A combination of earlier magazine work and new blog posts

Far And Away: The Branding Of South Beach

A few years ago we were in Marrakech. Pre- 9/11, we never thought twice about traveling as Westerners on the back roads of a Muslim country. So in an adventuresome mood, we rented a Jeep and drove south over the Atlas mountains, vast expanses of arid desert set off with sheer cliffs. Days later we ended up in the tiny village of Zagora, where the paved road ends and the Sahara desert stretches past the horizon. At the edge of the town a weathered sign in French and Arabic announces, “52 days by camel to Timbuktu.”

Although we were surrounded by sand, South Beach was one of the last things on our mind that day. What was a priority was getting something to drink. We soon found a run-down bar that looked ideal. The young Moroccan counterman barely glanced up from his newspaper.

“Bottled water, please,” Trisha asked.

“Don’t have any,” he said. “Juice?”

“Ran out.”

“Lemonade?” We had had luck in earlier villages with a sickly sweet local concoction. He shook his head no.

“What do you have?”

“Mint tea.” Hot tea was not our idea of refreshment.

Trisha sighed, and in complete desperation said, ‘What I could actually use right now is a martini.” Our counterman came alive. “Where are you from?” he asked.

"New York. And Miami.”

“I can make you a South Beach martini. Would you like that?”

You could have knocked us over with a feather. It turns out that our “bartender” had spent four months with an uncle in Pompano Beach a year earlier, and he was South Beach-obsessed. We’re not quite sure what he used instead of vermouth, but we had one of the most interesting martinis ever that day. And we listened for an hour as our previously uncommunicative host told us his plans to open a bar in Marrakech called South Beach.

It was the first time we realized that the place we live in had gone from “neighborhood” to “brand.’ And in recent years we’ve been inundated with South Beach-promoting products, from getting a wonder body in two weeks to some decadent nightclub thousands of miles from America. What is it that has made Madison Avenue advertisers think our little haven is marketable to consumers who have never even been to Florida? Was our Moroccan bartender onto something clever long before big business caught on to the same idea?

Companies worldwide are using South Beach as shorthand for glamour, sexiness and hip. Well, they must not have been around when even those who lived here could not figure out what the place should be called. A few old-timers who nostalgically longed for the days of the Paddock Club on Seventh and Washington, where gangster Al Capone had his get-out-of-jail party, and where the entertainment included everyone from Al Jolson, Milton Berle and Sophie Tucker to Desi Arnaz, actually wanted to call the area “Old Miami Beach.”

“In the late ’80s, Andrew Delaplaine’s restaurant-lounge, Scratch, which the corner of Fifth Street and Jefferson, used ‘Old Miami Beach’ in its address, as did other bohemian Beach haunts,” recalls Tara Solomon, who has been a major part of the nightlife scene here since it got hot 15 years ago, and now runs her own successful public- relations firm, Tara Ink. “‘South Miami Beach’ was used more by the media, and somehow ‘South Beach’ was coined to abbreviate it. The abhorrence that is ‘SoBe’ was and still is favored more by out-of-towners; locals shudder at the sound of it.”

So where is South Beach showing up today? Probably it’s best known for the low-carb South Beach Diet, a veritable industry of its own spanning books, audiocassettes and exercise tapes. Naming their diet after the hippest ‘hood in South Florida seemed natural to its inventor, Dr. Arthur Agatston, and his wife, Sari. “Arthur and I were sitting at a restaurant on South Beach when the idea of writing a book came up, only half-seriously,” recalls Sari. “And at this time, before email, everyone was faxing the diet around, so it seemed like all the Beach was on it. And I said we couldn’t call it the scientific name he had given it for his abstracts. We live on the Beach and work on the Beach,’ I told him, ‘and everyone in Miami Beach is on the diet. So it’s the South Beach Diet.’ ” Even Fortune 500 companies like Kraft have jumped on the Agatstons’ bandwagon, announcing their 2005 launch of “South Beach Diet” foods to keep everyone slim and trim.

“My girlfriend went to VolleyPalooza a couple of years ago,” says Janice DeCosmio, who runs the South Beach Fitness Club in the tiny English hamlet of Ipswich. “When she came back with the pictures of those bodies, we all said, Wow.’ So now I have them posted here in our little club and it gives all the girls more incentive to work out a bit harder and stay away from the clotted cream and scones.”

But the South Beach Diet is only the tip of commercializing our name. There are South Beach Tumblers from an Atlanta company marketing promotional items. SoBe herbally enhanced beverages may have their headquarters in Connecticut, of all places, but the firm’s official name is the South Beach Beverage Company. Superdiscounter Target offers South Beach old-fashioned cocktail glasses, complete with etched palms. One of Barbados’ premier vacation spots is the South Beach Resort. And if the Caribbean is too far away, you can always relax at the South Beach Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (a golf course subs for sand). Virginia Beach has its South Beach Grill. There’s a new South Beach district in central Oregon and a hotel named after us 7,000 miles away in Troon, Scotland. Minneapolis has a South Beach Bar and Grill that thinks Miami Vice is still the fashion rage, based on its pastel colors and walls of mirrors. Even Mormon Salt Lake City has a South Beach Martini Bar, and swinging Ibiza has a coffee bar sporting our name. San Francisco, not content to have its famous North Beach neighborhood, has a new, upcoming South Beach ‘hood, and the city’s tony boat association is the South Beach Yacht Club.

But the best representative of South Beach not actually in Florida might be the nightclub of the same name in Houston. South Beach is the city’s premier gay dance club. On the first Saturday of every month, the door prize is a free trip to the real South Beach. Charles Armstrong, who had managed clubs earlier in Florida and Texas, started the 10,000-square-foot space four years ago.

“I never considered any other name,” says Armstrong. He had visited Miami Beach in the early 1980s and found it derelict. When he returned in 1991 he had an epiphany. “I came to see what all the buzz was about, and I fell in love with it-such a melting pot, gays, straights, Central and South Americans, everyone from the island nations, New Yorkers, Europeans, and even a few Floridians thrown into the stew. South Beach was a celebration of diversity. It was alive, exciting, vibrating. In Texas, there are layers of racism, and to me South Beach was far beyond that. It was a cultural awakening of an international city that I wanted Houston to follow. So it was the only name for us.”

Esther Percal, uber-Realtor to celebrities and the ultrarich, is a Miami native who has seen the changes take place. Once Blockbuster Video and Starbucks opened on Alton, “I knew that South Beach had arrived for the big businesses,” she says. But it took until the late 1990s for the term “South Beach” itself to become saleable. “Sex appeal is selling now,” says Per- cal. “South Beach has come to mean sex and fun, and that is marketable in any language. We have the same things here we’ve always had: sun, water, the beach. It’s just that now it has caught on as an international location, like Aspen, Vail or Marbella.” Percal, who in the mid 1990s thought Madonna had overpaid when she spent $3.9 million on a home here, now is herself selling homes “at $15 to $25 to $35 million. The money coming here is enormous, and it’s feeding the feeling about South Beach as a special place.”

PR guru Solomon is not surprised. “South Beach, the brand, has caught on so well because it represents everything the world is obsessed with today: glamour, celebrity, style and decadence. We have the whole package.” Other towns may have stolen our name, but there still ain’t any South Beach like ours.