The opening scene reads like a fairy tale: two robbers enter Paris Hilton's castle-shaped estate (she's out, but leaves her key handily under the mat). A quick rifle through her purse reveals crumpled $100 bills stuffed casually inside like pocket change. In the closet, racks upon racks of designer clothes suggest a beautiful idea -- to become famous, just steal the costume. The thieves, a boy and girl not quite Hilton's age, look out from her bedroom window to their own pitiful homes in the distance. All they can do from the perch of a modern princess is laugh, before looting the place in such a way she has no idea they even came.
So starts "The Bling Ring," a book by Nancy Jo Sales that ostensibly tracks the doings of the largest robbery ring in Hollywood history, but goes way beyond. Sales is having her moment. The Vanity Fair contributing editor's terse 2010 article, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” hits the big screen today, as the source material for Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring.” And Sales' same-titled companion book happens to be perfect summer reading: a play-by-play of the motivations and methods of a real group of fame-obsessed L.A. kids who systematically stole some $3 million in clothes and valuables from the homes of unsuspecting celebrities. That too, during the global recession. In researching this latest project, Sales, who has long covered what she calls the "kids beat," considered the shifting American fixation with wealth, fame and celebrities. The Huffington Post sat down to chat with the writer for her take on what ails us.
The Huffington Post: The story of the real bling ring is a pretty juicy one, and perfect for a magazine piece. How did you land on it?
Nancy Jo Sales: I saw an AP wire online -- it was just a four or five paragraph story, but as soon as I saw it, I said, ‘I have to do it.’ It suggested itself immediately as such an iconic thing, to most of the media. I was out in California in two or three days, and I felt like I was fighting for the story. Every time the kids had a court date, there was a [huge] press corp, as if they were covering a war.
HP: In the book, you talk about how the kids’ sense of self-importance seemed to infect everybody involved.
NJS: Everyone. The cops and lawyers started acting like celebrities. They were getting barraged with press requests. People say, ‘Why are kids so obsessed with fame?’ Everybody's obsessed with fame.
HP: Did you ever feel yourself getting caught up in the mania?
NJS: I'm very uncomfortable in those settings unless I'm there as a reporter. My job is to observe things. I think if I've been successful at all, it’s because I’ve been able to maintain a distance from celebrity culture.
Having said that, I did go on Twitter for the first time about 6 months after I wrote this book. And I'm doing this interview with you. I want people to read my book! But I want to do it without any kind of celebrification of self.
HP: Do you think social media makes that hard?
NJS: Social media exists, there's no taking it away. But it’s just a broadcasting tool. It doesn't have to be used for constant self-promotion. I think the way kids use it will change if the messages that are promoted by our culture change.
HP: Where are the messages coming from?
NJS: Every single one of the victims in the bling ring had been involved at some point in a movie or television show about the rich and famous, or wanting to be rich and famous. But as much as you can talk about “Gossip Girl” and “Hannah Montana” and “Entourage,” what’s really happening is we’ve had a redistribution of wealth toward a very small number of people in the last 30 years. That is a fact, and I think that it has affected everything. And unfortunately, how it has affected everything -- in some strange twist that I don't quite understand -- is it has not made people want to change things so much as it has just made them envious.
I think that’s why they went into those houses. It's kind of like an age-old fable, sneaking into the castle and sitting on the king’s throne. There was all this anxiety in the country about what's going to happen to us financially, are we going to survive this financial collapse, and then suddenly they're sneaking into rich people's homes and stealing their stuff.
HP: You’ve been writing about kids for longer than some of the bling ring kids have been alive. What are some shifts you’ve seen?
NJS: Kids in the ‘90s started telling me about how they wanted to be famous. They'd do graffiti not because they wanted to do beautiful street art, but because they wanted to tag their names everywhere. But, back in those days, they were out. In New York, the street was this common area where kids of different neighborhoods intermingled. On the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side, there used to be packs of them, hanging out, talking, listening to hip hop.
Some of them were a little misguided, if not really misguided. I did stories on kids who were drug dealing, and into all kinds of craziness. But they were experiencing the world in real time. Now they're on their phones and computers. I think that's a big change. I don't want to say if it's bad or good, but it's a change.
HP: The Atlantic made some noise recently about how much Sofia Coppola’s script owes to your research, in a piece that was largely about the fading respect for journalism. Do you feel like the sort of journalism you’ve practiced -- out on the street, talking to people -- still has a place?
NJS: That headline made me a little uncomfortable because I don't want it to seem like I'm making any claims on her work. But I think they did it to make a point, and I like the point they made. We're in a very precarious moment, especially in print journalism, and we all know it. It's troubling because journalism is so important, not just for making movies but for giving information to people. As a journalist, you find out the infinite variety of life. The material that comes from life is always the most surprising.