BY LEZA CANTORAL
In Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, theft is the most sincere form of flattery.
In the early days of humans, hunters donned the skins of the deadly beasts that they killed, in hopes of being imbued with their powers. Early humans pictured the gods as hybrids—part beast, part human. The gods embodied the fear and awe of the beasts that hunted humans in the night.
Human skin is fragile, and so is the human ego. Flash forward to the 21st century and the core of fear remains. The fear of fitting in and of being a predator in a social setting becomes the new form of survival.
The kids that performed these robberies were all wealthy. Some even had parents who were ex-models or working in Hollywood. They hung out at the same hot spots as Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, and Lindsay Lohan. They, however, were not famous. They looked upon these stars as icons—not just fashion icons, but life icons.
Fashion sells a lifestyle but it also sells a sense of self. This is what Rebecca Ahn (Katie Chang), based on real life Rachel Lee, the ringleader, seemed to be looking for: a sense of identity. By robbing the wardrobes of her favorite fashion icons, she hoped to also borrow their power. Her main accomplice, Marc Hall (Israel Broussard), based on Nick Prugo, describes having problems with low self-esteem and a sense of insecurity about his looks. When your own skin is not enough, you wear the skins of those you perceive as being greater and more powerful beings, to belong, to feel safe, to feel beautiful and powerful.
The cult of ego is primitive and just as powerful as it ever was. Like the ancient Pharaohs, modern humans in positions of power build shrines to themselves in the form of mansions in the Hollywood hills.
Paris Hilton’s home is a shrine to Paris Hilton, from the pillows with her face screen printed on them to her stairway walls that are lined with her framed magazine covers. Her closets are brimming with designer sunglasses, handbags, clothing, shoes in every color of the rainbow, underwear drawers to rival any Victoria’s Secret boutique, and a jewelry closet, like something out of the Arabian Nights, that glitters with diamonds and endless strings of pearls.
The teenagers who robbed the homes of Lindsay, Audrina, Paris, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, and Rachel Bilson explore, hoard, and delight in the possessions of their idols.
"Let’s go shopping," Rebecca says with a playful smile to the camera in the opening scene. You are invited vicariously to their looting and ogling, to their voyeuristic perusing of a love letter from Brian Austin Green to Megan Fox and nude polaroid’s of Paris Hilton.
Nikki (Emma Watson) and Sam Moore (Taissa Farmiga) gets sucked into the ring when Rebecca brags about going into Paris Hilton’s house at a party. The duo eagerly join in on the next visit to Paris Hilton’s. They return eight times, stealing designer clothes, accessories, and even cocaine, before she notices, due to them stealing Hilton’s heirloom jewelry. They get in easily, since she keeps her house keys under her front door mat.
Nikki and Sam are based on Alexis Neiers, and Tess Taylor, her adopted sister. The two teens were in the process of starring in their own reality show entitled Pretty Wild on the E! Network. The show only aired for one season, because Alexis went to jail following her trial and subsequent 'no contest' plea to robbing the home of Orlando Bloom. They found some of his property at her home, though she denied having any involvement or awareness of what was going on.
The true gamechanger in this case was an article in Vanity Fair published in March 2010. Author Nancy Joe Sales interviewed Alexis under the pretense of doing a spread of her and tell her side of the story. Alexis was very eager to clear her name and hoped it would help her chances in the pending trial. On the reality show in the episode entitled 'Vanity Unfair' Alexis sees the article entitled "The Suspects Wore Louboutins" with the header:
"The most audacious burglary gang in recent Hollywood history—accused of stealing more than $3 million in clothing and jewelry from Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and other stars—appears to be a bunch of club-hopping Valley kids, motivated by vanity and celebrity-worship."
Alexis screams, cries, and then calls Nancy trying to tell her, through her tears, how much she has seriously fucked her and betrayed her. The moment is chilling, and for anyone that says that Reality TV is not real, I challenge you to watch this moment and tell me this is not as real as it gets. You are seeing a girl’s life being ruined before your eyes.
The article did not ruin her life, her actions did, and getting caught did, but it did permanently reshape the cultural narrative, obliterating in one foul swoop the angle that the reality show was trying to portray.
The article is damning.
Sofia Coppola used the article as her frame of reference for the film. The article is in large part based upon the confession of Nick Prugo, who was the first of the Bling Ring Gang to get caught, and whom she interviewed for the article as well. When arrested, he quickly confessed, spilling the beans on all the participants and all the crimes, even ones that the police had not known about. Of all the participants he seemed to be the one with the loudest conscience. He was also the most anxious one during the robberies.
Vanity drove the teens to document their acquisitions in photos on social media and to brag about their home invasions at parties to their friends and social circle, making them exceedingly easy to catch, once Audrina Patrige and Lindsay Lohan released their security footage of the same hooded figures.
The irreality of their reality is chilling. Illusion upon illusion makes for a dangerous perceptual blur in the minds of teenagers who grow up in a culture that worships fame and fortune above all else. And that is the sadness of all this. When you feel the palpable loneliness of these kid who, despite being well-off and provided for, really don’t feel like they matter.
They do not feel that they are enough.
The Bling Ring is a true American tragedy—a cautionary tale about falling prey to the sticky sweet honeytrap of idol and ego worship.
Leza Cantoral is the author of Planet Mermaid and editor of Walk Hand in Hand Into Extinction: Stories Inspired by True Detective. She writes a feminist column about noir film for Luna Luna Magazine called Shades of Noir and writes about pop culture for Clash Media. Her upcoming collection of short stories, Cartoons in the Suicide Forest, will be coming out later this year through Bizarro Pulp Press. You can find her short stories at lezacantoralblog.wordpress.com and tweet her at @lezacantoral.