MTV Winners Let Their Camels Do The Walking
By Robert Hilburn
The Los Angeles Times — September 5, 1987
CAIRO — Party!
George Espiriti, a 24-year-old car salesman from Saugus, couldn’t believe the phone call from MTV saying he had won a trip to Egypt with his favorite band, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. A prankster himself, he was convinced the call was a joke.
“I filled out four postcards for the contest, but I lost one on the way to the post office,” Espiriti said, standing by the bar on the upper deck of the Nile Pharaoh as the ship began its two-hour lunch cruise on the Nile.
“I figured someone had found the card and was messing with me. I made the guy on the phone give me his number so I could call him back . . . and it turned out to be real. So, here I am.”
Before the cruise on Wednesday, Espiriti and a buddy from Calexico, Morgan Johnson, had joined Petty and the other four members of the rock band in a visit to the Great Pyramid. From their hotel–a lavish 200-year-old former royal hunting lodge–they had ridden camels a quarter of a mile to the man-made wonder in spirit-wilting 98-degree heat. The hotel is a dazzling showcase of Arabic design, highlighted by a lobby featuring gold lattice work, 15-foot marble arches and a mirrored ceiling.
The opulence was especially striking to first-time visitors here because of the primitiveness and intense poverty visible surrounding the hotel and throughout this massive, weather-beaten ancient city.
The contrast among various social strata of Cairo was also underscored during the river cruise. As the boat headed from the heart of the city, you could see a stream of cars on the left zipping through town, giving the city the appearance of a massive anthill.
On a tiny island on the other side of the boat, however, the rural scene looked straight out of the 18th Century: women washing clothes in the Nile as men led oxen into the fields.
Even in parts of Cairo, donkey carts often compete for space with cars, and street merchants, usually dressed in traditional Egyptian robes, flock around tourists offering trinkets–jewelry to sun caps–for whatever pennies they could get.
Housing is so scarce in this city of nearly 13 million that hundreds of thousands of people now live in small caretaker rooms in a cemetery, an area commonly known as “The City of the Dead.”
But Espiriti and Johnson weren’t concerned with the hardships of Cairo life. Armed with $5,000 in MTV spending money, they were here to party. After three days in Cairo, they were to fly to Tel Aviv with two other contest winners from Holland to attend Petty’s concert tonight with Bob Dylan.
Leaning against the ship’s bar, Espiriti played the part of a winner well. “Hey, bud,” he said to everyone who passed his way. “The drinks are on me.” Later, after lunch, he looked out across the Nile and said, “Whoever believed I’d be in Egypt with Tom Petty? It’s like a fantasy come true.”
Overhearing Espiriti, an MTV representative couldn’t help but smile. Fantasy is what these MTV contests are all about.
The “Tom Petty Caravan” contest is one of eight to 10 major promotions that will be staged this year by MTV, the 24-hour rock music video channel.
The channel has spent as much as $1 million on a contest (a viewer was awarded that amount last year), but access to rock stars is almost as important a contest lure as money.
The most mail generated by a contest–more than 750,000 pieces each–were for chances to party with Van Halen and Bon Jovi.
“The point is to deliver to our audience something they absolutely can’t buy,” said Carole Robinson, director of program publicity for MTV. “Maybe you could find a way to get backstage at a Tom Petty concert in your hometown, but you couldn’t get backstage in Tel Aviv, and you certainly couldn’t go to Egypt with him and his band. The thing we deliver is fantasies.”
Other prizes have included a week as Bruce Springsteen’s roadie, a house that John Cougar Mellencamp helped paint pink in Indiana in the spirit of his “Pink House” song and hosting the premiere of Prince’s film “Under the Cherry Moon” in the winner’s hometown theater.
In the works are a project with the normally reclusive Michael Jackson and a “Motley Cruise to Nowhere.” The winner and friends in that promotion will join metal band Motley Crue for a boat ride into the Bermuda Triangle.
Espiriti is a huge Petty fan, but he could easily pass as a beefier older brother to the party-minded Beastie Boys. He and Johnson started living it up before they even got here. By the time they reached London they were complaining of hangovers.
“This is my chance to party. I don’t do any drinking at home because I have to go to work, but this is different,” Espiriti said Thursday morning on a bus ride to see the remains of the ancient capital of Memphis south of Cairo.
“Seeing all this stuff will make up for all the times I ditched history in high school,” Johnson told Espiriti.
The buddies estimated they spent $700 their first two days here, about half of it on some gold jewelry. And the rest?
“Well, where did the rest of it go?” Espiriti asked Johnson. “I guess most of it went to room service. We kept having them bring up drinks and we tipped them pretty well.
“We went down to the (outdoor nightclub on the hotel grounds) to see the belly dancer last night, but they weren’t selling booze so we went back to the room, ordered some drinks from room service and watched the dancer through the windows with binoculars.”
Espiriti had more than music on his mind as he and the MTV group prepared to leave for Tel Aviv.
It seems his girlfriend was more than a little upset that he invited his old buddy Johnson instead of her on the Egypt trip.
“Well, she’s got to understand,” Espiriti said gamely. “He’s my partner. I grew up with him. . . .”
But Espiriti is going to help her understand. He was going to make sure he had enough money left to buy her a diamond in Tel Aviv. The MTV fantasy still has three days to go, but reality was already setting in.