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Seeing red: Rug rats invade Las Vegas

The thing about red carpets is that they’re sticky. Not from spilled cocktails or discarded chewing gum (although who knows?). Stickiness—the strange ability to attract bypassers and onlookers—is the quality that has made red-carpet events such a predominant phenomenon in Las Vegas.

Think of a dust bunny. Or a snowball rolling down a hill. Or Katamari Damacy, that video game in which a magical ball rolls around collecting everything in its path—ants, people, mountains—until it has grown great enough to become a star.

A scrum of flashing cameras has its own strange magnetism. Their focus doesn’t really have to be on anyone famous. More often than not, it’s someone you don’t recognize and haven’t heard of—a DJ and his entourage, the cast of a new showroom revue, a gaggle of reasonably attractive women. If they weren’t standing still, surrounded by lights, we might move on without ever knowing who they are or why anyone would want a picture of them.

But when the cameras come out, we stop and gawk, drawn by the lights. We take pictures of the photographers taking pictures. Other passersby come over to see what we’re watching. And so on and so on, until you’ve got a scene from The Day of the Locust—in a Vegas casino.

The earliest-known literary reference to walking a red carpet appears in Agamemnon, written by Aeschylus in 458 BC. When the title character returns from Troy, he is greeted by his vengeful wife Clytemnestra, who offers him “a crimson path” to walk upon. From there, the red (or purple) carpet was an honor, traditionally used to mark the route taken by heads of state. And on these ceremonial and formal occasions, the carpet actually led somewhere.

Hollywood and Broadway adapted the symbol and ceremony to hype the arrival of stars at glamorous premieres, guaranteeing an excited mob—and good play in the gossip columns and movie magazines of the day.

The Las Vegas red carpet is unique in that it can happen just about anywhere, anytime, for just about anything—a product, a poker player, a pop princess. These carefully staged and controlled walk-pose-and-shoot micro-events create instant excitement on a casino floor—the equivalent of a fender-bender on Las Vegas Boulevard, with passersby craning their necks in hopes of glimpsing a recognizable celebrity.

The carpet doesn’t go anywhere anymore. It just materializes. Publicists unroll a red runner (or black, for Criss Angel; or blue for Viva Elvis) in front of a wall—usually a backdrop of corporate sponsor logos—and the insta-stars of the moment stand on it and pose. If there’s a velvet rope involved, even better.

On any given week in Vegas, there may be from five to 10 red carpets taking place. The phenomenon has been fueled both by the rise of nightclubs as an entertainment option in the city, and by the entertainment media’s ravenous interest in all things Las Vegas.

For a promoter or performer, a red carpet is a convenient way to generate photos and video for the tabloid magazines and TV shows that are so hungry for celebrity images. (It’s an odd offshoot of that other Vegas phenomenon, in which Strip performers pose with audience members after the show—for $20 and upwards per photo.) For the casinos, it’s a cheap way to generate some excitement. For visitors, it’s something to talk about back home.

Ironically, the hurly-burly around a red carpet—at a club or restaurant or candy store—now often overshadows the very event it was staged to promote. Award-show red carpets, and the subsequent “who wore it best” coverage, now receive more TV time and magazine column inches than the movies and music being celebrated.

Get used to it, Las Vegas. It’s too late to turn back this crimson tide.

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