One August afternoon when I was fourteen, my friend and I somehow acquired enough cash to rent a white stretch limo for an afternoon to drive us around Calabasas, the affluent San Fernando Valley suburb that spawned and still comfortably hosts the Kardashians. A few years after our impromptu joyride, the "Bling Ring" teenagers would sneak back to their parents' Calabasas homes after stealing millions of dollars worth of high-end stuff from the unlocked estates of Us Weekly favorites like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton. That afternoon, all I knew about Calabasas was that it looked even more antiseptic from behind tinted glass. Not that I was really in a contemplative mood.
The details are hazy — I can't recall what inspired us to rent a limo or how we paid for it, just that it was neither my idea nor money — but I remember slipping into the long, slick car around the corner from my friend's house in a shabbier area of the Valley and driving twenty minutes to pick up another girl at Calabasas High School. The two mocked me for slinking down into the cushions in case my mother happened to drive by and glimpse her daughter chilling in a stretch limo during rush hour traffic. They preened using the car's various shiny surfaces as if we were about to arrive somewhere other than from whence we came. I slouched the entire time, terrified.
Nancy Jo Sales' The Bling Ring (an extension of her 2010 Vanity Fair article "The Suspects Wore Louboutins", which inspired the Sophia Coppola movie opening next month) will delight those who consider "true crime" novels and tabloids guilty pleasures, but a less commercially enterprising editor (or one with a sense of humor) might've titled it The Calabasas Spring. The teenagers ran glamorously amok during 2008-2009, just a few years before Occupy Wall Street. These bratty, comically entitled teens didn't intend to be revolutionaries, but they still represent the inverse extreme of the movement that would rise soon after. Some young people are mobilized by class anxiety/resentment to protest that shit's fucked up and bullshit. Others apparently become so desensitized by the programming that they want to step into the television.
I binge-read The Bling Ring on a recent flight from New York to Los Angeles. I was going home to visit my parents in Encino, the suburb nestled between Calabasas and L.A. proper where I grew up. The book triggered traumatizing Valley Girl flashbacks, the sort that hit me on the rare occasions I find myself in a shopping mall surrounded by the brands I was peer-pressured into worshipping by my private school classmates during my adolescence. A friend of mine who was unimpressed by the book told me it's naive to take a Vanity Fair writer at face value who argues that it "may be too easy to blame pop culture and the media for promoting the 'value' of fame," that "movies and TV shows and popular music are often more of a reflection than an engine of cultural trends." And sure, it's less than radical to connect a growing national obsession with fame with a growing national obsession with wealth. But Sales' overarching point — or, at least, the one that resonated most for me — is that the Bling Ring kids craved acknowledgment and acceptance more than wealth or fame; they wanted to feel famous because they wanted to feel rich because they wanted to feel loved.
Maybe I'm projecting. I, too, was a dissatisfied Valley Girl who grew up coveting Juicy Couture velour tracksuits instead of questioning their exorbitant price (and dubious aesthetic value) because I hoped the right brands would lead to solidarity. No, I wouldn't have stolen Lindsay's custom-made black mink coat. I wasn't that brave. When all the trappings of fame are just a few freeway stops away, going out and trying to grab some for yourself seems somewhat reasonable, if not exactly laudable. It seems like a solution, anyway.
When the media first got tipped off to the Bling Ring, "everybody wanted them to be like kids on Gossip Girl," Sales writes. But she found that "the kids weren't as rich as everyone seemed to want to believe… it seemed they lived more like typical teenagers. They were better off than many kids, at the dawning of the great recession; but they didn't appear to be wealthy in the way of the new elite class that had been engaging in the regulated accumulation of capital for the better part of three decades. They weren't as rich as other people in Calabasas, or their victims, either. Which made them wannabes."
I never told my high school friends about the limo afternoon (my cohort was a friend from summer camp) because they would've considered the whole escapade rather gauche. The girls in my grade weren't into bling tourism. They were the daughters of Hollywood agents and production company CEOs, and they favored boring but incredibly expensive stuff: Tiffany heart bracelets, Prada purses, Earl jean jackets. Dry-cleaning was key, as was replacing your Ugg boots annually so they wouldn't scuff or smell. I started to fetishize glossy, clean objects with smooth edges even though I had always preferred chaos: tangles of costume jewelry, clashing prints. Before I entered high school, my favorite "fancy" outfit was a electric blue leopard-print furry tube top. Soon, I was begging my mother to buy me simple black dresses from Theory that she wouldn't have splurged on herself.
My first serious boyfriend's stepmother was related to one of the founders of Juicy Couture. When we kissed for the first time, I texted my friends that I had hooked up with the "Juicy guy," as if he was a prince of merchandise. I think I subconsciously hoped I could marry into his lineage and erase all my shameful memories, like the time I was called out for carrying a fake Kate Spade cherry-print clutch that my grandmother had purchased for me in a downtown alley. "That's not real," my lab partner informed me. "Kate Spade doesn't make that pattern."
I saved up my allowance for months to buy those sweaty Uggs and scoured Loehmann's for half-priced Marc Jacobs miniskirts. I never questioned whether I actually liked the spoiled princess aesthetic, because everyone wanted to wear these brands, including the teen celebrities we saw everywhere: Hilary Duff at house parties, Shia LaBeouf at school sporting events, Lindsay Lohan at Starbucks. Growing up, it was not an abnormal occurrence to be reading an article about Mary-Kate Olsen in Us Weekly while getting a manicure three feet away from Mary-Kate Olsen.
There's a lot to unpack about fandom and celebrity in The Bling Ring. What came first: the celebrity or the fan? What constitutes a fan these days, anyway? Audrina Patridge and Lindsay Lohan released security footage to TMZ after they were robbed so that their fans could help nab the thieves like loyal little elves. "She's a little obsessed girl," Patridge said of one Bling Ring member. There's a thin line between being obsessed enough to help a celebrity solve a relatively petty theft but not so obsessed that you don't want to be her real-life confidante.
And what constitutes a celebrity? Sales notes that the Bling Ring celebrity targets were not only rich and famous but that "nearly all of them had been in movies or on popular TV shows about people who were rich and famous or wanted to be rich and famous." They were hot and loaded, but not particularly talented. The Bling Ring's Nick Prugo said his codefendant (and suspected ringleader) Rachel Lee stole from these specific celebrities because she wanted the lifestyle "that we all sort of want."
I graduated high school in 2005, a few months before the launch of celebrity gossip behemoth TMZ and three years before the Bling Ring would rob Paris Hilton's house for the first time. I sold all my designer merchandise to secondhand stores during my first Thanksgiving break back home and used the money to buy books I could talk about with my new friends, who were more concerned with paying their tuition than affording real Kate Spade purses. I forgot about the time a friend invited me to her Beverly Hills mansion after school on a rainy day and, en route, stopped by a boutique to pick up an entirely new outfit, without trying it on, because her clothes were damp. I forgot that I was awestruck by the pit stop rather than disgusted.
Prugo, who was allegedly coerced into confessing by his sleazy lawyer, said he helped orchestrate the Bling Ring's robberies because his partners in crime were his first real friends. Sales' book implies that the other teenagers — even notoriously sketchy Alexis Neiers — had similarly tragic textbook motivations. Again: they wanted to feel famous because they wanted to feel rich because they wanted to feel loved.
"You get the limo out front," Miley Cyrus, a Bling Ring target, sings in the theme song to Hannah Montana, the Disney TV show about a high school girl who lives a double life as a famous pop star that made Cyrus a household name. "Yeah, when you're famous it can be kinda fun."
Sales wants us to see (and lament) the connection between growing up watching TV shows about accessible tween celebs who "get the limo out front" and feeling entitled to a limo of your own, to living twenty minutes from celebrities who Tweet and Facebook their whereabouts and don't bother to lock their front doors to going on over.
I see it. I never went on over; most of us wouldn't. But I grew into the type of young adult who casually dabbled in Occupy instead of casually flipping through tabloids. I'm not much of a revolutionary either way.
I don't know why some kids break the law to embody their anxieties instead of revolt against them. All I keep thinking about is the Sisqó sticker that's still stuck to my bedroom mirror because my best friend in 7th grade told me he was hot. I was never a fan of the "Thong Song" singer. But I still can't get it off.