There, one afternoon in mid-2007, sat Jessica Sierra, a bony shell of the once-curvy girl who just two years earlier wowed millions of American Idol viewers with a gravel-voiced, soulful rendition of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
The 21-year-old singer had recently been in discussions to be part of a reality TV show called Bad Girls Club, a gig for which she was well qualified. "I'd been arrested for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, possession of cocaine, and introduction of contraband into a correctional facility," Jessica later explains, rattling off the list of charges, as fluent in legal terminology as a cop. "And even at that time I did not think I had a problem. It was just bad luck I got caught. Some guys spit in my face, and I had a blackout, but of course alcohol didn't contribute to the blackout, oh nooo. Normal people have blackouts, right?"
But this afternoon, holed up in the hotel room avoiding sunshine like a vampire, she got a call from her manager with yet another offer: The network VH1 was producing another reality show called Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, and they were looking for participants. While Bad Girls Club was offering more money, the rehab show was a three-week commitment to getting off drugs and pursuing sobriety, with cameras recording 24/7.
Jessica happened to be coming down from yet another weeklong bender, using speed, Vicodin, cocaine, and Xanax, getting by with no sleep and very little food. "I got off the phone and thought about it," she says now. "And then my friends walk in. It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. There is a big tray full of coke, and they're hitting lines, and I look around and think, 'What do I have here? I'm in a hotel room with two friends who don't have jobs, don't have money, don't have a car, both on probation, and we are sitting around snorting coke all day. I'm killing myself. I weigh 80 pounds.'"
In the parlance of drug recovery, this is referred to as a "moment of clarity."
She called her manager back and said, "Yeah, I need rehab."
Enter Drew Pinsky, MD, program medical director of chemical dependency services at Las Encinas Hospital in his hometown of Pasadena, California, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine USC, and author of the memoir Cracked: Putting Broken Lives Together Again. The often-quoted expert—also an "addictionologist" certified by the American Society of Addiction Medicine—is more popularly known as Dr. Drew, the voice of reason on the syndicated radio call-in show Loveline.
Whether his next gig, as star of Celebrity Rehab, which premiered January 10, will be a credential worthy of including on his résumé remains to be seen. At 9 on a balmy Pasadena night some weeks after the series has wrapped, Drew drives to a Los Angeles studio for the live broadcast of Loveline, as he has done five nights a week since 1992. Of course, he hasn't always been behind the wheel of the spiffy Porsche Cayenne he now steers with one easy hand (a sports car, yes, but family-friendly). Drew is listing his initial reactions to being approached by VH1 producers to take nine celebrities through the drug rehabilitation process. These reactions go something like "No way," "Problems, problems, problems," "Seriously, you've got to be kidding," and "This can't happen."
Beyond that, his treatment is rooted in the 12-step system of Alcoholics Anonymous, and AA clearly states that anonymity is the foundation of successful sobriety. Drug recovery is a quiet subculture, with its own private language, its own mores. Not exactly compatible with live cameras and a cast of paid stars (albeit, as it turns out, stars with relatively low wattage).
"It wasn't until we were two weeks into the preproduction of the show when I said to myself, 'Oh Christ, we're really going to do this,'" he recalls.
What had turned him around was the growing constellation of tabloid headlines chronicling the tragic dramas and spectacular flame-outs of stars like Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Amy Winehouse as they went in and out of treatment. The underlying assumption: Why can't these privileged people get a grip? One day his lead counselor at Las Encinas said, "I'm sick of rehab being disparaged in the press," and it occurred to Drew then that perhaps the show could be a way to educate the public on just how deeply entrenched addiction is—a stubborn condition with no easy cure even for the rich and celebrated. Here was a chance to demonstrate the immense effort and commitment it takes to recover, a process that he'd dedicated his professional life to. Who knows, maybe someone would see it and understand at last that they needed treatment.
All of a sudden what had been just another Hollywood proposal became for him an unexpected blessing, an opportunity for growth. In drug recovery language, that's called a "God shot."
Casting was another matter. VH1 producers sent out a wide call among agents and managers asking for any clients who had drug problems they'd be willing to face on camera in exchange for a salary (the network won't disclose how much) and free treatment at the Pasadena Recovery Center—no small thing, considering the average cost of an in-patient program there runs about $7,500 a month (double that and more for the kind of tony facilities frequented by the Britney-Lindsay set).
Besides Jessica, those answering the call were actors Brigitte Nielsen and Daniel Baldwin; Jeff Conaway, best known for his role as Kenickie in Grease and for playing Bobby on the comedy series Taxi; porn star Mary Carey, who once ran for governor of California; musician Seth "Shifty" Binzer, lead singer of the rock group Crazy Town; Jaimee Foxworth, onetime child star on the sitcom Family Matters who has also worked in porn under the name Crave; pro wrestler Joanie "Chyna" Laurer; and Ultimate Fighting competitor Ricco Rodriguez. When they all gathered for the 21-day stint, "it was very emotional and nerve-racking," says Jaimee, who since the age of 16 has faced life with a blunt (marijuana cigarette) in hand. "Our rehab wasn't the one where they have the spas and you get massages—no. We had rehab: This is how you're going to walk through addiction; it's serious. It was like, you're stuck here. Either you are going to leave, or stay and recover and try to help everybody here."
In the lingo, that would be "placing principles before personalities."
Is that a rhetorical question? Watching Drew watch Celebrity Rehab is its own entertaining show. His eyes track the screen as the nine celebs, some of them in varying degrees of intoxication, walk through the doors of the Pasadena Recovery Center for the first time. "That was one of the biggest challenges initially. Most of them arrived supersick, and they all arrived at once. That's not how it usually happens."
Another big difference between these TV patients and his normal charges was the motivation: "All I normally have is a stick, the threat of: 'You're out of here if you step out of line,' as opposed to, 'Hey, we are going to pay you and put you on TV!' That carrot just changed the rules of the game, and I almost want to do it a couple more times so I can figure it out better. I spent a lot of time getting them into the fear of their disease, but fear wasn't as effective for this group as the carrot. I always had to stay on my toes and figure out how I could pull and build their motivation. I am not used to that at all."
Treatment included medical monitoring, group and individual counseling, yoga, lectures, journal work, and video diaries that were added in for TV. Drew tried, he says, to tread a line of doing very confrontational, "evocative" work while not retraumatizing this group of people who had each experienced some level of suffering in their formative years. Among the discoveries viewers will make (without revealing too much of the action) are that Jeff Conaway was sexually abused as a child, and that Mary Carey had a schizophrenic mother who was not able to care for her. And then there is Jessica Sierra, the daughter of a prostitute who died of a drug overdose when Jessica was a teenager, her body discovered in the backyard of "some random person," as she puts it.
Drew still worries he went too far in trying to get Jessica to stare down the pain of her youth by bringing in a couple of recovering prostitute mothers to talk with her. "Thirty seconds in I knew it was totally wrong," he confesses. "I should have immediately said, 'Excuse me, ladies, I need some time with Jessica, please leave right now.'" Instead, the results were "shattering."
By then the nonstop filming and the demands of the program may have taken their toll on Drew. (He freely admits that the stress of trying to get everyone sober and responsibly portray the nitty-gritty of the rehab process turned him into a nervous wreck.) "It was so intense and anxiety producing, by the end of the show my radar was just not working well. It was like a fuse was blown. Which was okay for the patients, because the lion's share was done and I was able to let [the other counselors] come in more, but it was disconcerting for me because I am used to knowing what's going on with everybody instinctively.
"Of course, I retreated into my idealization," he adds, referring to his penchant for eternal optimism. "I thought everyone would get sober—you know what I mean? That's my little fantasy world, where everybody gets well."
The screen goes blank as the footage of episode one ends. Drew's initial reaction seems to be guardedly hopeful. Yes, there are fancy jump cuts and the usual music-television editing, but so far the show doesn't seem overly sensationalized. Stay tuned.
His back injury pulled him out of the show 17 days into the run, but it was his dramatic withdrawal from pain meds and cocaine and only God knows what else that launches the drama for the first episode, which ends with Jeff being wheeled out of the recovery center by paramedics.
"They told me I had a seizure. I said, 'I didn't have a seizure, I just passed out. I do it all the time.'" He stops the story to take the pills in his hand. "Drew is looking at me like, 'Oh Jeff, oh Jeff, you don't understand anything, that's not normal.' I said, 'For the amount of pills I'm taking, it's normal for me.'"
This wasn't his first time at the barbecue, as it were. Jeff's had six, seven (who's counting?) stabs at rehab. Then there were the 14 years he swears he was sober. But one night—his third date with Vikki, he recalls—it was raining and he said wistfully that all he wanted was her, a warm fire and…a little cocaine. She pulled out her phone to call a dealer, and the rest is—well, you know the line.
But back to the issue at hand: What was it like being on the show?
"I called it Looney Tunes Rehab, because I said, 'This is not a rehab. You've got cameras all over the place, 24 hours a day, microphones in the background.' It was really, like, disturbing," he says. "You are not only rehabbing a drug problem, you are rehabbing a whole spiritual malady. You're going deep—if you go…"
Still he knew that, in essence, what they were paying him for was to display some good dysfunction. "They kind of prodded me," he says. "When I got back from the hospital, Shelly [a drug counselor on the show, who normally works with Drew] said, 'Thank God you're here, it's so boring without you, nobody is even puking.' I said to myself, 'Okay, they want the wild, crazy Conaway; that's my part…' At one point someone asked, 'Are you acting?' And I said, 'Of course I'm acting. What do you think? It's a show. It's a job. Getting clean is just a perk.' I'm serious. If these people had called you up and said, 'Do you want to go to rehab?' and they weren't paying you anything, you wouldn't be here."
Jeff's eyes drift for a moment over the table, and a smile curls his lips. He then begins to talk about Halihan, a leprechaun he has just seen, one who lives at his house. An actual leprechaun.
In the language of drug recovery, that's called…being loaded.
Focus on the brain. According to Drew, addiction is not—and this he wants everyone to fully understand—a failure of willpower. During a recent hour-long lecture at the facility in Las Encinas, Jessica sits cross-legged on the linoleum floor, a small bag of Cheetos in hand, her head tilted as Drew explains that there is a "powerful biological explanation." It has to do with neurological changes in the reward and survival system. Excessive drug use chemically tricks the brain so that the pursuit of the drug becomes a higher priority than survival. He tells the crowd that drugs may seem more important to them than staying alive because that's exactly the message their brains are giving them.
None of this is spoken from firsthand experience. It's a funny paradox—Drew, who grew up in a solid, pleasant, upper-middle-class home, never has more than an occasional glass of wine with a fine dinner. How, exactly, he got drawn into the gritty world of substance abuse, he's not sure, except to say, "Growing up, I always felt like there was something wrong with me. I could never figure out how other people worked. I've spent a lot of energy and a lot of training and a lot of years in therapy to understand it. Once I understood it, I couldn't imagine going though life and not being involved with the human being. Addiction is, in my opinion, the problem of our time."
Then as he started treating addicts, they became, in their own strange way, addicting. "Normally you go from patients who are acutely ill to chronically ill, and in this you go from people on the verge of dying to better than they ever knew they could be. You get a couple of those under your belt and, wow, you want to see that happen again. It doesn't have to happen every time, but to know there is a possibility you can get somebody there—and to know how to get them there if they would just goddamn listen to you—is pretty compelling stuff."
Rewind to a part of Drew's lecture where he mentions that "about 80 percent of alcoholics/addicts also have sexual addiction/compulsion issues."
Which segues into the curious incident of Daniel Baldwin, who once described himself to ABC's Primetime as a "die-hard cokehead" and had been in and out of rehab facilities nine times before signing on for the VH1 show. Daniel left Celebrity Rehab abruptly after six days of shooting, when the cameras discovered that he had showed Mary Carey pictures of his genitals. Daniel didn't return requests to be interviewed for this story, so there is no way to hear his point of view, but Drew wants to put the experience in context: "I have two sick people, and my job is to keep them both safe. I know for TV you need a villain, but I would caution everyone against that. Daniel is a good guy struggling with his sobriety, and yes, he has issues, like everybody."
Daniel was one of the few participants to come into Celebrity Rehab not loaded, says Drew. "I bet he's sober right now."
Zoom in on Brigitte Nielsen sitting in a booth at the chichi Italian eatery Ca' del Sol in Toluca Lake, looking more sober, and quite frankly much prettier, than she has at certain times—specifically on The Surreal Life, another reality show where the ex-model developed a relationship with rapper Flavor Flav, which then became its own spin-off aptly titled Strange Love. She orders a bottle of mineral water to go with an antipasto for lunch. Before, that water might have been a martini, or five. "I don't have a problem going two or three weeks without drinking, but then something will trigger me and I don't just want a cocktail, I want the whole bottle."
For Brigitte, the public nature of the treatment was a mixed blessing. "There were difficult moments when I was mentally tired from all the emotions and had to keep doing interviews. When you want to find your higher power you need to meditate, you need a breather. And, for me, in the beginning, starting to talk about things from a long time ago, from childhood, that's where I thought, 'To cure myself, do I need to have this on TV? But then again,' I said to myself, 'I am here. I knew the cameras would be here. I am going to be like an open book, and I hope that people will accept me and respect me for my choice.'"
Brigitte suggests that her story and those of her cast mates offer universal lessons about addiction. "Whether you are a celebrity or not, the pain, the lies, the bullshit is the same. How do you say…?" She is momentarily and uncharacteristically at a loss for words, considering that she speaks four languages almost fluently. "The law is the same for everybody."
She has also stopped smoking cigarettes as a result of being on the show. "Now," she says as she slices into another buttery piece of buffalo mozzarella cheese dribbled with extra-virgin olive oil, "if I can just stop eating…"
The buzz, even before Celebrity Rehab aired, was already circulating in the recovery/addiction community of Los Angeles. One alcohol and drug counselor who has her hackles raised at the mere idea of the show is Stasie Kardashian (yes, an extended member of the clan featured on the E! channel's Keeping Up with the Kardashians). "I don't think it should be on TV," she says. "They are getting paid, it's a set, they are actors, and the point is, the inpatient recovery process—if you are doing the work—is so personal and so private. If your stuff is that real, you are not going to want it on TV."
A recovering addict herself with more than a decade of sobriety to her credit, Stasie is a member of the Association of Intervention Specialists and runs interventions for the Betty Ford Center, the grandmother of all rehabs. The most important part of any recovery, she believes, is the spiritual component, and television simply can't do that justice. "I worry that families in crisis will see this," she says of the VH1 series. "So many times pictures misrepresent what is going to happen in rehab." She does, however, concede: "Then again, I don't like reality shows at all. My family just started one. Hellooo?"