"It seemed like something somebody would make up," author Nancy Jo Sales says on the phone from her New York home. "If you had pitched this as a movie, nobody would've bought it. It would've been too unbelievable." But the story of a bunch of young suburbanites who burglarized a string of celebrity homes in 2008 and '09 did happen. And somebody did buy it — director Sofia Coppola, whose upcoming film The Bling Ring (out June 14) is inspired by the Hollywood crime spree. It's also the subject of Sales' new book, likewise titled The Bling Ring.
Coppola hired Sales as a consultant on the film after optioning her 2010 Vanity Fair article, "The Suspects Wore Louboutins." Realizing she had enough material on the case for a book, Sales started writing The Bling Ring last summer. It hits bookstores next week.
The Bling Ring, a nickname coined by the L.A. Times, was made up of six kids mostly in their late teens, who stole more than $3 million in merchandise from the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Rachel Bilson, Brian Austin Green, Megan Fox, Ashley Tisdale and The Hills' Audrina Patridge, as well as a few non-celebs. They were arrested in 2009, and all pled no contest.
Rachel Lee is currently serving a four-year prison sentence. Nick Prugo served a little more than a year and was released last month. Alexis Neiers served 29 days. Diana Tamayo, Courtney Ames and Roy Lopez Jr. each received three years' probation. And Jonathan Ajar, who acted as the fence for the stolen goods, is currently in jail.
Sales is no stranger to the star beat, having written profiles on everyone from Angelina Jolie to Taylor Swift. Her 2000 Vanity Fair feature on the young Hiltons, famously shot by David LaChapelle, irreversibly put Paris, then just a party girl, on the map as the patron saint of celebutantes.
Sales' book, however, isn't concerned as much with celebrity as it is with celebrity worship and how it breeds entitled star-wannabes who demand, and sometimes steal, a piece of the pie.
That includes Prugo, who, along with Lee, was the plot's alleged mastermind. The two were best friends, a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde obsessed with designer clothes. They'd pick their targets by checking their whereabouts and travel schedules on Twitter, TMZ and celebrityaddressaerial.com.
Prugo and Lee decided to make Hilton their first victim because, as Prugo told Sales, they were looking for a famous person who wasn't "that bright" — or, to be precise, someone dumb enough to leave her house key under the mat. They robbed Hilton's home multiple times, taking cash, clothes and topless photos of Hilton. They even snorted her cocaine.
They had similar luck sneaking into the other stars' digs, either because the homeowners had forgotten to turn on their security alarms or because the burglars simply found ways to break in without arousing suspicion. In the course of a year, Prugo, Lee and various Bling Ring members walked away with bags containing everything from Bloom's Rolex collection to Green's handgun.
After Prugo, Lee and others were caught on camera breaking into Lohan's home, their luck ran out. Thanks to too much bragging at parties, and anonymous sources who tipped off the LAPD, the police went after Prugo and Lee. Prugo would confess to the other robberies, implicating the rest of the Bling Ring.
None of them really needed the money. In fact, nearly all the members, who lived in and around Calabasas — Kardashian country — came from well-to-do families. But that hardly mattered.
"They mostly stole to have and to wear," Sales says. "They wanted to own these things like trophies. This was not mainly for money. They wanted the proximity to these celebrities. They wanted this fantasy and lifestyle."
Unsurprisingly, some of the kids wound up tasting the same tabloid fame as their victims. Prugo's followers even created fan pages on Facebook.
" 'Oh, they have so much,' " Sales says. "Allegedly, according to Prugo, that was Lee's rationale. And I can understand. At a time when there's an inordinate disparity in wealth in this country and very, very few people have control over the wealth, it's very frustrating. So they look at people with a lot of money and celebrities and say, 'Oh, they deserve it.' "
Perhaps no one in the story exemplifies how infamy begets infamy better than Neiers. At the time of the burglaries, she was just another Hollywood party girl and model. She was also a part-time pole-dancing instructor. Now she's being portrayed in Coppola's film by Harry Potter star Emma Watson, who speaks some lines of dialogue straight from Sales' article: "I'm a firm believer in karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being," Neiers told the journalist. "I see myself as Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. ... I want to lead a country, for all I know."
In the book, Neiers and her clan spout a lot of hippy-dippy, New Age–y nonsense, yet they're just the kind of fame-hungry family you'd watch on E! — and that's exactly where they landed. The day she was arraigned, Neiers brought along an E! camera crew, which was filming her for the short-lived reality show Pretty Wild.
Sales interviewed Neiers for hours, including on the show's set. (Sales describes producers feeding the performers lines, making the not-so-big revelation that reality TV is indeed scripted.) In the show's most comical episode, Neiers phones Sales after the Vanity Fair piece is published and tearfully berates the writer for saying she wore 6-inch Louboutins to court — they were 4-inch Bebes. E!'s The Soup voted that scene the best reality show clip of 2010.
Even the supposed good guys were eager to go Hollywood. Brett Goodkin, the lead detective on the case, currently is under investigation for failing to properly inform LAPD and the L.A. district attorney that Coppola had hired him as a consultant. He makes a brief appearance in the film, a big blunder, considering the case was still open at the time of filming.
As the ironies keep unfolding, it's clear The Bling Ring isn't about just a group of thieving teens but a whole web of crooked characters looking for their 15 minutes.
"One thing that the majority of the people in this twisted tale have is the desire to be famous," Sales says. "There's a lot of jockeying for the camera on the part of these people."