Nancy Jo Sales on L.A. celeb robbers: "The Bling Ring kids were depressed"

The "Bling Ring" reporter speaks to Salon about the movie, Paris Hilton -- and why she feels for the thieves

Published May 25, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

        (Johansen Krause)
(Johansen Krause)

One of the summer's most anticipated films not about superheroes or space voyagers is Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring," the story of a group of young people who begin robbing the homes of celebrities. Among the victims of the fame-obsessed cabal: Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, "O.C." star Rachel Bilson and "Hills" personality Audrina Patridge, all of whom had clothes or jewelry stolen. It's the ultimate story for the TMZ age -- and it's all based on a true story.



The teens are also the subject of a new book by Nancy Jo Sales titled "The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World." Sales reported on the so-called Bling Ring in a 2010 Vanity Fair piece, which focused in particular on Alexis Neiers, a beautiful and troubled teen whose arrest coincided with the taping of a reality show on E! called "Pretty Wild." (Neiers, who has protested her innocence, pleaded guilty -- and was in the jail cell next to Lindsay Lohan's.)

With the benefit of time, Sales broadened her scope in the new book, which alternately reads like true-crime novel and social commentary. She looks at the strange and conflicting legal advice some of the Bling Ring received from starstruck counsel, examines the degree to which celebrity worship peaked in the mid-to-late 2000s and how it warped the psyches of teens in and out of the L.A. cabal, and describes the aftermath of the Vanity Fair piece (as documented in a viral clip of Alexis Neiers recording voicemail after voicemail to "Nancy Jo" claiming, among other things, that the reporter had gotten her footwear wrong). No matter -- Neiers, Sales reports, served as a consultant on the Sofia Coppola film. Sales told Salon that no one involved in the Bling Ring case served more than two years and that she recently saw ringleader Rachel Lee (who was released after the book went to print) photographed in a nightclub on Instagram. Sales spoke to Salon about what the movie will get right, her part in discovering Paris Hilton in 2000 and why the Bling Ring are the ultimate American characters.

To what degree were you worried about the veracity of the film? You spent a great deal of time reporting an article and then a book on the subject, and it must be nerve-wracking to see it become a work of fiction.

Well, I wasn’t really worried about that at all. I was struck by the extent to which the film is a work of fiction. And Sofia Coppola has made that clear: It’s a work of fiction, not a documentary. It does, however, stay close to certain facts. It’s almost like a roman à clef -- a thinly veiled account.

And this is not the first time this has happened in the history of cinema. Some of the greatest films have been based on magazine articles. “On the Waterfront” stayed pretty close to things [Malcolm Johnson had] reported on the docks. There was “Saturday Night Fever,” which had been a New York magazine piece by Nik Cohn.

This was a news story that had international coverage, but it became an impressionistic thing. This is what makes her a great director -- she conveys things so powerfully with images. I was so struck by the images in the film. We can sit here as writers and we can talk about conspicuous consumption, but she can convey all the things we would say to one another in just a few seconds with an image. I wasn’t worried at all because I loved her movies. I even loved “Marie Antoinette,” which is the controversial one among people who love her. It was a take on Marie Antoniette that got at what I’ve covered, like privileged rich kids on the Upper East Side.

To what degree have you found celebrity reporting to have changed in the past 10 years or so -- the period of time during which the Bling Ring came of age and consumed media?

There’s one thing I’ve found myself saying over and over -- there’s a tension in discussing history. Are things really different? Are people really different? Is the culture really different? Or are we just seeing the same things from ancient Greece or the colonial days? Well, no. We’re not. What really is demonstrably different is technology. Abe Lincoln and the ancient Greeks and cavemen did not have access to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. It’s a cliché at this point to say the Internet changed everything -- but it did.

There’s just more of it. It used to be People magazine, “Entertainment Tonight” and that was pretty much it. In the 21st century, we had the rise of gossip industry via TMZ and blogs and Perez Hilton and Gawker and on and on and on; it became a 24/7 news cycle. I'm not sure celebrity news is news. Is it news if Kim Kardashian has a baby bump showing -- is that really news? Does that count as news? I really question that. It has reached this kind of legitimacy as news. What were once considered the higher end of news organizations report on this stuff and feel they have to compete and keep up. I'd rather just report on it and say this is figuring into how people behave and how kids behave. You can judge it for yourself.

There’s something really different about the way we live now. These technological changes have happened very quickly. I don’t want to put this all on the millennial generation. Even the Puritans were complaining about how the kids were too sexed up. We need to take note of the fact that kids and grown-ups spend their days very differently than they did years ago. They spend time with these devices being with themselves. It leads to the question -- what is a self? The Bling Ring kids were depressed. And they’re depressed for a lot of reasons, but one reason is their self image. The desire to appear beautiful like celebrities. It really was different once. Watch a Frank Capra movie. And it's true: there are Fred Astaire movies where they're dancing around in beautiful clothes; there are plenty of old movies about wealth and fame. But there's a strong strain that says what's valuable is hard work, sincerity, honesty, family.

True, but as the author of Vanity Fair cover stories like the one in which Taylor Swift said there was a "special place in hell" for Tina Fey, or an interview with Lindsay Lohan before she went to jail, do you contribute to the culture of celebrity worship?

The Taylor Swift piece -- the response to that whole thing really shocked me. [The piece was] really about the gossip industry and about how Taylor Swift -- consciously or unconsciously -- her songs become part of the gossip industry because she comments on it in her songs. She's a child of the gossip era; she calls herself an Internet baby. She's grown up in this milieu. She's literally gossiping about herself and her exes. That's part of what makes her songs -- Taylor Swift is a songwriter gossip. Tina Fey is joking about the gossip, and Taylor's reacting in a Vanity Fair article in what I think is a very interesting way. I don’t think she meant Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were going to hell. I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I think she felt it was more of a sort of unfair, somewhat sexist emphasis put on females' dating lives that isn’t put on males.

Lindsay Lohan is her own worst enemy. But the meanness and the vitriol and the sexism of the response to her in the gossip industry is so unkind. That is another thing that the book is about: Where we are now as a culture in terms of how young women and girls are treated. There's a lot of pressure and difficult things for them, the mainstreaming of the porn industry.

Why does this matter in terms of the Bling Ring? I looked at the victims -- Paris Hilton had made a sex tape; Lindsay Lohan, there’s all kinds of gossip about her. And every single one of the victims has been on the cover of Maxim. That was an "a-ha" moment, that these girls all want to steal from these women who've been on the cover of Maxim, the backlash to feminism. And they’re going around stealing these women's underwear! Rachel Lee made a video of herself dancing around with Paris Hilton's bra on! So-called raunch culture rose up when these women were coming of age. When you do an article that you have to do very fast, you don’t necessarily see all the stuff; you think that's what makes it important. But when I did the book, I got to really think about these things and research them to find out about things I'd heard about -- the teen and childhood lingerie market, for instance.

I really don’t think the story is about a bunch of spoiled kids robbing stuff from celebrities. That’s the -- I don’t wanna say “fun part” because it's not fun -- but that's the part that seems so unbelievable. Different crime stories mean different things in different eras. Truman Capote -- I wouldn’t compare myself to Capote, who's my hero and my idol -- but “In Cold Blood” represented this new, scary age when we weren't what we had been. There was a feeling of vulnerability that had come into the culture. All kinds of things. I had six months, and I’m not Truman Capote, so in a short-cut way, I came out and tried to give my take on the themes in this crime story. I do think it’s valid to talk about these things.

It's valid to talk about them -- but do your magazine profiles force you to engage with the celebrity-industrial complex more than you'd like?

Well, I don’t write straight celebrity profiles. I think if you look back -- I think all my pieces about celebrities have been about celebrity culture. I did the first piece on Paris Hilton, in 2000. She wasn’t known; she was a girl my boss, Graydon Carter, had heard of through friends. She was known in L.A. as a wild girl who danced on tables and who was allegedly dating Leonardo DiCaprio. It's really about a girl who wants to be famous.

There's not a whole lot of difference between Alexis Neiers, who was next to her in jail, and Lindsay. There are so many similar things in their lives. Lindsay was a really gifted actress and did some great work. They both have drug and alcohol addictions, as well as stage moms, fathers with problems of their own, the mothers with reality shows. Then there's Paris, who was this young woman who seemed to really want to be famous. Paris Hilton, for whatever you want to say about her, she represents a milestone in celebrity culture. She reinvented celebrity culture to a degree. She took cues from Puffy -- I knew him as Puffy when I did stories on the scene in New York -- but she took his cues. The branding, then the clothing line. He had done something, He'd represented one of the great rap artists of all time. She, on the other hand, reinvented celebrity. And that's the model Alexis followed. Get the reality show, then the clothing line.

Talk a little bit about ending up on “Pretty Wild” and the process of interviewing Alexis Neiers on camera. She seemed to think she was getting a celebrity profile.

I was very up-front with her lawyer Jeffrey Rubenstein and her other lawyer and her mom that I wanted to talk to her about the case. There’s a scene in the book where I go to the front lawn and call my editor and say, "I don’t know what they think I’m doing here. I keep trying to talk to them about the case. She's been charged with burglarizing Orlando Bloom's house, and they keep wanting me to talk about her. I think they’re trying to use this as a celebrity profile." But it wound up being very interesting. Because I couldn’t focus on the case, I got to talk to Alexis about Alexis.

I asked one of the stupidest questions in the history of reporting. I’m here to ask about why you burglarized Orlando Bloom, but I ask “What it's like to be you?” It’s fascinating to listen to her talk. She pleaded guilty to burglary, and there’s a lot of evidence against her. But she's a teenager, and I have a great deal of sympathy for her. She was barely a child, she later revealed she was on drugs, there’s a reality crew filming her, she didn’t know what her future was going to be. And her answers are all about celebrity culture and all about her obsession with fame and wealth and all about inequity.

She doesn’t use those words, but that’s what she's telling me. These weren’t actually rich kids. They were doing better than most kids, but in that community, they were not rich. In sixth grade, you had to have a Louis Vuitton backpack, and her family couldn’t afford it. Remember in the '80s when kids in really poverty-stricken neighborhoods were killing each other over baseball jackets? Conspicuous consumption and inequity cause resentment. I’m not proposing a solution, I’m just stating a fact. My daughter goes to a school with uniforms, and I think it's a really good thing. Kids aren't able to flash their wealth and show off who's got more. It doesn’t solve the macro problem, but on a day-to-day level, they can’t look at each other and say you’ve got this or that.

For all your sympathy with Alexis, she was so angry and upset in that famous “Nancy Jo? This is Alexis Neiers” clip.

I’m flabbergasted by this. The reason I agreed to be on that show was not because I wanted to be on “Pretty Wild” or any reality show ever. The producers said to me, you can only do this if you agree to be on camera. I said “What do I do? I really want to talk to this girl.” My editor told me to go ahead -- “this show'll never get picked up.” Because at the time you say, who's going to pick up this show? Why would anyone pick up this show? But the Bling Ring became this huge story, and they happened to be arrested the first morning of filming. They had no idea this was going to happen. The night before, they'd filmed Alexis and Tess at a nightclub poledancing. Who'd pick that up?

I reported the story based on interviews and conversations with police and normal reporting stuff, and I reported it in a pretty straightforward way. Alexis kept insisting that she had this other narrative she couldn’t tell yet but that the truth would be known one day. I pressed and finally got her on the phone, and she repeated to me what she'd told the police -- she was drunk and she didn’t know what was going on. She told the police -- she ran and threw up in the bushes, then she says she went back in the house. I just reported it in a straightforward way.

I had never seen that clip until a few months ago when it was rerun on Jezebel. I found it painful to watch. She seems to be in such pain. I don’t think it has to do with the story. Or her shoes. I felt for her. I didn’t want to watch it. Honest to god, I didn’t understand it had become this thing until I went on Twitter a month ago to promote the book. I started this account and immediately people start tweeting to me “Twenty-nine dollars!” or “Every time you interrupt me, I have to re-record it!” I see there are college girls who've acted it out in their dorm rooms and put it on YouTube. Because I’m a part of it, I can’t analyze it. I don’t understand the fascination.

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I feel like, to some extent, people are laughing at her. And I don’t laugh at her or any of these kids. They were these amazing characters who’d done these outrageous things. Alexis had this wild New Age way of talking. Alexis Neiers is a great American character, and I didn’t create it -- kind of like a Daisy Buchanan! She seems to have changed and grown up, but at the time, she was this character right out of a Hollywood movie. Which she then became! As I watch Sofia Coppola -- a girl who'd been into fashion, who wanted to get into movies -- become the director of this movie, it was like an Escher woodcut of a dragon eating its tail. I don’t understand why people are laughing at [Neiers], but I don’t think I got her shoes wrong. I’m not a fashionista, but I have worked at Vanity Fair for 13 years. I know a pair of Louboutins.

By Daniel D'Addario

MORE FROM Daniel D'Addario

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Alexis Neiers Nancy Jo Sales Sofia Coppola The Bling Ring Video