A Night In Vegas With “Pawn Stars”
We get more than we bargained for (namely, a face tattoo) when we spent a night with the dudes from Pawn Stars.
We got more than we bargained for (namely, a face tattoo) when we spent a booze- and stripper-filled night with the hard-living dudes from Pawn Stars.
It’s 1 a.m. in Vegas, and my open mouth is on the receiving end of a very real, very scary tattoo gun. Corey “Big Hoss” Harrison looks on with glee. I’m learning a lesson the hard way: When you negotiate with a Pawn Star, you lose.
THE CHUM DIARIES
Nine hours earlier, I’d arrived at Gold & Silver Pawn, Corey’s workplace and the subject of History Channel’s hit reality show Pawn Stars. Corey works at the shop with his dad, Rick, granddad Richard, and childhood friend, the mononymous Chumlee, bickering, haggling, and ultimately making bank on the coolest antiques and most obscure collectibles Vegas has to offer. After five seasons and almost four years, the breakout hit has grown from two million viewers to five, becoming History’s most-watched program and spinning off three shows—Cajun Pawn Stars, American Restoration, and Counting Cars—with an international version, Pawn Stars UK, in the works.
I’m spending an evening with these guys to find out what happens when the cameras are off. They want to take Maxim out to do Vegas local-style, but before we head off, there’s business to be done.
Corey and Rick, the 47-year-old head honcho at Gold & Silver, are appraising a customer’s Civil War journal. Surrounding them is a small army of a film crew, documenting the barter from every angle. The owner wants $12,000. Rick, in true Rick fashion, will have none of that. My reality-show skepticism is on high alert, but outside of some retakes for clarity, it all feels authentic. I stay out of their way and browse the shop, which is packed with eye-catching sale items: samurai swords, guitars, a World War II Indian motorcycle, and even a car, a 1949 Hudson. There’s also art all over: portraits of everyone from John Lennon to Jackie Kennedy to…Chumlee?
On the screen Austin “Chumlee” Russell is as much the show’s breakout star as he is the village idiot. Chum won’t be along for tonight’s ride, as we’re heading out a bit early for his taste (“I start my night at one o’clock”), but I get a chance to catch up with him at the shop. For better or for worse, he’s not the dolt he’s made out to be on the show. He’s the first to admit his situation is surreal. “I never expected my face to be on the side of a building to draw people in.” While he enjoys the opportunities the show has afforded him, he’s not just sitting back. “I’ve got other things I’m workin’ on that will hopefully outlast the show…and me,” he says. “One of my goals is to work on things that could outlast my life span.”
Back on the floor, Rick has called in his rare-book expert, Rebecca Romney, to give her two cents on the journal. All the experts on the show are truly experts, and Rick calls them out of necessity, not just for good TV. “I can’t know everything,” he admits. Rebecca, the manager of the Las Vegas Gallery of Bauman Rare Books, has appraised the journal and left Rick and Corey to strike a deal with the customer. After some back and forth, they’ve scored the journal for $5,000 and the three of us are en route to dinner.
The Foundation Room is an ornately decorated, members-only club that sits at the top of Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino. Rick and Corey are both members, and this is the place they’ll bring History Channel execs, out-of-towners, and anyone else they might want to shield from Pawn Stars groupies. Yes, there are groupies.
As we get off the elevator, a fan attempts to mask his excitement at seeing the guys, but not everyone is so good at keeping their cool. Over the course of the night, reactions range from a simple handshake and “I love the show” to desperate pleas for photo ops. “I never leave the house unless I’m like this,” Rick says, gesturing to his hat and sunglasses. “It cuts, like, 80 or 90 percent of it.”
We sit down to munch on lobster tacos, shrimp and grits, and truffle mac and cheese, and Rick’s wide-ranging knowledge reveals itself over the course of the meal—the genesis of the term sharpshooter, the history of mercury poisoning, a few tidbits on the domestication of Indian elephants—and I realize he actually knows this stuff; there’s no producer feeding him facts. “I just love obscure history books,” he shrugs. “You’re talking to the guy who read the history of batteries twice. All this weird, stupid shit comes together in the show.” Corey chimes in: “Or he’ll force it in. It’ll be the only item we have that day, and he’ll use the whole six degrees of separation to get to what he read last night and wants to talk about.”
DOUBLE THE PLEASURE
“I saw my first dead body at the Double Down.” We’ve ditched the Foundation Room, put the Strip in our rearview, and are headed to the Double Down Saloon, a punk-rock bar that Rick boasts has been named the number one dive in America. Corey is giving me what, I think, he believes is a stellar review of the place. We pull up in front of a white cinder block building with a message painted across the entryway: the happiest place on earth. Corey adds, earnestly, “Now, if you have to take a piss, I suggest you go behind the Dumpster and not to the bathroom.” I think I’ll hold it.
This place is a far cry from the Foundation Room. Above the bar, a sign advertises a service I’ve never seen before: puke insurance, $20: see bartender for details. Rick explains that if you pay the insurance, then vomit on the bar, you don’t have to clean it up. The bartender sees it in simpler terms: “If I’m about to cut you off, you have to pay me to keep drinking.” Corey buys us a round of Double Down’s famous Ass Juice shots, which yet another sign describes thusly: outa’ our ass, inta’ your glass. Delicious!
HOGS AND HARD-ASSES
Hogs & Heifers is a biker bar, and it’s the third stop on our crawl. On top of the bar, a scantily clad bartender dances in front of a bra-covered wall and shouts into her megaphone, “Welcome to Hogs & Heifers, motherfuckers!” Rick tells me the movie Coyote Ugly was based on this bar, and this does not surprise me. He orders a round of PBR tallboys, Corey pops a 20 into an arcade punching machine that resembles a speed bag, and we go to town. My embarrassing scores are made only more so by the fact that Corey invites some onlookers, probably fans, to take a swing or two. Bikers, cowboys, and even a few girls all double or triple my measly 243, some even hitting the 900s.
It’s 10 o’clock and time for Rick to go home to his fiancée and three soon-to-be stepdaughters. “But Corey’s gonna take you to the Rhino.” Corey smirks: “This is where the night gets ugly.”
The Spearmint Rhino is, as Rick put it earlier, “The only strip club in this town that counts. There’s a good 300 girls working there at night.” “And only one ugly one,” Corey adds. We head in through the back door and are immediately whisked into the champagne room. After blowing a day’s pay over the course of a Ludacris song, I ask Corey about his tattoos. He has many, and I’m trying to fill the awkward silence that comes with two men visiting a strip club after knowing each other for seven hours. The first one he ever got is a clown painted like a skull, only because his parents said he couldn’t. And his next one? “It’s goin’ on my face.”
“Get one tonight,” I dare. “If you get one on your face, then I’ll get my first tattoo tonight.” Immediately, I realize I’ve been foolish. Don’t ever try to make a deal with a Pawn Star: “Yours has to be on your face, too.” Before I know it, we’ve reached a compromise. An inner-lip tattoo, while technically on one’s face, is entirely hidden from view. His will say ‘H TOWN’, for his hometown of Henderson, Nevada, and mine will read ‘K TOWN’ as a shout-out to my own hood: Kensington, Maryland. Corey calls his guy, appropriately named Bad Apple Edd. “What’s up? I’m at the Rhino right now. How do you feel about doin’ two lip tattoos?”
We make the short drive to Edd’s, and before I know it I’m in the chair. Edd takes my lip and turns on the gun—that terrifying, violent buzz that lets me know there’s no turning back. Corey just grins.
Lavo has a delicious, ridiculous party brunch, but it’s tough to focus on my eggs Benedict. It’s Saturday morning, and I keep checking my lip in my spoon’s reflection. Yup, it still says K TOWN. And I’m still tat twins with a reality star.
Final verdict: Sure, they’ve got money and groupies and might eat a little better nowadays. But in one of the most manufactured cities on Earth, the Pawn Stars stand out by sticking to their roots. They drink in dirty dives, hang out with their pre–History Channel pals, and show no signs of stopping. When I sat down with Chumlee, I asked if he might ever want to get away from it all, and he just laughed: “Oh, yeah. Maybe for an hour or two.”