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The reality of Tila Tequila’s situation

Tila Tequila had looked everywhere, but she could not find her pills.
“I need to take my medication. My happy pills,” she said, as she pushed aside some of the empty Red Bull cans that were strewn about her Studio City house. She wouldn’t name the medication but explained, “Just so much has been going on, my doctor has been giving me stuff to help me cope.”
It was a late, very rainy evening in January, and the 28-year-old reality television star and tabloid mainstay -- born Thien-Thanh Thi Nguyen -- had not had a good day. Only a few moments earlier, she’d opened the door to her home to find that her dog, Onyx, had chewed up a pair of her Lucite heels. She chained him to a stripper pole. With a Swiffer mop from the kitchen, she tried to brush aside the pieces of chewed up shoe, but the Velcro mop affixed itself to her rug instead. “I don’t know how to use this thing,” she said, tossing it aside in frustration.
She was trying to clean up before being photographed, a prospect she found irritating, although she had previously agreed to it.
“What is this for again?” she said, sitting down at her piano, which was covered in Christmas tree lights and vases of roses. “I’m not gonna do like a model, Maxim thing. That’s not who I am anymore.” Instead, she had opted to play a tribute song to her late fiancée, 30-year-old Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson, who died in January from diabetes complications.

“Summertime,” Tequila sang, her eyes closed, “summertime has gone away.”

Seeking a new image?

Indeed, it has been a dark couple of months for Tequila, who is probably best known as the star of a MTV reality show that ran for two seasons, the bisexual dating competition “A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila.” Tequila insists she is tired of the sexualized image of herself she established on the show and would now like to be seen as a businesswoman. But she seems unable to stop perpetuating the drama of her own life.

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Back in 2007, after “A Shot at Love” debuted, Tequila seemed like the embodiment of a 21st century success story. A Vietnamese immigrant who longed for the spotlight, she had adopted a provocative stage name, posed nude in Playboy and cultivated a loyal following on MySpace just as the social media site was taking off. But after her MTV series ended, Tequila was left without anything to promote. So she began selling the drama of her own life: blogging and tweeting constantly, posting suggestive videos of herself online and posing for paparazzi outside popular nightclubs. Last September, Tequila alleged that NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman had choked and physically restrained her. He denied the charges, and the San Diego district attorney declined to make it a criminal case.

Her sometimes outlandish antics made her both a tabloid staple and target, especially when she entangled herself with others who made news, like Johnson. In December, the two began dating and quickly got engaged; Johnson died only a month after she began seeing Tequila. Several gossip blogs deemed their relationship a publicity stunt, referencing a December video the two uploaded from bed -- clad in push-up bras as Tequila kissed Johnson and showed off the 17-carat engagement ring her new fiancée had given her -- as evidence.

Johnson’s death threw Tequila into a tailspin. She wrote online about her grief, posted videos of herself sobbing. Her publicist quit, saying the two needed to part ways while Tequila dealt “with the loss of her fiancée.” Tequila herself announced she was pregnant and would retire from Hollywood to work behind the scenes as a record executive and manager.

In February, she wrote on her blog that she was deleting her Twitter account. “For now. . . . I must disappear for a few months. . . . Tila Tequila, a legend in the making, the Saga continues. . . .”

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Before there was Tequila

Tequila’s family fled Vietnam while she was still in the womb. They traveled by boat to Singapore, where she was born. When the girl was 1, her family immigrated to the United States, settling in Houston.

She described her upbringing as a challenging time, living on welfare and food stamps. By day, her mother worked as a seamstress and her father washed dishes. By night, the whole family shared one bed.

“At night you could literally hear all of the roaches, hundreds of them, flying around,” she said.

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Tequila paused as her young male assistant arrived.

“Look,” she said, bouncing up to show him the one-piece pink fleece pajamas she wore. “I’m a Teletubby! If I have to poop, I just pull down this little flap in the back.” She demonstrated by yanking down the flap, revealing her bare behind.

After her assistant left, she talked about her adolescence: sneaking out, partying, even an Ecstasy drug overdose. After high school, Tequila formed bands and tried to reform her wild ways, according to a former band member. “She wasn’t a big partier,” recalled Johnny Joe Munoz, who answered an ad the teenager had placed on Craigslist in 2001 looking to form a group, which they later named Beyond Betty Jean. “Us guys would kill a 12-pack at any rehearsal and that was surprising to her. She’d make comments like, ‘You guys OK?’ ”

Shortly afterward, Tequila was discovered by a Playboy scout and posed naked as Playboy.com’s Cyber Girl of the Week in April 2002. She was later featured in four issues of Playboy magazine.

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“I had already gotten my breast implants, or whatever. I already had an adult woman’s body at that age,” said Tequila, whose large chest contrasts with her otherwise petite figure. Just as she began to talk about experimenting with her sexuality, she halted. “This is getting, like, too personal.”

It was an ironic comment, coming from a woman who often seems to thrive on sharing her personal life with the public and her “Tila Army” on MySpace, where she now has nearly 4 million friends. In fact, it was her intimate rapport with her fan base that made Tequila attractive to MTV.

“She was known for how open and honest she was with talking about her sexuality,” recalled SallyAnn Salsano, the executive producer on “A Shot at Love,” in which men and women competed to become Tequila’s significant other.

The series went on to become a pop culture touchstone after it debuted in 2007, at its high point attracting 6.2 million viewers, according to the Nielsen Co. On the show, Tequila coquettishly looked on as suitors competed in physical challenges. She was at once an aggressive dominatrix and wide-eyed baby doll. The program tapped into the successful formula of reality dating shows like “The Bachelor,” pushing the genre to the limit while capitalizing on the audience’s fascination with bisexuality.

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The business model

Tequila has made various attempts to monetize her name since the series ended, though it’s unclear how profitable her ventures have been.

She says she is the owner of her own management and record companies. On her music project, Tila Tequila Records, she said she has signed former B2K member Raz B.

“There’s a lot of labels out there, but you can sell 20,000 on a major and that would be a flop,” said 24-year-old Raz B, who said he received a hefty advance from Tequila. “If I sell 20,000 with Tila, I can get $200,000 because I keep all of my mechanical royalties” -- in other words, proceeds from recordings.

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Last fall, Tequila also launched the beta version of an 18-and-over website called Tila’s Hot Spot Dating, an online dating site on which subscribers who pay a $19.99 monthly fee are privy to racy live chats with the star. Internet consultant Patrick Ford was brought in to help build the website, which he said was originally going to be a joint project between Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis’ company Mantra Films and Tequila.

“Joe and Tila had signed an agreement that they were going to go into the online dating business together,” said Ford, who often fielded calls in the middle of the night from Tequila if the site was having technical issues. “There’s been a lot of bad press about it, but it clearly states it’s an adult website. If Tila wants to flash her [breasts] at 1 o’clock in the morning, she’s totally free to do that.” Francis said he is no longer working with Tequila on the project.

“I had looked to do business with Tila, but it never materialized,” he told The Times. “I wish her all the best in her future endeavors.”

Tequila has a complicated relationship with the Internet. Tequila said her “team” urged her to delete her Twitter page, which she did earlier this month. Before eradicating her account, in the later hours of many evenings, she would log on to her website or her Twitter page, posting profanity-laden series of Tweets or explicit videos. In one recent video, dressed in a low-cut dress with a slit nearly reaching up to her underwear, she sang a song for Johnson and rubbed what appeared to be a fake gun sensually up and down her body. In another, she masturbated.

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That all, of course, provided the tabloids with a seemingly endless drip of material. In January, after her publicist, Jessica Cohen, quit, Tequila sent what she said was an ultrasound of her fetus to Radar Online, told the press that rapper the Game was the baby’s father and posted a video of herself dancing around in lingerie to show off her belly, though she was still extremely thin.

When presented by The Times with questions, some of which were about her pregnancy, Tequila responded via a series of e-mails.

“I thought you were a real journalist, not a trash mag gossip blogger?” she wrote. “But yes I’m busy working now, getting booked all over the world because God has blessed me for being one of the last few people on earth is who genuine.”

She acquired a new publicist, Brad Taylor of Big Machine Media, who in an e-mail sent to The Times said Tequila had “decided she is not going to talk about anything personal for now.” The same message contained four supportive, unsolicited quotes from an eclectic group, including music executive Russell Simmons and pundit Meghan McCain.

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Is there a problem?

Others, like MTV producer Salsano, say they are troubled by the recent events of Tequila’s life.

“If I had a crystal ball, this isn’t what I would have seen for her,” Salsano said. “I actually think she’s just on a desperate hunt for love. That was really all she ever wanted.”

Back at her home this year, Tequila said she was aware that her penchant for self-exposure can be problematic. “Sometimes when I’m alone, about to go to sleep, that’s when I feel too comfortable and I say things that are too personal,” she said. “I feel safe and it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s early, nobody is listening.’ I talked to my therapist about that. She said sometimes when you feel like the world is too much, you go to the Internet, you have a meltdown, you go online and you talk and you feel like you’re entertaining everyone and you get a temporary high, right? Like a drug. And she said when I’m done, the high comes down and I get this huge backlash from the media -- like, ‘Oh, my God, what are you doing?’ ”

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amy.kaufman@latimes.com


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