All across Tampa Bay, beside the Domino's where we get bread sticks, behind our dental office and our dry cleaner, en route to the podiatrist and the pack-n-ship store, aliens beam down for a visit.
They come from a magical land called Hollywood, where excess is expected and famous fingers indent the cement.
They travel in packs and wear sunglasses at midnight. They give us a thrill and sometimes, they let us down.
They make us a part of their planet, if only for a week. And then, they fly away home.
• • •
It's the most celebrities this town has ever seen.
Paris Hilton. Diddy. Lindsay Lohan. The Kardashian sisters. Jordin Sparks. Bruce Springsteen. Faith Hill. Rihanna. All clustered on our corner of the map to celebrate a football game.
In 2001, the last time Tampa hosted a Super Bowl, Magic Johnson and Denzel Washington came. Ricky Martin sang his vida loca out in an airplane hangar.
But times have changed. We've birthed Perez Hilton, TMZ and reality TV. The cultural obsession with fame has sweated and bloated.
Each party must trump the next.
At NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's exclusive fete at the Tampa Convention Center on Friday, 3,500 guests including football's Lynn Swann, John Elway and Roger Craig could play Nintendo Wii on big screens and watch a sculptor carve football players into a mound of sand.
Cabana seating ran $1,500 at the Super Skins Kickoff Party at Hula Bay Lounge in Tampa. Nick Lachey and Vanessa Minnillo hung out, and former Denver Bronco Reggie Johnson helped set up space heaters.
Music mogul Diddy put on the Good Life Experience, a three-day affair at the Venue in Clearwater that ends tonight. On a normal night, the Venue charges $10 cover.
But to hang with Diddy, Deion Sanders, boxer Winky Wright, porn star Stormy Daniels and squeaky clean American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, it cost a bit more. Tickets ranged from $100 for the poor folk to $1,350 for three nights of royal treatment, including two hours of open bar with Ciroc Vodka — a libation Diddy happens to endorse.
"Give the recession a break for this next m- - - - - f- - - - - - three days," Diddy told the crowd Thursday. "We're going to drink and have a good time."
That night, he stayed an hour.
• • •
Celebs flock to parties because it's sooo much fun, right? Because they want to hang out with YOU!
Uh, yeah. Sure.
"It's not out of the ordinary for a celebrity to cost $80,000 to $100,000 just to make an appearance," said Corey Riina, co-owner of Tampa's Pied Piper Productions.
That's before fees for other services, like promotional radio spots. Riina said her company works particulars into contracts that require stars to stick around for a while and take photos with VIP ticket holders so they don't feel cheated.
Choosing celebs is a fine art. Pied Piper promoted Friday's Leather & Laces party with Jenny McCarthy and Carmen Electra, and will host tonight's Models & Bottles Party at Jackson's Bistro in Tampa with Playmates and MTV slinky dating show stars, the Ikki Twins. For the company, throwing a solid Super Bowl bash could open the door to lucrative business.
So, they hit the books.
"We looked at who we thought was big in the party scene by looking through all the magazines," said Riina. "Who would come to the party if this person was at the party? That's why we have Paris Hilton as one of our guests because people tend to go where she is."
• • •
Not all was Cristal and sushi.
Some who couldn't hack Diddy's kind of money opted for a free concert Friday by alt-rockers Hoobastank in St. Petersburg's Williams Park, known for its homeless population and bus stops.
"It's the only big-name party we can afford," said Robin Edwards, 47.
At Wednesday's Moves Magazine Super Bowl Party at the Venue, Subway sandwich dude Jared Fogle caused blank stares by rolling with an entourage of nine. He popped up again at Friday's ESPN the Magazine's NEXT Party in downtown Tampa, where Christian Slater, Benji and Joel Madden, Cuba Gooding Jr., Wyclef Jean, Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson partied.
The Diamonds and Pearls Celebrity Gala at Ybor's GLC Entertainment Complex got off to a slow start with cold meatballs and macaroni and cheese.
But outside, Seventh Avenue was hopping — so much that police closed the road to cars after traffic stalled about 9 p.m. Friday. Promoters from Ybor clubs dotted the sidewalks, promising appearances by hip-hop's man of the hour, Lil Wayne. He wound up at the ESPN party around 11:30 p.m. and was surrounded by pro athletes clicking camera phones.
For much of the night, though, guests wondered: Would their favorites really show?
Jermaine Dupri and Tampa Bay Buccaneer Aqib Talib hosted the Under the Veil Party at the Museum of Science and Industry, where stars were sequestered in a fourth-floor VIP room.
The huddled masses paid $300 to get in.
• • •
Why would a reasonable person spend hundreds to stare at a rapper or an actor?
Maybe it's animal instinct.
"That's how social animals and tribal pack animals work," said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, senior editor of the Journal of Media Psychology. "That's royalty in our system, and tracking royalty is like tracking the alpha males and females. They are important members of our pack, and in some way our fate is tied to them."
We scan their photos in the grocery line buying toilet paper. We listen to their songs at prom, when we're getting dumped, when we're zoned out driving to our 9-to-5. When the day ends, we watch their TV shows.
They seep into our world.
"We look to them as role models, and we look to them as people who bring so much pleasure and joy to our lives," said Fischoff. "They are our muses, they're our safe haven from insanity in a cruel world. They're art. They afford us a way to transcend a mundane or sometimes broodish reality."
There's something sublimely visceral in catching a glimpse. Getting a nod or a smile or a photo. Making real contact.
No matter who you are.
"I'm not a Catholic," said Fischoff. "But when I shook hands with the pope... he's a rock star."
• • •
One more night of parties.
One big game.
Then we go back to normal. When our biggest celebrities are the Hogans. When it's exciting to see a local newscaster at the supermarket. When we size up Diddy on the glossy magazine pages, not in the flesh.
When they beam out.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8857. Times staff writers Dalia Colon, Jay Cridlin, Justin George, Sean Daly, Demorris Lee, Keith Niebuhr, Greg Auman, Amy Scherzer, Mary Jane Park, Stephanie Garry, Joshua Niederer, Robbyn Mitchell, Ernest Hooper, Bill Varian, Tristan Wheelock, Janet Zink, Susan Thurston and Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.