When detectives investigating a rash of burglaries at the homes of young celebrities raided a Westlake Village house in October, they turned up a Marc Jacobs handbag reported stolen by the actress Rachel Bilson, a Chanel necklace reported missing by Lindsay Lohan and an E! channel camera crew filming a reality show.
Police booked an 18-year-old who lived in the home on a first-degree residential burglary charge, a felony that carries up to six years behind bars. But for the young woman, Alexis Neiers, and her family, there were worries beyond prison.
“My family is in so much debt. If this TV show falls through, you don’t know how bad this is going to be,” her sister complained to a reporter a few days later.
As it turned out, E! not only continued filming “Pretty Wild,” a show about wannabe-starlet sisters, but seized on Neiers’ alleged connection to the so-called Bling Ring to promote it.
If anyone is still keeping track of the lines transgressed in reality TV, “Pretty Wild” would seem a moment to take note.
Unlike celebrities who’ve turned their criminal cases into reality plot lines of redemption -- the rapper T.I. or NFL quarterback Michael Vick -- Neiers has no fame outside the burglary charge, making her televised story seem less a fall from grace than a rise through infamy.
“If marketing a felony is a way to get buzz going, then to a network it’s a no-brainer. It’s cheesy, it makes crime cool, and it may make you want to take a shower after you watch,” said Marty Kaplan, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
E! declined to make Neiers, who has pleaded not guilty, or her mother, who also appears on the show, available to discuss the program. Suzanne Kolb, E! president of marketing, news and online, defended the decision to continue with “Pretty Wild.”
“You can’t be shooting a reality show and be upset when reality happens. . . . [Neiers’ family] didn’t become less interesting when this happened,” she said.
She denied that E! was rewarding bad behavior with fame and said the series will show the fallout “of being accused of something that Alexis maintains she didn’t do.”
“We’re really heavy on the consequences, which is the reverse of glorifying it,” she said.
E! greenlighted the show in August after the Bling Ring robberies started but before Neiers was identified as a suspect. The network is positioning the sisters -- Neiers, 19-year-old model Tess and 15-year-old Gabby -- as coarser versions of the Kardashians, the network’s marquee reality family. Like the Kardashians, there is a family matriarch, a reserved stepfather and a burning desire for the limelight, but the Neiers family is portrayed as a hard-partying bunch -- “Three sisters raising hell in the city of angels.”
The two older sisters writhe through a nightclub in the opening episode, spinning around a stripper pole, throwing themselves at astreet hustler-turned-rapperwho’s casting a video, and ignoring cellphone calls from their mother. The mother, Andrea Arlington, brags about giving all three of her “wild and crazy” daughters the prescription stimulant Adderall each morning as a treatment for attention deficit problems and regales the camera with tales of her own out-of-control youth. “I was in Playboy a lot back in the ‘80s,” she says.
The show was in its initial days of filming when police arrested Neiers as an alleged member of the Bling Ring, a circle of half a dozen friends, mostly teenagers, accused of burgling $3 million in art, designer clothing and other items from the residences of celebrities including Orlando Bloom, Paris Hilton and Megan Fox. Neiers is accused only in the July burglary of Bloom’s home, a crime caught on security video, although detectives found what they say is evidence from break-ins at the homes of Bilson and Lohan in Neiers’ house. The group’s tactics -- they allegedly used TMZ.com to track their victims’ movements -- and motives -- authorities described the reputed ringleader as obsessed with fame -- made the arrests an international media sensation.
The surprised producers quickly adjusted to the charges. The lead LAPD investigator said that when officers served a warrant on Neiers’ home, an E! camera crew asked to film the search.
“We said absolutely not,” Det. Brett Goodkin recalled recently. Neiers was taken to a Hollywood police station for questioning. She told police she had no idea her friends and acquaintances were robbers and was so drunk and horrified when she realized they were ransacking Bloom’s house that she vomited and urinated in his bushes.
Arlington was at home when her daughter was handcuffed, but according to Goodkin, she didn’t arrive at the police station for hours. At that point, he said, she was wearing makeup and a microphone, and had a camera crew in tow. He said she wanted the crew to film the interrogation, a request police denied. (In the premiere, Arlington, a self-help devotee, blames the delay on her decision to “center” the family with a prayer circle before going to the station.)
“My impression of the Neiers family was that they were more concerned about the reality show than the crimes we’re alleging she committed and the possible legal consequences,” Goodkin said.
E! declined to say how much it was paying Neiers, but successful reality TV participants can parlay their fame into lucrative endorsements and additional television gigs.
While other defendants agreed last year to repeated postponements of their cases in Superior Court -- a routine practice that can allow time to share evidence and work out plea deals -- Neiers refused. That made her the sole defendant at a preliminary hearing in December covered by a crowd of reporters. Among the media outlets recording the proceedings -- in which two police detectives laid out the evidence -- was E!
Kolb, the network executive, said the show required all aspects of Neiers’ life be documented and that E! never instructed her how to handle her criminal case. Neiers’ attorney said the filming schedule was unrelated to her speedy trial demand.
“It’s a constitutional right. We had legal and strategic reasons for doing so. It has nothing to do with anything else,” Jeffrey Rubenstein said.
He said he was taking the case, set for April trial, seriously, but the premiere suggests a more eye-rolling tone from his client -- or at least the show’s editors. After he tells Neiers, “I’m here to be your lawyer, so far as I am concerned, you’re grounded,” she stares at him blankly and the camera cuts to a shot of her gyrating on another stripper pole. “Yeah, right,” she says.
Asked if participating in “Pretty Wild” was wise in light of charges, her attorney paused and then said, “Client control is always an issue in my business. In this case, it may just be a bigger issue.”
Kolb said E! was hoping for an acquittal but prepared to rely on other family members for material should Neiers be incarcerated. She added she knew of no complaints about the show from advertisers.
Kaplan, the USC professor, said everyone involved -- E!, Neiers and her family and even viewers -- may be getting exactly what they want.
After her daughter is released on bail, Arlington asks, “What have I been telling you since you were little girls?”
In unison, her daughters reply, “Never do anything you don’t want on the front page of the L.A. Times.”
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.