NEW YORK — At around 7:30 p.m., Jessica Simpson emerges from the back of a black limousine to a thunderous din of shouts and screams. The singer, clad in a short, skintight black dress and bearing her trademark beam, walks awkwardly across the uneven pavement, wobbling slightly atop a pair of high heels.
On either side of her is a wall of hysterical, shrieking fans — held back by metal barricades bearing the letters "NYPD" in blue spray-paint — that completely covers the area, stifling business-as-usual for the likes of Alfredo Ristorante and the Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift Shop. Many of these fans — some of whom have been standing outside, on these sidewalks, since 6 a.m. — are so overwhelmed by her presence they begin to weep, clutching their chests with one hand while fanning themselves with the other.
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Simpson crisscrosses the street on her way to the VMAs red carpet, running from one side to the next, grasping and grazing hundreds of outstretched hands; some spectators pull her in for forced hugs.
Countless digital camera flashes pulsate across this sea of undulating, screaming and cheering flesh. Simpson's bodyguards, along with several New York City cops, hurl themselves against the barriers, bracing them from total collapse as more and more fans push forward.
"Jessica! Over here!," roars a different Jessica, a 15-year-old girl from Brooklyn, as she attempts to scale the barrier. Simpson does her best to greet all of these fans before being whisked away. In her wake, Simpson leaves a throng of kids either devastated with disappointment, lovestruck or overcome with glee.
Inside Radio City Music Hall, the site of this year's VMAs, it's all business — one of the music industry's biggest nights. But the most devoted fans are out here, on the street, practically crushing each other just to make eye contact with the artists they adore.
The first fans began gathering sometime in the early morning hours. By 2 p.m., they numbered in the hundreds; an hour later there were probably a thousand; by 5:30, several thousand. What exactly brought them all here?
Rajaa, 25, and Lenny, 24, both visiting New York from the Netherlands, are excited to catch a glimpse of Beyoncé, Shakira and Christina Aguilera because, well, this kind of thing doesn't happen back home. "It's just something to experience," Rajaa explained, taking in the atmosphere.
Caroline, a 14-year-old from Buffalo, New York, waits with her friend Katie, hoping to spot Fall Out Boy's Pete Wentz, a man she claims to love and could "just stare at all day long." For her, being here is a must because "it's just an experience, you know? We're going into our freshman year in a couple of weeks, and we can't wait to brag to everyone that we were at the VMAs."
Jessica, a 20-year-old from Mantua, New Jersey, woke up at 4 a.m. and traveled two hours from her home to stand along 49th Street and land herself a primo vantage point for all the arrivals — particularly Paris Hilton's and Justin Timberlake's. For her, though, she'd be fine not seeing a single celeb — she's going home with a small piece of the red carpet, which she'd cut out of the carpet's overlap. Again, "it's just about the experience — it's just fun to be out here with everyone, make some friends and see the whole thing come together."
Soon after, the limos and the Bentleys and the Maybachs start rolling up. When New Found Glory step out of their limo, Jessica begins wailing and waving to them, hopping up and down uncontrollably. Then she wonders aloud, "Who is that?"
"Who is that?" The day's most frequently asked question. As limo upon limo rolls down the street, that's all the fans say as they lean over the barriers — with some help from their friends, who holds them up by their belts — squinting, as if that will help them see through tinted glass. Not knowing who's inside doesn't prevent these kids — standing on their tiptoes, sitting on top of public phone booths, fire hydrants, parking meters or someone else's shoulders — from screaming bloody murder at every single vehicle that passes by. From time to time, the limos' passengers provide an answer, rolling down their windows to smile and throw peace signs to the crowd.
The first to do this is Reverend Run and his kith. When Run rolls down his window, it inspires a chant that carried on throughout the two-plus hours of red carpet madness: "Roll down your windows! Roll down your windows!," which coincides with a circular hand gesture. Those who comply are showered with squeals and waves; those who don't are pelted with promotional beach balls and crumpled-up fliers.
Hundreds of teenage girls freak out when a window to Ludacris' limo lowers at a snail's pace and he flashes them a smile. Two minutes later, the window of Jesse McCartney's car starts to lower — here come the screams — revealing the top of his head before returning to its full and upright position. Obscenities and fliers ensue — and are almost instantly forgotten.
"My parents call me 'The Walking My Chemical Romance Billboard,' " says Lisa, 15, from Staten Island, clad in a black sweatshirt plastered with the band's logo. Even her messenger bag is covered in patches, each with a photo of the members' faces. Accompanied by eight pals and chaperoned by family friend Tammy, they've been waiting since 2 p.m., alas, with no sight of MCR. According to them, even lead singer Gerard Way's mother hasn't caught a glimpse of her son. "The mother was telling us that they only had seven tickets to get in, and it was for agents and for a few important people that they had to invite, so she's out here in the crowd herself, waiting to hear her son sing," explains Tammy, who says she hung with Ms. Way at Bally's Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, earlier in the week.
"I'm here to see Chris Brown, my husband!" screams neighboring Seymone, 16, from Harlem, New York. She arrived with her girlfriends at noon and has already spotted half a dozen celebrities: the Pussycat Dolls, Lil Jon, Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco.
A few yards away, hopeful fashion designer Kelly, 18, unveils her Green Day jeans. "Billie Joe [Armstrong], he inspires me. I lost my father last year, and so did he at a young age, so I write tons of songs and listen to Green Day all the time," she says. The heart grenade from the "American Idiot" cover is hand-drawn on her back pocket, and she stenciled the band's record titles on her pant legs. "Tonight's the night that I'll tell them what they mean to me," she says.
Nearby is a blinding set of neon shirts in pink, yellow and green worn by 17-year-olds Kristen, Julianne and Anna (respectively) from Howell, New Jersey. The front reads "MVP" in honor of Panic! at the Disco, and the back displays, "Team MoFo & John." "That's John Walker! He's the bassist," Anna cries. "He took over for [former bassist] Brent, and we found out the real story, so we're on Team John now."
Kids leap on top of each other to get a better look at T.I. as his limo lumbers up to the red carpet. He takes time out from his phone conversation to wink at the fans. Then pandemonium breaks out as Wyclef Jean — wearing a white tailored suit — exits his auto and leaps onto its hood, throwing his hands up in the air, signaling the crowd to make a ruckus. They abide, and then quickly turn their attention to the biodiesel Army truck toting Jared Leto's 30 Seconds to Mars. The band — stationed in the back of the truck — wing long-stemmed roses and stickers into the crowd, which at this point is filled with tons of smitten girls.
A deafening chorus greets Chris Brown's arrival. "He has the sexiest eyes!" gushes Sheila, a 16-year-old from New Jersey. "Chris! Kiss me please! He's so f---ing sexy!" The response to Nick Lachey's arrival is nearly as loud, with shouts of "Will you marry me?!" emanating from the swarm. As Paris Hilton makes her way to the red carpet, blowing kisses to the flock, Maria, 18, from the Bronx, claims this is "the best time of my life."
Suddenly, patience pays off for the MCR crew: Lisa screams as the band walks in front of them. Lisa cries on the phone to her mom. "I see Ray's afro! And Gerard's walking with a cane because he tore his ligaments! Feel better, Gerard!"
"Beyoncé, I love you! What's your number?," yells one male fan as the singer's limousine crawls up the street. The question makes Beyoncé chuckle. The weight from the mob, pushing against the barrier to reach out to Jay-Z's lady love, forces the barricade to bend; police step in and push the pack back. Dozens of lucky fans, stationed atop New York City tourism buses, sing "Happy Birthday" to Beyoncé, who turns 25 on September 4; she mouths "Thank you" to them before posing for pictures at the foot of the carpet.
But the crowd reaches its most frenzied pitch with Simpson's arrival. Just moments before she sets foot on the red carpet, she is handed a rose — a leftover from Leto's entrance. She stops for a second, looks at the fan appreciatively and plants her lips on the flower. She then tosses it into the crowd, and more than a dozen teens lunge for it as if they were vying for the bouquet at a wedding.
Finally, at 8 p.m., the crowds disperse, leaving the streets littered with posters of Beyoncé and fliers promoting an afterparty that no one famous is likely to be attending.