Nancy Jo Sales is quick to credit Sofia Coppola as the one who saw "something bigger" in the story of the so-called Bling Ring, but it was the reporter who penned the explosive 2010 Vanity Fair feature, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins,” that gave the public — and Coppola, herself — its first glance at the story behind the headline. "You know why everyone is so interested in the Bling Ring?” Sales asks, “Because we are all the Bling Ring. We are Alexis Neiers, as scary as that is, we are.” Nancy Jo Sales would then introduce the world to a then eighteen-year-old, self-described "indigo child" named Alexis Neiers, one of the accused. Neiers, and her subsequent E! reality show Pretty Wild (Executive Produced by Chelsea Handler), would 'unexpectedly' chronicle her arrest and eventual trial...for which she plead no contest.
The story should be familiar by now. In October 2008, two teens — Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo — decided to rob Paris Hilton’s Beverly Hills mansion. Upon their arrival, they found the key lying under the door and the door unlocked. Prugo likened the interior of Hilton’s home to a Barbie Dreamhouse, complete with framed photographs of Paris on the walls and her face silkscreened on couch pillows. Journalist Nancy Jo Sales, the prominent voice on the entire scandal, was told by Prugo that “one closet had a chandelier, and the other had furniture, as if Paris might want to just sit in there and look at all her stuff."
The Bling Ring was a group of mostly teenagers who, from October 2008 to November 2009, robbed a string of celebrities including Paris, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom & Miranda Kerr, Brian Austin Green & Megan Fox, and Lindsay Lohan. During their reign of white-collar terror, they allegedly stole close to $3 million in clothing, cash, jewelry, handbags, luggage, art, and even a .380 semi-automatic handgun. And not only did they rob multiple houses, they robbed them multiple times — sometimes in the same night.
Sales had been covering the misadventures of the rich and famous for years, having done the very first piece on Paris & Nicky Hilton ("Hip Hop Debs") in September of 2000. So, when cops finally gathered enough evidence to connect the crimes to the Bling Ring, Sales immediately jumped on a plane to Calabasas. Once there, Sales began tracking down those connected to the case, quickly learning that it wasn't just the kids that were hungry for the spotlight. "We think it's a fun case," Jeffrey Rubenstein, a lawyer involved with the case, told Sales over the phone, describing it as “a game of Clue, except instead of Colonel Mustard, it's Paris Hilton in the tattoo parlor with the iPhone."
"They're scumbags," Paris told paparazzi, "They're a bunch of dirty rotten thieves.'"
Audrina Patridge spoke to Sales over the phone, telling her "somebody should make a movie about this."
And so they did. Sofia Coppola, Academy-award winning writer/director of Lost In Translation, heard something in the transcripts she'd been provided by Sales, who came to interview many of the Bling Ring members, their lawyers, cops, and even some of the parents throughout the trial period. "Sofia has a great ear and she recognized the dialogue in the transcripts that was so alive and so funny," she tells us. The transcripts became the foundation of Sales' book The Bling Ring: How A Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood And Shocked The World (out now) and inspiration behind Coppola's film.
Photo: Courtesy of 42West
Episode 6 of her series, titled "Vanity Unfair," showed Neiers reading Sales’ article for the first time. Exploding into hysterics, she promptly calls Sales leaving four voice messages, each beginning with the now viral, "Nancy Jo. This is Alexis Neiers calling..." In message three, she is finally able to express her disappointment in the many "false" things she'd read: "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—"
“Twenty-nine dollars!” her mother, Andrea, loudly interjects.
Neiers screams, “Every time you f***ing yell I have to re-record it,” before beginning yet another attempt. The Soup would vote it to be the best reality-show clip of 2010. Sales recalls, "Somebody wrote on the YouTube comments, 'This is one for the ages,' as if it's a Michelangelo painting or something." In reality, Sales was having dinner with friends the night Neiers called (x4), saying, "I received a whole bunch of messages and immediately erased them all.” Why? "They disturbed me."
"I think that show is so incredibly exploitive of them as females. It portrayed them as less than very intelligent. The girls were constantly disrobing, being on stripper poles. And yes they played along with it, but every episode seemed to promote a view of them as women that was very disparaging," says Sales. Neiers would later reveal that she was smoking twenty eight-milligram oxies a day. In a video blog she posted on February 2012, a now sober Neiers said she was a "dope fiend, alcohol, lying, cheating girl... Living a dual existence... Breaking apart inside.” She continues, “There was this glamorous aspect of it, and at the same time, there was my demise. I was living at a Best Western on Franklin & Vine for a while just doing drugs. I was out of my mind."
"There's not a lot of difference between Lindsay Lohan & Alexis Neiers,” Sales notes, “And the fact that they wound up in jail — in cells next to each other — you cannot make that up. And Alexis was in the exact same cell Paris had been in. It's mind-blowing because all the signs seem to be pointing to it, asking us what does this mean?"
According to the American Psychological Association, the proportion of students who said being wealthy was very important to them increased from 45 percent for Baby Boomers to 75 percent for Millennials. We’ve built up a culture of haves and have-nots. “So much jealousy and envy is bred by celebrity culture and seeing all these people with all this stuff that we all thirst for and could never afford. And that's why, to some people, [the Bling Ring] become kind of awesome — even though it was wrong and criminal — because it was like a slap in the face at people that have everything,” says Sales.
So, just how out of control has it gotten? With paparazzi as far as the eye could see and helicopters flying overhead, Lindsay Lohan arrived at Los Angeles Superior Court for a hearing on charges of felony grand theft in February 2011. She wore a $575 white, skintight Kimberly Ovitz minidress, which sold out across the country almost immediately. Googling ‘Lindsay Lohan courthouse fashion’ brings up over 418,000 results.
In the book, Sales points at reality television, stating that its introduction “leveled Mount Olympus like a nuclear bomb." Paris Hilton capitalized on public interest and turned her image into a brand. "My fragrances are doing really well at the moment. They've produced more than $1.3 billion in revenue since 2005," Paris told FHM in 2012. Part of this success can be traced to a celebrity’s presence on social media. But sometimes this free promotion can give unwelcome access to something beyond the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Many find it hard to distinguish the blurred lines behind a reality-television personality and powerhouse entrepreneur.
"There is a democratizing element of it all that is really exciting. I think the Founding Fathers would have absolutely loved [social media]; Thomas Jefferson would have been all for Twitter...in the sense that the average American now has a voice and can say whatever they want at any time.” “But,” Sales is quick to note, “like any other tool, it's so often misused.”
A platform like Twitter, which allows celebrity brands to reach a captivated audience, consequently can allow anyone with access to a computer the ability to find out where any celebrity is, from Z-list up to A, at any time. The addiction to self-exposure, self-promotion, and self-broadcasting amongst many of today’s celebrities is bred by the affirmation of likes, favorites, and the coveted retweet. According to The Financial Times, "We get a jolt of dopamine when someone ‘likes’ our Facebook post or retweets our Twitter link.” All of this celeb oversharing would be valuable pieces of information that the Bling Ring would have coveted.
But the Bling Ring is no more. Rachel Lee, the group’s “leader,” remains incarcerated. Nick Prugo was released from jail weeks ago, rejoining Twitter with a post on April 23rd that read simply, “Pussywillows.” Alexis Neiers is a new mother and avid tweeter (“It's going to be a great movie. But trust me, the truth is more interesting.”). But if there’s any authority on all things Bling Ring, someone who saw it from every exhausting angle, it is Nancy Jo Sales. Shocking, salacious, captivating, her book leaves no stone unturned in a story of a group of kids who, as Prugo noted to Sales, “just wanted to be a part of, like, the lifestyle.” But beyond that, Sales’ book posts thought-provoking questions about the ramifications of society’s obsession with fame and the ever-thinning line between celebrity and those that adore them most.
Coppola’s film opened the Un Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival on May 16th and opens June 14th in New York and LA.
Photo: Courtesy of 42West.