We Need to Talk About Pretty Wild
by ALICE BOLIN
At the start, E!’s Pretty Wild might have been destined to be less than a footnote in the history of reality TV. Following two teenage sisters, party morons/“models” Alexis Neiers and Tess Taylor, the show was after the audience of The Hills, MTV’s classic reality show about random rich twenty-somethings in the Hollywood Hills, every stilted, mesmerizing minute of which was staged for the cameras. It is safe to assume that the producers of Pretty Wild at least tried to stage every minute of it too. There are many silly reality TV setups: Alexis and Tess buying bikinis, Alexis and Tess frolicking on the beach in Cabo San Lucas hand in hand. Tess goes on a lackluster “date” with singer Ryan Cabrera, who has been courting girls with reality shows since 2003, when he dated Ashlee Simpson at the time of her MTV series; he was also one of Audrina Patridge’s love interests on The Hills.
Most of Neiers and Taylor’s modeling careers seem engineered for the show too, as when their mom, Andrea Arlington Dunn, reports that she’s booked them a job with “an organization that’s doing a photoshoot.” One suspects that the organization was called E! Entertainment Television. And the girls gamely play up their shallow, ridiculous personas for the camera: Neiers talks about how she is eager to be in the music video for Kid Rock’s new song, “Rock Bitch.” “It says in the song, ‘sliding down from heaven on a slipper pole,’” she says. “And I was like, ‘That’s totally me!’”
The weirdo factor that elevates the girls to subjects of TV-interest is their mother’s wacky spiritualism. Their house is decorated with three-foot Buddha heads. Dunn reports that she’s designed her home-schooling curriculum around The Secret. The family prays incessantly, ending each prayer with the affirmative “and so it is” instead of “amen.” Dunn is often shown wearing the ear clips that go with her “frequency meter.” This might have been all the show was: bikinis and vodka cranberries and “and so it is.” But three factors changed the show’s course and its destiny, making it of significant interest now as an artifact of Hollywood crime history, and as a testament to the competing realities of “reality,” journalism, and art.
The first was Neiers’ arrest, shortly after the show started filming in summer 2009, for involvement in the Bling Ring, a group of LA teenagers who, over less than a year, stole more than $3 million of goods from celebrity homes. The second was Neiers’ arrest, in 2010, for possession of heroin, the year-long stay in rehab that gave her health and sobriety, and her revelation that during the filming of Pretty Wild she “had an over-$10,000-a-week drug habit,” “smoking 20 80-mg oxys a day” and “doing tons of cocaine.” The third was the production of a movie, The Bling Ring, written and directed by Sofia Coppola, which bases characters on Neiers, Taylor, and Dunn, and directly, faithfully reenacts long scenes from Pretty Wild.
Pretty Wild makes for some uncomfortable television — the very real strife in its subjects’ lives resists the show’s genre, that of staged “reality” TV, a form that is typically placid, awkward, and artificial. At times the show tries to co-opt its stars’ troubles for its clumsy set-ups: Dunn adopted Taylor when she was young because her mother struggled with drug abuse, and when Taylor is unable to take care of her new puppy, they have an obviously staged family meeting in which Taylor’s inadequate puppy parenting is unfortunately compared to her own abandonment by her mother.
There are also times when the staged scenes spin crazily out of control, as the family’s problems assert themselves unexpectedly. In the series’ last episode, the producers broach Neiers’ addiction lamely, with scenes of Dunn finding a bottle of Xanax and a sleepy looking Neiers walking around holding a blanket. Dunn says that Neiers has been acting strangely “for the past two days”; she must have been aware of Neiers’ substance abuse before then, since by Neiers’ later account, when the show wasn’t filming she was “living at a Best Western on Franklin and Vine” because of her drug habit.
During the episode, Taylor, Dunn, and Neiers’ younger sister Gabby decide to have what they call “a little intervention.” This was probably meant by producers to come to a happy resolution, with Alexis agreeing to seek help, or to produce some sterile, amusing reality TV “drama.” But the intervention escalates scarily and unexpectedly — especially if we are meant to believe that Neiers had only been mildly abusing Xanax for two days. Shortly after their “supportive” opening comments, the family starts yelling at Neiers, following her as she runs through the house and yelling “You are a drug addict!” and “You are crazy!” “Everyone saw Anna Nicole like this too,” Dunn says to her, “And look at her now.” That remark hits so close to the reality of Neiers’ drug problem that it seems unlikely it was in the script.
This slippage between the real and the fake is disorienting and sad. One can imagine that the family might find comfort in the ordered, artificial “reality” that the show laid over their lives — that it might have helped them to have some distance from their pain. Their enthusiastic participation in this heightened, simplified performance of their lives could explain why the most real moments on the show feel the most false. When the police come to the house to arrest Neiers for her involvement in the Bling Ring, Gabby appears at the top of the stairs and yells theatrically, “What is going on?” Her performance is so phony that one starts to believe that the cameras may have missed the actual moment of the arrest, and the show’s producers have had to reenact it. But then the police officer at the door says, “Shut off the cameras,” and the picture goes dark. So the scene couldn’t have been staged. Could it?
The immortal moment in Pretty Wild occurs after Neiers has agreed to be interviewed by Vanity Fair reporter Nancy Jo Sales, who has promised to “tell [her] story.” Neiers is devastated by “lies” Sales writes about her, including that she wore six-inch Christian Louboutin heels to court, when in fact she was wearing “four-inch little brown Bebe shoes.” Neiers is shown in hysterics, recording voicemail after tearful voicemail for Sales.
On the show we see a portion of their interview, and it is so chummy that Sales’ ultimate betrayal does feel a little unseemly. “We are so wholesome and down-to-earth,” Neiers says, lounging with Sales on a bed. When Neiers breaks down, talking about the “very rocky, tough, tough times” in her life, Sales gives her a hug. This is just the predicament of the journalist that Janet Malcolm talks about in her classic book The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm describes the journalist as “a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” The journalist promises to tell the subject’s story, when that is never their intention — Sales was loyal to her own story, not Neiers’. Sales’ article also mentions Neiers’ use of oxycodone, which is a more logical reason for her meltdown than Sales getting her shoes wrong. This fact is not mentioned on the show, which is, of course, not telling the whole story either.
Coppola based The Bling Ring on Sales’ article, and the film follows it very closely, with its dialogue often pulled directly from the article. The most outrageous borrowed lines in the movie come from the character based on Neiers, played by Emma Watson. “I’m a firm believer in karma,” Watson simpers, “and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being.” Watson’s contempt for her own character is obvious. “I want to lead a huge charity organization,” she says with sticky insincerity. “I want to lead a country for all I know.”
Coppola gave actual words spoken by Neiers to a classy British actress to say in an over-the-top valley girl accent, so that the fakeness of the delivery heightens the reality and ridiculousness of the lines, making the obvious point of the film even more obvious: these kids are shitheads. The film also restages scenes from Pretty Wild, as when Dunn is giving the girls a home schooling lesson on “character development,” and asks them what characteristics they admire about Angelina Jolie. “Her husband?” Taylor says.
But as closely as the film recreated things Neiers really said, Watson’s portrayal of her is different than Neiers’ character on Pretty Wild. On the show, Neiers is babyish, shallow, and mannered — she comes downstairs the day after she’s arrested wearing a pair of pink short shorts with “POLE HOTTIE” printed on the seat — but she is not the cold, robotic, empty-headed beauty queen of the movie. She is at times blindly affectionate towards her sisters, at other times hysterical and desperate — which is understandable when considering the severity of her addiction and the long prison sentence she was facing.
Coppola’s film allows the audience to enjoy the audacity with which the Bling Ring fulfilled their fantasy of owning a piece of celebrity, while it comfortably condemns them as stupid, entitled, and amoral. They almost certainly were these things. But Pretty Wild, despite all of its artificiality, sometimes gets closer to the real story, by acknowledging a truth The Bling Ring doesn’t deal with: shitheads have feelings too.
It is notable throughout Pretty Wild’s nine episodes the number of times that Neiers bursts into a litany of her good attributes. “I’m a great person,” she says, “And people who really know me, who did do their research on me, would know the great things I do for the community, for this universe.” “We are successful, independent, strong women,” she and Taylor tell each other on the beach in Cabo. “My main destiny in life is to be a leader,” Neiers tells Sales during their interview, and later, when she is leaving her a voicemail, she says, sobbing, “I opened up to you so the world could potentially know what a great, amazing, strong, talented, healthy girl I am.” When a guy she’s on a date with asks about her involvement in the burglaries, she says, “You should at least know that I’m an honest, good, spiritual person.”
Coppola has interpreted this habit basically as a kind of PR damage control, Neiers’ clumsy attempt to shape her public image. But Pretty Wild offers another explanation. The beliefs that Neiers was raised with, essentially the self-help spirituality of The Secret and Ernest Holmes’ Religious Science movement, place a huge emphasis on the power of positive thinking. This compulsive affirmation was the way Neiers learned from a young age that she could control her reality. “If Buddha can sit under a tree for forty days, I can do this,” Neiers says after she is sentenced to six months in jail. “I can do this.”
Alexis, her sisters, and her mom are a close, indulgent family, saying, “I’m so proud of you” at the smallest signs of progress. Their cheery approach to their problems is ultimately what makes Pretty Wild so sad. Dunn talks about how she wasn’t raised with any boundaries, so she hasn’t been able to set them with her children — she walks in on Taylor in the shower and says, “Nobody has breasts like you do.” Then she enlists Gabby to help with an impromptu nude photo shoot; “You are so gorgeous,” she says while instructing Taylor to soap up her breasts. At one point, Dunn tearfully apologizes for not being a good role model and not setting rules for the girls. “Yeah, we’ve been crazy and wild,” Neiers says, “But we love each other.” This is obviously true, but it couldn’t prevent Neiers’ jail time, it couldn’t prevent her heroin addiction.
The proof of the sincere intentions behind Neiers’ words on Pretty Wild is how much she still sounds like this now — now that she is sober, an adult, a wife, and a mother. Her message is still similar to the one Watson repeated in The Bling Ring, that her hardships were all for the best. “I believe that, in some weird way, this whole thing with the Bling Ring, this whole reality show, is going to give me an opportunity to help people,” she said recently in an interview. It seems like the spiritualism she was raised with has dovetailed in some ways with the rhetoric of addiction and recovery. But recovery places an emphasis on honesty, stripping away the layers of deception that build up in an addiction — and this honesty is also a pose, just like the positivity of her childhood. Like all systems of self-improvement, it’s a way to fake it until you make it.
Even today, Neiers denies any involvement with the Bling Ring burglaries. Despite the fact that other members of the group have talked about her involvement, and she is shown on a surveillance video leaving Orlando Bloom’s mansion, and items stolen from celebrities were found at her house, she insists that she sat in a parked car outside Bloom’s house, “totally loaded,” while the others committed the burglary, and she “never stepped foot in that house.” “I gladly share my deepest and darkest secrets to the world in the hopes of helping others with my story,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I admit to stealing to support my drug habit?” But as we have seen, there are so many motives, so many complications — the reality of Neiers’ story doesn’t have to be the real story.
Alice Bolin is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Missoula. She last wrote in these pages about Cleo from 5 to 7. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her twitter here and her tumblr here.
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