Lulu’s Club Mardi Gras is licensed to serve up to 199 patrons at a time, according to city records. But on Sept. 16, promoters say, the New Orleans–themed nightspot in Foggy Bottom was swamped with nearly 2,000 partyers.

You might think the tremendous turnout was due to the cheap drink specials: “$2 22oz BEERS & SHOOTERS ALL NIGHT!” Or to the presence of a local radio personality, WIHT 99.5 FM DJ Chris Styles.

Organizers, however, credit the crowd to a more high-profile sort of celebrity. But not too high-profile: Around midnight, club personnel ushered in a casually dressed college-aged couple whom many in the audience knew on a first-name basis: Danny and Melinda, the troubled strangers-turned-lovers from the 16th and most recent incarnation of MTV’s The Real World.

Promoter Nick Cambata likened the response to “a mob scene.”

Competing with frat parties and other nighttime extracurriculars can be challenging when trying to lure the coveted 18-to-25 crowd to venues such as Lulu’s on a Friday night, Cambata says. But do you see anyone from MTV dropping in on Scholars’ Village or the Delta Pi chapter of Sigma Nu? Hell no.

Advantage: Cambata. “Bringing Danny and Melinda—y’know, there are Real World fans, more like fanatics, that watch the show,” he says. “But then there are a lot of people who’ve never really seen the show, or even care about it, but will come out because there’s a buzz and because it’s MTV and it’s Real World. And it’s something that they know someone that knows someone that thinks this is an amazing party.”

As a marketing gimmick, the personal appearance of a Danny Jamieson or a Melinda Stolp—or any pseudoceleb, really—is pretty popular among Washington-area club promoters. Cambata, for one, has resorted to the Real World option on several prior occasions. Earlier this year, he also called up Latino actor Nicholas Gonzalez from the Fox teen drama The OC.

Whenever Cambata wants that extra name-dropping edge, he knows just the guy to help hook it all up: Annapolis-based booking agent Mike Esterman.

A former dancer on such syndicated shows as Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and Dance Party USA who hosted his own Mike Esterman’s Dance Explosion on WDCA-TV in the ’80s, the Maryland native is a rather specialized booker. “Meet-and-greets and personal appearances, as they’re called, that’s my niche,” Esterman says.

It’s more than a niche, actually; it’s a living. Though Esterman’s one-man operation has no exclusive ties to any specific celeb, it does have an impressive knack for finding clients work across the country.

“Esterman has done the job that the big boys can’t do—get celebrity clients paid bookings and promotion for appearances that the so-called mega-agencies don’t want to touch,” says Neil Cirucci, publicist for highly downloadable cyberbabe Cindy Margolis. This past March, Esterman set up a pretty lucrative gig for Margolis, who commands around $15,000 to $20,000 per appearance. The deal involved her strutting down a Hollywood red carpet with the Web address for Internet gambling outfit Golden Palace temp-tattooed across her famous chest.

It’s not all sexy marketing strategies and Tinseltown glory for Esterman, however. More often, the agent and his clients wind up in less glamorous locales—say, Lulu’s. Or Sayreville, N.J.’s, Club Abyss, described on its Web site as “[o]ne of New Jersey’s premiere dance nightclubs.” In September alone, the East Coast agent’s various bookings took him as far west as Los Angeles, as far south as Miami, and as far north as Lac du Flambeau, Wis. “[I’m] on the road three or four days a week,” he says. “I work nonstop ’til the phone stops, and that could be 2 in the mornin.’”

Each week, Esterman sends out an e-mail list of what he calls his “talent specials.” Need a B-, C-, or D-list celebrity to help lure more folks to your lameass happy hour? Esterman offers an array of available actors, models, and other semifamous personages, all of whom are available in a wide range of prices.

Take alt-rock-guitarist-turned-prime-time-TV-personality Dave Navarro. The goateed host of CBS’ Rock Star: INXS “is available to host clubs,” according to Esterman’s Sept. 26 missive, for just $20,000—plus expenses for two.

Too expensive? OK. How ’bout the famously self-fellatable porn icon Ron Jeremy? He’s “only $2,500.” “Great for lingerie parties, great for pajama parties, great for pimp ’n’ ho parties,” Esterman says of the aging adult-film actor.

Of course, lingerie would probably fit much better on one of Esterman’s other clients—maybe recent American Curves cover girl Christina Lindley, “available now for only $1,300,” or FHM muse and Real Gilligan’s Island star Mandy Weaver, who’s “only $500.” “Soo many magazine models from Playboy, Maxim, Stuff, are available at reasonable rates starting at $500,” the agent’s list trumpets.

“There’s no actual rate card for anyone,” notes Esterman, adding that the true booking costs can depend on the timing of a given event and other variables. “It’s almost like buying airline tickets,” he says. “It changes every day.” To get a more accurate estimate, serious talent buyers should also tack on an extra 20 percent, which is Esterman’s own fee.

Many local venues have sampled from Esterman’s celebs du jour. Last October, Northeast nightspot Fur hosted D.C.-born dancer-turned-R&B-singer- turned-actress Mya, presently listed at “$7,000 plus expenses.” This past spring, nearby megaclub Dream featured American Idol finalist Kimberly Caldwell, listed at $1,000. And like Lulu’s, Southwest waterfront spot H2O has been known to bring in a Real World cast member or two—or five. In addition to Jamieson and Stolp, this year the club also brought in 15th-season vets MJ Garrett, Sarah Burke, and Shavonda Billingslea.

Despite having a roster that includes such illustrious names as pro hoopster Allen Iverson and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 co-star Vivica A. Fox, Esterman probably does best with the Real Worlders. “I book the shit out of ’em,” he says.

Every Wednesday for the past several weeks, the Crush Club in Charlotte, N.C., has hosted a different cast member, culminating with brooding Bostonian Jamieson on Sept. 28. The Real World crew nabbed a couple of recent dates at Crowbar in State College, Pa., too. And in addition to their local Lulu’s gig, Jamieson and Stolp also dropped in on a U.S. Army rock-climbing event at Potomac Mills Mall on Sept. 17.

Their high demand, Esterman explains, is due to a couple of factors: “(a) They’re on every day of the week on MTV….(b) The kids…meaning the demographic of a college night, 18 to 25, are huge Real World followers.”

And the clubs look to capitalize. “Everybody has a college night,” Esterman says.

Cast members are more than happy to help —at least while there’s still some money in it.

Even in the Real World, fame is a fleeting thing. “Danny and Melinda are out right now making money while their five minutes of fame is going on,” says Esterman. “It’s a job for them. Five days a week, they’re on the road making money. Until the next season of Real World comes out. Then their value goes down. So they only have four or five months to bank on it.”

When the new Real World season launched this summer, cast members could command as much as $1,500 each, plus expenses, for every gig. Today, that price is about $1,000. And falling fast.

Since the end of the Philadelphia-based 15th season, Garrett has seen his value drop considerably. Despite parlaying his Real World– honed mojo into another MTV-produced reality gig, Garrett is listed, according to Esterman’s latest e-mail, “NOW at only $800!”

With new episodes still airing, members of the current cast are still well worth the expense, Esterman claims. “For the cost-effectiveness of it, there’s nobody else on TV every day that’s only $1,000,” he says. “That’s a bargain. That’s a steal. That’s why these clubs jump at these guys.”

And so do the clubs’ patrons. Lulu’s promoter Cambata suggests that having a Real World appearance is “better financially than a concert.”

Some oglers even paid an extra $10 more than the $15 cover charge for the privilege of being in the same room as the couple when they made their first stop in the club’s upstairs VIP area. “We guaranteed them. If you were up there, you got a personal meet-and-greet with the stars,” says Cambata.

As for those in the general-admission section—hey, at least they have their memories of a white jock and a leggy blonde passing out T-shirts, stickers, and other promotional swag. “The chances of them meeting the Real World people and actually hanging out with them are pretty slim,” Cambata admits. “But again, it’s a chance for them to come out and experience the buzz and the excitement and just say that they were there.”—Chris Shott

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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Thom Glick.