Deep in the woods of Southampton, up a steep driveway, a hulking nine-bedroom house rises from a white-painted wraparound deck, complete with a baby-blue pool, clay tennis and pebbly volleyball courts, and, usually, lots and lots of models. It’s raining today, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, and most of the models, shivering in thin cotton shirts, have gone to the movies; some fashion-industry guys in moony trucker hats who’ve been left behind play a lackadaisical game of basketball on the soggy tennis court. The house’s owners, Noah Tepperberg, 27, and Jason Strauss, 29, however, are hard at work. They pace up and down the house’s vertiginous staircase, jabbering into cell phones.
“How are the tables looking for tonight?” Tepperberg asks upstairs.
“How are the tables looking for tonight?” Strauss asks downstairs.
The tables at issue are cabaret-size and bottle-service only at Jet East, the North Sea Road nightclub Tepperberg and Strauss have been commissioned to run this summer for Andrew Sasson, the headstrong, hyper owner of Jet East and the Light nightclub chain better known as Lizzie Grubman’s infamous turncoat ex. Tepperberg and Strauss, former owners of Conscience Point and collaborators on the celebrity-friendly Chelsea nightclub Suite 16, go way back with Sasson; Sasson’s partner Chris Barish, son of Planet Hollywood’s Keith Barish, has long been a friend. They go further back with each other—the two first met promoting parties at bars amicable to underage crowds as high schoolers in Manhattan, where they attended Stuyvesant and Riverdale, respectively. “I went to one of Jason’s parties,” says Tepperberg, “but he wouldn’t let me in, said it was ‘Fieldston and Riverdale only.’ But I talked to him, was a nice guy, you know, and he opened the door. Eventually.”
Though Tepperberg has a booming bass voice, a sarcastic edge, and a phone that vibrates rhythmically with sycophantic calls from young clubgoers like Tara Reid and Elisabeth Kieselstein-Cord, you wouldn’t say that he was the coolest guy you’d ever met; small of stature, he looks tired and rumpled even now, in the early afternoon. Tepperberg was, in fact, a Stuyvesant chess champion—he talks excitedly about a game he played a couple years back with former Interscope Records CEO Ted Field, a chess aficionado, at his Goose Creek mansion, and how Field invited Garry Kasparov to one of his renowned Fourth of July parties. “To talk to Kasparov,” says Tepperberg dreamily: “Man.”
Tepperberg collects old hand-carved chess boards, too, but that’s where his connection to the world of nebbishness ends. In an attic crash pad appended to his airy second-floor bedroom, an n (for Noah) pillow propped neatly on the king-size bed, two Brazilian models in bright pink tank tops huddle under a duvet on a futon. “Hi, Noah,” they say, giggling.
“We got 42 tables for tonight,” says Tepperberg.
If Lizzie sold the Hamptons down the river, Tepperberg, Strauss, and a bunch of similarly buttoned-down, Manhattan-reared guys in their mid-twenties are here to buy it back. The economy may be faltering, the summer-housing market self-destructing, and even the weather playing a nasty joke, but the much-maligned Hamptons nightclub scene has never been more robust. Even with the shuttering of Conscience Point—seized by the town of Southampton in a move motivated as much by public relations as by the defaulting of its lessee, notorious ex–Morgan Stanley broker Christian Curry—the hot list this year is extensive. There are the disco mainstays—Jet East, Tavern, Rocco’s, the Star Room—and slick smaller lounges, like Cabana, Haven, and Boutique, plus a rechristening of established spots, like East Hampton’s N/V, now Resort, and Japanese restaurant–cum–lounge Bamboo, perched on Montauk Highway across from Jerry Della Femina’s Red Horse Market.
Whether they own the clubs or just work for them, what’s imperative for these guys is making sure that the places are packed with models, celebrities, and that elusive quantity commonly referred to in the business as “high-end people.” A crowded field makes those people harder than ever to catch. “It’s nuts,” complains tiny, wiry Richie Akiva, 26, who co-owns the Star Room with Columbia grad Scott Sartiano, 28. “All these guys saw what we were doing out here, and now they’re coming out too.”
“I’ve been in the Hamptons my whole life,” counters Jeff Goldstein over a scotch on the rocks in Bamboo’s black-and-red lounge. “My scene is all family.”
Until recently a junior associate at Lazard, Goldstein is 26, with light-green eyes and a Pepsodent smile he flashes indiscriminately. Last year, Goldstein was operating partner at the Star Room; this year, he’s helming Saturdays at Tavern and Fridays at Rocco’s, and hoping to convert Bamboo into an after-dinner hipster joint. Goldstein is giddy with anticipation as he details his game plan for the summer, lobbing phrases like maximizing market trends, demographic play, and access to multiple share-house owners.
In this tenacious bid for East End domination, Goldstein has aligned himself with a few friends with a similarly magical ability to send out a mass e-mail announcing a party and deliver a packed nightclub. On Goldstein’s team are the ubiquitous Samantha Ronson; Butch Ural, her twin sister Charlotte’s boyfriend, also known as a longtime pal of Leonardo DiCaprio; and Mike Heller, a friend of Goldstein’s from growing up in the city who resembles a very young, very small Michael Douglas—“the sexiest five-foot-tall man you’ll ever meet” is how he puts it.
“I was the first person to have Mark Ronson as a D.J., at the first party I ever had, for my 14th birthday,” boasts Heller.
“That’s not true,” says Goldstein. “I had him at my party first.”
“It is so true,” says Heller. (According to Ronson, “It’s very sweet of them to fight over me, but I think Mike discovered me.”)
Far from resting on his Ronson-D.J. laurels, Heller recently passed the bar and joined forces with his dad, Son of Sam lawyer Mark Heller. “I hang out in clubs a lot,” says Mike, “because a lot of people who need lawyers go out a lot, you know?” He has personally represented Greg Todtman, the Bachelorette finalist recently arrested at JFK for cocaine possession, and Josh Sagman, the oxygen-bar founder and Hamptons-share-house landlord featured prominently in Barbara Kopple’s documentary last year; the town looked upon the latter mission none too kindly. “I also started the number 1-800-LAWYER-911, ’cause, you know, there was already a 1-800-LAWYERS, but the 911 is kind of cool because that’s how we used to page each other when we were kids,” says Heller. One cannot help but notice, however, that there are a couple too many numbers in 1-800-LAWYER-911. “Well,” says Heller, screwing up his little face, “dialing the extra 11 doesn’t do anything.”
Samantha and Charlotte Ronson show up as an exogamous D.J. starts to spin old-school rap. The lights dim on the lingering diners in Bamboo, heralding a night of Cristal-swilling and sushi-nibbling, but less model-on-banquette dancing than had been hoped for: “This guy’s job is to bring out the girls, which he didn’t really do this weekend,” says Ural, amicably slinging an arm around a crestfallen guy in an orange velour sweatshirt. Middle-aged patrons flag down waiters for their checks; Jerry Della Femina and Judy Licht gather their belongings and move slowly toward the door. Even they know all about the “boys” fighting for a piece of the summer-nightclub pie. “All the atoms have split off from each other,” says Licht, her eyes growing even bigger than their usual saucers. “It’s the war of the lists.”
“It’s each man for himself in the Hamptons,” says Heller, flexing his pecs. “Survival of the fittest.”
“It’s each man for himself in the Hamptons,” says Mark Heller, who resembles a very young, very small Michael Douglas. He flexes his pecs. “Survival of the fittest.”
Operating a nightclub in the Hamptons is not a terribly lucrative endeavor. A successful club can make about 75 grand on a warm-weather Saturday night, but the season lasts only sixteen weeks, or, more important, sixteen Saturday nights. The nightly take is, however, secondary to the real prize. Post-Puffy, the Hamptons have increasingly become a playground for downtown hipsters as well as uptown society; a presence at the beach is now essential for those promoters catering to Manhattan’s “high-end.” “You’ve got to maintain your crowd from spring to fall,” says Heller. “You can’t have Nicky Hilton in the Hamptons wondering where to go out at night.”
After all, lists with names like Nicky Hilton are what nightclubs these days are all about. Tepperberg and Strauss are famous for welcoming the Hiltons to the nightclub scene long before their 21st birthdays; celebrities they can produce include Britney Spears, Derek Jeter, and Chelsea Clinton. Akiva and Sartiano’s crowd is a bit, well, cooler: Taye Diggs, Guy Oseary, Jay-Z, and a wide spectrum of English-as-a-second-language models, including Akiva’s girlfriend Carmen Kass, who stands a head taller than him. (“Carmen and I don’t even like to go out that much,” says Akiva. “There’s nothing more fun than staying at home and playing chess.”) Goldstein, Ural, and Heller’s list is composed almost entirely of city brats: David Lauren, Shoshanna Lonstein, Hard Rock heir Harry Morton. Goldstein’s coup last year was bringing Gwyneth Paltrow and Renée Zellweger to the Star Room. Everyone shares Tara Reid.
With this new generation of nightclub promoters, the dream isn’t about getting the big names in the door to foster a festive atmosphere, or even simply to secure a star-studded shot for the paparazzi. In fact, these guys would rather not be called promoters at all—they see themselves as “entrepreneurs.” Promoters have long been considered the bottom of the nightclub food chain, as con men and degenerate modelizers trying to make a quick buck; the conviction of Limelight promoter Michael Alig in the murder of Angel Melendez in 1996 didn’t help matters.
These days, thanks for the most part to guys like Tepperberg and Strauss, promoting is much more legit. “Noah and Jason are businessmen, not indulgent nighttime people,” says Ian Schrager, who hired Tepperberg and Strauss last year to throw New Year’s Eve parties at the Delano and the Shore Club. “They’ve brought originality into the business: promotion, marketing, even the idea of bottle service, which wasn’t around when I was in clubs. I can see them building what they’re doing now into something bigger and better in the coming years.”
“It’s a really clean scene now, because everyone’s about branding,” says Resort operating partner Jonathan Cheban, a diamond-studded dog tag hanging low on his shirt as he stands in front of the club on watch for celebs. Earlier, he had called to report last night’s appearance of some notables on his list, Ashley Simpson (sister of Jessica!) and Linda Lopez (sister of J.Lo!).
“Show business without the business is just a show,” says Sartiano, sipping a Coke.
For Cheban, branding may mean bright-orange Veuve Clicquot buckets on the tables at Resort, but for Tepperberg, Strauss, and a third partner, Tony Berger, clubbing is little more than a front for their marketing arm, Strategic Group. “What Strategic sells to companies is access to influencers and high-end people, and to get that access we run the places where those people go,” explains Tepperberg. “Companies always want to know how to make their product cool—well, we know how to make an old potato barn on North Sea Road cool, so cool that there are tons of celebrities and 1,000 people want to get in.”
Like Ural and Resort promoter Alex Wilson, who once ran the Synergy Spa—a strange hybrid of product placement and celebrity share house in Bridgehampton—Tepperberg and Strauss converted their house into the “Stuff-magazine house” and then into the “Playstation 2 house” (this year, they’re coordinating the “Playstation 2 hotel” at the Bentley in Southampton). They also do “product seeding” for alcohol and tobacco companies, like Allied Domecq and Zino Platinum Cigars (trotted out at the Giuliani-Nathan wedding). Smirnoff was a client, too, and for months Tepperberg could be seen with his beefy hand wrapped around a bottle of Smirnoff Ice, the “malternative” Strategic positioned at its clubs—the campaign was a success, leading to copycat high-end malternatives like Skyy Blue. “That’s going into the marketing textbooks,” says Tepperberg proudly.
Last weekend, at Jet East, the Smirnoff Ice campaign has given way to Perrier-Jouët’s new champagne, Blanc de Blanc. Tepperberg and Strauss arrive around midnight from Sasson’s house in Bridgehampton, where they had dinner with Tao owner Marc Packer. There’s a two-to-one ratio of models to men at the table; Packer’s crowd of older models and Tepperberg and Strauss’s gaggle of teenage ones wear this summer’s uniform of neon toga tops and dish-drain-size silver hoop earrings. A half-dozen of them arrived earlier in the day with model wrangler—he prefers “entrepreneur”Â—Danny A, whose Mercedes convertible couldn’t hold them all, so they grabbed a ride in the Royal Elastic sneaker van. “I don’t know how I got here,” says a soft-spoken 19-year-old from Iowa, her blond hair cut in a mohawk from a recent shoot. “But it is nice.”
Inside the low-ceilinged club, full to capacity, with the A/C on the blink, knots of high-end people sit at the coveted bottle-only tables drinking Blanc de Blanc. 50 Cent’s song “In Da Club” blasts into the humid, quiet night; Tara Reid is, naturally, dancing on a banquette. She steps down to greet Charlotte Ronson.
“I was wearing one of your T-shirts last night!” Reid tells Ronson. The shirt in question is belly-baring and white, covered with rhinestones and emblazoned with the word GUINNESS. Guinness was one of Tepperberg and Strauss’s first clients, and they have it on tap at their house. “Guinness,” says Tepperberg, “is a great brand.”
With all the changes to the Hamptons-nightlife scene, it’s something of a surprise to see Lizzie, buff and supertan, making the rounds at Jason Binn’s annual Memorial Day party. She’s repping restaurants instead of nightclubs now, like East Hampton’s country-cute Farmhouse; tonight, she’s organized a dinner there for some “high-end friends.” “We’re getting older,” she says. “Now it’s more about dinners and staying out until midnight, not 4 a.m.” As far as the new guard of the Hamptons goes, she’s not terribly optimistic: “There’s not enough room for all of them,” she says. “It’s physically impossible to go to five nightclubs in one night. They all want one type of crowd, the high-end celebrity-driven crowd, and in the Hamptons, there aren’t that many celebs.”
With territory so tight, the claws come out. “Butch doesn’t get out of bed before 11:30 p.m.,” says Resort organizing partner Wilson, half-jokingly, of his former compatriot Ural. “And not for less than $11,000.” The scene at the Star Room has been contentious as well, with Goldstein passed over this summer for Akiva and Sartiano, who now are partners in the place with former Swamp owners Scott Storbo and Scott Gray. Claiming responsibility for last year’s celebrity clientele, Goldstein even tried to trademark the “Star Room” name (with Heller’s legal expertise), but he soon dropped the bid. “We had our share of celebrities before Jeff came along,” retorts Scott Gray. “We had Christie Brinkley.”
Then, just before Memorial Day, seven out of eight patio cushions for the Star Room’s outdoor terrace were stolen—the very same cushions that Goldstein purchased for the place last summer. Gray and Starbo say Goldstein had contributed a fifth of the cash for the cushions and they paid the remaining money. “In Jeff’s contract, it said we would reimburse him for all of the pillows if we were happy with his performance, but we weren’t so we didn’t, and then they were gone,” says Gray. Goldstein had no comment, except to say that the pillows have been returned. Indeed, as this story went to press, Gray called to say that the pillows had, miraculously enough, appeared in the Star Room’s parking lot.
Branding and pillow-stealing are exciting stuff, certainly, but there’s one other thing that somewhat vertically challenged guys in their mid-twenties tend to enjoy. “It’s not about the girls,” Tepperberg says often and solemnly. “Yeah, right!” says Sasson, embracing his jeans-clad date, Playmate of the Year Christina Santiago. “I don’t care about girls at all,” he says, nibbling on her ear.
On the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, the thermometer may have dropped below 50, but the tables at the Star Room are full, so full that a series of anxious-looking managers keep approaching Sartiano’s table for advice on how to accommodate all the reservations. At the bar, two forty-something women in skimpy Dior blouses compare carats—“I told him it wasn’t big enough,” complains one. In the middle of the room, Tepperberg and Strauss sit at a long table for twenty, flanked on either side by the models who seem not to have left their side all weekend. It is all very fabulous, but it does not seem very fun; models and men are hardly talking to each other, and a willowy brunette in riding boots even takes out a pack of cards and starts to play solitaire.
But it seems glamorous, and that’s what matters. A night before, in front of the VIP room’s red rope, a group of people whom the unpleasant bouncer won’t let in peer over his square shoulders. “That’s the one and only girl my boyfriend would ever cheat on me with,” says a woman in a tight black pantsuit, pointing at starlet Eliza Dushku, of Buffy and Bring It On fame. “I was the Sears baby, you know,” she adds. “Twenty-four years ago. Called back for a part in Al Pacino’s Scent of a Woman, too, but I had to go to my high-school prom.”
“I love you anyway,” slurs her friend, a JCPenney model in tinted sunglasses.
On the soaking-wet terrace, Akiva and Sartiano hang out with their crowd. Carson Daly, in a Yankees cap, bobs up and down to the music’s beat. “How come everybody’s got a chick but me?” he asks.
Kass, in response, throws her arms around him. “Why’s my girlfriend all over Carson?” asks Akiva.
“Hey, she’s not the first, and she won’t be the last,” jokes Daly, grinning broadly.
Sartiano kisses Dushku’s shoulder. The next day he chauffeurs her to LaGuardia in the driving rain, and later that night she calls to tell him about a song she likes. But you never know when there might be a better opportunity—branding or otherwise—around the bend. “Eliza’s a friend,” says Sartiano, his lips curling into a smile. “Just a friend.”