For anyone who's followed the cultural sensation of the Bling Ring, the HBO documentary The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring has filled one massive gap in the story, hearing directly from Rachel Lee, the woman the other participates have called the "mastermind" behind the robberies.
“Everything that we do has a consequence and the consequence that I have to deal with is that in history, my name was kind dragged [in] the dirt. But who created that? I did," Lee says in the documentary, premiering Oct. 1 at 9:00 p.m. ET on Crave in Canada.
What did the Bling Ring do?
Content on the Bling Ring isn't hard to find. There have been previous documentaries, a book, several news articles, the reality show Pretty Wild featuring Bling Ring member then Alexis Neiers (now Alexis Haines) and a 2013 film from Sofia Coppola.
If you're unfamiliar, in 2008 and 2009 a group of California teens and young adults broke into and robbed the homes of celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, Audrina Patridge and Orlando Bloom. This crew of robbers would look on social media to find out when these celebrities were out of town, and that's when they would break in.
The stolen goods totalled about US$3 million at the time. The items they stole included jewellery, clothes, bags, drugs and money.
The Bling Ring members were Lee, Neiers, Nick Prugo (now Nick Norgo), Courtney Ames, Diana Tamayo and Roy Lopez Jr. There was also Johnny Ajar, who was specifically responsible for selling a number of items from the burglaries.
"People were hurt, not physically but emotionally, and that’s even worse," Lee says in the film. "It’s really stressful thinking about the past because it’s so far from where I am today."
"It’s quite disturbing, actually. I think I honestly was a sociopath. I think I honestly didn’t care about anybody or anything."
Who was the real 'mastermind,' 'ringleader' behind the Bling Ring robberies?
As Lee states in The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring, there is a "Hollywood" version of the Bling Ring story that the public, and seemingly members of the group, have adopted. Then there's the truth.
"I don’t resonate with that Hollywood version at all," Lee says in the documentary. "But I can see how it was quite entertaining for the world to see the story that way."
"When I think about it, it’s so simple for me to sit here and tell you I could never go into somebody’s house, I could never steal anything from anybody, I would never hurt somebody, no. But back then, that wasn’t the truth. I was hurting people by stealing."
While many of the Bling Ring robbers have identified Lee as the "ringleader" of the operation, Lee believes Prugo should be considered a co-leader of the Bling Ring with her. As Lee explains in the film, while the robberies were considered a one-time thing for some of the Bling Ring crew, it was repetitive behaviour for both Lee and Prugo.
Lee's stealing of popular and designer items started long before the Bling Ring, when she stole a pair of Uggs with her friend in high school. But when that act led to Lee being transferred from Calabasas High School to Indian Hills High School, that's when she met Prugo.
Lee recalls that when they met, she recognized that they had the same "unspoken darkness" that no one else had.
Their crimes together started with checking car doors and if they were open, stealing items that were left inside. But when Prugo found the website Celebrity Address Aerial, which provided access to the addresses of celebrity homes, that's when the high profile robberies started, beginning with Paris Hilton.
"It was, before the crime was committed, anxiety, and then when the crime was committed it was adrenaline, and when the crime was over I felt so high and clear headed," Lee explains in the documentary. "It really wakes you up. … I really liked that feeling a lot."
A significant shift in the relationship between Prugo and Lee happened when Prugo became friends with Neiers, with Lee now admitting she was "jealous" that he seemingly found a new best friend.
"I felt like, I guess I’m that disposable," Lee recalls.
Of course, that friendship really dissolved when Prugo was ultimately responsible for Lee's arrest, resulting in a sentence of four years in a California state prison, but she was released on probation after 16 months.
Now, Lee describes Prugo as a "dangerous" person.
"This is very extreme what I’m going to say, but it is my truth, and to be honest, I feel like I was one of his victims," Lee says in The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring. "I feel like I was the perfect person that he could just dig his claws into."
"I’ll never allow him in my life again, no matter what."
The human desire for attention
For much of The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring, Lee says that many of these nefarious acts happened when she was taking Xanax.
"I really liked Xanax," Lee says, adding that it "took away" her emotion.
How much of an impact the Xanax, sometimes mixed with other drugs, had on Lee's actions is debated in the documentary.
But overall, there's one massive cultural question that The Ringleader: The Case of the Bling Ring discusses, the human desire to be liked and accepted, mixed with our obsession with celebrity and fame.
The 2000s was really the first time we realized you didn't need to have a particular skill, like acting or singing, to be famous. The "famous for doing nothing" phenomenon largely started with Kim Kardashian, which extended into YouTubers and influencers in more recent years. Ultimately, the end of the 2000s marked the understanding that sometimes just bringing the public into your personal life can lead to fame.
While Prugo and Neiers have both publicly stated they wanted attention and wanted to be celebrities in their own right, Lee presents her perspective a bit differently.
Lee states in the documentary that as a teen, she didn't want to be the "dorky" girl, she wanted to be the "hot and fun," and rebellious girl.
She even says that when she watched the Fast and Furious movies, and the Ocean's Eleven film, she thought, "I want to be like that."
For Lee, growing up in the quite wealthy, most white area of Calabasas, she doesn't specifically claim that she wanted to be famous, but she just didn't necessarily want to be herself, or the version of herself that she saw in the mirror, so to speak.
Interestingly, Lee is quick to admit that she frequently still lies "unconsciously," and there are still holes in what she believes happened with the Bling Ring.
So while we may never know the exact truth, we're still fascinated with what's largely considered one of the first crimes driven by social media.