Rarely do we come across a book that is at once well-researched and engaging as Nancy-Jo Sales’ The Bling Ring. A well-known and respected journalist, Sales, who is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine, specialises in stories about debauchery amongst the young, wealthy and often notorious in New York and Los Angeles.
This book is a hugely expanded version of the writer’s 2008 article The Suspects Wore Louboutins, which had her interviewing teenagers who were suspected (and later convicted) of breaking into the homes of celebrities like Paris Hilton, Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan to steal their clothes.
A story not just that of the seven Bling Ring members convicted for the burglaries, but also one that is reflective of modern AmericaSofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring (released July 2013) is also based on Sales’ piece. The writer discusses meeting with the director, who also employed the adolescent burglars as consultants on the movie, at intervals throughout the book.
The book is a fascinating read. From late 2008 to summer 2009, the ‘Bling Ring’, a group of teenagers led by the mysterious-seeming Rachel Lee (whom Sales never gets to interview) from the swish Calabasas suburb of LA, took it upon themselves to enter and rob the homes of famous people amassing an estimated $3 million worth of stolen goods before they were arrested.
The sheer nerve that it must have taken a group of still-in-school teens to plan and pull off such heists would seem extraordinary had the perpetrators not been so casual about their acts.
They returned to Hilton’s home a number of times always assured entry by the fact that the heiress kept a spare key under the front door mat, replacing each one they removed.
Idiotic as this seems, it’s not atypical. The great majority of the robberies were enabled by famous people’s seemingly lax view of security measures such as locking doors and windows or setting their burglar alarms.
More interesting though is the teens’ motivation for “going shopping” (their term for burglarising) celebrities in the first place. They did, it seems, merely have style crushes on celebrities such as the similarly lawless Lindsay Lohan (who Sales has also written excellent profiles of).
The growth of celebrity or tabloid culture, which has seen the most mundane activities of the most anodyne D-lister reported as news, twinned with the growth of social media that sees the famous regularly tweeting pictures of themselves the same way our next door neighbours might, meant that these kids definition of celebrity and fame differed intensely from that of people who grew up in the pre-internet era.
By robbing famous people the kids sought out the lifestyle of the famous, rendering themselves notorious upon being caught. Throughout the books, Sales takes the time to consider what caused her subjects to turn to crime.
An excellent journalist, she considers social and political factors (“growing up under the shadow of 9/11”), as well as the familial, piecing together a story that is not just that of the seven Bling Ring members who were convicted for the burglaries, but also one that is reflective of a modern America, where celebrity has now become a currency so strong that teenagers are trying to subsume it in wholly inappropriate ways.
A Warholian morality tale, told through interviews with the burglars, their families, police officers, and Sales’ own excellent analyses, the book gives readers an insight into the world of privileged LA teenagers, a group so spoiled they genuinely believe that anything is theirs for the taking.
Recommended for: Fans of celebrity culture and those who despise it, anyone with an interest in investigative journalism.
Further recommended reading: Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F by Christiane F., Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein, Fallen Angels: Chronicles LA Crime and Mystery by Katherine Mader and Marvin J. Wolf.