You know him as the master of ceremonies at the annual Nathan’s Famous hot-dog-eating championship every July 4 in Coney Island, but George Shea has done more than preside over the rise of competitive eating from an annual summer photo op to an international phenomenon. Behind the scenes, Shea, who runs his own publicity firm, Shea Communications, has helped promote the city’s vision for a reborn amusement area, finding the middle ground between naysayers who complained it wasn’t bold enough and different naysayers who worried it would turn Coney Island into Disneyland. That can’t happen, thanks to people like the irrepressible Shea, who sat down with Moses Jefferson for his first-ever interview that did not involve promoting one of his clients or Major League Eating, of which he is chairman.
Moses Jefferson: Let me start with the obvious question: Why am I interviewing you?
George Shea: I have had the fortune to be at the crux of the rejuvenation of the sport of competitive eating and bringing it into the modern era, where champions such as Joey Chestnut eat 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. It is now a worldwide sport of international standing, a sport, like no other, that reveals the human condition.
MJ: Mr. Shea, you’re doing what you always do, hijack the interview. This is about Coney Island. How have you helped revive the amusement area?
GS: I honestly think the sensibility I bring to the Nathan’s Famous hot dog contest is what Coney Island is all about: absurdity, lightheartedness, the banishment of rules. In Coney Island — and you see this every year on the Fourth of July if you listen to what I’m saying on stage — anything you say is true. I can say anything up there. And I do. Coney Island has something that no other amusement area has: its own distinct voice and its own edgy quality.
MJ: What are you even talking about now?
GS: A couple of years ago, someone in Coney Island wanted to do a publicity stunt. They said they found a 140-year-old hot dog from the original Feltman’s hot dog stand, frozen below the Boardwalk. And CNN ran it! And then in the ensuing coverage, it was revealed to be a hoax. Yet no one said, “How could they do that? A hoax! Imagine that!” No, people said, “This is Coney Island! You can say anything there!”
MJ: Of course, you would never do something like that, I mean, at least not more than two or three times a week.
GS: I have been called the “false prophet.” I was at a contest one year and an old woman who looked to be about 100 grabbed my wrist with remarkable strength and said, “Everything you say is a lie, yet it all comes true. That’s why I call you ‘the false prophet.’ ”
MJ: What was she even talking about?
GS: First of all, I need to repeat how strongly she grabbed my wrist. But she was talking about all the lies I tell — like the time in the early 1990s when I said that the Japanese were angry that we won back the Mustard Yellow International Belt. It wasn’t true. But sure enough, they sent three eaters over here to get it back. Or the time I said there was a national circuit of eating contests. There wasn’t a national circuit of eating contests. But there is now. I am the false prophet — in a good way.
MJ: Again, can we stay focused here? Is Coney Island back?
GS: Of course it’s back. And here’s why: America is so pre-packaged, so anodyne, so corporate and so contained that most Americans are like cows in a chute. It’s all pabulum and dumbed down. But Coney Island is the opposite. It is alive in a way that no other destination is alive. Who else would do a Mermaid Parade and have all the elements like that?
MJ: You mean all the breasts?
GS: I’ll ignore that. But the Mermaid Parade is an example of Coney’s individual vision versus America’s conference-room vision. Focus groups come up with ideas that are all beige. But individual vision is an explosion of all sorts of colors. Sometimes individual vision fails, but by definition, it always succeeds because it exists. We are way better off with that. I’m lucky that Nathan’s lets me do what I want. I tell them the plan and they say, “That’s very funny. Do it.” That’s very rare. And I do have other clients.
MJ: Some will call you an apologist, claiming what we have in Coney now is completely watered down. They’ll say we throw out the baby with the sour homogenized milk.
GS: Yes, we’ve lost Shoot the Freak. I’m not going to gloss over that. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t matter. But we still have so much of what made Coney great. And we still have the attitude. Coney Island did not become an overproduced corporate experience. It still has the verve. It does!
MJ: So we should thank you?
GS: No. But I am with those people who have the individual voice, the creativity. You are such a cynic. What is more edgy and more creative than Coney Island? Where? Where? You don’t have an answer, do you? Coney Island is the most unique.
MJ: “Most unique” is redundant. If something is unique, it is one of a kind. So how can it be “most” unique?
GS: At Coney, you can say anything and it’s true. This, too.