Valley Girl, Interrupted

By day Rohini Reiss lives in a Sherman Oaks apartment. By nights she’s a player on young Hollywood’s A-list club scene. How does a 21-year-old from the wrong side of Mulholland end up partying with Fred Durst?

Rohini Reiss met Jessica Stonich, appropriately enough, in a bar. It was a long time ago for both of them—last year. The bar was Dublin’s on the Sunset Strip. Dublin’s upstairs door was run then by a woman named Jennifer who was notorious for preventing people from crossing her threshold on Monday nights. If Jennifer didn’t know you, or your name wasn’t on her clipboard, you didn’t get in—which is exactly why all the L.A. club kids wanted into Dublin’s on Mondays. Few succeeded. Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck, Britney Spears, and Paris Hilton were let into Dublin’s by Jennifer. So were Rohini and Jessica.

By the time the two girls met, Rohini—who was 19—had already figured out what she calls the “L.A. Scene.” When Rohini talks about the L.A. Scene, she is not referring to what most of us would imagine: a few bars in Silver Lake, the 35 or so clubs and bars currently found in Hollywood, the dozen roped-off rooms west of La Cienega. In fact, she is referring not to any place in particular but instead to a group of young actors, models, producers, and agents who have become her friends or acquaintances or dates since the night she left Sherman Oaks and crossed Jennifer’s threshold. Mark Wahlberg, Fred Durst, and Heath Ledger are in the L.A. Scene, as are DiCaprio, Hilton, Affleck, Spears, the Spelling children, Brandon Davis (son of hotel magnate Marvin), Justin Murdock (son of billionaire David), Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel), and Elijah Blue (son of Cher). In Rohini’s estimation, there are no more than 100 people in the L.A. Scene.

Likely, there has always been an L.A. Scene. But never has one existed this young, this rich, this powerful. This is the L.A. Scene of the teen boom in entertainment, whose Big Bang can be dated exactly to 1996, when—in the period of one year—Scream, Bully the Vampire Slayer, Hanson’s “MMMBop,” I Know What You Did Last Summer, Titanic, and Dawson’s Creek all appeared and turned Hollywood into the land of opportunity for the very young. “These days the agents walking up to my bar,” says a club owner, “are all 22, 23, 24—and they spend a lot of money.” Overnight successes, the children of the WB and the Murdoch empire needed a place to assume their royalty. This is when club promoters like Jennifer and places like Dublin’s became important.

I first met Rohini and Jessica outside the West Hollywood club Moomba on the night of an ’NSYNC event party. Rohini was wearing a peach-colored Gucci tank top and Frankie B.s that revealed her four tattoos and two favorite parts of her body: her belly and her shoulders. Every feature about her seemed elongated. She looked tall and slinky and a little intimidating. Jessica, who had spent an hour rummaging through Rohini’s closet, was wearing almost the identical outfit—the hip-hugging jeans and teensy top that became the stock uniform for club girls this summer. Rohini remembers Jessica approaching her for the first time at Dublin’s, when, she says, “Jessica said, ‘Oh my God, are you a model? I see you everywhere—you should give me your phone number so we can hang out.’ “ After that they were inseparable. They knew all the same people. They were both outsiders; Jessica had spent her life until then in the former citrus town of Yorba Linda. They shared a predilection for using the word like in conversation that takes some adjusting to for anyone over 40. Here, for example, is Jessica recalling a blind date: “And like we were just talking about everything and suddenly he comes in at 60 miles per hour and kisses me. And I’m like. And I just, like, froze up and I was just like and then he like backs up and he’s like, ‘What’s wrong?’ and I’m like, ‘You should know.’ It was just like. Nasty guy.”

When I came upon them at Moomba, Rohini and Jessica were marooned in an alien landscape: the parking lot of a club, on the wrong side of a velvet rope, eyeing the football players in suits who blocked their passage. All around them, paparazzi and gaggles of teenage girls and their mothers staked out the asphalt, waiting for the arrival of Justin, Joey, JC, Lance, and Chris.

According to Rohini, Moomba had the “worst reputation in the L.A. Scene because it’s run by New Yorkers who wouldn’t let a lot of us in, so no one goes there now.”

She had heard, though, that a lot of the L.A. Scene were showing up tonight; she just didn’t know anyone at the rope.

“I’m worried about that fat guy on the red carpet,” said Jessica, eyeing a guard with a curly phone wire dangling from his ear.

“I’m worried about that motherfucker at the door,” said Rohini, glaring at a linebacker who had turned back their first assault.

A steady stream of young unknowns from the WB and Fox was passing up the red carpet, increasing Rohini’s exasperation. All around her, younger versions of herself stretched as far as she could see, girls who were stuck on the outside of the club, of a certain age, of sex, of Hollywood. “There are two types of people,” she said. “People we know, and people who are trying to get in.”

The murder of Bonny Lee Bakely outside an Italian restaurant in the Valley was a reminder that in L.A. a woman so inclined can arrive out of nowhere—from Memphis or Yorba Linda or Sherman Oaks—and insinuate herself into the highest echelons or stranger recesses of Hollywood. Certainly, the figure of Bakely is on the pathetic end of the spectrum—a small-time grifter and check-kiting artist selling nude photos of herself through the mail while carrying Robert Blake’s baby. Still, Los Angeles harbors a sizable population of women who are waiting for their chance to cross the velvet rope that leads to a Hollywood Hills mansion. They are the plus-ones on producers’ arms at parties, the “models” hired for the same parties as background for the producers to admire. They are fresh arrivals like Christie Prody, who left Minnesota to stand outside O.J. Simpson’s gate until he came down off the Exercycle to take her number. They are the women who date James Woods, marry Larry King, divorce Kelsey Grammer, or carry Jack Nicholson’s babies to term. While Rohini and Jessica are nothing like Bonny Lee Bakely—they have a native’s nonchalance toward celebrity, for one thing, and would be insulted by the notion they were trolling for a rich boyfriend/husband—the fact remains they have transcended their origins as completely as Christie Prody.

Outside Moomba, without notice, a subtle shift of bodies had occurred, the geometry of red-carpet roadblocks reconfigured, and Rohini and Jessica were over the rope, smiling past the paparazzi who shouted, “Who are you? Let us take your picture!” and into the club.

“Masters!” Jessica exulted at their success, stepping up to Moomba’s crowded bar.

“It’s horrible,” said Rohini, eyeing the room, adding up its contents, and announcing the answer. “These are ’NSYNC dorks.”

“Definitely not in the scene,” said Jessica.

“Tacky-cheesy,” said Rohini, making a face as she searched her mind for a final pronouncement. “Old outfits,” she said.

Up and down the bar you could see the radar screens of single men pinging frantically at the duo’s arrival. Typically, men outside the L.A. Scene interested in dating Rohini and Jessica approach in one of two ways. There are the young men, new to L.A., whose faces beam “aw shucks” and who light up like the USO just hit the base. And there are the packs in snakeskin and leather whose reptile brains are hardwired into the sex circuitry of the room, whose necks swivel simultaneously as if locked into the same reflex action, whose response controls are set on “stalk.” The anthropology of dating inside the L.A. Scene, on the other hand, is as complicated as a structuralist’s interpretation of a Balinese cockfight. As Rohini explained it once over lunch, there are four major motifs: (1) Men (and some women) are always attempting to have sex with as many partners as possible; (2) No one wants anyone else to know who they are sleeping with; which leads to (3) Couples passing as single people in clubs to avoid detection; and finally (4) The Slut/Angel/Slut typology. Here is Rohini describing the first three motifs:

“Everyone knows everyone in the scene, but no one really wants to end up in a relationship with someone in the scene. They want to wait and find somebody outside the scene later in their lives. Guys are trying to sleep with as many girls as they can, and girls who are your friends are going to get jealous if they find out you hooked up with someone they were with before, so no one tells anyone who they’re sleeping with. I know one girl who sleeps around with a lot of different guys in the scene, but because of the rule, none of the guys know they are all sleeping with her. It doesn’t matter if a girl is dating an actor, an agent, or a normal guy—they don’t want anyone to know. You could see two people sitting and talking to each other and have no idea they are going home together. They will purposefully leave at different times and then meet later on somewhere else.”

It would all sound so simple were it not for the Slut/Angel/Slut caste system Rohini then tried to explain. “If it’s such a small scene,” I had countered, “people are bound to find out who is sleeping with who.”

“It’s weird,” said Rohini. “There are girls that don’t sleep around but flirt a lot without giving out their phone numbers, and they’re called sluts in the scene.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Then there are girls that sleep around a lot but no one knows about it, and they’re called angels.”

“But there must be a group of girls,” I protested at this Orwellian flip of meaning, “that everyone knows sleeps around.”

“There is,” said Rohini. “There’s a third group of women who sleep around with celebrities and CEOs and producers all over town, and they’re called sluts, too.” She ran a french fry across her teeth, then said matter-of-factly, “A lot of guys say I have a reputation for sleeping around.”

“So that would make you an angel, right?” I asked, thinking I’d caught on.

“No.”

“That would make you a slut?”

“Yes,” Rohini said.

“But I thought sluts didn’t sleep around at all.”

“Yes, but everyone thinks they sleep around.”

“Right—got it,” I said. I had no idea what I was talking about.

It’s unfair to say Rohini’s whole life today revolves around clubbing and dating, but given her lack of a job—Rohini says she is supported by her mother—it’s also not far from the truth. Unencumbered by a career or university schedule, and there is a dearth of women with careers or schedules in the L.A. Scene, Rohini and Jessica don’t club in their spare time; they lead the rest of their lives in their spare me. They were impossible to reach on the phone before 2 p.m. If they ventured out before dusk, anyone they met they knew from clubs. Essentially, club hopping instantly gave the two friends a reason to get up in the afternoon. Since the core of this experience seemed so limited, I asked Jessica one day what the two found interesting to talk about with their club friends.

“Oh, you can talk about their upcoming trips,” said Jessica, “or if they went out of town, how was it. Or maybe about an upcoming party.”

“Usually,” Rohini added, “”hey’ll also have something to complain about, this person or that.”

“Right,” said Jessica. “Or you could ask ‘Have you talked to so and so lately?’ or ‘How are they doing?’ It’s really a lot. It can wear you out sometimes.”

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Davis Factor

It’s often hard to remember, caught up inside Rohini and Jessica’s lives, that like hundreds of other young women in L.A., they are elements of a financial strategy employed by the owners of bars like Dublin’s. New clubs enjoy honeymoon periods with the L.A. Scene until one night, for no apparent reason, the L.A. Scene takes its love elsewhere. Due to this fickleness, Guy’s has shut down in the last year, along with Pop; Las Palmas, Vynyl, and the Whiskey Bar have been dropped by the scene; and Jennifer has since left the door at Dublin’s for Joseph’s, which meant suddenly all the club kids could get into Dublin’s and so of course had no interest in entering. “The goal,” says Craig Trager, who owns Daddy’s on Vine and who managed West Hollywood’s now-defunct Babylon, “is to get as many pretty girls and Charlize Theron in the door so you end up in the newspapers. Then you can secure the magazine parties, like Esquire and Detour, that are big enough to make back your investors’ money. You have a very small window of time to make that back before the A-list gets bored and moves on.”

To extend the life of their honeymoon with the L.A. Scene, club promoters rely on a variety of tactics. They hire young women to circulate through clubs and bars, taking the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of girls like Rohini and Jessica. “A good mailing-list girl,” says Loyal Pennings, who managed Las Palmas, “will work the room, the line outside, judging clientele by their footwear, their outfits, breaking them down into categories of desirability for the club’s life.” They create event parties—sometimes out of air—expressly to attract the right crowd. “We did Carmen Electra’s birthday party at Las Palmas,” continues Pennings, “fully knowing she was going to be out of town and not show up. The clientele doesn’t know Electra—they don’t know she’s in Vegas—but like sheep they show up anyway, and we benefit off their shallowness.”

Mostly, however, club promoters work hard to keep out the C-list—which includes almost anyone reading this sentence—whose appearance inside the velvet rope wood quickly drive off the L.A. Scene and spell death to a good run of magazine parties. Pennings, whose club hosted parties for In Style, Details, and GQ until the A-list went elsewhere last May calls them “the Canadians.” “Every night we have a percentage of Canadians that gets past the rope,” says Pennings. “At no point is the room a Canadian-free environment, but sometimes I’ll notice an awful lot of them at the bar and ask the doorman, “What is it—Canada Day?”

It’s not just our friends to the north who are discriminated against to ensure the Rohinis and Jessicas keep showing up. “I specifically get told by club promoters,” says one mailing-list girl, “ ‘No Persians and no Asians.’ ” And Trager remembers that “Babylon tried so hard catering to every major model and celebrity that they had a rule to discriminate against the gay clientele. Remember—the club was right in the heart of West Hollywood. One night David Geffen and two guests came in, and, unknown to Geffen, he was basically discriminated against. They wouldn’t give him a table.”

When Rohini entered Dublin’s for the first time, Jennifer didn’t know her. She asked if Rohini was on her list and then turned her away. Rohini waited some months, changed her look, went back, and—magically—Jennifer let her in. “That was my first night in the L.A. Scene,” Rohini told me one day at lunch on the Sunset Plaza. “A lot of actors, a lot of beautiful girls, everyone is nice to each other but really stuck-up and pretentious to anyone outside the velvet rope.” Dublin’s was on Mondays. Rohini discovered Pop, where the L.A. Scene hung out on Thursdays, and then thought to herself, “Okay—these people go here on Mondays, they go them on Thursdays. Where else do they go?” After a month Rohini’s week looked like this: Dublin’s (Mondays), Guy’s (Tuesdays), Las Palmas (Wednesdays), Pop (Thursdays), and Whiskey Bar (after hours Fridays). Rohini says Guy’s assured her place in the L.A. Scene because of its owners draconian door policy; if other club promoters saw you inside Guy’s, they knew you had arrived. It became not unusual for Rohini to find herself hanging out at Guy’s with just five other patrons—that’s how stingy Guy’s owner was with his velvet rope—and three of them were George Clooney, Denzel Washington, and Mark Wahlberg.

There is a line spoken by Jon Favreau’s character in Swingers that describes Rohini’s modus operandi around men in clubs: “You spend half the night talking to some girl who’s looking around the room to see if there’s somebody more important she should be talking to.” At Moomba, as men began peeling off the bar in ones and twos and attaching themselves to the girls, Rohini responded by looking directly over the shoulder of each potential suitor, acknowledging only the oxygen beside his ears. “All the girls do it in the L.A. Scene,” she told me later. “It’s called ‘looking for the next bigger better.’ ” One by one the men crumpled under her studied inattention. Next, the rap star Coolio appeared. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, an upside-down visor, and his hair in a dread-spray that shot straight above his head. It was a look that said “Here is Coolio.”

“Hey, Coolio,” Rohini called out in a little-girl voice. Jessica and Rohini had spent an entire night last year hanging out with Coolio at a PlayStation party where Outkast played.

“What’s up, baby?” asked Coolio, rearing back. “Where you going?”

“Joseph’s,” said Rohini. Joseph’s is the club run by Jennifer reside a small Greek restaurant that has replaced Dublin’s on Monday nights.

“Okay, baby,” said Coolio, moving on to share himself with the room. “I’m going to hook up with you them later.”

After that Rohini spent some time talking with her friend Andrew Shack, senior VP of A&R at Priority Records, let Jessica finish her apple martini, and then left Moomba unhappy. In the club’s driveway she ran into Bill Maher, who had just stepped out of a limo and who knew Rohini from parties at the Playboy Mansion.

“Don’t go in there,” Rohini warned Maher. “It sucks.”

“Yeah, well, if you only knew where I just came from,” sighed Maher, looking a little exhausted under his effervescent halo of silver hair. “Pasadena.”

“Come to Joseph’s.”

“Aw, I don’t know. It’s the other way around …” Maher let his complaint trail off with his gaze. “Anyway,” he snapped back. “This is the Backstreet Boys, right?”

Rohini left Moomba and drove her purple Mustang with Jessica beside her to Joseph’s. Leonardo was inside, and so was Fred Durst and—amazingly—’NSYNC, who had skipped their own party at Moomba for Joseph’s. Jessica danced with one of the ‘NSYNC-ers until Brandon Davis decided a bunch of people should go see a movie and Rohini and Jessica ended up in a Hollywood Hills house watching The Wedding Planner. When I told Rohini the following day that I thought this was an impressive turn of events for someone who had spent much of her adolescence in a Valley apartment, she said, “Whatever people think you do, that’s who you are.”

The first night Rohini made it past a velvet rope she ended up inside a room at the Peninsula with a famous masturbating frantically in front other while whispering, “I can make you an actress, I can make you a star.” She ran out the door and stayed away from clubs for weeks. After that, she says, “I started thinking of celebrities as very strange people because I figured since they can get whatever they want, they start wanting strange things to satisfy their urges. Normal girls don’t satisfy them anymore.” She heard from other women that masturbating in front of a girl you had just picked up at Sky Bar had become as trendy among young actors as heroin was for a while. But Rohini stayed in the L.A. Scene. She learned to turn her natural shyness into bitchiness like all the girls around her. She began dating the actors and producers she ran into at night, sometimes two or three different dates a week. She toughened herself so she could walk into Dublin’s and, in a single night, see six guys she had hooked up with before with other girls and not care. She met and then for months dated an Indiana Pacer. At the Staples Center the cameraman flashed Rohini’s image cheering him so often on the jumbo screen that eventually the Clippers’ owner turned around one night and asked, “Who are you?” Directed at a former tomboy from the Valley, it was a good question.

Rohini grew up in Northridge, where she lived with her dad—who is Indian and worked for Boeing—and her mom, who is British, until the couple’s marriage difficulties overwhelmed them and Rohini followed her mother at 16 to a small apartment in Sherman Oaks. The apartment sat on a street of apartment buildings. There were broken families and single people stacked five stories high around Rohini. For days she wood sit, bored, scanning the new view for others like her. There was a boy who appeared some days on a nearby balcony. Rohini believed she had never seen anyone that beautiful in her life. When they finally spoke, Rohini wasn’t even sure what Scott was saying to her; she was that shy and that struck by this kid who, she thought, looked exactly like James Dean.

After that Scott’s gang of friends essentially moved into Rohini’s apartment. They were amazed at this girl who wore no makeup, who could smoke massive amounts of pot and still beat them on Super Mario or Zelda, and who had somehow landed Scott. These were the children of apartments, kids who wanted to blow up big in rock, kids who wanted to blow up on TV, kids who wanted to blow up in heroin. Rohini didn’t know yet where she wanted to blow up. Eventually, some of the guys in Scott’s gang did start playing clubs, and one kid ended up on Sunset Beach. One kid overdosed and died.

A year after they met, with her mother’s blessing, Rohini and Scott moved in together—their own apartment. Rohini was still in high school. Mornings, she packed a lunch and walked to school; nights, she came home to Scott and smoked pot and played Zelda. It was Romeo and Juliet rewritten by two Valley teenagers. Rohini loved Scott so much it hurt, and she began finding ways to lessen the pain. Her shyness fell away and her jealousy grew. She picked fights, seeing potential rivals everywhere. If it wasn’t girls, then—like Juliet—Rohini worried about death taking Scott. He was wild when he drank. She suffered from weird feelings that he would die before her. In teenagespeak she warned him, “If you ever die I will commit suicide so you better not die because if you do die you’ll know I’m dead.”

Finally, the fights grew so bad that Rohini left and moved back in with her mother, still thinking, “Once we grow up we’ll get together forever.” Single, just out of high school, there was nothing for her to do in the Valley. She began crossing Mulholland late at night in her purple Mustang. Maybe there she could blow up big. In Sherman Oaks, Scott took on a roommate and grew morose around his friends. “What happened to you?” they would ask him. “You used to be a pimp, you used to be a player. She’s just a girl.” One day Scott’s roommate came home and found a photo album opened to pictures of Rohini with Scott. That night Scott’s car left an overpass on the 101 freeway, landing in Woodland Hills and killing him.

Rohini had a crazy thought after the funeral that she was supposed to wait for Scott to come back from Forest Lawn. But she also broke her promise—she didn’t join him. It didn’t matter; Scott was everywhere she went in the Valley. She started crossing Mulholland even more, looking for a place she could transform herself. Then one night she walked into Dublin’s.

A week after the Moomba party I was walking my dog through a Westside park and ran into Rohini and Jessica. Both girls were again wearing something off Rohini’s rack—Rohini’s club outfits seemed to be her park outfits seemed to be her lunch outfits—but they looked cool and summery anyway. Rohini said she had received a phone call from “Tobey Maguire’s office” inviting them there to a baseball game and birthday party. I was struck again by the incongruity of a former tomboy-Super Mario addict taking calls from Tobey Maguire’s office, but Rohini seemed to take it in stride.

On the sandlot, 25 or so tattooed and ponytailed men and women sat cross-legged, waiting to be picked by team captains. To Rohini, this was the L.A. Scene, but it looked like New Hollywood. Kirsten Dunst was there, and so were Nick Cassavetes, Kevin Connelly, and Maguire. Leonardo DiCaprio, who arrived late with his model girlfriend Gisele, was greeted like some kind of warrior king recently gone missing. DiCaprio is beginning to look these days like our own Ernest Hemingway—with a ballooning chest and stomach and sweeping Mephisto chin beard. In discrete groups, men snuck off the sandlot mimicking hypernonchalant saunters to hug the bearish boy figure who waited by the fence. Next, all the women walked off the sandlot; as in Old Hollywood, only men were picked to play today.

A pale woman in maroon jeans flopped down next to me and began haranguing her cell phone: “We’re at Tobey’s softball party and they won’t pick girls! I’m so bitter! I even have a Yankee tattoo on my arm! I probably would have made it to base two-thirds of the time. Is that more than three-quarters? Anyway. It’s all guys and Nick Cassavetes is such a mean guy and they’re all so competitive. They’re a bunch of actors who think they’re playing like athletes but they’re not—they’re actors. It’s soooo high school. All right. I love you. Bye, Daddy.”

It was so high school. The more I learned from Rohini about the L.A. Scene—that they were stuck meeting in the same few rooms every week, that they all dated the same people, that they had reenacted a caste system as cruel as anything found on the quad—the more I thought of it as a group of twenty-somethings who had figured out a way to extend senior year through the first half of their third decades.

One night Rohini explained the scene’s descending chain of Girl-Being to me:

“Okay—there’s the daughters of rich parents.” I guessed this would include Paris Hilton, Tori Spelling, and Nicole Richie.” And they usually hang out with the models or the model group. Then there’s the girls that look like models.” I assumed this included girls like Rohini and Jessica.

“What do you call the girls made up to look like Barbies?” I asked.

“We call them white trash,” Rohini replied. She weighed her answer judiciously, then said, “Of course the girls calling them white trash can also be called white trash on certain occasions. And then there’s the girls with big hair who shop at Rampage, and we call them Orange County girls.”

It had finally come to pass: The Valley was no longer L.A.’s bridge and tunnel.

Parsing the meaning of Rohini’s L.A. Scene-speak was tough sometimes. Take, for example, the term “hooking up,” which can mean leaving a club with a guy to do something, meeting a guy somewhere else to do something, making out with a guy, having sex, or dating for a few weeks. A girl could hook up with a guy to go hook up with him, only to find herself unexpectedly hooking up with him, which could lead to a month of hooking up. Since Rohini and Jessica always seemed to be on their way to hook up with some guys—and Rohini was always pointing out men in clubs she had hooked up with before—half the time I had no idea what was going on.

The term “Orange County girl” was also troubling. I had spent an afternoon with Jessica and her parents in their two-story Yorba Linda home, which sits securely inside Orange County. Yorba Linda seems to be a community built on the antithetical model of L.A.—tight cul-de-sacs of tract housing, small parks, a TGIF, and not much else. When Jessica was 14 she spent a year commuting north as an extra on the show Boy Meets World, and it remained her plan, at 21, to be an actress. We all sat on the couch—Jessica was wearing a pink halter and a denim skirt—watching a video compilation of Jessica that she was planning to send out to L.A.’s top talent agencies. It consisted of two scenes of Jessica making out with actors, a few brief lines from an appearance on a daytime soap, some shaky footage from Jessica’s prom, and an edited episode of MTV’s Cribs that featured Jessica in a miniskirt dancing silently around Tommy Lee while the rocker showed off his TV room. At the appearance of Tommy Lee, Jessica’s father stood up and left the room.

“That’s when L.A. starts to get scary for parents,” Jessica’s mom explained, and then, without skipping a beat, pulled out a party invitation to the Playboy Mansion Jessica had received that day and asked, “What are you doing on Saturday night?”

That Tommy Lee’s pleasure dome was worrisome while Hef’s Midsummer Night’s bacchanal wasn’t, that footage of your prom led to agent interest at Endeavor—these were skewed, outsiders’ visions of L.A. I did think Jessica was one of the nicest people I had ever met. She was the shiny penny of a little exurb whose favorite adverb was like. Yet as with Rohini, she spent her nights now bowling in the secret alley tucked under Aaron Spelling’s mansion, hanging out with a Murdock, running off to Vegas in rich men’s limos, motoring up to the Playboy Mansion with Jamie Foxx, or slipping off with a world-famous male model to a seaside condo. Why had she been accepted into the L.A. Scene, while dozens of girls who looked just like her had not? Why wasn’t she an “Orange County girl”?

“Because she doesn’t dress very O.C., she’s not closed-minded, and she’s a cute chick,” Rohini answered. The three of us were walking from a party at the Argyle on the Sunset Strip—which Rohini had deemed “horrible”—to the new bar at the Standard, which, along with Joseph’s and a club named Punani, seemed to be the only room the L.A. Scene felt comfortable hanging out in this summer. My opinion was that Jessica had been accepted because she hung with Rohini, and Rohini had the tall, cool looks and ability to call up a bitchy attitude that equaled instant acceptance in the scene. Following the high school theory, everyone in the L.A. Scene wants to be accepted as cool, and the coolest people are those who give no acknowledgment of your existence—no acceptance. “I can be introduced to the same girls in the scene 30 times,” Rohini told me one day, “and they will still give me bitchy glares and act like they’ve never met me—that’s the way girls are in the scene.” Rohini knew she had to push down the tomboy inside her, the goofy teenage girl she had been with Scott. “People in the L.A. Scene would think I’m a retard if I acted the way I was with Scott. So that’s why I’m the opposite now.”

She wasn’t exactly the Terminator, though. Rohini’s currency in the L.A. Scene was her looks, the value of which—along with her conception of herself—was about as stable as the Nasdaq, hinging on the previous day’s reports. “My ego is always being crushed every day,” she said once to me. “It goes up, then down. Ben Affleck will ask for your number one night and say you’re so beautiful, then the next day some random guy you think is hot will say ‘I don’t want to see you.’ ” Rohini could seem winsome and misplaced at these moments—someone who had labored at reinvention, sloughing off a former self, then found herself trapped in a new skin. “I liked myself better back when I was with Scott,” she told me. “I thought I was having a better life. I was a lot happier. But I wouldn’t be accepted now if I was that girl.”

Approaching the Standard, Rohini was stopped on the sidewalk by a frantic-looking woman her age who had stepped from a car, pulled her aside, and was now pumping her for information. The woman was pale, disheveled, with stringy hair and an amphetamine intensity. It was impossible to hear the content of their conversation, but the words obsessive, stalker, and producer popped up audibly.

“She’s the daughter of some really rich producers,” Rohini said after the woman ran back to the car. “She’s dating this ex-boyfriend of mine who’s a pretty big producer, too, and he’s telling her he loves her, but her friends are telling her he’s said he’s only dating her to bring her to business meetings and show her off. So he can have some relationship with her parents.” Rohini looked thoughtful for a moment. “She’s a nice girl,” she went on, “but she seems pretty messed up on coke. Did you see the way her mouth was moving funny? I’m, like, ‘Damn—whoa girl. Chill out.’ ”

We arrived at the Standard’s streetside velvet rope, which was pulled instantly aside without a word by a man with lanky hair wearing a black leather jacket. “Wow, that was easy,” Rohini marveled in a whisper. “Last week they wouldn’t even let Randy Spelling in.” A man who looked 40 and who was speaking distractedly into black eyeglasses that doubled as his cell phone hit on Rohini as she passed him on the balcony.

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Hey,” Rohini replied, pulling up short. “What’s happening?”

“My client Rick,” teased the man.

“Rick who?” Rohini asked.

“Rick Springfield,” the man replied, smiling like he’d just opened his wallet.

“Who’s that?” Rohini asked absentmindedly.

Sometimes you’re forced to remember around Rohini what it means to be 21 and an outsider still learning. One day, after she had spent the night at the house of a friend whose father she knew was famous for some reason, Rohini asked me, “Do you know what Lionel Richie does?”

Inside the Standard, Rohini and Jessica held up their green-apple martinis in the cool light suffusing the circular room, the bluish silver tint that modern cinema employs to designate “otherworldly.” The arcing walls of the lounge are hung with purple glass rods that shimmer, giving the effect that one has been set down inside a bar that has been set down inside Neil Diamond’s shirt. There was a narcotic sense of detachment in all the L.A. Scene rooms I visited with Rohini and Jessica; at the Standard, men and women seemed to conserve acknowledgment of others, expression, and emotion as if stuck in a seven-year personality drought. This is the arid atmosphere of being “inside” rather than outside the velvet rope. Rohini made a tentative circuit of the room, scanning the low couches and modular chairs for faces. At the bar Jessica pointed out George Hamilton’s son, Ashley, a few children of the superrich. She told me, “This is the toughest room in L.A. to get into right now,” then talked about what a fantasyland L.A. still is for her after her drive up from Yorba Linda every week. From our seats, framed in the chiaroscuro light, Rohini was all angles and limbs, looking like a Spielbergian visitor just touched down. It is the sort of place Bonny Lee Bakely would have killed to get into.

“I think all clubs should be VIP clubs,” Rohini said, an insider’s ultimate wish. Rohini’s power in this room rested on her outsider’s status. “Because they have made it in Hollywood,” Rohini told me, “guys in the scene think they’re cool and don’t understand when a girl isn’t treating them the way they picture themselves. The bitchier you are, the more guys want to date you, the more they want you in their lives.”

The last time I saw Rohini she was spending a week about as far away from the bar at the Standard as I could imagine: with her grandparents at a Quaker retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains. She was going without makeup but managed to stand out when I found her: in her purple Mustang, holding a Gucci bag while talking on a cell phone. We drove into the farming town of Gilroy to find fashion magazines and Diet Coke, which she already craved after a day away.

Rohini told me she had been thinking about Scott last night in the woods and crying.

“It’s so unbelievable,” she said. “I still don’t believe he died—I still think he’s out there somewhere.”

She talked about how “real” and “normal” guys her age at the retreat seemed to be. “Who you are is so much more important to them than what you look like,” she said.

Since her first night at Dublin’s, Rohini has learned to walk a line between the girl she once was and who she has had to become to fit in. Yet the lessons of the scene—such as converting one’s looks into currency—can unwittingly lead to some of L.A.’s more sordid stations of the cross: the May-November pickup scenes at the Peninsula bar or the Four Seasons, the trophy-wife luncheons at the Polo Lounge, the Beverly Hills escort services. For now Rohini’s encounters transcend stereotypes of predator and victim; she knows the designs the young players have on her and is comfortable in their Gulfstreams and limos. But how long can she accept little perks, the “lent” cars and shopping sprees? How far can she ride this particular wave until she cuts out and glides to safety before it pulls her under?

In my talks with Rohini, a bright corona always hovered at the entrance and exit to the L.A. Scene, an eternal return to the backyard. “When it comes down to it,” she said, “what guys really want when they eventually leave the scene is a nice, clean girl.” And she looked forward one day to leaving the scene and revisiting the kind of boys whom she once outsmoked and outplayed on Zelda.

“The guys I find extremely, extremely attractive,” she would say of that day, “are guys that are, like, innocent, that are not forward, but shy. I just love innocence. I do.”

 

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