All-Star game is draw for groupies Clubbing and groupies take the night

By CRAIG SEYMOUR The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

PHIL SKINNER / Staff The VIP lounge is the exclusive third-floor inner sanctum at Level 3, a popular downtown nightclub.

YOUR TURN What kind of celebrity would you "go groupie" for? Rock star 9% 209 Pro athlete 14% 308 Politician 2% 55 Movie or TV star 19% 421 Author 4% 90 Porn star 31% 707 Vent Guy / Gal 21% 477 Total Votes 2267

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Trying to meet a celebrity at the popular downtown nightclub Level 3 is like scaling an obstacle-ridden pyramid.

You start on the spacious lower level, where masses of workaday hip-hop fans pack the dance floor. Then, you try to make it past one set of velvet ropes -- and the sturdy bouncer who guards them -- to get to a dimly lit mezzanine, where a small gathering of selected clubgoers looks down upon the crowd below.

Once there, you have to get past yet another set of velvet ropes -- and another bouncer -- in order to access the club's exclusive third-floor inner sanctum: a cozy VIP lounge that's awash in a hazy red glow. Making this ascent through the club feels like you're rising from a thick darkness into an intimate light.

Each week, dozens of groupies -- the common, if pejorative, term for female celebrity chasers -- make this and similar journeys at area nightclubs. They sport body-baring outfits and boast a singular determination to do whatever it takes to hook up with the star of their choice.

"When I say I'm going to meet [a celebrity], I'm going to make it my business to get up there and meet that person," a woman who goes by the pseudonym "Kizzy" says in an MTV documentary on hip-hop groupies filmed in Atlanta. ". . . I will go to the deepest extreme possible."

With the NBA All-Star Game and all the accompanying star-filled parties hitting Atlanta this week, the number of groupies in the metro area will increase exponentially. The event's unique draw of monied athletes and hip music, TV and movie stars makes it a magnet for women who want to meet celebrities.

"It's going to be serious groupie mania. It happens at every All-Star game," says Vernessa Arnold, a 34-year-old basketball fan from California who has attended several All-Star games but adds that she is definitely not a groupie.

"By Friday night, you'll start seeing the skirts getting shorter and the pants getting tighter and lower," says Brenda L. Thomas, a former assistant to player Stephon Marbury who recently penned the steamy novel "Threesome: Where Seduction, Power, and Basketball Collide." "That's when you know the groupies are coming. And by Saturday night, it will be crawling."

Although many of the All-Star parties -- like Saturday's much-anticipated NBA Players Association gala -- are closed to the public, some observers say that the most glamorous groupies won't have any problem getting in.

"If you look like Halle Berry, dress like Mariah Carey, and have a body like Pam Grier, you will be let in every NBA party that you can think of," says Cherry Banez, publicist for former Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins.

For some women, the appeal of meeting a celebrity is largely sexual.

"I know girls who go to these different All-Star parties just so they can come home and tell their girlfriends who they slept with," Thomas says. "You know how they say that guys have notches on their belts; well, women do that, too."

But for others, being with a celebrity provides entree into a world to which they wouldn't otherwise have access. It's no surprise that groupies are often associated with male-dominated circles -- professional athletics, rock music, hip-hop -- where women are often excluded or marginalized.

"We're looking at these hyper-masculine worlds where women are objectified and subordinated," says Steven M. Ortiz, a sociology professor who has studied groupies as a part of his research on the wives of professional athletes. "Women who want to be a part of these worlds will often allow themselves to be treated like sex objects because of it."

Even the name "groupie" reflects this dynamic. "Groupie is a male term," Ortiz says. "It stigmatizes women."

Few women use the word to describe themselves. In fact, no self-proclaimed groupie agreed to be interviewed for this article.

Others who have written about groupies have had similar experiences. "We never found a single woman who would admit to being a groupie," says Patricia San Antonio, a sociology and anthropology professor at the University of Maryland who co-wrote a study (with George Gmelch) on baseball groupies. "And women wouldn't talk to us if we asked, 'Are you a groupie?' "

It took Leslie Farrell, maker of the MTV documentary, three months to find a single subject, even though groupies -- or "chickenheads," as they're often called in hip-hop parlance -- provide the material for any number of rap songs.

"Most of the girls would not admit that they're groupies," Farrell says. "And these are girls that we'd see every single night at the club, going after the same guys."

Despite their elusiveness, groupies -- or the idea of them -- have an enduring currency. There are groupie movies ("Almost Famous," "The Banger Sisters," "Bull Durham") and groupie books ("I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie" by Pamela Des Barres and "Rebel Heart: An American Rock 'n' Roll Journey" by Bebe Buell, who prefers to call herself a "muse").

And in many ways, groupies are as much a part of professional basketball lore as endorsement deals and overpriced sneakers. "When you play in the NBA, there are women waiting to meet you in every city along the way," former L.A. Laker Magic Johnson wrote in his 1992 autobiography "My Life." "Some people classify all of these women as groupies. . . . To me, a groupie was somebody who more or less collected athletes, who was interested in meeting lots of them."

NBA groupies stake out clubs, hotels and sports arenas in hopes of chancing upon players. And there are a number of different kinds of groupies, according to Ortiz: "lot lizards" (groupies who hang out where players park their cars); "marry-mes" (groupies who want to be wives); "camp groupies" (those who live near team training camps); "organization groupies" (those who work in the team offices); "wives groupies" (those who try to get to players through their wives); and "grandma groupies" (those in their 40s and 50s).

But, while the groupie/player relationship clearly serves a mutual need, the sexual promiscuity associated with the phenomenon has a downside. Johnson was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1991. "I know how I got HIV," Johnson writes in his book. ". . . But I don't know who gave it to me."

And a much-discussed 1998 Sports Illustrated article talked about the high incidence of out-of-wedlock children for NBA players. At the time, Orlando Magic player Shawn Kemp had seven children with six different mothers.

The topic of groupies is also touchy for NBA wives. Representatives for Behind the Bench, the wives' charity organization, declined to comment for this story, stating that they don't "feel comfortable" talking about it.

Others worry about the groupies themselves. "I feel very sorry for them," says filmmaker Farrell. "They will go after any guy who has a name because they think it's their ticket to fame. Their hope is that some guy is going to look their way and sweep them off their feet." The reality, as evidenced by the women who have been involved with Johnson and Kemp, is often far different.

Still, none of these cautionary tales is likely to stop the expected activity this weekend.

"The All-Star game is a place to meet players and so the hard-core groupie is going to make every effort to be there," Ortiz says.

A recent Thursday night at Level 3 offered a small glimpse of what the weekend might be like. By midnight, bouncer Joshua Morton had already been offered money to let someone in the upstairs lounge. And on the mezzanine, throngs of gyrating women hung around young men clad in basketball jerseys and gleaming jewelry.

The hit song "Work It" by Missy Elliott boomed over the club's throbbing sound system.

"Ain't no shame/Ladies do your thing," Elliott rapped. "Just make sure you're ahead of the game."