By Holly Farrell
There’s nothing like the morbid curiosity of a true crime documentary. From ‘The Tinder Swindler’ to ‘The People vs OJ Simpson’ no one has been immune to the rise of the true-crime drama on our screens.
Whilst the rise of these documentaries has fed into our curiosity to witness crime and punishment it has also led to a rather unexpected consequence: the “celebrification” of alleged, or even convicted, criminals. Think of the likes of Amanda Knox and Anna Delvey (or Anna Sorokin, or whatever name she is using now).
Recently I found myself drawn to the Netflix documentary ‘The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist’, a three-part series outlining the famous 2008 and 2009 burglaries of celebrities’ homes, narrated by two of the convicted thieves Nick Prugo and Alexis Haines, formerly known as Alexis Neiers.
Whilst the case was high-profile at the time since the victims included the likes of Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom, the Bling Ring further rose to fame in 2013 thanks to the eponymous film, starring Emma Watson, as well as numerous other television adaptations.
Over a decade after the crime, the case is still as scandalous.
With the release of the show, viewers have been quick to criticise the seemingly opportunistic involvement of Haines and Prugo as narrators. Numerous documentaries painted the teenage perpetrators as celebrity-obsessed, particularly Haines who largely remained in the public eye since the crime; their participation in the show does little to combat this claim.
Despite Haines and Prugo both now having their own careers, it is impossible to deny that the Bling Ring Case brought them a degree of fame and attention.
The same can be said of Michaella McCollum, who came to the public eye in 2013 as one-half of the ‘Peru Two’, a pair of British women arrested in Peru for attempting to smuggle cocaine. The case gained extensive press coverage throughout the world, whilst interest in their stories extended beyond their release from a high-security prison in Peru in 2016.
McCollum has also evidently capitalised on her case. Upon her release, she did a controversial post-prison interview with Irish broadcaster RTE and wrote a book about her experiences entitled ‘You’ll Never See Daylight Again’.
Most notably, however, in 2021 her documentary ‘High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule’ premiered on the BBC. It has since been released on Netflix and McCollum subsequently posted a picture to her 97.2k Instagram followers of her posing in front of a Netflix-themed cake to celebrate.
While the documentary is an interesting watch, and I would certainly recommend it, there is something morally dubious about the thought of McCollum emerging from the Peru Two as an influencer.
Both Haines and McCollum subsequently find themselves heavily criticised, being depicted as fame-hungry and materialistic, making them no strangers to the vilification of women by the media. Whilst this vilification may seem to be a justified reaction to their crimes rather than a gender issue, you just need to compare the treatment of Prugo to Haines.
Prugo was much more heavily involved in the crime, being one of the two ring-leaders of the Bling Ring, Haines meanwhile only participated in one burglary. Yet, the 2013 film ‘The Bling Ring’ portrays Prugo in a much more sympathetic light, as a self-conscious teenager, eager to fit in. In contrast, Haines’ character was one-dimensionally materialistic and was even depicted participating in crimes she did not commit.
The flurry of media attention, mostly negative, immortalises their actions and characters, leaving no room for reform. Yet the actions of both individuals contradict this. While Haines was already a reality-TV star during the Bling Ring case, she has since turned her back on attempting to break into the entertainment industry, in favour of becoming a drug and alcohol counsellor.
Meanwhile, McCollum revealed that RTE did not pay her for the interview and that she turned down numerous television appearances, despite being offered ‘ridiculous amounts of money’.
Both individuals have expressed a desire to raise awareness of the role of drugs as the source of their downfall. McCollum hopes her story will act as a deterrent and admits to having been high when she agreed to act as a smuggler.
Similarly, Haines agreed to participate in a Bling Ring documentary in an attempt to add nuance to the story, rejecting the sensationalised depiction of herself as a materialistic, celebrity-obsessed, Valley girl stereotype.
Instead, Haines has explained that her role in the Bling Ring stemmed from drug addiction, which she developed to mask trauma from childhood sexual abuse, and her consequent need for money.
Such details were neatly excluded from typical media portrayals of Haines, unlike Prugo’s insecurities.
In light of this, I do sympathise with Haines and McCollum’s desires to control their narrative. Whilst some criminals are defended by the media through a frequent referencel to a difficult upbringing or extenuating circumstances, they have not been so lucky.
Given the distorted representation of their reality, it is only natural that they want to defend themselves.
Many viewers will stand by the fact that true-crime documentaries have enabled convicted criminals to develop a celebrity status. However, there is another relevant yet overlooked consequence: showing that there is a life after crime.
Both Haines and McCollum’s stories portray individuals able to pick themselves up from their lowest points and ultimately learn from their mistakes. Following the Bling Ring, Haines was arrested again, this time for possession of drugs, and was sent to rehab. This proved to be the best for Haines, however, her avoidance of prison time is an undeniable indication of her privilege.
In the US, only 5% of illicit drug users are African American, yet African Americans represent 33% of those imprisoned for drug-related crimes. This disproportionate representation within US prisons makes it questionable whether Haines would have had the same fate if she was a person of colour. She took advantage of this opportunity and has now been 11 years sober and works as a counsellor for recovering addicts.
In 2014 Haines began writing a column for Vice, having also filmed documentaries about addiction. For over a decade she has dedicated herself to helping others battle addiction, detailing her own experiences on her podcast ‘Recovering from Reality’, while also being a mother to two daughters.
In March 2010 a Vanity Fair article, entitled ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins’, by Nancy Jo Sales mocked Haine’s assertions that she sees herself as a future leader, pushing for peace and health. Over a decade later, Haines has indeed picked herself up to become a leader in her own right.
Likewise, McCollum has claimed to have learned from her mistakes and began trying to reform during her time in prison. She ran the prison’s beauty salon (in a loose definition of the term), worked hard to learn Spanish, and became the first English speaker to hold the role of ‘Delegada’, a representative for her fellow inmates. As delegada, she obtained water filters to ensure the provision of clean water, a microwave, and an hour of dancing each evening. She is now a mother of twins and pursuing a degree.
It is unjustified to condemn every convicted criminal to a lifetime of social exclusion. Although our mistakes vary in severity, everyone is capable of character development. Justice systems, while flawed, try to incorporate this into their judgements. Non-violent crimes justifiably receive shorter sentences, whilst good behaviour can enable an earlier release. As a society, we have rejected retributive justice in most cases, opening a path of reconciliation for most offenders through restorative justice. However, trial by the media involving the general public often makes it difficult for the justice system to enable rehabilitation.
Even though giving convicted criminals an extensive media platform appears morally dubious, the ability of true crime documentaries to give criminals a human face does serve a moral purpose.
Given the high unemployment rate of ex-offenders (in the UK just 17% gain employment within a year of release), any means to bridge the gap between non-dangerous former criminals and the rest of the population, must be viewed as positive. Otherwise, we risk a society of social exclusion and cycles of re-offending.
However, true-crime documentaries are by no means a solution to this problem. They may have risen awareness of the cracks in our justice system but only institutional change can improve the perception of ex-offenders in society.
Netflix certainly had no hidden agenda of promoting the social inclusion of ex-offenders when they released ‘The Real Bling Ring: Hollywood Heist’ and ‘High: Confessions of an Ibiza Drug Mule.
In fact recent documentaries, such as ‘Dahmer- Monster: the Jeffrey Dahmer Story’ further proves that the purpose of such pieces is to exploit our ghoulish nature.
The intrigue of true-crime documentaries is undeniable but we can’t ignore the risk of their prevalence. In the cases of Haines and McCollum, although it is admirable that they have worked hard to improve their lives, their own admittance of the positive lessons learnt from their times in prison likens their criminal activities to blessings in disguise.
The dramatic reenactments of their crimes in their respective documentaries almost display their actions as a voyage of self-discovery. Their mistakes have been normalised into learning curves and their lives have been glamorised as rags-to-riches stories.
Perhaps this is where we go wrong. True crime is not the plot of some dramatic feature film, it is real life, and so long as true-crime documentaries portray criminal activity in such an exciting light we’ll forget that ex-offenders actually spent time in prison.
Instead prison time just becomes a part of the adventure. Yet you only need to look into the realities of the American and Peruvian prison systems to understand that this was hardly the case for Haines and McCollum; the unpleasant details of which are largely excluded from both documentaries.
Perhaps the most striking part of either of the two series I have mentioned is the final scene of ‘The Real Bling Ring’. Each of the narrators concludes their interviews and the mansions in which they were apparently sitting turn into green screens. As their 15 minutes of fame draw to an end, they return to the mundane and challenging lives of ex-offenders.
Nothing is as glamorous as it seems.