Emily Trimmell, an animated brunette with a blinding white smile, works as an Estée Lauder makeup artist. Cassie Whatley, a University of Kansas student with ass-length blond hair and braces, wears a white lacy blouse and curls her legs under her to ward off the chill of Swanson's blasting air conditioner.
"It's a great idea to do this. We need someone to start something big around here," Trimmell says.
Whatley and Trimmell will work for 26-year-old Swanson's Web site, RevealMagazine.com, which features pictures of regular people out at popular nightspots such as Club NV and Blonde. His goal is to someday turn Reveal into a print magazine.
Swanson recently secured a cross-promotion gig by throwing a party called "Flirt" every Friday night at NV, a downtown bar trying to shake free of its former gay-club reputation. Swanson gets half of the $5 cover for providing promotion and buzz on his site. Hence, the go-go dancers, who are to appear every Friday night.
"It works out great for them because I bring the people they [NV's ownership] want in there. And it works out great for me because, if the place holds 1,600 people you do the math," Swanson says.
"He's, like, a genius when it comes to this stuff," Whatley says.
"And it's cool to be part of it now, to kind of have some ownership in getting something like this off the ground," Trimmell adds.
Swanson hopes his audience will buy into the idea that wherever he is, the beautiful people are, too. The shots on RevealMagazine.com feature women with ironed-flat hair and strappy, cleavage-boosting tops, and guys with button-down striped shirts that barely contain gym-pumped biceps. They match the site's slogan: "The hottest clubs. The hottest people. Period."
Then there's the elusive royal flush of nightlife photography: a shot of two chicks kissing. Swanson described it in an e-mail to the Pitch: "I think a lot of girls over the years have experienced their first bi-sexual experiences with cameras in their face. I'm always taking pictures of girls groping each other and making out. Then there's always the response, I can't believe we did that,' giggle giggle."
Starting a business around nightlife photography was as simple for Swanson as walking into a club armed with a camera and building a Web site full of photos of sweaty young women. He sells membership to the site for $6.99 a month, though nonmembers can browse some areas for free. His goal is 5,000 members by the end of the year, but he won't reveal how many members he has so far.
Swanson belongs to an ever-expanding category of nightlife entrepreneurs who post to the Internet pictures they've taken at bars and events. There's Phocas.net, KCXposed.com ,WildKC.com and FACE Magazine, the only one to make it to print, though it's on hiatus. Lately, any Kansas Citian who frequents clubs has a fair chance of ending up pictured wittingly or not on a Web site.
Kansas City paparazzi aspire to the recognition of their cosmopolitan peers. In New York City, one of the best-known late-night shutterbugs calls himself Bronques and runs a site called Lastnightsparty.com. His pictures show glossy-lipped, glassy-eyed hipsters floating on a sea of blackness, faces illuminated by the camera's flash. The popularity of his site has even made something of a celebrity of Bronques himself, who flamboyantly dons a raven-colored bob wig and peppers his speech with French phrases.
Swanson is looking for Bronques' level of recognition. Swanson's family moved to Olathe from California when he was 10. His dad owns a computer company, and his mom works for Greenies, the local pet treat company. Swanson started his Reveal Web site in December 2003 after he got sick of working for Sprint. He also was in the midst of legal troubles. While he developed his business, Swanson was under house arrest for violating probation from an aggravated burglary charge. Even house arrest couldn't keep him away from clubs, though. He says of his criminal record, "I think it gives me some street cred because I've been through adversity, I've overcome adversity and I can relate to so many different people."
For weeks, Swanson hyped the biggest Flirt Friday yet at NV, a so-called "5-State MySpace Party" that he has tirelessly trumpeted on the Web. He once changed the coding on his MySpace page so that he appeared to have 2 million friends. So far, he claims that 450 people have RSVP'd 80 percent of whom are women. Swanson has outsourced the job of taking pictures to a volunteer and a guy from Omaha working for gas money to get to Kansas City. Swanson also hired a camera operator for $100 to shoot a Reveal video to be posted online and distributed at other events. He'll pay his go-go dancers $80, plus free drinks and seats on the party bus, which will pick up Swanson's entourage at his Overland Park home.
Swanson has earned a reputation among other photographers and promoters for aggressiveness. He has rubbed some people the wrong way, but his success at getting attractive women to his events is undeniable. Swanson sweats just talking about the MySpace party, despite the air conditioning in his spotless, white-carpeted living room. On the following Friday, the velvet rope and the cameras will be at the ready.
On a slow Tuesday night at Balanca's, Swanson's biggest rival, Todd Comer, spins down-tempo lounge music while sipping Jameson on the rocks. The downtown bar is dead. The bartender's girlfriend absently stirs a drink. Comer flips through his CD books. The walls are painted in a flame-licking motif, and expensive programmed lights flash enthusiastically overhead, projecting geometric shapes on the carpet. Comer brought his camera, but for now, it's still in its case.
Comer is the photographer behind Phocas.net. Back in 2001, Comer was a rave kid. He was "the one in the hoodie dancing by myself," he says. "Nobody bothered me. I didn't bother them." The scene had earned bad press for drug busts, so Comer decided to compose a photo essay to demystify rave culture. "I went to a couple nights, contacted the promoters and said, 'This is what I'm working on.' Next thing I know, I'm doing it every week, then every other day," Comer says.
Comer recycled his computer-hacker nickname to name his Web site Phocas.net. After his rave photo essay, Comer began taking photos in nightclubs. His site now lists a calendar of upcoming electronica events and raves, and his photographs follow trance, jungle, house and other forms of electronica in disco-ball-lit basement nightclubs.
There's one shot that Comer's always hunting. "I call it 'the moment,'" he says. "You know, the head thrown back, arm in the air, eyes closed, just totally in bliss with the music at that moment. I've got only a handful of those pictures, and all of them that's the one I'm looking for. I'm looking for people in action."
The online paparazzi tell stories about catching people in the act of something they shouldn't be doing. One of Comer's favorite shots is of a girl kissing a guy while sitting on his lap. A guy e-mailed him and asked for a high-resolution version. Comer asked why the guy needed it. "He's like, 'Well, that looks like my girlfriend, but that's not me kissing her.'"
Comer makes money only when a club books him exclusively for one night of taking pictures. Sometimes bar owners tip his photographers. Sometimes people want to buy a picture from him. But to make a living, he does freelance computer programming. "Anything to avoid the cube farm," he says.
Last October, Swanson and Comer threw an event together at Kabal. They called it "Paparazzi." DJ Ataxic spun records, and Phocas photographers took 363 pictures. Though the photos show the dance floor full of arms waving like sea anemones, Swanson was disappointed with the turnout. He felt he'd done more than Comer to publicize the event, and he demanded a larger cut of the proceeds. Swanson says Comer called him a "crybaby," and they began trading e-mails, arguing over which one had mastered Kansas City's online nightlife scene.
"I think Todd thinks I'm cocky and arrogant," Swanson says. "But I'm used to going to big cities and doing big things and hanging out with pretty people." He says Comer takes too many pictures of half-empty clubs and unattractive people. "You see pictures on Web sites of places that don't look fun, of unappealing people at a dive bar. To me, that doesn't make much sense."
Because his is one of the oldest established paparazzi sites in Kansas City, Comer says his enthusiasm for staying out late in smoky clubs is waning. "I sleep and I work and I sleep and I work and I sleep and I work," he says. "I see people try to do it, and I think that some people come into this thinking it's easy to go out and take photos of people you don't know. And it's not that easy. It's exhausting. You're walking around, you're talking to everyone, you're drinking and smoking cigarettes because you're becoming part of the event itself."
It's "Redlight District Friday" at the Sake Bar, a sushi bar turned nightclub in a strip mall near 135th Street and Quivira in Olathe. To make the bar resemble a red light district, red gels cover the lights, and the tables feature centerpieces of liquor bottles filled with red liquid. Sake Bar is a narrow space, and as the place fills up, it's impossible to navigate without rubbing up against a stranger.
A DJ spins TI's infectious song "What You Know," which draws a group of shrieking women to a patch of floor space. This night is hosted by KCXposed.com, a paparazzi site formed a year ago by three friends: Drew Edmonson, James Nelson and Tony Haug. The trio is posted up in the back, close to the restrooms, in a tiny lounge area with cushy chairs. They're supposed to have a street team made up of a few women, but they're MIA tonight.
KCXposed charges $200 to promote a special night at a bar on its Web site and collects the money only if the bar makes that much from cover charges. Nelson, who has never been much of a party animal, programs the Web site. Edmonson and Haug handle the socializing and photography. Nelson is especially proud of a text-messaging service that sends promotions and deals directly to cell phones.
Haug begins trolling for photos. He and Edmonson both sport the product-laden, spiky-haired look. Haug snaps a photo of two sultry women, who smile and thank him demurely. Then he hands them KCXposed's business cards, which feature a picture of two women, one grabbing her friend's right boob, and the slogan "New Pictures Posted Every Tuesday!" KCXposed offers something a bit different from other paparazzi sites: Visitors can vote to crown Girl of the Month.
Edmonson, a tall 28-year-old in a striped shirt, grins at the scene, providing a glimpse of his tongue ring. "We go through cameras like other people go through underwear," he says. He takes credit for the name KCXposed. "I was thinking, how can we make the site seem as explicit as we possibly can while still being PG? People see the X and get excited."
KCXposed has teamed up to host the night at Sake Bar with a promotions company called KEG, which brought its own photographer, an intern with a digital camera, whose photos will be posted on MySpace. His name is Billy Truelove, and he darts among groups of women to snap photos. When asked his age, he says he's 21, although his MySpace page says he's 19.
Edmonson and Haug had expected to be the life of this party, but they're rapidly outpaced by Truelove, who is like a thousand-watt bulb in this dimly lighted bar. He peppers his conversation with "Yeah! That rocks! It's awesome!" and pumps a fist in the air. His eyes perpetually squint, forced closed by a constant smile. When he turns the camera on himself, which is often, he draws a nearby woman under one arm and gives the camera his signature look: tongue extended, nearly licking the woman's cheek.
"I like it. I love it," Truelove says of photographing strangers. "They do it because most of 'em are drunk." If they don't want their picture taken? "They come around after a few drinks. Especially when they know it's for MySpace. MySpace has everyone by the throat."
Truelove darts over to a table of women who have just ordered a tray full of mini martini glasses filled with blue liquid. "Take your shots!" Truelove orders. Just as they do, a guy steps in front of Truelove. "Awwww," he protests. "That's some bullshit!"
He continues taking pictures, snapping one of Morgan Murphy, a Paris Hilton look-alike and manager of the Pac Sun store in Town Center. "There are so many fine girls here tonight! Come here!" Murphy plays with the top of her shirt like she's going to flash the camera, but she's only teasing.
By the next evening, Truelove's pictures will be plastered all over his MySpace page and the Web site for Sake Bar. KCXposed posts photos from the event that will vie for Girl of the Month. The hope is that people who see them will get the message: Hot chicks hang out here.
On a recent Friday evening, just past the velvet ropes of NV, the nightclub at Seventh Street and McGee, a line is forming for Swanson's "5-State MySpace" party. A house remix of a Mariah Carey song thuds in the background. In line to show her ID, a woman in a tank top murmurs to her friend, "Is Tom going to be here?" No, Tom, the ubiquitous MySpace administrator with cult status, is not here.
Inside, a DJ spins Top 40 hip-hop and older favorites by Tupac and Biggie. The main room is mostly occupied by the dance floor, with spinning lights and hoses spurting fog, and an adjoining room contains pool tables, a seating area and another bar. Upstairs is a deck with a view of the lights of Kansas City. It's a lot of club, which means there's a lot of space that can begin to feel empty if Swanson's MySpace party doesn't manage to draw the pretty people.
Swanson's wearing a striped black shirt and jeans. He looks sharp but a little stiff. He watches the door as though he's counting heads. The room is filling up, but no one has ventured onto NV's giant, sunken dance floor.
Swanson's entourage sprawls across chairs and couches in a cushy lounge area overlooking the dance floor. It's a group of four or five broad-shouldered guys in mirrored sunglasses whom Swanson says he knows from Johnson County Community College. Some wear VIP tags that read "Reveal Staff." A waitress comes over with a bucket of ice, bottles of Level and Grey Goose vodka, carafes of cranberry and orange juice, and four cans of Red Bull for Swanson. In exchange for the promotion, Swanson gets his drinks on the house, including the bottle service that usually costs $225 a night.
Swanson sticks to Red Bull because he can't drink liquor he's not supposed to be anywhere that serves liquor because he's on house arrest. For the first quarter of Swanson's life, he was a punk, with a rap sheet that included several charges of breaking into vehicles. In 2003, Overland Park police arrested Swanson for aggravated burglary. The way he explains it, he and some friends were partying April 6, 2003, at an apartment where they thought they were welcome, until the startled resident walked in. The way the Overland Park Police Department's incident report explains it, a screen was cut and someone forced an entry at the Cottonwood Park Apartments, with the "intent to commit a theft therein." Swanson pleaded guilty, paid $637 in restitution and was sentenced to one year and 11 months in jail. The judge suspended the jail sentence and placed Swanson on probation.
The real trouble for Swanson came when he was on probation, which required him to submit to regular urine tests. He tested positive for cocaine on May 25 and September 19 last year. He spent 44 days in jail and 137 days at a community corrections center before being sent home under house arrest, which he says ended June 16. "In jail, you have a lot of time to think," Swanson says sheepishly. "I became kind of religious in jail."
As women edge closer to the lounge where Swanson mixes drinks, his friend Jerry Williams looks on. "He knows the game," Williams says. "These chicks are used to having drinks bought for them. Look at them. They're like crack fiends for it. He knows that."
Across the bar, Swanson's go-go dancers pose for photos. There's Trimmell and Whatley, plus Crystal Childress, who is petite with stick-straight black hair and a jaw line like Jada Pinkett Smith's. They wear black hot pants, fishnets and push-up bras. Whatley kneels on a white couch, facing a wall, and turns to shoot a fiery look over her shoulder at the camera lens. "It's a swimsuit top," Trimmell says with a laugh, alluding to her red halter, which is clasped in the middle with a fake jewel. "Travis came over and picked it out of my closet, and I was like, 'OK, fuck you, Travis!'"
Taking a break from the crowded ground floor, Swanson climbs the stairs, where Patrick Lentz is singing covers of the Doors and Bob Marley to a packed rooftop deck. He looks around, nodding and smiling. It's hard to make a club this big feel crowded, but Swanson has succeeded.
What, exactly, makes this a five-state MySpace party?
"Sometimes, what I say it is and what it ends up being are two different things," Swanson admits. "But if you don't have hype, you don't have anything." After a pause, he adds, "I think some people did drive in from Nebraska, though."
Later, weeks after the party, Swanson will request that the Pitch not mention he was at NV. He worries that he might be sent to jail if his probation officer sees the photos he posed for with the go-go dancers draped across him on a couch. Suddenly, the guy whose pictures sometimes bust cheaters is in a compromising position himself.
But now, downstairs, things are getting lively. A drunk dude with his shirt buttoned wrong and the word "Never" tattooed over his left pectoral chugs straight from Swanson's Grey Goose bottle. One of the Untouchables gives one of Swanson's friends a professional-looking lap dance. Meanwhile, Childress lets one of Swanson's friends bend her over at the waist while she touches the ground, straight-legged, her ass grinding into his belt.
As the seconds toward last call tick like bass thumps, two tipsy blondes straddle each other, kissing on a couch. "I think you're a little bisexual!" one squeals. They look around. No men are watching. There is no camera in sight.