Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Crimes of Fashion: Famous Shoplifters

Winona Ryder is not the only celebrity who's been accused of shoplifting. Just ask around Hollywood.

"A famous actress came in here recently and went into the changing room to try things on," says David", the owner of an upscale L.A. boutique, "but I could see she was sneaking scented candles in with her, hidden under some shirts. I said to her, 'What are you bringing candles into the changing room for?' She replied, 'Oh, I like to smell them in the changing room.' So I said, 'Just a second-there are no candles allowed in the changing room!'"

There was good reason for keeping an eye on the Emmy-nominated actress, and for being so harsh toward her. "She's been known to shoplift," he says. "She's a big celebrity, and I caught her trying to steal candles!"

Another celebrity is known for strolling into various stores and invariably asking for something from the back of the boutique-a glass of water, a size that's not on display-and then taking advantage of the distraction to help herself to a five-finger discount. Her other method, says one sales clerk, is making things disappear: "You put ten things in a dressing room for her and only eight come out." Her shoplifting problem is such an open secret that one store owner has billed the star through her personal manager for blatantly stolen items.

A third celebrity, who helped put a certain tony boutique on the map (in the past, she actually purchased items from the store and helped make it well-known), was recently overheard bragging to a friend that she'd lifted items from that same store-unilaterally granting herself a commission, perhaps, for all the PR she'd generated.

What gives? For years there have been whispers among L.A. retailers about a select group of jet set shoplifters, wealthy and, in some cases, quite famous, who believe they deserve a steep discount on the things they want-100 percent off. The arrest and arraignment of Winona Ryder-charged with walking out of Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills with $4,760 worth of clothing and hair accessories "was sort a thrill," according to one clerk at a trendy L.A. boutique, who says it was a watershed moment of awareness about who really shoplifts: not necessarily those in need as much as those who want. "If she's guilty, I guess it's sad, because it means she has an emotional problem, but at the same time, if Winona can get busted, anybody can get busted," the saleswoman says. "These people think they'll never get caught, they think they're invincible-I hope they're paying attention."

There are those who think that Ryder, if she's actually guilty as charged, might have wanted to get caught. After all, news sources have reported that Ryder may have been somewhat graceless in the execution of her alleged crime: A Saks source told Entertainment Weekly that a store camera recorded Ryder snipping security sensors off of the I11crchandisc- which allegedly included two Judith Leiber handbags-and accidentally cutting herself, leaving bloodstains in the dressing room. Maybe it was some sort of cry for help?

"I hate when I hear that!" exclaims shoplifting expert Michael Nuccitelli, executive director of SLS Well ness, a New York health-care center that treats all manner of addictions. Nuccitelli has nothing but contempt for that sort of "pop psychology 'cry for help' mumbo jumbo. The compulsive shoplifter does not want to get caught. She wants the stuff she's stealing-that's part of the compulsion!"

"Shoplifting," he explains, "is nothing more than an irrational expression of whatever the shoplifter's psychiatric problems arc. It's an expression of poor coping mechanisms, such as poor stress management, poor anger management. Shoplifting means something negative is going on inside."

And therein lies the key to the public's enduring obsession with celebrity shoplifting: It's a crime that hints at hidden drama, at troubled waters-a petty and pathetic chink in the armor of our pop-culture royalty.

When celebrities arc accused of shoplifting, they invariably deny it. Winona Ryder's attorney, for instance, says that she was innocently carrying un purchased merchandise between store departments. Farrah Fawcett's two arrests for shoplifting in 1970 came back to haunt her when she became one of Charlie's Angels; she later said, "I took justice into my own hands," and insisted that the stores sold her defective merchandise but neither would let her do an exchange. Then Courtney Love got famous, she never bothered to defend her pre-fame shoplifting arrest-if anything, her youthful theft of a Kiss T-shirt from a Woolworth's in Eugene, Oregon (which led to a stint in reform school), only enhanced her reputation as a rebel.

In fact, tennis great Jennifer Capriati is perhaps the lone celebrity who's spoken candidly about her 1993 arrest, at age 17, for shoplifting a ring at a mall (she was later booked for possession of marijuana). The pressure of her sport and the ego-warping attention of worldwide fame, she says, were too much for her. "\,\'hen I looked in a mirror," Capriati told an interviewer at the time, "all I saw was this distorted image. I was so ugly and fat, and I more or less wanted to kill myself. "

It's telling that Capriati's and Ryder's arrests both had drug components to them (one of the four felony counts against Ryder is for possession of a controlled substance; police found the narcotic pain reliever Oxycodone in her purse, and Ryder allegedly couldn't produce a prescription for the pills). Shoplifters, says Nuccitelli, are often "cross-addicted, which means they're also addicted in other realms, such as alcohol and drug abuse, compulsive shopping, sexual addiction, or eating disorders such as compulsive overeating and bulimia." (Capriati's skewed adolescent body image was certainly a red flag.) Shoplifters also tend to have "a concurrent psychiatric illness, such as depression or anxiety disorder."

Many people think that celebrity or affluent shoplifting merely springs from an out-of-control sense of entitlement, says Norman Sussman, a psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center. But there’s a difference between "grandiosity," he points out, and "the truly addicted and compulsive, who generally have real issues with their own identities." He suggests that the mutability of some performers' personas might make them especially prone to dealing with stress or depression through dysfunctional coping mechanisms like shoplifting. "A lot of people who are good actors," Sussman says, "arc good at what they do because they have a poorly defined sense of who they really are, so they're able to assume the identities of someone else." Shoplifting is a type of role-play: It involves living the life, albeit momentarily, of the cunning and discerning thief, the invincible risk-taker who triumphs over clueless store clerks.

Elle':', 35, isn't famous, but she understands what it's like to live a life of privilege-she comes from a prominent Manhattan family, and has an expensive Ivy League education. "I have plenty of money," she says. For most of her adult life, she's had a recurring problem with alcoholism. As her drinking got out of hand, shoplifting gave her the sense that she had some semblance of control, some sort of edge that magically allowed her to outsmart stores. "Shoplifting gave me this high," she says, "and I was delusional-I'd have intense feelings of grandeur, like I was entitled to get whatever I wanted."

In addition to filching all manner of clothing from stores such as Macy's, Bloomingdale's, and Bergdorf Goodman - her preferred method was to walk in with an empty Hermes or Prada shopping bag, which she'd then fill in the department store dressing room-she would also grab endless amounts of beauty supplies from countertops and display cases and stuff those in her bags as well. "You know Kiehl's? 1 think I must have shoplifted half a warehouse worth of Kiehl's products."

Elle says she grew so brazen "that I didn't believe the signs in the stores-the ones in the dressing rooms about how you're being monitored on hidden camera by a same-sex security guard." She got caught and arrested two days in a row at two different Macy's stores and discovered that "they had video of me cutting the tags off of clothing."

Her third arrest resulted in court mandated treatment for both alcoholism and shoplifting, which in her case involves a regimen of psychotherapy and antipsychotic drugs. "I still battle with the compulsion to steal when I'm in stores," she says, "but I'm on probation and the thought of going to jail keeps me pretty focused. "

Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has treated many affluent shoplifters (including some famous ones), says that shoplifting "is a need to take something to compensate for something you feel was taken from you, or something you think you should have gotten." As with alcoholism and eating disorders, Lieberman says, it doesn't take much to trigger the compulsion, because, of course, the opportunity to shop (and shoplift) is everywhere.

And unlike other addictions, which have often debilitating and obvious side effects, shoplifting doesn't impair its practitioner~-until, of course, they get caught.

Make that if they get caught. The advocacy group Shoplifters Alternative reports that shoplifters say they're caught only an average of once every 49 times they steal-and when they are stopped, they're turned over to the police only half of the time. If anything, celebrity shoplifters, despite their recognizability, may have a heightened sense of immunity. "Their mentality," says one manager of an L.A. store, "has got to be, 'No one's ever going to think that I would steal because I have so much money.'"

"We rarely catch anyone stealing," says Sarah", the co-owner of an upscale boutique on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. "But we'll figure it out later when we find an empty hanger."

And when she or her employees do suspect that somebody is shoplifting or a bout to shoplift? "All you can do is surround them and be helpful-be extremely helpful," Sarah says. "But honestly, if you catch them, it's generally not worth it to call the cops." Prosecuting a shoplifter, she says, involves "such a stream of paperwork." And merely approaching a suspected shoplifter can be a risk. (For example, a shoplifter should be outside the store with the merchandise for it to be definitely considered theft.) "Believe it or not," says Karen\ the manager of another boutique in Los Angeles, "the shoplifter can sue you for false accusation. You have to be careful how you confront them: 'Would you like to buy that? Would you like to try that on?'" It would be, needless to say, even more risky-and potentially career-ending-to accuse a celebrity.

Robin *, a shoplifter living in San Francisco, has been stealing since high school and has never been caught, "not even stopped or questioned." She's 39 now and says that, for most of her adult life, she's assembled her wardrobe almost entirely by shoplifting. "If you go in my closet, which has quite a beautiful array of clothes, almost everything has been stolen." Last year she stole something near $5,000 worth of goods-"maybe more," she admits after a pause.

Robin's gotten so good at shoplifting, she says, that she's almost gained a sense of invincibility. Recently, she lifted an item that was "bigger than a boom box-this cute wicker thing with drawers"-from her local Longs Drugs.

"I thought it was overpriced for what it was. I ended up just putting it in a shopping cart, and then pushing it over to the end of an empty checkout lane." She then bought-actually paid for-a few small items in the adjacent checkout lane, casually placed her little Longs bag and her purse in the cart with the wicker item, and wheeled the loot right out to her car.

"When you're really obvious like that," she explains, "the store people will just think 'Oh, nobody's bold enough to do that-she must have bought that already.' It's an attitude like 'I'm not hiding anything from you.'''

Robin shoplifts so often that she seems to have absolute]y no sense of her underlying motivation, the inner demons and delusions that have led her to a well rehearsed life of crime. She feels no remorse, she says; in her mind, shoplifting is just something that she's really good at-like other people are really good at tennis or Scrabble. Or acting.

While Robin steals year-round, shoplifters are often susceptible to what psychiatrists call "anniversary reactions." For instance, Elle, the New York shoplifter, was last drawn to "shop" (and was last arrested) on Mother's Day, and she says it didn't take much therapy to draw the connection between her theft and her loss. She was adopted, she explains, and she's never been able to get in contact with her birth mother.

Will Cupchik, a Toronto psychologist who conducts three-day intensive shoplifting intervention programs, points out it's not just shoplifters who need clarity about the root cause of the crime. Some clinicians "and many lawyers," he says, confuse shoplifting with kleptomania-a mental illness that's technically an impulse-control disorder. (A kleptomaniac often doesn't realize she's stealing, and only about 1 percent of retail theft is due to kleptomania.) Kleptomaniacs have no true psychological motivation whereas shoplifters are trying to fill some sort of emotional void. The phenomenon is called "loss substitution by stealing," a now widely accepted hypothesis that Cupchik first published in The Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law in 1983.

In one study of shoplifters that Cupchik conducted, he found that in nearly 30 percent of the cases, there was a cancer connection-"the offenders had stolen in response to the occurrence of cancer in either the offender or a significant ocher." Though he hasn't analyzed the correlation between shoplifting and other diseases, Cupchik says it's clear that the crime is almost always "a subconscious response to emotional loss."

Breaking the compulsion to fill that void, to seek that temporary high, is a complicated process that begins by treating the underlying depression or anxiety, often with a prescribed antidepressant like Celexa, Wellbutrin, or Zoloft (another drug reportedly found in Ryder's purse when she was arrested). What the medication does, says Nuccitelli of SLS Wellness, "is create brain-chemistry changes so that the patient is more likely to experience happiness in her life, less likely to focus on negativity, and becomes more receptive to learning different coping strategies."

It is, ultimately, a private, introspective process. And it's the same for celebrity and run-of-the-mill shoplifters alike. Of course, all the high-priced lawyers can generally offer by way of explanation is that it was "all just a misunderstanding."

However, it's always a misunderstanding, Cupchik says. Shoplifters, famous or not, "don't know why they do it-they're confused by why they do it, they're embarrassed that they do it until they get help."

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