A MAN, A BRAND, A BEARD
When Pitbull invited me to Alaska, I started growing a beard. For reasons I can't explain, it seemed imperative: wilderness = beard. I figured I could shave the damn thing off once it became clear that the trip would never happen, but here the damn thing still is.
It had been an absurd couple of weeks. This summer, Walmart announced a PR stunt to drive customers to the Facebook pages for its local stores. The store that received the most "likes" would get a visit from Miami pop-rapper Pitbull. Knowing that the Internet loves screwing around with open-ended contests, I thought it would be funny to exile Pitbull to the most remote Walmart location I could find. After some Google-mapping, I came across a store in Kodiak, a wild, volcanic, and undoubtedly bear-infested island south of the Alaska mainland.
With help from my friend Jon Hendren (the guy responsible for making Smash Mouth eat dozens of eggs), I started a Twitter campaign to drive votes to Kodiak. Pretty soon, Reddit, Gawker, and the Associated Press had picked up the story. It snowballed from there: the Kodiak Walmart racked up 60,000 likes, the campaign gained attention from the Today show and dozens of newspapers, and Pitbull was tweeting — ominously — directly at me. By the time the contest ended, I had pissed off Alaska, Walmart, and possibly a very well-funded rap artist with a YouTube reputation for punching haters senseless.
Kodiak won the contest by a huge margin, and Pitbull publicly announced he was going to Alaska. In the same Tweet, he invited me to go with him.
>> THE BACKSTORY:
"The Big Hurt: Help us help Wal-Mart exile Pitbull to Alaska" by David Thorpe
"Pitbull takes the Big Hurt north" by David Thorpe
"'Let's Exile Pitbull to Alaska' a success -- and the rapper invites David Thorpe to join him!" by Michael Marotta
For a while, it looked like I might not make it. After Walmart and a PR company called Fuel Partnerships (the parties responsible for the whole "send Pitbull to a local Walmart" affair) repeatedly asked if I'd be going to Kodiak, I finally worked up the nerve to see who was paying. "Invitation extended does not include any travel expenses," Fuel CEO Erik Rosenstrauch told me. "Consider it [Pitbull's] way to push some press in your direction to build your own brand." Shit, I have a Brand? If so, it's like my Alaska beard: scraggly, inadequate; barely noticeable at a distance.
Part of me was glad that I wouldn't be beholden to Walmart/PR dollars, but flights to Kodiak aren't cheap, and I wasn't sure my Brand could bear the expense. I thought about using something like Kickstarter to raise the money, but asking strangers to invest in my mangy little Brand seemed egomaniacal. The Phoenix offered to pay (and I would have taken them up on it, if necessary), but that didn't sit quite right either — I wasn't sure I could justify taking a couple thousand bucks out of the pool that funds guys like Chris Faraone: real journalists with credible beards.
Mercifully, it didn't come to that. Just before the Phoenix booked my flights, Pitbull's people got in touch; his manager, Charles Chavez, told me Pit's invitation definitely included the expenses: "You don't invite someone to dinner and make them pick up the check." Chavez told me Pitbull found the whole thing funny and was looking forward to Kodiak. He also intimated that certain PR suits weren't too comfortable with bringing me along, fearing that I was "anti-establishment," but it was fine with him. "We're anti-establishment, too," he said.
Team Pitbull's original plan was to bring me to Cleveland to take in a live show, then fly me to Kodiak in a chartered plane with the man himself. Chugging Dom P in Pitbull's G6 sounded like a blast, but it didn't work out. I was told that with all the luggage and entourage already booked, there was no room left. But my hunch says it was a polite excuse. If I were Pitbull, I certainly wouldn't want some Internet loser contaminating my swank jet with toxic nerd molecules.
An alternate arrangement was reached, and on July 29, I was Anchorage-bound, first class, drinking free alcohol in a reclining leather seat. I travelled in total comfort, except that I kept pawing at my godawful beard, due to the permanent feeling of having just walked through cobwebs.