By Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times
4:48 PM EDT, May 24, 2013
"Can you give mommy a cue? Are you hungry?" 21-year-old Alexis Neiers cooed to her crying newborn in the middle of a faux-upscale Calabasas restaurant last week. "When she puts her hands in her mouth, she's hungry. Right now, she's just tired. Maybe a little constipated."
None of the other diners paid much attention to Neiers — former reality TV star, recovering addict and convicted felon — as she pulled her daughter, Harper, to her breast and began to feed the 3-week-old.
It was a moment of utter normalcy for Neiers, who shot to notoriety in 2009 when she was arrested and charged with being a part of a group of celebrity-obsessed young burglary suspects that came to be known as the "Bling Ring." She and six acquaintances were accused of stealing millions of dollars worth of clothing, art and jewelry from the homes of stars including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom. For years, paparazzi trailed Neiers nearly everywhere she went, giving her more than 15 minutes of not entirely unwelcome fame.
"I definitely got carried away," she said, rocking Harper. "It was like, 'I'm crazy and I'm OK with it. I'm going to walk out of this club, be trashed, TMZ's gonna be there and I'm not gonna give a ...'"
Four years on, the cycle of media intrigue spawned by the crime spree may finally be leaving Neiers behind, even as it grows and morphs in new directions. "The Bling Ring," a movie about the burglars written and directed by Sofia Coppola, premiered to much ado at the Cannes Film Festival last week and arrives in U.S. theaters June 14.
Rarely has there been such a heady, almost Mobius strip-like intersection between real life and celebrity culture, TV and film as there has been over the Bling Ring. The real-life protagonists and an ever-growing circle of Hollywood types who have sought to capture or capitalize on their escapades have intermingled in strange, sometimes disturbing, ways.
Obsessed with celebrity and fashion, the seven young burglary suspects — Neiers along with Nicholas Prugo, now 22; Rachel Lee, 23; Courtney Ames, 22; Roy Lopez Jr., 31; Diana Tamayo, 21; and Jonathan Ajar — became famous themselves after the robberies. A book was written about them. E! made a reality show, "Pretty Wild," about Neiers and her BFF, Tess Taylor.
And then Coppola, a member of a famous family herself, decided to turn her lens on their story. She hired an L.A. cop who was involved in the case to consult on the film, and gave him a cameo in it. Cameras rolled even before the prosecutions were finished.
Eventually four of the defendants were sent to prison, while three others received probation. All are now free.
While the stars of "The Bling Ring" were decked out in designer wares on the Croisette last week, many of the members of the actual group are trying to piece their lives back together.
Growing up in Ventura County's Oak Park neighborhood, Neiers recalls feeling proximate to yet removed from the world of Hollywood. "I wasn't this rich girl that grew up in suburbia. I wasn't poor by any means, but we shopped at Marshalls and TJ Maxx," she said.
Her father, Mikael, worked as a director of photography on "Friends" while her mother, Andrea, is a former actress and model who posed for Playboy in the 1980s. After they divorced, Andrea wed a production designer. Home-schooled by her mother — who has a strong interest in Chinese herbs, flower essences and religious science — Neiers said that as a teen she wasn't desperate to get close to Hollywood types, though she routinely encountered them when she went out with friends including Taylor.
"Tess and I would run into celebrities at clubs, and the club promoter would shove us at their table because we were hot and cute, and that's what club promoters do in order to make the celebrities buy more bottles," she said, shrugging her shoulders.
In 2009, Neiers and Taylor were on the set of a low-budget indie film called "Frat Party" when they met Dan Levy, a comedian and writer.
"Tess told me her dream was to be on 'The Girls Next Door,'" Levy recalled, referring to the late E! reality show documenting Hugh Hefner's romantic life. "They were such characters that I thought their life would be great for a reality show. They were super into the idea of being famous, but I had no idea how serious it was."
Levy hatched an idea for "Pretty Wild," a comic reality show centering on Neiers, her oddball mother and Taylor. While the pilot was being filmed though, police investigating the celebrity burglaries descended upon Neiers' home, and the show's focus quickly shifted. Neiers' legal drama unfolded as the show aired, and she admits getting swept up in the attention.
At one point, she said, she "was living at a Best Western on Franklin and Vine smoking crack and shooting heroin every day. I was ridiculous. I was absolutely crazy. I stole money from people. I stole money from my own mother. I beat people up. I kicked in cars. I did a lot of really terrible things ... and I'm on the path now of making amends now for what I've done wrong."
Neiers eventually pleaded no contest to a charge of burglarizing Bloom's house and served 30 days of a 180-day sentence. She maintains that she was intoxicated during the burglary, never actually entered Bloom's home, and that her lawyer coerced her into taking the plea deal.
In hindsight, she said, her desire for attention stemmed from many sources — physical and sexual abuse, her parents' divorce — but also from growing up in a society that values the rich and famous. Although she says she wasn't nearly as transfixed by Perez Hilton headlines as her character — portrayed by Emma Watson — is in "The Bling Ring," Neiers admits she did look admiringly upon the world of celebrity.
"It's an escape. 'If only I had that handbag. If only he was my boyfriend.' Everybody deals with that — including myself," said Neiers, who last year married a 38-year-old Canadian businessman she met at Alcoholics Anonymous. "I just think that Nick and Rachel took it to another level [by starting the break-ins] — and then we all got an inside look into these celebrities' lives as well, based on what these kids were doing. I think that's why the Bling Ring is still so prevalent today."
"The Bling Ring" continues Coppola's fascination with youth, the idle rich, the ennui that money and fame can bring — themes she has explored in atmospheric films such as "Somewhere" and "Lost in Translation."
In 2011, Coppola reached out to Neiers and her mother about her desire to make a Bling Ring film, telling them in an email, "I'm dedicated to trying to make something artistic and poetic that shows our culture today."
At Cannes, though, some critics found the filmmaker didn't have much to say about Millennials. "I sense no mystery, no depth there," wrote the Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek. Others, like the Daily Telegraph's Robbie Collin, embraced the movie's ambiguity: "Coppola's teasing flirtation with, yet ultimate lack of commitment to, some kind of concrete morality."
In the south of France, Coppola expressed wonderment at the brazenness of the Bling Ring, telling journalists: "They wanted to steal Paris Hilton's dog. I couldn't even make that up." She worried, she said, about making "the kids more famous than they already were," which is why she opted to change the names of the characters.
That will likely come as a relief to former Bling Ringers such as Lopez. After pleading no contest to one count of receiving stolen property from Hilton's home, he moved to Texas to restart his life. He said he is working a job in the oil fields.
"When I was in California," he said in a phone interview, "the Bling Ring thing kind of followed me. I went to apply for a job, and some girl was like, 'You're the guy from TMZ.' But out here, nobody knows about it. Even my parole officer was like, 'Really? You were a part of that? Do I have to worry about 'A Current Affair' coming to my office?'"
Others are also seeking to maintain low profiles — and their distance from their former co-defendants. Prugo, reached via Facebook, said he had recently been contacted by multiple media outlets but wasn't doing interviews.
Lee, depicted in the film as the ringleader of the gang, hasn't given an interview since her arrest. She pleaded no contest to burglarizing the Hollywood Hills home of Audrina Patridge, a reality star on MTV's "The Hills," and was sentenced to four years. At the California Institute for Women, Lee worked in a special program known as Fire Camp, where she and other inmates helped suppress brush and wild fires. She was paroled after serving roughly a year and four months.
Lee did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Wendy Feldman, a self-described "prison coach" who said she helped Lee surrender and was instrumental in getting her into Fire Camp, noted that Lee remains on probation.
"If somebody is really trying to change their life and not looking for their 15 minutes of fame, what good does it do to talk right now?" Feldman said. "She may have had the option to go do a media blast but is instead taking her time and learning a lesson from this. It's not funny, and nothing to be proud of. Maybe that's her point of view."
Neiers has been the most public of the Bling Ring members. She has a blog and tweets, and when a trailer for Coppola's movie hit the Web she called it "trashy and inaccurate" on Twitter.
At Cannes, Coppola said she wouldn't be surprised if the real-life Bling Ringers disliked the film. "It's not a documentary," she said. "We made a movie, and I'm not too concerned with their reaction."
In researching the film, Coppola and her producer, Youree Henley, met with Neiers, her mother and Taylor. According to payroll records subpoenaed by attorneys, the family's production company was paid $100,000 for their life rights, while Taylor received $10,000.
Over lunch, Henley recalled, Andrea Neiers pressed the filmmakers to examine phone records and police reports she claimed would prove her daughter's innocence. "I had the misfortune of sitting between Alexis and her mom, and there was constant cross-talking," Henley said on set of the movie in Venice Beach last year. "I think they're flattered. And seemingly crazy."
"They were helpful," Coppola added. "But the most helpful has really been Brett Goodkin."
Goodkin served as the lead detective in the case and was a paid consultant on the movie. For $12,500, Coppola said he advised on the realities of arresting a suspect and in a surprise turn agreed to play himself in one scene — slapping the cuffs on Watson's character.
Goodkin, however, soon became the subject of an internal affairs probe into whether he failed to get permission from the LAPD to work on the movie, and whether he neglected to inform the district attorney about his role. At the time of production last year, Ames, Tamayo and Lopez were awaiting trial — and eventually were offered probation in plea deals.
"You should all write a thank-you letter to Goodkin, because his judgment is as poor as it gets," Judge Larry P. Fidler said while addressing their attorneys last July. "You can have a field day with his credibility during trial.... It's a shame what he did. It's harmful to the people's case."
Goodkin, who refused requests for comment, is awaiting a ruling from a disciplinary panel.
Another player in the real-life crimes — burglary victim Paris Hilton — also got involved with the film. She allowed Coppola to shoot in her mansion, which moviegoers will see is adorned with a stripper pole, a shoe rack organized by designer and numerous framed photos of herself.
Hilton attended the Cannes premiere and told a reporter that she felt violated watching the scenes in which the criminals ransack her house. "During some parts of it, I literally had tears in my eyes and I wanted to cry," she told New York Magazine's Vulture blog. "It just made me really angry and upset, and when I see these kids, I want to, like, slap them."
Watson, whose pole dancing and other bad behavior in "Bling Ring" seems a concerted effort to move beyond her goody-two-shoes "Harry Potter" role, agrees the characters can be hard to watch.
My character "is everything that I felt really strongly against — she's superficial, materialistic, vain, amoral," Watson, 23, told British GQ in May. " I realized that I really hated her. How do you play someone that you hate?"
But even Watson found herself being sucked into the allure of celebrity while filming with Hilton and being around her excess.
"She said goodbye to me and said 'nice to meet you, gorgeous,'" Watson recalled. "And I was like, 'whoa, my life just got really weird."
Steve Zeitchik in Cannes, France, contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times