Why Are People Still So Obsessed With OJ Simpson?

A pop-up museum in Los Angeles tried to find the answer.

By Jessie Schiewe

eBay is a hotbed of OJ Simpson-related ephemera. (Art:  Bryan West )

eBay is a hotbed of OJ Simpson-related ephemera. (Art: Bryan West)

It’s been more than two decades since 1994’s infamous OJ Simpson trials, but the former running back is still very much on the public’s mind. On Oct. 1, 2017, OJ, now 70, was released from prison after serving nine years of a 33-year felony sentence. He’d been arrested in 2007 after breaking into a room at the Palace Station hotel-and-casino in Las Vegas with a few men to steal back, at gunpoint, sports memorabilia that he claimed had originally been stolen from him.

Since he’s been out, OJ has made headlines quite a few times. He’s been caught chatting up women, ordering drinks, and posing for photos with fans all over Las Vegas. While at Boyz II Men member Wanya Morris’ house, the former running back interrupted a commercial shoot so that he could take pictures with the two bikini-clad models. For Halloween, he dressed up as himself, wearing his old #32 Buffalo Bills jersey, and handed out candy to kids trick-or-treating in his Las Vegas neighborhood. At the end of 2017, he was banned from The Cosmopolitan hotel-and-casino after getting intoxicated and acting belligerent. At the beginning of this year, rumors started circling that OJ is Khloe Kardashian’s real dad. (“Trust me, I had nothing to do with it,” he told a TMZ photographer who spotted him out on the town in Sin City.) More recently, he was featured on Sacha Baron Cohen’s new show, Who Is America. The comedian pretended to be an Italian playboy while interviewing him and repeatedly tried to get the Juice to confess to the infamous murders.

In recent years, OJ has also been the subject of numerous, award-winning TV shows and documentaries that have helped further solidify him into the public consciousness. More than 5 million people tuned in to watch the season premiere of The People v. OJ Simpson, and OJ: Made in America brought home more than a dozen awards, including the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

Over the summer of 2017, an art gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown tested out OJ Simpson’s enduring popularity by throwing a temporary OJ Simpson Museum. Over a five-day period that August, more than 600 people visited Coagula Curatorial to check out the exhibit. In addition to having a white Ford Bronco parked outside, the exhibit included vintage memorabilia, modern art, a library section, and a “selfie station” all dedicated to OJ.

Organized by Mat Gleason, Coagula’s owner, and Adam Papagan, a millennial who grew up in West Los Angeles and is arguably obsessed with OJ, the museum drew a combination of avid Simpson enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, curious young people, “some nuts,” “people who would show up to the trial way back when and hang out outside and hold up signs,” and “a lot of alternative-type people.” Many visitors donated their own OJ Simpson T-shirts to the museum to add to the collection of shirts pinned across the wall, and Gleason’s phone has been ringing “at least once a week” with calls from people interested in selling or appraising their OJ memorabilia.

“I’ve had people call and ask, ‘What’s the Los Angeles Times from the day with the verdict worth?’ ” Gleason told OK Whatever. “And I’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s worth $7 or $8 bucks on eBay.’ And then they’ll freak out and be like, ‘But I saved it all this time!’ ”

Certain collectable shirts, because of their rarity, have occasionally sold on eBay for as much as $400, but lots of the stuff is worthless today. “If you had $5,000 and wanted to start an OJ collection, you could get almost everything except for the Ford Bronco,” Gleason joked.

Those who are trying to make a buck off OJ products and think they’re now suddenly valuable obviously did not understand the intention behind Gleason and Papagan’s museum.

“We were trying to make the point that this is junk,” Papagan said. “This is just junk that was made for a quick laugh and a quick buck, and the fact that any of it has survived is kind of amazing.”

But there’s also something special about these items, many of which were D.I.Y., handmade, and sold by individuals on busy intersections in Los Angeles. Gleason described a lot of the stuff at the museum as “art by and for the people,” which is exactly what it was when you think about it.

Visitors were greeted by a wall of OJ-centric T-shirts that are now considered collectables. (Photo:  Jessie )

Visitors were greeted by a wall of OJ-centric T-shirts that are now considered collectables. (Photo: Jessie)

His interest in OJ stems back to 1994, when he covered the trials for the LA Downtown News.

“I have friends and every time we see each other, we still talk about the case and what’s new with it,” he said.

Papagan was 6 years old when the infamous murders happened, and, through a stroke of odd timing, he learned of the crime before it was reported on TV.

“On that Monday — this was before the story broke — I had a stomach ache, and my mom had to pick me up early from camp that day,” he said. “So she picked me up and we were driving south on Bundy Avenue. And we passed the house and saw all these cop cars and ambulances. I also saw a sheet on the ground out front, which probably would have been Ron Goldman. And we were both like, ‘Wow, what happened here?’ So we got home and turned on the TV and the story was just breaking.”

For the next few years, Papagan drove by that very house not once, but twice a day on his way to and from school. He’s had “a lifelong interest” in the trial ever since. Recently, he created The OJ Tour, a sightseeing experience which takes visitors to pivotal landmarks in the football player’s Los Angeles neighborhood in a white Ford Bronco.

When news of OJ’s parole hearing popped up in July of 2017, Gleason and Papagan — who both host web TV shows on Dromebox  — knew they had to seize the moment.

“I realized the pull of OJ on the imagination of America was still there,” Gleason said. “I said to Adam, ‘We have to do this. We have to capitalize on it now. I have a window in August. We have to do this.’ ”

You’d be amazed by how many OJ-themed products there are out there. (Photo:  Jessie Schiewe )

You’d be amazed by how many OJ-themed products there are out there. (Photo: Jessie Schiewe)

The pair curated the exhibit by borrowing items from OJ Simpson collectors, especially a guy named Martin Hugo who works in the vintage clothing world. Primarily a collector of vintage OJ Simpson shirts, it was Hugo’s private stash that helped make the wall of T-shirts a reality for the exhibit.

Papagan also lent OJ Simpson-themed items to the museum, like lottery tickets, three board games, dolls, and an OJ phone card.

In addition to OJ watches, shot glasses, and pogs, Gleason and Papagan incorporated modern-day pieces of art dedicated to the celebrity, like a punch bowl filled with orange juice and ice cubes that spelled “OJ.”

Gleason and Papagan have no plans of re-hosting the museum, but they’re glad they did it if only to see how enduring OJ Simpson’s legacy is.

“It’s an endlessly fascinating subject because it reflects so many aspects of American life. There’s sex, drugs, and interracial marriage. It’s an intense reflection of the culture. When we talk about OJ, we're talking about race relations. We're talking about domestic violence. We're talking about celebrity We're talking about class devisions. We’re talking about a lot of different things when we talk about OJ,” Gleason said. “And in 100 or even 200 years, people will still know who he was.

View more photos of the museum in the slideshow below.

 

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