Between October 2008 and August 2009, a band of teenage fashion bandits broke into the homes of celebrities, and stole close to $3 million dollars worth of high-end designer goods and clothes (including underwear), jewellery, cash and all manner of ephemera such as perfume, make-up and, in one instance, a hand gun. Because of the nature of the goods taken the gang was subsequently dubbed by the media as ‘the Bling Ring’. Targets included actors Orlando Bloom and Lindsay Lohan and a swathe of reality television celebrities. The first to be hit was Paris Hilton, whom the gang subsequently robbed five times in total. Nick Prugo, who committed the first Hilton robbery along with ringleader Rachel Lee, later claimed that they targeted Hilton because she was ‘dumb […] Like, who would leave a door unlocked? Who would leave a lot of money lying around?’1 However Hilton was not picked simply because she was presumed to be stupid but also because she represents a desirable elitism as encapsulated by the name of one her range of designer goods; bon ton.2 In the eighteenth century the term ‘ton’ was borrowed from the French word meaning ‘taste’ or ‘the highest style’. The full phrase ‘le bon ton’ translates as ‘ in the fashionable mode’, and was used interchangeably with the term ‘beau monde’ (‘the beautiful world’). As Hannah Grieg notes, the ‘precise criteria that denoted membership of the beau monde were endlessly debated [...] involving pedigree, connections, manners, language, appearance, and much else besides [...] the eighteenth-century beau monde therefore laid claim to what might be described as the “it” factor: an elusive yet exclusive form of social distinction.’ 3 The precise nature of membership might not be easily defined, but may generally be indicated by the display of expensive commodities.
Though taste may not be an epithet commonly applied to Hilton, she is a fashion icon to many, rich and famous; the two latter terms are not mutually exclusive when considering her as the group’s primary target. By acquiring the personal belongings of Hilton and the like, the gang not only acquired the appearance of wealth but also entry-level status into ranks of the social elite. The female bling-ringers had much in common with Hilton; modelling, appearances on reality television, various brushes with the law, being ‘papped’ by the paparazzi (usually entering and leaving police stations). Now they had her clothes, jewellery, money and ‘free’ access to her house, their relationship with Hilton was on a more intimate footing – they were now part of her circle by proxy. Nancy Jo Sales, journalist and author of The Bling Ring (2013), notes:
A 2007 survey by the Pew Research Centre found that 51 percent of 18-to-25 year olds said that their most important life goal – after becoming rich – was becoming famous. [...] Given the choice of becoming stronger, smarter, famous or more beautiful, [teenage] boys chose fame almost as often as they chose intelligence, and [teenage] girls chose it more often. [...] TV shows most popular with 9-to-11-year-olds have “fame” as their number one value, above ‘self-acceptance’ and ‘community feeling.’ 4
Sales reflects upon this desire for fame for its own sake as a new phenomenon. However, though the demographic may be new, the desire for fame for its own sake is not. In the early eighteenth century ‘Mr. Spectator’ commented upon what he viewed as a worrying development.
Issue number 255 of The Spectator observes ‘It was necessary for the World, that Arts should be invented and improved, Books written and transmitted to Posterity, Nations conquered and civilised’, and that these improvements are generated by ‘some common Principle of Action working equally with all Men [...] Ambition or a Desire for Fame.’ 5 Therefore the active pursuit of fame has potential benefits as ‘great Endowments are not suffer’d to lie idle and useless to the Publick’. According to ‘Mr. Spectator’, only those with the greatest of abilities are endowed with benevolent ambition whereas ‘those are generally most unsuccessful in their Pursuit after Fame, who are most desirous of obtaining it.’ 6 Should the ill-equipped be successful in their empty pursuit of fame for its own sake, then they must prepare themselves for the corrupting effects of maintaining their new-found status upon the seeker. In order to keep the fame-monster alive, the fame-seeker will undergo a ‘tumult in the soul, ultimately leading to a dangerous personality change. The thirst for fame, as opposed to fame bestowed upon merit, will ‘naturally betray [the fame-seeker] into indecencies as are lessening to his reputation’. 7 What, one can only wonder, would ‘Mr. Spectator’ make of the origin of reality-television’s current reigning monarch Kim Kardashian’s ‘fame’! If not thoroughly corrupted into committing acts of indecency, such as the releasing of sex tapes (the case with both Hilton and Kardashian) or burglary, the aspirant will suffer from a permanent inflammation of the mind and a violent hurry of thought, and much worse. Humankind is not physically equipped to process the effects of fame and so the consequences are comparable with drug addiction:
Fame [...] is so wholly foreign to our Natures that we have no Faculty adapted [...] to it, nor any Organ in the body to relish it [...] It may indeed fill them for a while with a giddy kind of pleasure but [...] it does not so much satisfy the present Thirst, as it excites fresh Desires, and set the Soul on new enterprises. 8
Enslaved by public opinion or restlessly striving for recognition if not adoration, the fame-seeker is subject to fits of melancholy and his natural rest and repose of mind is completely destroyed, while offering very little happiness in the short term. The emphasis upon the corrupting influence of fame echoes Alexander Pope’s conclusion to The Temple of Fame, also written in 1711 but published much later. Pope’s speaker implores: ‘Then teach me, Heav’n! To scorn the guilty Bays; / Drive from my breast that wretched Lust of Praise; / Unblemish’d let me live, or die unknown, / Oh grant an honest Fame, or grant me none!’9 Not a maxim that would have been endorsed by the Bling Ring, nor would they have recognised ‘Mr. Spectator’s’ assertion that fame is hard won but easily lost. In fact it appears that, for the Bling Ring, the exact opposite is true, especially as their shopping shenanigans have now been turned into two films, the most recent directed by Sofia Coppola and featuring none other than Ms Hilton herself – a level of recognition beyond even their wildest dreams.
Leigh Wetherall Dickson
Back to post Quoted in Nancy Jo Sales, ‘The Suspects Wore Louboutins’, Vanity Fair, March 2012, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/03/billionaire-girls-201003# [accessed 3 February 2015]
Back to post Hannah Grieg, The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 3.
Back to post Nancy Jo Sales, The Bling Ring (London: HarperCollins, 2013), p. 27; p. 30.
Back to post The Spectator, 8 Volumes (London, 1712) Vol. IV, p. 18 (First pub. Saturday 22 December, 1711).
Back to post The Spectator, Vol. IV, p. 19.
Back to post The Spectator, Vol. IV, p. 20.
Back to postThe Spectator,Vol. IV, p. 27 (first pub. Monday 24 December 1711).
Back to post Alexander Pope, ‘The Temple of Fame’, Pope; Poetical Works, ed. Herbert Davis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985) p. 146, ll. 521-4.