Natalie Guercio lives in a funeral home. Carto, on South Broad Street. Her family has owned it forever, and until recently she was full-time there, doing hair for corpses. The day after Christmas, Natalie buzzes me in and tells me to ride the elevator to the third floor, where she rooms with her young son, Nunzio, and her 86-year-old grandfather, Nunzio, the patriarch of the funeral parlor. Natalie, wearing a black tank top, is doing her makeup. Her boyfriend London is on a Starbucks run. Grandpa Nunzio paces silently around the kitchen table. Even for a funeral parlor, the place feels sleepy. Apparently this will change the next time an episode of Mob Wives airs on VH1. “You get some haters that will call in,” she says. “‘Where’s Natalie? I hate that fucking bitch.’”
For the benefit of the uninitiated: Mob Wives is a reality television show about a group of foul-mouthed Staten Island women who are, in one way or another, connected to the Mafia. (If this preposterous concept leads you to reason that the program is a sham, a) I will get to this question in a few paragraphs; and b) omertà isn’t what it used to be.) Last season the producers for some reason stirred in two Philadelphia Mob Wives. One of them is now on federal probation, and the other one is Natalie Guercio.
This is hard to quantify, but thanks to the show, Natalie is now likely one of the most famous personages living in Philadelphia. I won’t stoop to listing her precise number of Instagram followers, etc., but I will say that a recent issue of US Weekly featured her as Pennsylvania’s lone representative on a Reality TV Star map. When I tell this to Natalie, she gets excited and makes a note to go buy a copy. Then she points out that Philly rapper Meek Mill is probably more famous than she is.
Betraying more fame-rookie jitters, the 31-year-old is also nervous that the current season of Mob Wives, her second, has cast her in an unflattering light. “My dad comes over: ‘What the hell’s going on this season? Everyone’s attacking you! Why are you calling people rats?’” she says. There’s no real plot on the show, so drama is generated when producers emphasize somebody’s flagrant violation of loyalty/honor as it relates to friendship/family. Or as Natalie puts it, “It’s basically a bunch of women’s lives intertwining, and this shit just brews.”
Lately, the ladies have been ganging up on Natalie, who, as a younger, prettier version of themselves — and I may have talked myself into this hypothesis to justify what is turning into a not-unsympathetic portrait — helplessly triggers their enmity. It’s not worth spelling out the terms of the current feud(s), as feuds are the lifeblood of Mob Wives and by the time this article is published, the feud(s) in question may have been rendered obsolete by fresher and more scandalous feuds. It should be noted, however, that in her heart Natalie would like everybody to “get along,” but when she gets “attacked” or “taken advantage of,” that’s “when the beast comes out.”
A word on feuds, before London gets back from his Starbucks run and I learn about Natalie’s forthcoming line of handbags. Lady feuds aren’t particular to Mob Wives. But the feuds in Mob Wives are also dog whistles, little reminders that each of these women is connected to at least one man, dead or alive, who has led a life consumed by violence and criminality. Big Ang, a veteran of three breast augmentations who sounds like a throat cancer patient on an anti-smoking PSA, is the niece of former Genovese crime family captain Salvatore “Sally Dogs” Lombardi. Renee Graziano, sister to show-runner Jennifer and an incorrigible shit-stirrer, has a mobster ex-husband who wound up ratting out her mobster father (while Season 2 was filming). Alicia DiMichele, a Philly boutique owner, was sentenced to four years of probation for an embezzlement charge. (She hasn’t returned for Season 5.) “When she got sentenced, I called her up,” Natalie recalls. “I was like ‘Ewwwww, you’re a convicted felon!’”
It’s not such a bad business strategy, of course, to ally with convicted felons. Natalie has cut at least one cringe-worthy EDM track and is planning on coming out with a wine, a line of jewel-encrusted handbags, and an “Internet TV channel” I don’t fully understand. (“Right now I’m just focusing on my branding” is the overall point.) Another cast member launched a fashion line, Mob Candy. Another operates a beauty shop, Lady Boss. Yet another wrote a book: Mob Daughter: The Mafia, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, and Me!
(Sammy the Bull, arguably the most famous Mob informant in history, brought down the mighty Gotti clan. His daughter, Karen, who wrote the book, didn’t appear on Season 4 with the now-convicted Alicia, quite possibly because Karen’s father orchestrated the murder of Alicia’s father-in-law. This bout of postmodern Greek tragedy is inarguably bananas and should, in my opinion, deliver a reputational boost to the entire genre of reality TV, which is forever under attack for being too scripted and/or too mundane.)
Natalie fixes me a mug of Maxwell House. The 37-year-old London, wearing a BMW cap and looking very much like a London, is sitting next to me at the kitchen counter, happily eating a plate of reheated manicotti. London now works at a hotel in Manhattan, but in his more ripped days got paid by rich people to go to parties in the Hamptons and look pretty. “At the end of the day, the Mob is not the same anymore,” Natalie tells me, breaking down the appeal of the show and of its Mob-branded consumer goods. “So basically, I feel people are living off Goodfellas, The Godfather, you know. They’re fascinated by the life of the glitz, the glamour, the worship, the control.”
In 2012, something called the Mob Museum opened in Las Vegas. As one writer put it a few years ago in the New Republic, its existence is “as certain a sign that the Mob is over as the advent of Washington’s Newseum was a sign that the news industry was going the way of the dodo.” If, in the past, movie studios exploited Mob stereotypes to churn out blockbusters, now, without a meaningful Mob culture left, it’s Mob progeny and Mob spouses who are cynically exploiting themselves for a fleeting chance to sell some swag. VH1, like the Mob Museum, has reduced the Mafia to a banal marketing opportunity.
Natalie claims to be less exploitative than her castmates, more respectful of the Mob culture she feels they have vulgarized. It’s true that Natalie never talks about her Mob connections. But maybe that’s because she has none. While the rest of the cast’s ties are well documented, the show’s million-plus weekly viewers know only that Natalie has a “cousin” who is “allegedly” connected to a “Philly crime family.” Is it possible that by virtue of being a pugnacious, sexy Italian-American woman who happens to work in a categorically morbid industry, Natalie is claiming baseless Mob affiliation?
Natalie says no. She claims her cousin is Joey Merlino, the long-alleged Philly Mafia don who, when he’s not serving prison stints in South Florida, maître d’s at Merlino’s in Boca Raton. (Merlino’s lawyers didn’t respond to my requests for confirmation.) “So that’s my connection,” she says. “I don’t expose anything on the show. In the real life, you don’t talk about who’s who, what’s what, you just don’t do it. It’s code.”
WE FINISH OUR coffees and go check out the rest of the Carto Funeral Home. Not sure what else to do, I admire caskets. London tells me he wants to be cremated. I tell him I want to give my body to science, whatever that means. I forget to ask Natalie, but you have to assume buried.
Natalie backed into the family business. “I always knew I wanted to be on TV,” she tells me. Other stuff got in the way for the first 30 years of her life. Middle school at St. Monica in South Philly led to Empire Beauty School led to Strands Hair Salon in Old City. Then she got pregnant, after which she lost her full-time job during the recession, which in turn inspired her to start plying her trade on the unliving.
By the time Mob Wives came calling — a friend of an ex was a friend of the show, and the show was apparently eager for some Philadelphia talent — she was ready to lay aside the code in order to grab some screen time. “I guess in a way it’s a double-edged sword,” she reasons. “You’re on there, you get criticized for being on there. But it’s not like that.” Her voice rises. “My reasoning for even coming on the show was to show the world how Italians really are.”
The plan this afternoon is to go get London’s BMW convertible washed at the Ritz on Oregon Avenue. On the drive over, London tells Natalie, “I think you would have been a great Mafia leader. You like rules. And them to be carried out in certain ways. You like giving orders.” There’s no hint in this comment that her cousin is in fact a reputed member of the Mob, or that the television show she appears on is named Mob Wives.
Natalie is in a weird in-between phase right now: tangentially connected, and yet utterly irrelevant to the Mafia. Likewise, she’s on television every week but by no means a national sensation. (Mob Wives is only a few hundred thousand viewers behind the suddenly flagging Kardashian empire, but is getting pulverized by the ascendant Real Housewives of Atlanta by a factor of three.) As London lovingly wipes down the car, I ask her if she’s gotten to know any celebs in the last year. After a few moments, all she can summon is “Jadakiss,” which makes me feel bad for having asked the question. Suddenly, to the rescue, an excited middle-aged black woman marches up to us. “I know you!” she says by way of introduction. “My daughter told me!” Chewing on a soft pretzel, she hands Natalie a sheet of paper to sign. “You’re from Philly, right?”
IN MY EFFORT to meaningfully contribute to the grand tradition of minimally researched, overwrought celebrity(ish) profiles during which beautiful women are observed eating sloppy/greasy/meat-heavy meals, I’m duty-bound to write about our trip to Nick’s Charcoal Pit, on Snyder Avenue. After the car wash, London says he’s hungry, despite the manicotti in his belly, and suggests we grab a bite. Natalie, who is enough of a regular at Nick’s that she’s permitted to use the employees-only bathroom, orders and consumes — not daintily, but like a man, i.e., like a woman — a hefty filet mignon sandwich.
I could go on to frame Nick’s Charcoal Pit as an embodiment of the refreshingly middle-class scenery of Mob Wives, in which shots of always-bleak Staten Island replace the usual McGaudiness of the bored-housewives-behaving-badly sub-genre. But it’s probably more instructive simply to document the conversation we had there. London is proffering an “all publicity = good publicity” theory in which Natalie’s somewhat unhinged Season 5 behavior can only be “a good.”
“In the first three episodes, if they’re not showing her physically, the rest of the cast members are talking about her,” he says. “So it’s, like, all about Natalie.”
Natalie isn’t convinced this is a good. “It’s like, I don’t know, nobody tells you how you’re doing. Or anything positive. It’s just work work work work,” she says. This gets us to a complaint about the manipulative tactics employed by the producers during those one-on-one interviews you see peppered throughout the show. “They’re like, ‘You were really upset that day. Bring that energy back.’ It’s like, how the fuck?! I’m over it!”
I tried to make some sort of highfalutin point earlier about “exploitation” and “marketing” as they relate to the Italian Mob. But the only exploitation Natalie’s worried about right now is her own. It’s not just the increased presence of pervs and stalkers and haters, who gaze at her creepily on the Internet and during club appearances. (London, a few days after we met, was attacked by some maniac at a venue in Brooklyn.) It’s also the unblinking gaze of the camera. “When you have a script, you get to prepare,” Natalie says. “You get to see the character. You feel the emotion, the feelings. You get into the zone. When you’re doing this, sometimes, things are just thrown at you.” And next thing you know, you’re pulling some bitch’s hair out in a luxury suite in Vegas.
Luckily, London, who says he gained Cast Member status on Mob Wives this season, is around to steer us back from our dark place. As we wrap it up, I ask the obvious “Is it weird being famous for no reason?” question.
“It is weird,” London says, wagging his tail. “Thank you to Paris Hilton. Thank you to Kim Kardashian. Leading the way!”
“I’ve always lived a life like this,” Natalie adds. “Now I’m only getting paid for it.”
“It’s cool, right?” London says. “It’s probably the best job in the world, right?”
Originally published as “The Mob Rules” in the February 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.