On a Saturday night in mid-February, a slightly oily young man in a white tank-shirt stood outside of Splash bar in Chelsea, smoking a cigarette, “I can’t wait for this bitch to show up,” he said to a friend, adding, “She better get here soon because I’m wasted.” He was one of the 100 plus guys, and a small handful of girls at this gay nightclub, who came to dance, drink, and see the night’s main attraction, Angela Raiola.
Better known as “Big Ang,” Angela Raiola is a star of VH1′s “Mob Wives.” The nickname fits perfectly because everything about Raiola is big: her height, her hair, her weight, and her voice. Although not as successful as “Jersey Shore,” “Mob Wives” recently started its second season with higher ratings then ever before. Casual observers chalk that up to the cast addition of “Big Ang,” who fills the role of “the funny best friend” with spectacular ease.
Her humor isn’t just for the cameras. When the impossibly tanned Raiola and her fellow “Mob Wife” Renee Graziano, stroll into Splash at midnight, Raiola immediately jumps on top of a platform and starts dancing with one of black-brief-clad-gogo boys. The crowd goes wild and cheers as the duo tosses back some shots presented by one of the club’s faceless and next-to-naked employees. Renee grabs the mic and repeats over and over, “I love gay men.” The crowd turns into an outright mob scene when she baits the crowd, “If you love Big Ang, let me hear you scream.” The noise is deafening.
After the suicide of Real Housewives reality star Russell Armstrong, New York Times columnist Virginia Hefferman questioned, “Why play the reality game?” Angela Raiola is the physical embodiment of Hefferman’s witty answer, “Same reason people play game shows or the lottery: You might win.”
Raiola knows that she’s lucky to get this chance to win. Asked if she’s surprised by her fame, she shoots back quickly, “I’m 52 years old. You stay home you cook, you run your bar. It’s over.” She’s extremely observant of the constantly rotating amount of people around her. She compliments a lot of people on their clothes (she tells the bar’s owner “Did you hear me, I like your pants, fucker!”)
After her table dancing, Raiola takes a break in Splash’s VIP lounge, and looks perfectly happy in her black faux-biker jacket. In person, her 36J boobs are even bigger than they appear to be on TV. Her lips, which she admitted to Radar Online are pumped with injections, look like penny candy wax lips. Her unmistakable raspy voice sounds more like a frog’s croak. Strangely, she’s kind of beautiful though. Her eyes are really soft even though there is black makeup permanently chalked around them. Glued to her right hand is a long brown Marlboro cigarillo. She says that she’s been smoking for 37 years and started when she stole cigarettes from her now deceased dad, another longtime smoker.
Raiola grew up in Brooklyn and never went to high school. She explains that she started working at bars when she was young and that school just wasn’t for her. “I still fucking hate school,” she says and adds intimately, “When I had to take my kids to school, it was always a fucking burden. But I did it every day for their whole lives. They both graduated high school and have masters’ degrees.”
Raiola is related to Salvatore “Sally Dogs” Lombardi, a leader of the Genovese crime family. They were one of the “five families” that controlled organized crime in New York. Asher Sarnoff from the Museum of the American Gangster didn’t know “Sally Dogs” off the top of his head but said that the Genovese crime family was the richest, the oldest, and the most connected family with the most streams of revenue.
Her on-screen foul mouth, love of “wise guys” and mob lifestyle comes under fire from Italian American organizations who believe that “Mob Wives” portrays a negative stereotype of Italian Americans to the public. Raiola doesn’t want to hear it though, “That’s bullshit, that’s 1900′s shit, it’s 2012 get over it.”
Before she was cast on Mob Wives, Raiola says that things weren’t going so well for her. Her Staten Island bar, The Drunken Monkey, wasn’t doing very much business. Now they’ve had to remodel the entire place to keep up with the ever-expanding crowd. The Smoking Gun reports that in 2001, Raiola was indicted on six cocaine charges. She was given three years probation after pleading guilty to the charges. A sickness from around the clock smoking kept getting worse and worse. When she debuted on the show, her laugh had changed into a horse hissing noise that was unrecognizable to her. The gross sick-laugh made her a star.
The gay community has quickly embraced “Big Ang” as a camp icon. Her look is over exaggerated and reminiscent of drag culture. She appeared on the cover of Next Magazine, a gay nightlife focused weekly publication, dressed as Marilyn Monroe. She claims that she’s no stranger to the gay community, “I’ve always had a gay following” she says. At every bar she’s ever managed, she’s made a “gay night” for the past 20 years. She’s shifted it to a monthly promotion recently because of low attendance, but the gesture is very important to her.
As she sits in the small private room downstairs at Splash, “Big Ang” takes a moment to calm down and get away from the madness upstairs. In her left hand, she clutches a glass of peach Ciroc vodka mixed with water, which happens to be one of her “four drinks” – a roster of four drinks that she chooses to order at bars.
She’s in the early stages of her fame but the excitement around “Ang,” as everyone calls her, is palpable. The VIP section in Splash is filled with a few young gay men attached to the club, some people who “work with the girls,” but most noticeably are her friends. Angelina Malerba, who Raiola calls her best friend, has known “Big Ang” for 20 years. They met at Malerba’s popular Staten Island eatery, Angelinas Restaurant. She says that Raiola’s fame is long overdue. “She should have been a star many, many years ago,” she says. “I always told her, ‘You’re gonna be a movie star, you’re own character,’ it was only a matter of time.”
Now that she has her fame, “Big Ang” isn’t letting it go of it so fast. She started talking about the plans for her spinoff show excitedly until her publicist cut her off. A “Big Ang” perfume line and handbag line are also being considered. Her lips move apart to reveal a giant smile and she says proudly, “We’re doing it all – everything. You got that? Everything all of it.” With a tap of her cigarillo onto the floor, she says that word one last time, “Big.”