When Levi Johnston strolls through the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental on a recent morning, even the well-trained hotel staff can’t help but giggle. He emerges from the elevator carrying a giant hockey bag and two battered, taped-up sticks. Wearing a blazer, a trendy T-shirt, jeans, and dress shoes, he looks like a catalogue-model version of a high-school kid heading to a game.
For someone whose mere existence (and raw teenage virility) threatened to upend a presidential election, Levi seems easily intimidated. He looks out the lobby windows onto Central Park and shyly tries to make conversation. “I don’t like New York.”
On the elevator ride down to the Time Warner Center, Levi tries to explain. “There’s too many people,” he says about this city. “I can’t wait to get home.” Home is 4,000 miles away, in tiny Wasilla, Alaska, where Levi lived quietly for seventeen years before taking up with his pretty classmate Bristol. A surprise pregnancy and even more surprising GOP vice-presidential nomination later, he’d tattooed Bristol’s name on his ring finger, agreed to marry her, and appeared onstage at the Republican National Convention with the Palins and John McCain.
“That was ridiculous,” Levi says of the RNC. “I was just like, ‘Uhhh.’ ” At the time, the Palins insinuated he’d have to move to D.C. if McCain won. “I ain’t never moving,” he says with a shudder, thinking back. Luckily for him, his team lost. He and Bristol broke up early this year, shortly after they welcomed baby Tripp Easton into the world. But the life of this self-described “fucking redneck” did not go back to normal.
To deal with the constant press inquiries and attention, the Johnston family turned to Anchorage lawyer Rex Butler for help, and he in turn set them up with Tank, a giant pile of a man who serves as Levi’s bodyguard, publicist, agent, and travel buddy. “I wouldn’t be able to do it without him,” Levi says of Tank. “It” is the teenager’s adventurous new life. The pair have already been to Los Angeles a few times for talent meetings. Tank arranged for Levi to appear on The Tyra Banks Show, Extra, and CBS’ The Early Show and to be photographed shirtless, with Tripp, for GQ. They arrived in New York yesterday to tape an episode of Inside Edition (Levi played hockey at the producers’ request) and are now on their way back to Alaska.
Wandering through the Time Warner Center, Tank keeps taking calls from the Town Car that Inside Edition hired to drive them to La Guardia. The driver is lost (Tank is referring to their hotel as “The Madeleine”), so we sit down at Bouchon Bakery for a quick breakfast. Levi orders a Coke. Tank explains that they are shopping a book, because there are still many untold stories about the Palins. In the meantime, Levi has been offered “a leading role” in a movie with a former Miss Oregon (and Apprentice contestant), and he thinks he might take it, though Levi says they “actually don’t know anything about it yet, really.” Then Tank mentions a soon-to-be-announced television project. “I don’t even want to call it a reality show,” he says, now in full agent mode. “It will be a docudrama or something similar. I think the whole reality-show thing is played out.” To prepare for the camera, Levi says he plans to start working out again. “I need to, after seeing that GQ article.”
Though the scrutiny has been uncomfortable at times (photographers were waiting for his plane for two hours the last time he flew to L.A.), it’s helped Levi in his personal life. He thinks that by talking publicly about how the Palins prevented him from seeing his son, he was able to pressure the governor to give him more access. He now sees Tripp a few times a week, when Bristol swings by to drop him off. The former couple seems to get along fine, but they don’t see each other romantically. Levi’s planning on removing the tattoo of her name from his finger by using a cream that Tank has heard about. He says he’s not dating anyone, though his phone beeps steadily with text messages. “It’s not her,” he says pointedly to Tank, after getting a look.
Leaving the restaurant, Levi offers a firm handshake and a glimpse of his very white teeth. Objectively, his future as a reality star seems bright. He certainly looks the part—great chin, perfect skin, and carefully gelled hair. True, he’s rarely answered a question with more than one sentence, and he claims he doesn’t enjoy having his picture taken. “I even have a hard time looking at a magazine and seeing myself,” he says, sounding sincere. (“I love seeing myself,” Tank mutters.) But when asked how, then, he handled being onstage at the RNC with that serene, gum-chomping smile, Levi just grins. “I can put on a show.”