Cocky teen bandits of The Bling Bling

Movie Still: Emma Watson in The Bling Ring.

"This is the life everyone wants," says Marc, one of characters in The Bling Ring.

Directed by Oscar-winning Sofia Coppola, 41, and based on Nancy Jo Sales' 2010 Vanity Fair article The Suspects Wore Louboutins, the satire chronicles the exploits of the most successful and outrageous burglary gangs in recent times.

The group of fame-obsessed, club-hopping teens from privileged upbringing dubbed the "Bling Ring" by US media.

The movie, which opens here Sept 12, stars Emma Watson and newcomers Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Claire Julien and Taissa Farmiga.

The actors play a version of the real bandits - ringleader Rachel Lee/Rebecca (Chang), Nick Prugo/Marc (Broussard), Alexis Neiers/Nikki (Watson), Courtney Ames/Chloe (Julien) and Tess Taylor/Sam (Farmiga).

Coppola changed the names of the characters for the movie because she didn't want them to become more notorious for their misdeeds.

The quintet's claim to fame started when Hollywood was rocked by a series of real-life break-ins carried out in 2008 and 2009, when stars found their houses ransacked and valuables stolen.

Through entertainment websites, celebrity blogs and social media accounts, the thieves knew which celebrities would be out of town.

They then blatantly walked into the targeted houses - victims included Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Orlando Bloom, Megan Fox, Rachel Bilson and Audrina Patridge - and helped themselves to whatever they fancied.

Call it audacity or foolishness, but they later bragged about their conquests to friends and even posted photos of themselves with the stolen goods on Facebook, gaining celebrity status in their own twisted way.

The group reportedly looted US$3 million (S$3.8 million), including US$2 million worth of jewellery from Hilton and Bloom's Louis Vuitton (LV) luggage.

These brazen heists fuelled the teens' fixation on luxury items, their desire to look and dress like the celebrities they idolised and their drug addiction.

Of course, crime never pays. The gang was eventually caught and sentenced to various jail terms.

So in a movie where the events seem so far-fetched, how much is real and how much is fake?

We break down the case and find out that truth may be stranger than fiction.

FACT

Paris Hilton steals the thunder

The socialite might have been the most victimised among the celebrities - her home was raided five times - yet, she is the star of the show. Sort of.

Hilton, 32, gave Coppola the keys to her house for two days so that the film-maker could bring in a skeleton crew to shoot the interior of "Parisland".

What you see in the movie is Hilton's real pink-and-gold abode, from the huge self-portraits that adorn her walls to the club room with a dance pole in the middle. Even her massive wardrobe filled with designer garb.

The hotel heiress was the first target because she was constantly out partying. Also, they felt she would be dumb enough to leave her key under the doormat - and they were right. Ringleader Lee allegedly put it on her key chain, while Hilton simply replaced the key under the mat.

Director Sofia Coppola lifted inspiration from her childhood

Fashion in The Bling Ring isn't just for show, it's a plot device. The kids know practically all the designer brands.

Coppola herself is known for her love affair with fashion. Also a privileged fashion-forward kid, she was 15 when she interned at Chanel with Karl Lagerfeld in Paris.

She started her own clothing line called Milkfed in her 20s, and went on to design bags - that saw a bit of a cult following - for close friend Marc Jacobs' LV line.

Thanks to her good relations with the fashion houses, brands like LV, Chanel, Versace and Herve Leger readily allowed her to use their products in the movie.

Said Coppola: "I read the transcripts from Nancy Jo (Sales), who interviewed the real people for her Vanity Fair story. Hearing their stories gave me ideas and I took things from my own childhood experiences - not directly, but what I remember from being that age, and then just imagined what it would be like being these kids."

They really are that cocky

They are portrayed as super confident in the movie, never once thinking they'd get caught as they stole only insignificant stuff and loose change.

What started off as in-and-out raids quickly became chill-out sessions where they played dress up, helped themselves to the bar and partied in Hilton's club room. They even smoked joints and snorted crack during the burglaries and went on joyrides in the stars' cars.

When security camera footage of them breaking into Patridge's house was shown on TV, Rebecca nonchalantly tells Marc that no one could ever recognise them.

In reality, Lee was so caught up in her own swagger that when she broke into Bilson's house, she not only took her time going through the stuff and playing dress-up, she even took a toilet break.

Prugo, now 22, said to Sales for her Vanity Fair story: "I remember the incident so well. I can recall the smell, which is really nasty, disgusting."

In Hollywood, bad publicity is good publicity

Neiers, 22, is the most public figure, thanks to her own reality series Pretty Wild, which she was filming when she was busted. After serving her 30-day sentence (she was originally sentenced to 180 days), Neiers was invited onto US talk shows to share her experience and, ironically, talk about one-time victim Lohan, who happened to be her jail cell neighbour. In one interview, Neiers even turned to the camera and plugged her blog.

With the release of The Bling Ring, she was again in the limelight, doing interviews with the Los Angeles Times and E!.

The reformed drug addict continues to tweet and blog about her life, though the focus now is on her new role as mother to a five-month-old girl and her blissful marriage.

Prugo, another outspoken member of the group, is reportedly weighing the various reality TV offers that are coming his way since he got out of prison.

FICTION

The real members are just as easy on the eyes as the reel ones

While Neiers is attractive, that can't be said about the rest. Okay, so maybe Prugo could pass off as someone from a boy band.

One of the convicted felons Jonathan "Jonnie Dangerous" Ajar, who buys the group's stolen goods, for example, looks nothing like his on-screen counterpart (played by rock star Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale).

Lee, a North Korean immigrant, is also not as pretty as Chang. Said Prugo to Huffington Post after his release from prison: "Emma Watson did a fantastic job. She was phenomenal. Claire Julien's way hotter than (Courtney is) in real life."

Prugo wore Hilton's shoes

Prugo, the only male in the group, was quick to clarify that he didn't wear Hilton's shoes as mentioned in many reports and which was also fleshed out in the movie.

"I'm a size nine," he told Huffington Post. "Paris' shoes would've been too big for me."

Hilton is known for her size 11 feet.

Prugo said the story was a rumour started by Ames. "She called The New York Post and she thought she was getting back at me by telling them I wore Paris Hilton's shoes, but I don't mind. I think it's funny, and of course it adds to the movie, but that never really happened!"

The real Bling Ring gang is upset with Coppola's movie

Neiers initially slammed the film, calling it "trashy and inaccurate". She later changed her tune, tweeting that she has "faith in Sofia (Coppola's) ability and in this film".

In a June interview with E! host Giuliana Rancic, Neiers added: "Of course I would go and see it. I have to remind myself that it's a dramatisation of actual events and people are like, 'Are you going to be upset by it?'

"Honestly, no, I'm in a good place now, so why not have a laugh at myself.

"I met with Sofia a few times and we talked over lunch. She was really sweet and wanted to tell it from our point of view, which I thought was interesting. They got a lot of it right."

Interestingly, Neiers was hired as a consultant for the film, claimed Prugo to Huffington Post.

LA Times reported that Coppola and her producer Youree Henley met Neiers and her mother when they were researching the film, and the family later received US$100,000 for their life rights.

joannes@sph.com.sg

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