Everyone had at least one shitty friend growing up. The kind of girl who would peer-pressure you into stealing earrings at Claire's and then make fun of you because your mom only gave you $10 to stock up on Invader Zim merch at Hot Topic. But Meili Cady, who is now 29, says she fell in with an adult version of that mean-girl BFF archetype when she moved to Los Angeles ten years ago.
Lisette Lee, who called herself "the Korean Paris Hilton," was one of the first people to befriend Cady when she moved from small-town Washington to try and make it as an actress. She also dazzled the naive newbie with stories about being the Samsung heiress and a pop star in Asia. With a combination of expensive gifts and over-the-top praise, Lee won over Cady to the point that she would do anything for her. That's why, according to Cady, at least, when Lee hired her as a personal assistant—and had her chauffeur suitcases from LA to Ohio—she didn't ask any questions. Later, when she put together that the two were smuggling pot, Cady claims she didn't go to the cops because she was terrified of her powerful friend.
Although her story of Stockholm Syndrome and complete innocence is at least a little hard to believe, the cops apparently ate it up. Cady says she helped with the investigation and as a result only served 30 days in prison. (Meanwhile, Lee got six years.) And on Wednesday, Cady's book about the whole experience, Smoke: How A Small-Town Girl Accidentally Wound Up Smuggling 7,000 Pounds of Marijuana With The Pot Princess of Beverly Hills, hit the shelves. She's hoping her new claim-to-fame will jumpstart her career, and it seems like it could be working: Although the most recognizable thing on her demo reel before the bust was pretending to give an under-the-table BJ in Californication,she told me she just finished filming a Toyota commercial.
I called up Cady to get more details about her incredible story, and to find out exactly how you gets manipulated into becoming a drug trafficker. I'm still not sure I believe her.
VICE: Tell me what it was like to move to LA and what that city was like as a newcomer, especially for someone coming from such a small town.
Meili Cady: LA was very overwhelming. When I moved here it was very exciting, even just driving down the street. It's a completely foreign world from anything I knew when I was growing up. I felt just as much a tourist here as I did when I was backpacking through Europe after graduating school.
I think LA has a lot of great opportunities but it also has an equal amount of traps you could walk into. As someone who was very young and wide-eyed and ambitious and excited to explore it was a very stimulating town, but I don't think I was prepared for it. And I certainly wasn't prepared to be independent and succeed. I think I finally found my footing after years of failing and learning from my mistakes.
How did you and Lisette Lee come to be friends? And why did she pick you?
I think that she doesn't get along with many personalities in general, particularly women. And I think that she had expressed interest in finding a new friend almost in the way that you'd say, "Hey I was thinking about buying a puppy!" [laughs]
We me through a mutual friend of ours. Lisette was not going to get along with most personalities and I think that the only personality, especially for females, that she would be likely to get along with would be a personality that she could easily manipulate and use for whatever means she wanted. So I don't think she had a master plan in mind when she reached out to befriend me. I think it was just something to do. It's like, Why not collect the minions just in case I want them to do something for me? Part of me thinks that maybe she was in search of companionship. I think she does have some dualities. I think part of her thought was that I could be useful and I think, probably, part of her thought it could be fun to be in this friendship.
Do you think that you were ever actually friends or do you look back at it now and think it was a farce?
I genuinely cared about and genuinely had feelings of loyalty and friendship toward her. My belief that she had any loyalty or friendship towards me, those beliefs were shattered when certain truths came to the surface after our arrests. And I realized how deep in the rabbit hole I went with her. I don't know that she's capable of having a normal friendship or caring for someone in the way that I have experienced with a lot of friendships and relationships in my life. Part of me would like to believe that what we had was real in ways but ultimately it really doesn't change anything so I don't spend much time thinking about that.
Your friends or your parents from Washington—what did they think of this? Did your parents ever meet her?
My parents did meet her and my brother met her. Lisette never wanted to meet any of my friends, but over the years there were a few exceptions that she made and she did meet a couple of my friends. My family comes from this—they're very intelligent, grounded, good people, but they are also from the same background that I am and none of us were... there weren't a lot of red flags that were raised for us. I think that we just didn't have a frame of reference, so my family didn't claim to understand her or her background. But they were supportive of the friendship that I apparently had with her.
Because on paper it looks like, "How could you be that dumb?"
My friends were more skeptical. I've always had really close friends. My best friends since first grade, I am still really close friends with them. They are all flying in for the book launch tomorrow. I've never not had close friends. So my core group of friends in Washington were very skeptical of this outsider laying claim to me in Los Angeles, because I had been best friends with these girls since I was in first grade and there was a lot of defensiveness over our friendships that were so rock solid and then this newcomer comes in and she criticizes my friendships with the girls that I had always known.
She would always look for a weakness to try to dig at and try to isolate me or say, "Well they're not really your friend if they did that to you. I would never do that to you. I am your best friend." She was very subtly manipulative in the beginning, and then it just went deeper and deeper until I was entrapped in a poisonous relationship. It was platonic but it felt like an unhealthy relationship more than a friendship.
You're right that your relationship seemed like more than a friendship in a lot of ways. She used to give you rings and call you "angel." Did you ever think she was in love with you?
I think she used sex as a weapon. I don't know if I want you to print this but she always seemed sort of asexual to me. I think I wouldn't imagine her...I don't know how to answer that because I'm afraid you're going to print it [laughs].
I think that being in love with someone can come in many different forms.. and it was sort of this obsessive, jealous, unhealthy, possessive friendship in a lot of ways that was very....You know, she would be incredibly hurtful but then she would beg forgiveness and tell me she would rather burn in hell than not have me in her life. She'd be very jealous that I'm hanging out with another friend. She'd say, "I understand you wanting to keep busy when I'm not available just as long as no one steals you away from me."
We would joke around that if I was her husband or her wife then we'd be the happiest girls in the world because we would just go to some state where it's legal and we would run away together and be together forever. She said she wanted to be the godmother to my children some day. She said that was something she expected. I don't think there was a limit to where things would go and I shudder to think how it would have ended up, if I had not been extracted from the relationship and from my employment with her, which was incredibly dangerous as well.
You said that your friends were a little skeptical. When did you first suspect that she was full of shit?
My experience was like a psychological roller-coaster from the beginning with her. My suspicions really started building up fairly early on but I just internalized them because I had been so conditioned by her to believe everything she was telling me -- and you have to understand the level of manipulation that is possible that you can be taken by if someone is clever and wants to be able to have that control over you. There are things that I can't believe that I fell for. That this is my story.
It's been crazy for me, so since it has happened, I've done some research and I've tried to trace everything back to the roots to try to understand it better myself so I can move on with my life and not repeat any of the mistakes. Because on paper it looks like how could you be that dumb? But it's a lot more complicated than that and I think that this kind of poisonous relationship is something that a lot of people experience. A lot of times it's more in emotional or physically abusive relationships.
So she hired you to transport suitcases on a private plane to Ohio. What did she tell you it was for, if not to move drugs?
She didn't really tell me. The way she presented the proposition to work for her, I was not working for her as some mule. I was working for her as her best friend. So the way she presented it was, "I know that you're struggling and looking for a job." She knew that I had been looking for a job and that I hadn't been able to find one. And this is just on the heels of the recession, so it was difficult to find a job. She said, "I want to help you. It's good timing because I am starting a new business operation and I'm breaking away from my parents to start my own thing. It's new. It's private. I need someone I can trust to help me out, to be my executive personal assistant so you can be there for meetings or for travel when I'm unable to because I have business obligations in town already. Are you interested?" And I said, "Yeah, sure."
It wasn't like someone on LinkedIn scouted me out. It was my best friend saying, "Hey I know you need help. I need help, too. I think we can help each other."
Come on, she had to have told you what it was for. Or you had to have at least asked.
She didn't actually ever say. I drew my own conclusions. So that's the way she presented it. Then she followed up later that week saying, "Okay, we're going to be—she had said before, "You'll be traveling to the east coast. We'll be using private jets. I need you to act like you've been on one before. Don't geek out about it. Keep your head down." She emphasized, "You are very under-qualified for this position. I know you can do it. I know you can rise to the challenge. You just have to keep your head down and listen to me and do as I say." And I said, "Yeah, sure."
...I guess she had a 9mm hand gun at her home and she said that her family used a hit man named Angel, for business, and that they'd been working with him for years.
I had never known her to engage in any criminal activity whatsoever in the more than four years I'd been best friends with her. So I had no reason to think this was some sort of criminal enterprise. She liked to present herself as someone who liked to live on the edge, but not over the edge. So I thought it had to do with the casino industry, and I had good reason for believing that. She had always told me that if she could ever choose to start a business of her own, away from her parents and Samsung, that she would want to be in the casino industry and she had told me, over the years, many times, that she would help her father with some casino business locally. I had never known or really cared about any of the details of it but I was sort of peripherally aware of that. And I was present when she met the person she ended up starting this new business with and all they talked about was the casino industry. For hours, it was all they talked about. So when she told me she was going to be going into business with him, after she was always telling me that was what she aspired to do, I thought probably it was the casino industry. And when we brought suitcases to Ohio, I thought it was probably money.
I had some blinders on. I didn't look at things as they were. I saw them through the filter of thinking: Well I'm just working for my best friend, and I'm just here to help out. Rather than going in and being aware and having my wits about me, I had these blinders on for the reality of the situation. It was sort of: Well, it's probably okay, and I'm doing it anyway. One thing led to another and by the time I had found out what I had become a part of, and what I was actively a part of, I was in very deep and it was too late to get out safely.
When you finally smelled weed in the suitcases, did you say anything about wanting to quit?
I was terrified. She said that she was tapping everyone's phone. She said that she had had a private investigator on multiple people and she said that there was a private investigator tailing me at one point. I had met someone who was supposedly involved in a Mexican gang. I just sort of naively wandered into this thing after she had lead me into it. But I couldn't grasp that reality of what I was a part of. It was terrifying. I don't think I slept a night without horrible nightmares after that. I would have dreams of being arrested or being hunted down by Mexican gangsters. It was terrifying because the only person who knew what I was a part of was my best friend and I couldn't trust her anymore. It was like the one person I trusted had become the person that I feared most.
What was your relationship like when she was threatening you? Were you still getting together and acting like friends when you weren't working?
Well, they were indirect threats. There's a difference between holding a gun to someone and saying, "Hey I might shoot you," or saying, "Hey, I have a private investigator on you and you better watch it." That's a direct threat. An indirect threat is saying, "Oh yeah, there's a gun in my place." Because I guess she had a 9mm hand gun at her home and she said that her family used a hit man named Angel, for business, and that they'd been working with him for years. She said she had surveillance installed in her business partner's apartment and she was tapping everyone's phone except for mine. Those are all indirect threats, but they are threats. So that's incredibly intimidating. And maybe none of those were true. I mean I saw the gun, so that's real, but maybe none of those [other ones] were true. I don't know.
So when you got caught, were you relieved at least a little?
Ultimately, I was incredibly relieved that we were caught and I had no part in that. I never told a soul. I was kind of imploding after I found out what we were really doing but I never breathed a word of it to anyone. But looking back, once I had already become entrapped in this hell ride. I really don't know that I would have done anything differently because even in retrospect, I don't see any options that I could have exercised because you're exactly right, if I had told the cops, then I would have feared for my life, for the rest of my life. I would have spent the rest of my life looking over my shoulder. I can't even imagine the consequences of that, if I had snitched in that way.
It's also good I think that I was in it to the end because even if I had been fired, and Lisette did incidentally fire me twice and then sort of encouraged me to beg for my job back—it was a very sad cycle. But because I stayed to the end, they knew that I wasn't the undoing for the operation. I'd say that was set in motion from when the groundwork was laid. It was really built to fail. And that is another thing I was incredibly lucky for, because after we were arrested there was no—I didn't have to face that tough decision of: Do I break away from the plan? Am I going to be the one who sings, or whatever? Because there was no plan.
Are you worried about being the girl who got duped? Or at least the girl who played dumb and flipped? That's going to be your claim to fame, at least for a little bit...
I mean I think any claim to fame wouldn't define me. I'm glad that I've had some experience in the world and my life to know that that's the case. Anything someone writes about you or what someone thinks about you or the media, which can turn on a dime, that just doesn't define you. It doesn't even define that moment for you. I used to care a lot what people thought and said but I've grown to have pretty thick skin now and I think from the beginning when the arrest made news five years ago, I thought: I can't let this define me. So sort of in response to that, I felt compelled to share my story, and actually a lot of people have written to me through my House Arrest Girl blog with very similar stories.
And I know I'm not the only one who's had this experience. It's a very strange experience, so I don't expect people to understand it who haven't had it, but you just can't let your opinion of yourself or your feeling of self worth be contingent on what other people think you're worth. So that's their label. It's not mine.
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