Like all the best fabled morality tales this one begins in a walk-in wardrobe. The wardrobe belongs to Paris Hilton and the interlopers into that strange fantasy land are a pair of bored high school dropouts who have wandered here in search of adventure (and free designer stuff).
Nick Prugo, 18, and Rachel Lee, 17, are a Bonnie and Clyde for the ’00s, kind of. In October 2008 in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, they were spending their days watching reality TV shows, browsing gossip websites and flicking through fashion magazines, until one evening they decided they would try that life on for size themselves.
They found Hilton’s address on Mulholland Drive from a website called Celebrity Address Aerial, drove there, walked up to the front door of the 700-square-meter yellowstone villa and rang the bell. Once they had established Paris was not at home they looked under the doormat, found a key, and let themselves in. Within seconds they were in her closet among the “Manolos, Louboutins, Jimmy Choos and a pair of YSLs shaped like the Eiffel Tower.”
Lee took a dress, they shared some cash out of Hilton’s many, many bags, and they stepped out into their bizarre new life of celebrity thieves. Over the subsequent year or so, Lee and Prugo along with a loose gang of three other girlfriends — wannabe actors and models — and a couple of more hardened associates conspired to steal more than $3 million in clothing, shoes and jewelry from the homes of Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Orlando Bloom and others, in robberies they came to see as shopping expeditions. In nearly all cases they let themselves into houses that were unlocked. To begin with, they took only a few trophy items, which they wore on club nights out — it took five raids on Hilton’s home before she realized anything was missing — but eventually, inevitably they became greedier, until Prugo was arrested in September 2009 and confessed all to the police.
That confession was not the only one that was made. This being Hollywood, each of the “Bling Ring,” apart from the elusive ringleader Lee, spoke also to various reporters and television stations until they became almost as famous on the websites they used to trawl as the stars they “burglarized.” The reporter Nancy Jo Sales wrote the definitive account of all of this for Vanity Fair magazine; that story was optioned by Sofia Coppola, the director, and released as a film, starring Emma Watson.
This book is Sales’ extended version of the story, written with a nod to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” in providing a scarcely credible, meticulously detailed report of the motivation and “lifestyle” of the gang. Somehow Sales manages to keep her head while all about her seem to be losing theirs. Three of the Bling Ring moonlight as would-be stars of their own reality show about wayward Hollywood teens living in several layers of fantasy while Sales determinedly keeps it real. Outraged by Sales’ original Vanity Fair article, one of these girls phones her in a hysterical rage, with her mother screaming in the background — only to repeat the message immediately, presumably for another take in what becomes a celebrated episode of their TV show.
There is of course no such thing as a victimless crime, and some of the celebrity targets were clearly violated by the gang’s breaking and entering, but that did not stop Lee and Prugo (each received a two-year prison term) becoming outlaw heroes to many of the gawkers and twitterers who, like them, were in envious thrall to the lives of the rich and famous. They saw their organized theft “as a form of flattery as much as it was a crime”; they only picked on stars whose style they admired. And in some ways burglary helped them to separate fantasy from the truth: being in Hilton’s house, Prugo said, helped him to “see her more as a real person.”
Sales broadens the story carefully to make it comment sharply on wider issues without straining for significance: the sexualization of children, the empty aspirations of a fame culture, the vaunted narcissism of the music these teenagers listened to and the films they watched, the corrupt and corrupting political climate in which they grew up. Arguably the film, on which some of those involved consulted, and in which Hilton — and her wardrobe — appear, further glamorizes the “Barbie Dreamhouse” fantasies that fueled the story in the first place. This book though, with its depth of insight into extremes of shallowness, and its human scale, reads like a minor classic of our times.