sunset Tan.

Techno music throbs overhead. Its pulsating rhythm mirrors the exuberant throngs of glossy 20-somethings dancing on stiletto heels. Laser lights paint Mansion nightclub hot pink and purple.

Eyes are on the Olly Girls, otherwise known as Holly and Molly. The E! network stars and aspiring models ponder whether to kiss or not. Mischief wins over, knowing what happens in South Beach stays in South Beach.

During the day, SoBe — as locals know this Miami Beach district — is a three-tier white cake decorated with faded-pastels architecture and Baywatch babes. Rollerbladers and vintage cars glide on Ocean Drive and Collins Avenue, lined with streamlined Art Deco buildings. With the sun beating down, residents stay inside while tourists turn lobster-red.

But when the sun dips in the west and casts an orange glow onto swaying palm trees and pearlescent sand, drowsy SoBe morphs into party central. Dwellers on the southern tip of Florida revel from sunset to sunrise — once they manage to pass the scrutiny of bouncers at SoBe's exclusive clubs.

The velvet rope

The line at Privé twists around the block. With coiffed hair and dressed in their Saturday night-best, many in line could have fallen off the fashion pages. In this image-conscious town, appearance matters. Excess is the norm.

A Lucy Liu look-alike in a slinky red dress raises doe-brown eyes imploringly at the bouncer. The mass of muscles smiles back and removes the velvet rope. Beaming triumphal, the nymph steps onto the red carpet. But then the bouncer replaces the rope, preventing her friends from following. She looks back at her glum companions, smiles apologetically and waves adieu before continuing her catwalk to Privé.

Created with Hollywood stars and trendsetters in mind, Privé is where action star Vin Deisel celebrated his birthday and Pamela Anderson launched her book. More recently, Justin Timberlake sipped rum-and-coke in the VIP section near the DJ booth.

With cozy subdued interiors, Privé is tailored for snuggling on natural-hide sofas, pushed up against oak walls. Zen glass fixtures illuminate the space. And like all the top South Beach clubs, you spend the evening standing unless you've reserved a table for $200 or more.

From Privé, I spy a cluster of leggy blondes in the Opium Garden nightclub next door. Privé and Opium are owned by the Opium Group, mastermind of four of the hippest SoBe nightspots.

Each club boasts a unique theme. The most whimsical is Opium, a lush oasis with an outdoor dance floor swathed in white drapes. At night, the pagodas shimmer beneath threads of voluptuous Chinese red lanterns.

A platinum blonde, a dead-ringer for music pinup Gwen Stefani, perches on a daybed by the bar. I realize that in South Beach, if you're not star-gazing, you're bumping into people who look like stars.

Starry, starry night

People tell Jessika Rogan that she resembles Stefani all the time.

"Miami has a different energy," the New Yorker observes. "The heat makes everybody hotter, wilder. In New York, we're wild, but it's darker, more conservative."

Club-hopping Rogan has abandoned Opium in favor of Mansion, a palatial venue that can pack in about 2,500 clubbers. On this particular Saturday, followers of the world's pre-eminent DJ Tiesto (who performed during opening ceremonies of the 2004 Summer Olympics) are crammed into Mansion.

Outside the line weaves down the block for the "Lord of the Trance."

"Wherever Tiesto go, I go," says 34-year-old Manolo Seitner. "His music is called mix techno-trance because it puts you in a trance."

A VIP table starts at $500. Cocktails cost $20 a piece.

Machine smoke fills the high-ceiling Mansion. A flow of Versace suits and Prada dresses bypasses the crowd for the VIP section in the middle of the room.

"Everyone is young and everyone is on credit, credit, credit," says 33-year-old Ryan Verxagio. "Most people here tonight are locals. People usually go out just on the weekend. On weekdays, they do something else. Here in South Beach, every day is a weekend."

Music pounds the walls. Pulsating lights illuminate the club as the crowd chimes: "Tiesto! Tiesto!"

White knight

While beautiful people decorate Mansion, its sister nightclub, Set, is eye candy on overdrive. Rich with colors and fixtures, the glam-studded venue attracts Miami Beach's crème de la crème.

Enormous fiberglass and ivory-colored tusks frame the DJ booth. Red chandeliers drip with multicolored fiber optics and thousands of multifaceted Swarovski crystals. Shapely go-go dancers sway suggestively to music in clear tubes that go up and down.

The noise is deafening on the dance floor. But calm pervades the VIP Trophy Room upstairs, where jet-setters Spike Lee and Britney Spears party in private.

It is past 2 a.m. when I weave through the blanket of people on the dance floor. Out the door and into the balmy night, I am about to jump into a taxi when a voice from behind yells, "Where are you going? It's early."

I turn around to face a miniature Elvis Presley with bleached blond hair. Wearing a gold-studded white suit, he is dwarfed by a woman with glistening black hair and dark, mysterious eyes.

"Can you believe these people?" asks David Free as the pint-size Elvis points to the people in line.

"The door guy just said doors close, and these guys are still hanging out, hoping to get in. Exclusivity. It doesn't matter if you're first in line or last. If the door guy likes the way you look. Boom! You're in. They pull people out of the crowd like they did at Studio 54. You have to have the right look; the right attitude."

So what is the right attitude?

"You act like you don't care," Free says. "I'll show you how it's done."

A 10-minute taxi ride brings us to the doorsteps of ultra-hip Mynt club.

Free casually strolls up to the front of the line and nods to the door guy, who smiles with recognition and lets Free and his entourage in.

"Living in Miami, it's all about attitude. Act like you're important and you are," he says. "You can look like a bum, but if you have the right attitude, it will open doors. Now come into our world."

Gun-shy tourists

Music blasts from all sides as longhaired Latin beauties gather around a Viking. Sun-kissed spiked hair frames tanned features, icy blue eyes and a squared jaw. The Viking catches my eyes and stretches out his hand.

"Let's dance," he says, flashing a toothpaste-commercial smile.

"Can't," replies the idiot, pointing to Free who is doing the boogie-woogie with a redhead.

"You should have danced with him," Free admonishes later. "He was cute. You can always tell a tourist from a local. Tourists are so gun-shy. You're in Miami. We're free spirits here; loosen up or lose out."

By 3 o'clock in the morning, I am ready to lose out. Exhausted, I leave Free.

"Tourists," he starts, "they don't know how to pace themselves. They start too early and give up by midnight. We locals start at 10:30 and pace ourselves. We don't guzzle our drinks. We sip our cocktails — one every half-hour. We do this every night. Our body is used to it. I dance until 4 a.m. Go to bed and wake up at 6 a.m. to walk my dog."

Free kisses my forehead and wishes me good luck as he hands over a list of nightclubs and lounges to visit tomorrow.

"South Beach has a routine," he says. "On Tuesday, you go to the Delano. On Wednesday, Glass at the Forge. On Thursday, you go to Vue at Hotel Victor.

"By the way, you haven't experience life until you experience the Rooftop Lounge at Townhouse Hotel on Friday. Instead of chairs, they have king-size waterbeds."

Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle