So Many Handbags, So Little Time

Andrew O’Hagan

  • BuyThe Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales
    HarperCollins, 288 pp, £7.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 0 00 751822 7

Andrew O’Hagan on the Bling Ring

Coming over the Hollywood Hills at this time of year you drive on roads edged with blue flowers. The jacaranda is dropping like crazy and around every bend the McMansions seem to cry out their phoney perfection. You pass a mini-Tuscany and meet a little England on your way to Ventura Freeway, the 101, that leads to a valley of shopping malls and awesome haze. It’s out here that you find Calabasas, Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks. And this is where the world’s most spoiled people come to breed and crave in an atmosphere of dieting and reality TV.

Alexis Neiers was 17 in 2008. Her mother, Andrea, was a former Playboy model and her father a director of photography on Friends. Thousand Oaks isn’t super-rich but it’s the sort of place where people care a lot about money. Alexis and her friend Tess, who lived with her, behaved as if shopping (and having things) was the only way not to be a nobody. Alexis never forgot there was gold in them there hills and she spent her late teens trying to establish contacts that would lift her into the Hollywood scene. The family did pole-dancing in the living room and Andrea gave the girls – including Alexis’s younger sister, Gabby – the amphetamine Adderall every morning. (She said they had ADHD.) The girls knew about first class. They knew about VIP areas and fast cars, but they’d never seen a dictionary. Many of the kids in the southern valley think you’re odd if you don’t have a card for medical marijuana.

In the autumn of 2008, and for a full year after that, Alexis began travelling up the freeway at night in the company of some of the kids she knew from Calabasas. Like her, they wanted to be famous, but not in the old style: the stars they liked best were the ones who didn’t really do anything. The goddess for them was Paris Hilton. They didn’t think about talent and they didn’t care about class: they loved the kinds of star who were just like them, only fully arrived. In their world of Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and TMZ, where everybody was a star of their own social universe, as well as being their own paparazzi, the suburban teenagers idolised the people they were close to being themselves. Perhaps it’s a new kind of narcissism, where you only get to feel fully realised, successful and self-loving when you look at your reflection in the pool and see your idol. And having your idol’s shoes and handbag is one of the ways to achieve that.

Fame today is a matryoshka doll: inside each celebrity is a series of smaller, hollow simulacra, and, at the very core, there is a hard little being who feels buried alive. In Alexis’s gang there were four girls and three boys: the main culprit, Nick Prugo, was a gay kid working his way out of the closet. When he was eventually arrested by the police he was wearing a striped top he’d stolen from the house of the actor Orlando Bloom. And that’s what they did: after days of shopping or doing pilates, hanging out on MySpace, texting or oh-my-god-ing on their iPhones, studying Google Maps or celebrity websites to find addresses, they would travel in their big, gas-guzzling cars to the houses of their heroes in the Hollywood Hills, and rob them. At Paris Hilton’s house, they tried on her perfume and her shoes, they took money and handbags. It was almost as if Paris had been waiting for them: there was a key under her doormat, and her dressing-room, the inner sanctum, was filled with cushions bearing her self-adoring image. The burglars stepped gingerly over the little dogs called Marilyn Monroe and Prada.

The relationship between modern celebrities and their greatest fans is rather like the relationship that once existed between cops and robbers in the movies. (And in life, if you believe the Mafia lore.) Classic cops and robbers have the same DNA: they understand each other, because, at some basic level, they are the same people. The Bling Ring (as the Los Angeles Times called them) already possessed many of the items they were stealing, but what they craved was proximity and identification. Anyone can have a Marc Jacobs handbag if they can raise the money, but it isn’t just anyone who can have the one belonging to Paris Hilton. Only Paris has that – unless someone goes over to her house and takes it. Soon, the kids were showing up on Facebook and at clubs wearing their new clobber. It took the victims a while to notice, of course – so many handbags, so little time – but eventually it became clear that the Bling Ring had stolen $3 million worth of stuff.

There’s nothing new in stealing from the rich. What is new is the idea that the purloined items aren’t the main thing that’s been taken. Alexis wanted to be Paris, or a version of Paris which meant being more like herself-as-celebrity. She’d noticed – how could she not – that the celebrities she admired weren’t a million miles away from her and that was the thrill – being close to her ‘true’ status. Not by achieving it or even by getting to know her heroes personally, but by stealing their shoes and wearing them as if she had the right. The group described their nights in the hills as ‘shopping’.

In late 2009, not long after they’d done their last late-night raid on the closets of the famous, Alexis began filming a show for E! Channel called Pretty Wild. It was intended to be a show in the spirit of other air-headed wannabe-famous reality soaps such as Keeping Up with the Kardashians that showed the daily trials and torments of the spoiled rotten. (These shows are available around the world.) Pretty Wild starred Alexis and her friend Tess as well as her sister Gabby, along with the sisters’ wide-eyed, psychotic-looking mother, who wanted her daughters to fulfil their dreams. The first time we meet the mother in Pretty Wild she tells us she is ‘the mother of three wild and crazy teenage girls’. That was the first of many desperate, compulsive lies: Tess is not her daughter. Never mind. Reality doesn’t mean reality in reality TV. She smiles. ‘These girls are on their way to being famous and I’ve gotta be watching them every step of the way.’

Andrea home-schooled the girls. After their morning Adderall, she would sit them on the couch and present them with ‘teachings’ based on a famous self-help book called The Secret, or, rather, the film of the book. Andrea believed very strongly in the power of good example, so she made a board that featured the faces of several celebrities. All the pictures came from glossy magazines. In one episode we see her presenting these images to the girls and talking to them about ‘people who demonstrate good character, like Angelina Jolie’. It seems certain that Andrea had benefited from self-help spirituality in her own 1980s youth, from the rise of ‘follow your dreams’ materialism and the cult of cosmetic enhancement. The girls have tattoos of the Buddha and other gurus. When Alexis wasn’t busy getting close to real celebrities or to real books, she was getting close to God. Andrea would organise a prayer circle in the kitchen, ending with the words they liked to say together: ‘And so it is.’

And so it was that the LAPD came to the door just as filming on the pilot got up and running. ‘Shut off your cameras,’ said the arresting officer, which may be what Los Angeles police say now instead of reading people their Miranda Rights. But don’t worry: the cameras were back on soon enough to catch the family deploring the idea that Alexis was a thief. ‘Maybe this was just the universe sending a wake-up call,’ said Gabby, the family ‘grown-up’. They all soon raced (with their film crew) to the police station to post bail. It took a while and a bit of media gathered outside. The girls and the mother could barely contain their excitement or their lipgloss wand. ‘I was meant to bring truth to this situation,’ said Alexis.

‘The powerful energy that comes from good choices is really powerful,’ added Andrea. When the LA Times ran an article about the arrest of Alexis Neiers they accidentally used a picture of Lindsay Lohan, one of her victims. Moral lessons loomed large as the story and its unwitting televisation deepened. ‘What have I been telling you since you were little girls?’ said Andrea, when they ‘escaped’ the paparazzi, most of them organised by the producers on their own show. The girls chant their reply in unison: ‘Never do anything that you don’t want on the front page of the LA Times.’

Lesson over. Except not. Alexis gets dropped by the underwear firm she was hoping to be the ‘face’ of. ‘These are the consequences of hanging out with stupid people,’ her mother told her. But off-camera, Alexis was already surfing that strange plane where delusional people, high on fear and bogus spirituality, turn their desperation into positive spin. She told a journalist she might ‘lead a country one day’. If real fame is a mask that eats into the face, then pseudo-fame, the current kind, might be a decoy that eats into the brain. You often meet those people in California, people who have forgotten that you are real, that you watch the news, that you know who they really are, that you know where the money is coming from. They begin to lie to journalists and themselves with the same grim hope: if I say this and no one contradicts me it might be true. A sense of entitlement stands in for personal values. They don’t mind if they’re fooling you and fooling themselves, so long as they can keep the show on the road.

This can be sad and terrible, but also hilarious. At one point in Pretty Wild, before the shit hits the fan and the Bling Ring goes down, the girls go to Mexico to do a photo-shoot in bikinis to ‘raise money for Haiti’. The bizarre (criminal) mindset of the delusional celebrity can be unseated, however, though by one dragon-slayer only: the big reporter from a glossy magazine that puts heroes on the cover. And so Nancy Jo Sales of Vanity Fair enters our tale. In October 2009 she turned up in California to see what was what with this teenage gang who ripped off Hollywood. It was a very Vanity Fair kind of story: more than that, it was a very Nancy Jo Sales kind of story. She had taken an interest before in spoiled kids who behave badly, but in the kids of Calabasas she would meet the moment where responsible reporting fails to connect with a ravening, screeching, bitch-slapping Twitterverse in which approval is considered an entitlement. According to all accounts, Alexis clearly believed, or wanted to believe (which, as we’ve seen, is the same thing), that Nancy Jo was there to do a celebrity profile of her. It seems never to have occurred to her that the journalist’s only interest was in seeking the truth of the alleged criminal activity. ‘It was clear,’ Sales writes, ‘the appeal of the Bling Ring story was not just the wealthy kids; it was one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that hits the zeitgeist at its sweet spot, with its themes of crime, youth, celebrity, the internet, social networking … reality television, and the media themselves, all wrapped up in one made-for-TV movie (which didn’t exist yet, but would).’

Soon, and to her evident dismay, Sales was required to conduct her interviews with Alexis on camera, to be part and parcel of Pretty Wild. (With Alexis’s lawyer telling her not to ask about the burglaries.) On the advice of her editor, she went along with it, just to keep the story going. Turns out Alexis and her mother hadn’t read The Journalist and the Murderer. They hadn’t in fact read anything besides inspirational stories in the glossies. When the Vanity Fair piece appeared, the family exploded – on camera – and the result is currently one of the more disturbing excerpts available to pleasure-seeking surfers on YouTube. Here’s a snippet, where Alexis calls the journalist to express her dismay:

Alexis: Nancy Jo, this is Alexis Neiers calling. I’m calling to let you know how disappointed … fuck! … Nancy Jo, this is Alexis Neiers. I’m calling to let you know how disappointed I am in your story, how horrible you –

Andrea shouts ‘You lied!’ in the background.

Alexis: Stop it! Stop it!

Andrea: You lied.

After a fair bit of this:

Alexis: Stop it, Goddamit! … Nancy Jo, this is Alexis Neiers calling. I’m calling to let you know how disappointed I am in your story. There’s many things that I read in here that were false. Like you saying that I wore six-inch Louboutin heels to court with my tweed skirt, when I wore four-inch little brown Bebe shoes.

Alexis suddenly felt assailed by all the attention. ‘I keep telling myself,’ she told E! News, ‘if Buddha can sit under a tree for four days and meditate, I can do this.’ The Neiers’s reality show was cancelled after one season (‘Pretty Wild is like Keeping Up with the Kardashians without the intellect or the moral centre,’ one critic wrote) and Alexis has taken to bitching about Nancy Jo Sales on her blog. Meanwhile, the world-within-worlds aspect, the cannibalistic mechanism in all this that allows every fiction and every truth to be consumed by some other fiction and some other truth, leads us to the release this month of Sofia Coppola’s movie The Bling Ring. Closely attending students will note that Coppola, like Paris Hilton, grew up in the rich world of celebrity that she now takes off with moral gusto. Coppola is also a former fashion worker who has made ads for Christian Dior and has modelled for Marc Jacobs. The scenes in The Bling Ring that were to do with the robbing of Hilton’s house were shot in … wait for it … Paris Hilton’s house. The investigating officer in the case, Brett Goodkin, not only served as a consultant on the film but appears in it as well. He has now been reprimanded by the LAPD for accepting more than $12,000 from the film company while still running the investigation that set out to determine the truth of the real-life events.

When she eventually went to her all-female jail (three months in the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood) Alexis Neiers found that she was being held in the cell Paris Hilton had occupied during her own bad spell in 2007. Paris learned from her experience, we gather, and became stronger. Neiers spends time on her blog telling her ‘fans’ she is feeling much better since she got sober and has some control over her life. She thinks Sofia Coppola’s film is ‘trashy and inaccurate’. She will soon be in a position to tell her own story in a book. It’s been a journey. In the middle of her time in prison, who do you think moved into the cell next door? Yes, indeed: it was Lindsay Lohan. It’s reported that Ms Lohan might have been verbally abused when she first came into the correctional facility. ‘Oh, I’m sure,’ Alexis said, ‘just as I was … I would have girls come up to my cell door and just stare at me.’

Cut to the present day and you’ll find Emma Watson from Harry Potter playing our main girl in the movie, while back in the territory west of the Ventura Freeway, Alexis has just had a baby. The baby is called Harper, not after Harper Lee, but after the only daughter of David and Victoria Beckham.