When a hot new nightclub in St. Petersburg booked Benji Madden to spin music, fans started calling with the same question: Is girlfriend Paris Hilton coming with him?
The owners were hopeful but couldn't make any promises.
"We had no idea she was coming," said Amanda Hill, who opened Push Ultra Lounge in December with her husband, Seth, and partner Doug Illman. "We found out when she showed up with him. It was lucky for us."
Hilton arrived at 11:45 p.m. May 3, thrilling Hill and the 600 people who paid a higher-than-usual cover charge to see Madden. They got to see Hilton hanging out with her guy and dancing behind the DJ booth.
Hilton's appearance was a major score for the club and local club scene in general, which for years hasn't attracted many celebrities. Why party in Tampa, St. Petersburg or Clearwater when you can go to Miami, Las Vegas or other happening destinations?
Gradually, that attitude seems to be changing, thanks to new nightclubs and greater visibility. In the past several months, Push and Vintage Ultra Lounge have opened locally, creating new venues for the young and hip. Prominent events like the Super Bowl in Tampa next year put the region in the national spotlight.
"The Tampa area is certainly an emerging market," said Enrique De Jesus, owner of Midnite Productions, which handles events for Floyd's at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. "There's more media coverage because it's constantly getting events."
Landing the big names takes connections and patience, he said. Take DJ AM, a.k.a. Adam Goldstein, who was once engaged to Nicole Ritchie and last played in Tampa in 2006. Getting him back took more than year. He comes to Floyd's tonight.
Across the area, promoters like Doug "DJ Fresh" Hensel are working to put St. Petersburg on the party map. Born and raised there, he tired of Tampa getting all the celebs. With Push and Vintage, he has more places to send them.
"There's an energetic vibe in St. Petersburg that was never going on before. Celebrities would not step foot in St. Petersburg, period," said Hensel, who DJs at various clubs and hosts parties.
A few weeks ago, Hensel landed hip-hop artists Chris Brown and Rihanna, who had opened for Kanye West in Tampa. Through mutual contacts, Hensel persuaded Rihanna's crew to check out the Vintage.
Brown and Rihanna thrilled the crowd, spending two hours in the club. Brown showed off his break dancing and posed for pictures at the end of the night, Hensel said.
"My phone did not stop ringing for at least a week," Hensel said. "I didn't make a dime. I did it for the buzz and the promotion."
Although club owners typically don't pay celebrities to party at their clubs, they do pay for DJs and other performers. For Mike Piper, promoter for Jackson's Bistro on Harbour Island and South Beach Sundays at Crabby Bill's, talent ranges from a few thousand dollars a night to about $25,000, as was the case for Tommy Lee in 2006.
Last year, Piper scored a double when Fall Out Boy rocker Pete Wentz arrived for a post-concert DJ gig at Jackson's with then-girlfriend Ashlee Simpson, who's now his wife.
Clubs must meet special requirements to host many celebs, he said. They won't go to a hole in the wall, and if they want their privacy, you better give it to them or they won't come back.
But treat them well, and word will get out, De Jesus said.
"Everyone thinks the celebrity world is so huge, but it's really small," he said. "If you show one of them a good time, they'll tell their friends."