Reality Bites

Did Oprah Winfrey Actually Expect Lindsay Lohan to Find Sobriety on a Reality Show?

By Alexis Neiers

Photo courtesy of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network

I knew I would run into Lindsay Lohan during her most recent stint in rehab. We both got sober in the same community in Malibu, and Malibu is a very small town. But when I ran into Lindsay last summer, I was shocked.

It was a Monday night, and I was in dire need of some recovery. Harper, my daughter, was only about six months old, and I hadn’t been out of my house in what felt like weeks. Lindsay saw us, walked up to me, and then kneeled in front of Harper, extending her hand to grab my baby's tiny finger. Lindsay and I briefly chitchatted, and then she took her seat. She seemed different from the girl I had recently seen in the media: Her skin glowed, her voice sounded clear, and her white eyes glistened.

Wow! I thought. That was really pleasant.

I had reasons to expect our conversation to go disastrously. Lindsay and I had served time together at the Lynwood Correctional Facility before I found sobriety three years ago. When I left jail early because of overcrowding, I was in desperate need of money. I had spent all my savings on drugs, and I had no way to support myself. A television channel offered me a post-jail interview that would pay me a decent amount of money. At the time, I had two options to pay my bills and buy drugs: sell my stuff or sell my soul. I decided to do the latter, be a mean girl, and agree to talk shit about Lindsay for $20,000.

After I got sober and began learning about my disease, I felt terrible about agreeing to do that interview. I realized I had no ability to see my behavior’s impact on others when I used—this is one of the many symptoms of my alcoholism—so I worked my steps. I made amends to friends and family members I had hurt, and volunteered with women in the community. I wanted to apologize to Lindsay, but I had no contact with her, and our brief encounter in Malibu wasn’t the right time to say I was sorry—true apologies between two girls are rarely made in public.

When OWN announced they were paying Lindsay $2 million to star in Lindsay, a docu-series (read: a classy reality show) about Lindsay’s attempts to stay sober after rehab, I rooted for her. She looked healthy in Malibu, and Oprah Winfrey had a reputation for helping troubled people on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I thought Winfrey would guide Lindsay on her journey to a healthier life.

Unfortunately, Lindsay has been anything but a self-help show. In the first few episodes, Lindsay moved from California to New York. (Would even a normie want cameras in their face while doing this? Who likes moving?) On the first episode, she sat in a hotel room covered in clothes, compulsively smoking cigarettes, worrying about money, and calling a real estate agent to ask if she had been approved to rent an apartment. Midway through the episode, Lindsay brought up the bling ring and talked shit about me. I assumed either the producers had asked her to mention the robberies because they needed to stir up some drama to make the first episode more exciting, or Lindsay still had some resentment towards me—which I could understand. After all, I did talk shit about her on national TV.

The next few weeks, I struggled to watch the show, not for the same reasons that made many viewers stop watching the show, but because Lindsay reminded me of myself—I have lived in fear of financial instability and have agreed to sell my soul instead of selling my stuff. But mostly I became uncomfortable watching the way Winfrey spoke to Lindsay. I know Winfrey grew up with a lot of trauma, but we can’t all be Winfrey, regardless of how many issues of O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine we read or how many of her favorite things we buy. I thought Winfrey would at least be a good female advocate for Lindsay—the emotionally stable mother Lindsay never had. Instead Winfrey was like any other stage mom, a cold, opportunistic parent trying to make a buck off a little girl.

Winfrey was shocked when Lindsay misbehaved. Early in the series, Lindsay started to show up late and cancel shoots with the show’s crew—probably because she wanted to back out of the whole thing, which was understandable. Winfrey, the crew, and Lindsay’s assistant would get mad at Lindsay like they were angry parents. Was I the only one who wasn’t surprised by Lindsay’s behavior? Winfrey paid Lindsay to appear on a reality show a few days after she left rehab. Have you met addicts after they leave rehab? They’re vulnerable and raw. Why would you put a camera in front of them, let alone expect them to show up on time?

Yet on episode three, Winfrey flew to town to chastise her pet project, Lindsay, and pressure her to succeed, when she was really setting her up to fail. The cameraman shot Winfrey from below, as Winfrey rode in a luxury car to Dina’s house to see Lindsay, emphasizing Winfrey’s omniscience. When Winfrey sat down with Lindsay, she threatened to pull the plug on the show. The Big O’s canned speech about how she rooted for Lindsay dripped with insincerity. Lindsay had repeatedly called her reality show a documentary during the show, and I began to wonder if Winfrey described the show as a docu-series to Lindsay to disingenuously convince her to appear on OWN. Clearly Winfrey's aggressive, exhibitionistic approach had exacerbated the pressure on Lindsay, but Winfrey seemed completely unaware of the role she was playing, that she was toying with a troubled girl’s life. On episode five, Lindsay admitted to relapsing.  

In between this chaos, Cliffside Malibu, the treatment center Lindsay went to, ran copious ads on OWN. But what else could we have expected? Everything about this show, from its concept to its advertisers, was pure promotion and exploitation. Lindsay was broke and struggling to salvage her career. She needed $2 million and to associate her tarnished name with Winfrey’s respected brand, and Winfrey needed Lindsay to save her channel that everyone knew was failing. (When have you ever watched OWN?)

When the show flopped, it wasn't surprising to watch OWN unceremoniously discard Lindsay, announcing this week that they weren’t going to renew the show for a second season. But this show was never about showing Lindsay’s recovery. Lindsay was an exercise in pure Schadenfreude—taking joy in the misfortune and suffering of others—and we're all partially to blame. Lindsay was bound to fail, and that’s what we all wanted. I would be lying if I said part of me wasn’t looking forward to a train wreck. (And I'm known for being a quasi-famous train wreck myself.) It’s insane that anyone thought Lindsay was going to be about recovery, not a battle to the death. After all, what is the logical conclusion of a reality television show? A public execution. 

Recovery, thankfully, is typically the opposite of a public execution. What I’ve learned is women in recovery need to support each other, not tear each other down. We share the common demands that addiction puts on us, like the inability to deal with normal stressful events, like moving, and being forced to delve deep into our psyches and develop a sometimes painful sense of awareness of both the history of our trauma and the ways we continue to traumatize ourselves. This work can be terribly painful, totally wonderful, and sometimes messy—normal people rarely experience the transformative healing that addicts go through.  Recovery takes a very long time. I’m not sure how recovery works for every person, but I know real long-term recovery will never take place in a few short weeks, let alone in front of a TV camera. 

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