Famous People

Writer Nancy Jo Sales on the 'Bling Ring' and Our Unhealthy Obsession With Celebrity Culture

by Abby Schreiber
Over the course of her career working as a journalist for Vanity Fair, New York Magazine and Harper's Bazaar, among other publications, writer Nancy Jo Sales has seen a lot of kids behaving badly. Make that rich kids behaving badly. Over the years, she's covered everything from promiscuous prep schoolers to Upper West Side-dwelling, drug-dealing "gangsters," and has turned into something of an expert on privileged youth acting out. So, in the fall of 2009, when a troop of well-off Calabasas, California kids got arrested for burglarizing the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom, it made perfect sense that Sales would hop on a plane from New York and head out west to join the media fray that was slowly converging on the soon-to-be-named 'Bling Ring.'

Landing interviews with suspects Nick Prugo, Courtney Ames and Alexis Neiers (who would appear on the much-maligned E! reality show Pretty Wild and would leave Sales a highly memorable voicemail), Sales went on to publish a feature in Vanity Fair about the saga called "The Suspects Wore Louboutins," which, as many know by now, caught the eye of Sofia Coppola who optioned the article and turned it into The Bling Ring movie, a fictionalized version of the real-life events starring Emma Watson. Around that time, Sales was approached to write a book of the same name, based off of her original article and expanding on interviews with the suspects as well as addressing larger themes and issues surrounding the crime spree. With the movie's nationwide release today and the book's recent publication, we talked to Sales about some of the most outlandish aspects of the 'Bling Ring' case, what she thinks contributed to the wealthy teens' desires to commit the crimes in the first place and why we, like the 'Bling Ring' kids, are all so celebrity-obsessed.

When did you start working on your article about 'The Bling Ring' for Vanity Fair?

I started working on it immediately when the [suspects] got arrested on October 22, 2009. Actually, the boy, Nick Prugo, was arrested on September 17...he confessed, which is a really odd thing. He ended up confessing way more than he had to or that the cops even suspected of him...When the cops arrested the [other defendants], it was a big story and I knew that I had to get to L.A. as quickly as possible because everybody would be on it. I had a lot of competitors for the story at different magazines and newspapers.

How were you able to get access to suspects like Nick Prugo and Alexis Neiers, who inspired the roles of Marc (played by Israel Broussard) and Nicki (played by Emma Watson) in the movie?

I just kept showing up at the courthouse and kept calling and doing the usual reporter stuff to try to get access and eventually I got [access to] Nick and Alexis. But I wanted to talk to them all. Rachel [Lee, the ringleader] was not available. She had an enormous amount of [stolen] stuff in her house and basically told the cops -- and I love this line because it says so much about the [ring's] mindset -- "Well, if I give you the rest of the stuff, can I go?"

It's as if they were in denial that they had broken the law.

I that that was one of the things about the case that was so striking -- the kids' views. I don't think they thought what they were doing was wrong.

Why do you think that is? And, more generally, having talked to these kids and extensively researched the case, why do you think they committed the crimes in the first place?

It was a perfect storm situation. They had drug problems, alcohol problems. Anxiety. Depression. Learning disabilities, maybe. [Some] were ADD and ADHD. I'm not saying that's how every single person was but it's an overall characterization of the group. Family situations. A lot of these burglaries took place in the middle of the night. How is that possible? How did [the parents] not know where their kid was at that hour?

The Bling Ring by Nancy Jo Sales

It seems like they also had a huge preoccupation with getting access to Hollywood nightclubs.

Yeah, a huge motivating factor [was that] these were teenagers who wanted to party and go out to the clubs. To us, it seems so trivial, but to them it was a huge deal to be able to go into these places. And you and I both know that in order to get into these places, you have to be wearing certain things and look a certain way. I think it was not only that they were obsessed with celebrities and wanted to look like them, they wanted to live like them. They wanted to live this lifestyle that's promoted by pop culture -- we've seen it ever since the '90s in hip-hop videos and Gossip Girl and Entourage. It's popping the Cristal. They were doing that. In the book, I call it a copy of a copy of a copy. It's a clichéd experience that means "we're having a good time."

It's interesting to watch those scenes in the movie where the underage kids are in a club but all they're doing is texting on their phones or taking photos and posting them on Facebook. They don't seem like they're actually living in the moment.

It says so much about kids now -- they're supposed to be having this experience and they've even committed crimes in order to have it but they're not even enjoying it! All it's really for is so that they can take selfies and document it so they have the social propaganda where it looks like they're having fun. They were living this weird celebrity lifestyle through social media.

Have you talked to -- or heard from -- any of the kids since you wrote the original Vanity Fair article and since you started working on your book?

I didn't have the chance to talk to the kids. I reached out to all of them and at this point, some are in jail. [Others] were only sentenced in November/December of 2012 because of the legal process. They were not available to speak because their lawyers felt at that point in their process, it was not something that would be useful for them.

It's interesting that Alexis Neiers, who was also on Pretty Wild, is now married and has a baby. There seems to be an interesting cycle where these party girls do a rapid about-face and reform themselves through settling down and having kids.

Yeah, Alexis was found with black tar heroin in December 2010 after [cops] came to her house when she had missed a probation meeting or something. She was sentenced to a year in rehab. Alexis has said it herself that she was lucky, in a way, that she was arrested. [Rehab] seems to have worked.

Tell me more about the themes you address in your book.

The themes [touched on] are celebrity obsession, hypersexualization of women and girls in our culture, materialism, obsession with luxury brands and fashion. I love fashion but it's been so sad to me over the last 10-15 years to watch women and young girls become more convinced by our culture that they have to have certain things in order to look good or be fashionable. None of this is a judgment call on the women or girls, it's more on the values that are being pushed on a culture that's just going mad for wealth and mad for things and materialism and more and more stuff. And if you don't have this stuff, the culture seems to say you're some kind of a loser. It obviously affects kids' self esteem and sense of self-worth.

The real-life "Bling Ring" (from L-R, top to bottom): Rachel Lee, Diana Tamayo, Jonathan Ajar, Alexis Neiers, Nick Prugo, Courtney Ames, Roy Lopez Jr.

You mentioned that one of the themes you explore is celebrity obsession and earlier you said that these kids wanted to live the lifestyle of the celebs they admired. It's interesting that they did, in fact, achieve a certain level of fame but it was by being arrested.

Yes, in the article and the book, I quote Nick Prugo saying that people kept making Facebook fan pages for him. He had girls saying, "Nick, take me with you on a burglary!" I don't want to glamorize what they did but I can see why people would be interested in it. It's a fantasy or a fable like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" or sneaking into the palace and sitting on the king's chair. [Nick] was really appalled by becoming famous for this and the way in which people will latch onto any kind of fame. Any kind of fame is now currency.

And now social media can bring instant fame -- or "micro-fame" -- for some.

Now [with social media] teenagers and even children are engaged in the same self-promotion that celebrities are.The stuff that we think about every day now, putting stuff on Twitter, putting stuff on Facebook, promoting ourselves -- that's what celebrities think about. Their whole lives are devoted to the furthering of their image -- to getting their image out there and making people like them. And it's all about selling stuff. Celebrity is no longer about being an actor or an actress or a singer -- it's about selling perfume or handbags and endless clothing lines. I have great young women who work with me and help me out with my daughter and one of them said when I came home, "I gotta go to my branding class." I was like, "What is that?" "Well, you know, how to establish your brand, how to sell yourself." These are people in college who haven't even done anything yet.

They're already preparing for their eventual fame.

I don't remember the exact figures but something like 50% of kids now expect to become famous. It's not that they even want to become famous, it's that they expect it. They think it's because they're already experiencing something that already feels like fame, in a way. And maybe it is.

And that "something" is social media?

Yes. Exactly.

Bling Ring trailer

Do you think this celebrity worship will continue at this level ad infinitum or do you think there will eventually be a backlash?

I hope there's a pendulum shift like there always is in culture. I think Sofia actually says that in the preface to the book -- she says, "I hope our daughters will come of age when it shifts the other way." I hope it becomes uncool to care about celebrities. Right now, it is uncool but it's sort of ironically cool. It's sort of the way people talk about it in an ironic, sarcastic way. I hope it actually becomes something where people don't care and is just considered a stupid waste of time.

Reality television is another huge thing that's impacted this celebrity obsession and broken down the wall between celebrities and people. Television got more expensive to produce and reality television is cheap and people seem to like it. The few episodes of the Kardashians I've see -- it's absolutely appalling. I saw this one episode where Kim had psoriasis on her legs and she'd read somewhere that breast milk could get rid of it. She decided to steal Kourtney's breast milk surreptitiously from the fridge in order to rub it on her psoriasis. Your jaw just drops. I know people watch this stuff ironically and they're laughing at these people but I don't think that a culture based on laughing at and mocking people is healthy, either.

What do you think has to happen for our attitudes to change?

The people who run stuff have to collectively decide somehow that they're not going to appeal [anymore] to the least common denominator and that they'll try to uplift our culture and make the world a better place. I know that sounds Pollyanna-ish but it's an obligation of the people who have the power to produce entertainment. Shouldn't there be something worthwhile about it, other than what we're getting now?

Do you think that'll actually happen?

I don't know. I think it's a discussion that's already started, though. And I don't this can go on indefinitely. I think it's just a phase we're going through. It'll come to an end and people will come to their senses. It's like when you go to a crazy party and eat too much bad food and drink too much and then you wake up...

With a hangover...

And say, "I've got to go to the gym."

Subscribe to Get More