In writer-director Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, a troupe of spoiled California teens tries to wriggle into Paris Hilton's world by breaking into her house (along with a bunch of other celebrity homes) and stealing armloads of swag. It sounds like a broad comedy (and it's an effective laugh generator), but Coppola is telling a true story - one based on Nancy Jo Sales' 2010 Vanity Fair article "The Suspect Wore Louboutins."
An alumna of Yale and Columbia who has profiled Russell Simmons and Angelina Jolie in magazines such as Harper's Bazaar and New York, Sales has just published The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World. In the book, she updates readers on the fate of those hapless adolescents and examines their crimes in the chilly context of our media-saturated world.
Sales answered our questions in an e-mail exchange.
The Pitch: You point out in the book that founding father Alexander Hamilton was 19 when his first anti-colonial essays were published - making him a founding juvenile delinquent. How do we go from someone like Hamilton to the participants in The Bling Ring?
Sales: Some of the founding fathers were barely more than teenagers themselves, as were members of the Boston Tea Party and the Sons of Liberty, a revolutionary group at the time of the American Revolution. The rebelliousness of teenagers played a big part in the many protest movements that occurred over the centuries in America. Now, in a strange twist of history, we have teenagers who are not so rebellious - at least not politically, generally speaking. We have teenagers who are interested in making money and maintaining the status quo, teenagers who are interested in becoming a part of the "lifestyle" lived by rich people and celebrities.
You can't really blame the teenagers for this, the values of wealth and fame have been pushed by their culture and pop culture for the better part of 30 years, since the so-called Reagan revolution, which actually the opposite of a revolution. Teenagers today grew up watching shows like Gossip Girl and Entourage and 90210 and The Hills, all which promote a luxe lifestyle. A lot of teenagers these days want money and things, not change - certainly the teenagers in The Bling Ring did. They wanted to live like celebrities and have the things that celebrities have, even if they had to steal it.
Rachel Lee, the alleged Ringleader ("Rebecca" in the movie), has never granted an interview. How tough was it for you to get all the stories straight?
I think the narrative of the book is pretty clear. It's very common for criminals who point the finger at each other to tell different stories about who did what. The book tells the story from different perspectives, with the basic facts of the case as the underpinning of the story. In the end it was pretty simple: They robbed people, they got caught, and they went to jail or were put on probation. The police work in the case was pretty solid, and the testimony of the criminals, almost all of whom confessed to one thing or another, was backed up by search warrants, surveillance videos and witnesses' accounts.
The most darkly comic moments in Coppola's The Bling Ring are often word-for-word from the research you did for "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" and the book. And there really is a church based on the teachings in Rhonda Byrne's dubious self-help phenomenon, The Secret. How closely did Coppola work with you?
We met several times in New York when she was writing the script. We talked about the story and the characters and all the crazy details, like Paris leaving her key under the mat. We talked about the themes that are also in my book: celebrity obsession, the changing nature of celebrity in the age of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, materialism and conspicuous consumption. We talked a lot about the starlets, Paris, Lindsay Lohan, et al, and how the obsession with them had an effect on kids, as well as the explosion of the celebrity-industrial complex. We talked about how kids today are surrounded by images of celebrities, 24/7.
You've actually profiled some of the same people, like Lohan, whom the ring both idolized and pilfered. Did you notice a difference between the "real" celebrities and their kleptomaniac imitators?
More than differences I saw similarities, especially with Lindsay, and I talk about this a lot in my book. Lindsay was a child of divorce; she had a stage mom; her father had drug and alcohol problems; she became a star at a young age; she developed drug and alcohol problems herself; she spun out of control. This is also a description of Alexis Neiers. In my book Nick Prugo remarks on how Paris Hilton had been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD as a child and was put on drugs for that, and so was he and a lot of his friends. The Bling Ring and some of their victims sort of mirrored each other.
What makes the story feel so disturbing?
I think this story is so disturbing because it implicates us all - our culture and our values and our obsessions. How we spend more and more our time on our devices, promoting ourselves through social media. How we are often spying on each other, to some degree. And also the kids' narcissism, their obsession with fame and lack of moral center. These are things we see more and more in our culture and I think the story of the Bling Ring is a great way to talk about it.