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Why it’s time to rethink everything you thought you knew about the Bling Ring

US In the late 2000s, a series of robberies hit the rich and famous. Homes in Calabasas, California – the flashiest of flashy neighborhoods, home to Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Will Smith and many, many others were being ransacked. Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge, Rachel Bilson, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan were all targeted in less than a year. When five suspects were arrested between September and October 2009, the media attention was immediate and insatiable: all the suspects were between 18 and 19 years old. Some of them were schoolmates. All were teenagers.

Nick Prugo, Rachel Lee, Alexis Neiers, Diana Tamayo and Courtney Ames became known as the Bling Ring, a nickname brimming with all the flavors of a tabloid saga. As the case made its way through the legal system, it also became a pop culture oddity, often analyzed, deconstructed and reassembled. There was a movie of life. There was a memorable Vanity Fair writing by Nancy Jo Sales entitled “The Suspects Wore Louboutins”. Perhaps most notably, there was Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film The Bling Ring, based on Sales’ article, which dramatized the group’s history and even featured Hilton herself.

A new three-part documentary series, Netflix ‘s The True Bling Ring , re-examines this mythology. For 13 years, people have looked at history hungry for yet another narrative about fame, wealth, and those who would do anything to obtain them. The Bling Ring kids wanted to be famous, we’re told. They yearned to become the same celebrities whose designer dresses and money they stole.

It was a narrative that made sense. It wasn’t hard to believe the idea of ​​a group of teenagers so starved for fame and obsessed with looks that they became criminals. I had never heard of the Bling Ring until Coppola’s film came out in 2013. For years afterward, their story was, in my opinion, impossible to dissociate from Coppola’s skillful dramatization. The words “Bling Ring” immediately brought to mind an absentee American Emma Watson – who played a character based on Neiers in the film – maliciously telling her friends, “I want to steal”.

But there is another narrative to be found in The Real Bling Ring . Look beyond the documentary’s style effects such as scripted voiceovers by Neiers and Prugo, the only members of the Bling Ring who participated in the series and you’ll see a new story emerge. One more banal, more believable and more human than what we’ve heard so far.

This sometimes fractured oral history of the Bling Ring is primarily based on the firsthand accounts of Prugo and Neiers, whose memories sometimes clash spectacularly. However, they both agree that things started on Prugo’s side after he met Lee. (Lee did not participate in the documentary and did not comment when The Real Ring Bling contacted her, according to a notice at the end of the show.) According to Prugo’s recollection, it all started after Lee, returning from a party with Prugo pulled a car door handle only for the vehicle to open. The two stole the car and “ended up all these credit cards,” says Prugo on the show.

Presumably excited by the thrill of the robbery, Lee and Prugo continued on. Every time they left a party, they would do this thing we call ‘checking cars, says Prugo, meaning the two would look for unlocked cars to steal. One night, according to Prugo, Lee stole one of the cars after finding its key. That’s how it started. Not with celebrities. Not with gossip sites. Not with Paris Hilton’s house. But with two teenagers stealing the neighborhood cars. The history of the Bling Ring, at its core, started with small thefts and quickly escalated. This is not to say that the Bling Ring saga is totally unrelated to materialism and status. “We felt like we were so hot,” says Prugo in the series of driving the stolen car. “It made me feel who I was. I felt like it was a reflection of me. It was a great feeling.”

It’s impossible to ignore, too, that the Bling Ring’s antics were shaped in part by the variable geometry of their teenage friendships. “I was not raised to steal. I had never stolen,” says Prugo. “But with Rachel, I’ve never had a friendship like that. It gave me that confidence, and I didn’t want to give up on that. Later, when the group grows from two to four to rob Orlando Bloom’s house, it’s only because of tensions between its members: the way Prugo remembers, Lee wanted to bring Tamayo, which made him feel like he’s been  traded in as a friend, and so he brought Neiers.

Neiers and Prugo’s recollections of Neiers’ involvement with the group differ widely. Prugo claims that Neiers was invited to participate; Neiers denies it, but says she was “open to the idea of ​​robbing a house to get drug money. Neiers is firm on this characterization: she was addicted to opiates and benzodiazepines, and for her, the robbery from Bloom’s house served an entirely utilitarian purpose. Neiers claims she doesn’t remember the robbery in full, “because I was under the influence of opiates and benzos. (Prugo claims she “wasn’t out of it.”) Neiers says she “didn’t know whose house it was” the night the group robbed Bloom’s house; Prugo says she was “very aware that she was outside Orlando Bloom’s house.

As for Prugo’s motivation, throughout the documentary, he presents robberies as a way of securing friendships through material means. He paid for the drinks. He redistributed stolen designer clothes. (Neiers says he didn’t know where the clothes came from and was under the impression that Prugo was a stylist; Prugo claims otherwise.) I never knew how to make genuine friendships and connections without showing off,” says Prugo. I was trying to buy a friendship, in a way.”

So why were teens stealing from celebrities when they could be targeting anyone else? Again, as Prugo remembers it, it was largely a matter of practicality. Through news and gossip websites, the group found out which celebrities were out of town. They found their addresses online and studied the terrain of their properties, also online. The personality that [Hilton] gave on her reality show [ The Simple Life ] was [that of] a giddy blonde, says Prugo bluntly. “So we thought she would be more likely to maybe leave something unlocked. The Bling Ring didn’t steal the celebrities they looked up to, at least not at first. They robbed those who thought they could leave the door open.

The documentary is also concerned with humanizing these celebrities. One question that often comes up when the Bling Ring is discussed is the wealth of the victims: do these ultra-rich people really care about lost assets? Did they even notice? Will this really hurt them Materially, maybe not, at least on the surface, but there’s a form of victimhood here: Audrina Patridge, once a star of The Hills and the only target of the group to have participated The real Bling Ring remembers fearing for her life when realized that someone had broken into his house. Watching surveillance video of the robbery, she experiences a clear sense of violation.

It’s sick to watch, she says. They carried sentimental things that were passed down from grandparents and great-grandparents.” The theft, she says, made her “more cautious and not trusting anything or anyone.” Christine Kee, deputy district attorney for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, later calls home burglary a very serious offense” because “you can never regain that sense of security inside your own home.

Prugo, Neiers, Lee and Tamayo did not contest the case. Prugo was sentenced to two years in prison and ended up serving one. According to The Real Ring Bling , he runs an online business with her husband and has requested a pardon from the governor as well as a certificate of rehabilitation. Neiers was sentenced to 180 days in the county jail (she ended up serving a month) and three years of probation. She now works as a substance abuse advocate, has been sober for 11 years and has two children. Lee was sentenced to four years in prison and served 16 months. According to US Weekly, she graduated from cosmetology school as a hairdresser in 2018. Tamayo was sentenced to three years of probation. Both she and Lee have largely avoided the public eye in recent years.

If there’s a timeless narrative to be found in the Bling Ring, it’s less about teenagers’ supposed obsession with fame and more about the mutated form of celebrity. The late 2000s marked a time when reality shows, shows like those on MTV Cradles and sites like TMZ and Perez Hilton’s blog (all referenced in The True Bling Ring ) collided to create an unprecedented sense of intimacy and immediacy between the stars and their audience. The lines seemed to blur between the celebrities and the rest of us.

The Bling Ring happened at the very beginning of the social media boom. By taking control of their own platforms, celebrities have found ways to foster an impression of intimacy between themselves and the public, often on their own terms. But there is a fallacy in this impression of closeness: it is clear that celebrities have remained remote and their lifestyles unattainable. That was always the main point.

About Zohaib Boorat

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