HOT NIGHTS IN MIAMI

Miami Beach, Fla.- The lines outside Mansion nightclub on South Beach stream in both directions, like open arms welcoming the dozens of young, sweaty, thirsty partyers eager to get past discerning doormen and burly bouncers.

Cars cruise by slowly, as occupants gawk at the sexy club-goers lining the streets.

It’s 1 a.m. and a sticky 83 degrees, a typical summer Saturday on South Beach, just east of Miami. But the heat and humidity of what is arguably the worst time of year to be here don’t seem to bother those seeking Dionysian pleasures amid the clubs, restaurants and hotels of this cutting-edge hot spot.

While the area’s evolution from a wintertime resort to a year-round destination began years ago, lately it seems as if every celebrity in the country – from Paris Hilton to Shaquille O’Neal – is hanging out on South Beach.

MTV’s decision to hold its Video Music Awards here today – at the height of hurricane season – is just another sign that the city has come of age. Until now, the awards have been held only in New York or Los Angeles. Maybe Miami is emerging as a third glam capital – slower paced than New York, less traffic than Los Angeles.

“The night life, the parties, the beach. It’s great,” says Chris Johones, 34, who was vacationing with three friends from Trondheim, Norway, and waiting to get into Mansion. “Long lines, though.”

Once thought of as a place to visit Grandma in January, Miami’s reputation as a party city has grown since the days of “Miami Vice,” through the birth of the Art Deco fashion district in Miami Beach in the early 1990’s (think Madonna and Versace) and the more recent explosion of the South Beach club scene.

Tourists now flock here all year for high-end shopping, electric nightlife, fine dining, and the Atlantic’s warm waters.

While other areas of multicultural Miami, such as Coconut Grove, Coral Gables and downtown, have their tourist attractions, 70 percent of Miami’s visitors come to South Beach, said William Talbert, of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Miami also is home to offices of several Latin music labels and other entertainment-based industries, including film and television production.

“I love the beach,” says hip-hop magnate Missy Elliott. “I have cars that aren’t good for riding in New York. These streets are the right streets for me to get my engine roaring. I love being able to drop the top.”

R&B singer Usher, meanwhile, digs the glitzy nightclubs where he can have a reserved table whenever he wants and the Cuban food.

“It’s really my home away from home. It’s so sexy out here,” Usher said. “It’s the beautiful weather, beautiful people.”

In June, visitors such as the Smiths’ Andy Rourke and Mike Joyce were seen hanging out at the Delano Hotel, while tennis star Venus Williams had a party to unveil her Web site. In July, members of ‘N Sync, including heartthrob Justin Timberlake, held their own charity event, with Timberlake’s girlfriend Cameron Diaz in tow.

Athletes Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, and Josh Beckett were spotted recently at Crobar; Eddie Jones and Ricky Williams at Opium; Warren Sapp at B.E.D. Rapper-businessman Luther Campbell is a South Beach regular as well.

NBA big man Shaquille O’Neal, the Miami Heat center who’s also a rapper and actor, brags about being able to walk naked on the beach in his new city.

Statistics gathered by Smith Travel Research show that Miami has experienced a lucrative increase in summer travel.

Talbert says the MTV awards are as popular as Miami wintertime events.

“When this first was announced, I got more calls for tickets for the Video Music Awards than I get when we book the Super Bowl.”

Some people just like the mix of sun and fun.

“You come down here and forget all your problems,” said Mike Ebbecke, 35, a highway worker and volunteer firefighter in Stony Brook, N.Y, who was having a beer at the Clevelander hotel. “The night life is the same as New York. They try not to sleep, either.”

At night, the area teems with people.

“Even the summertime has been steady. The action is constant,” said Roman Jones, owner of Opium, Prive, and Mansion nightclubs.

Jones said there’s a palpable European feel to South Beach.

“People here have that South American or European attitude,” says Jones. “They eat later, they go to sleep later, they’re out at cafes like in Europe.”

Inside Mansion, bartender Audra Seminaro wears a tight white shirt and tiny skirt as she shovels drinks to customers inside the packed club. Lights flash, bodies grind on the dance floor, and partygoers lounge on plush couches.

“It’s insane, crazy in here, especially on Saturday nights,” said Seminaro, 26. This weekend celebs such as Hilton, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Dennis Rodman, Jessica Simpson, and OutKast are reported to be holding their own parties at clubs around South Beach.

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