Celebrities are always telling you not to believe
everything you read in the press, but in my case it’s all
true. Shoplifting. DUIs. Restraining orders. Community
service. Interventions. Rehab. Rehab again. Let’s just say for
a young woman of twenty-three, I’ve led a full life.
I’ll spare you a rehash of all of the above because
what’s the point. If you want the gory details, you can always
Google me. All that matters at this moment in time is that I’m
sober. “One day at a time,” as they say. But that’s the thing
about those 12-step platitudes—and why I use them sincerely,
without irony or apology—they really are grounded in truth.
And today I’m all about truth.
I’m at a Sunday morning meeting and not just any meeting;
I’ve been asked to share and it’s my first time. The church
basement is small and cave-like and I’m feeling a little
clammy. The meeting leader has one of those craggy faces that
looks like it would shatter into a million pieces if he
smiled. But he doesn’t smile. He just whispers into the mic in
a voice so soft I almost don’t realize he’s said my name.
I make my way up to the podium and look out at about
twenty-five people. It’s a typical West Hollywood crowd—film
industry types, hipsters, LGBTQ, young and old, but nobody as
young as I, not even close. There’s one middle-aged woman who
looks familiar but I can’t quite place her. She’s beautiful in
a ravaged sort of way and she’s staring at me. I break from
her look and begin speaking.
“My name is Devon and I’m a drug addict and alcoholic.”
“Hi, Devon,” everyone responds.
I’ve decided to speak off the top of my head, no notes.
I’ll save the script reading for when I’m at work. This isn’t
a performance, it’s real life.
“I’ve been sober for thirty-three days.”
People clap and it feels awesome—even better than any
applause I’ve gotten from the crew after a particularly good
“They say one of the best parts of recovery is getting
your feelings back. And, of course, the worst part is getting
your feelings back.” There’s some light laughter.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m scared. I just got
out of rehab where they decided my mother has been enabling my
addiction—that she’s the reason I keep relapsing. Apparently,
it’s not healthy for me to continue to live with her.”
I barely get the words out. Tears well up in my eyes and
I bite the inside of my cheeks so I won’t cry. I hate when
people get up here and cry. I take a deep breath and regain my
“Yesterday she went back to Wisconsin after the social
workers suggested she have no contact with me for the next few
months. I’ll be on my own for the first time ever. My father’s
dead. Cirrhosis of the liver seven years ago, so yeah, it’s in
I look into the audience and see that the woman who was
staring at me is hanging on my every word. Her mouth is
slightly open and a tear rolls down her cheek. She swipes it
away with the back of her hand.
“Thankfully, I still have a job. They put my series on hiatus for a month and I start back tomorrow. I’m grateful to have this second chance. Dealing with fame is a bitch, but when I was in rehab I met people who suffered real problems— poverty, abuse, homelessness.”
A guy in the back nods knowingly. He leans so far back
in his metal chair I’m afraid he’ll crash.
“They made me realize how privileged I’ve been and how
I’ve wasted so many opportunities. I’ve hurt a lot of innocent
people—friends, family, co-workers. Ex-boyfriends. So I’m
counting on a higher power to get me through this tough
period. A lot of people are depending on me and I can’t let
them down. More importantly, I can’t let myself down.”
I realize I need to wrap up but I’m distracted by the
staring lady. She’s now full-out crying, not just a few tears,
but actual sobbing. The tatted guy next to her shakes his
head, irritated, but the woman on the other side of her tries
to console her and hands her a Kleenex, which she takes and
blows her nose into. When she’s done, I get a better look at
her face and it hits me who she is—Nikki Barnes, one of the
most notorious ex-child stars-gone-bad, more famous for her
drug abuse and various tabloid exploits than her show-biz
career. She gets up and rushes out of the room, clearly
embarrassed by her emotional outburst. I’m a little rattled,
not sure what it is I’ve said that’s set her off. I continue
with my speech.
“Thanks for listening to me. Recovery is a journey, not a destination, so I appreciate all the support from you, my fellow travelers.” Oh, God, did I actually say that out loud? I can’t believe I ended with something so trite. I smile sheepishly, but no one seems to care because they’re applauding enthusiastically.
The speakers that follow tell their tales of hardship and
suffering. A few have been in prison. One woman describes
being date-raped when she was too drunk to fight back. Another
numbly relates how she’s been court-ordered to attend
meetings. I’m sympathetic to her story until she gets to the
part where she left her four-year-old in a hot car. The child
survived but is brain damaged.
One speaker looks remarkably like my dad and it makes me wish my mom and I could’ve convinced him to go to a meeting. I regret he never got a chance to see my career take off—he would’ve been proud. He was a high school English teacher and it was he who got me interested in reading—books, plays, poetry, everything from David Sedaris to O’Neill. He’s also the one who encouraged me to audition for school plays. “Read this,” he said, tossing me a copy of The Crucible one day while I was doing my homework. “Let’s see you put some of your teen angst on stage where it belongs, my little drama queen.” Somehow he knew I had talent before I did. I was cast as Abigail and suddenly my recent break-up with one Robbie Jurgensen was no longer the end of the world as we know it. For the record, I did not give him a hand-job during Toy Story 3 despite what he told every student at Bradford High. Robbie (who I hope goes by Robert these days) was my first “bad boy.” There would be many to follow, the unfortunate result of having a dad who could be Atticus Finch one moment and Chris Brown the next.
The man who looks like my dad speaks lovingly about his
family but in the next breath mentions he’s lost them to his
addiction. He doesn’t even know where his grown daughter lives
now. “I might be a grandpa for all I know,” he says, rubbing
his stubbled face.
As riveting as these speakers are, I can’t help but b
preoccupied. Why was Nikki Barnes sobbing while I was
speaking? I get up and head for the lobby, hoping she’s there.
She is—standing alone next to a drinking fountain,
dabbing her eyes with Kleenex. When she sees me, she calls my
name, “Devon!” like we’re old friends or something.
The first thing that strikes me about her is how pale her
skin is, like a vampire who’s never seen the light of day. Her
eyes are impossibly large and soulful, sad actually. She has
great bone structure with prominent cheekbones or maybe it’s
just because her face is so gaunt. Her short spiky hair is
obviously dyed black—very 1980’s. In her skinny jeans, tie-
died T-shirt, and Converse All-Stars she looks kind of
waifish, if that’s possible for someone who looks every bit
her age. There are lines around her mouth, her forehead, her
deep-set eyes. But I like her lived-in face.
When I’m close enough, she throws her arms around me and gives me a big hug that she holds for an uncomfortably long time. She reeks of cigarettes and I have to choke back a cough. I can’t tell for sure but I think she’s crying again. What is with this woman?
Nikki finally lets go of me then thrusts her arm forward
to introduce herself—“Nikki Barnes.”
We shake. “Actually, I know who you are.”
“Yeah, well my reputation tends to precede me,” she says.
Once your twat’s been splayed out all over TMZ, there’s no
turning back.” I laugh.
“No, no—I grew up watching reruns of One More Thyme, on
Nick at Night. I loved that show.”
“You’re sweet,” she says shoving her Kleenex in the
pocket of her jeans. She looks down at the linoleum floor, as
if she’s embarrassed, then back up at me.
“Listen, I’m sorry for blubbering like an idiot in there
but your speech really touched me.”
“Thank you,” I say just as people start streaming into
the lobby from the meeting room. Many of them are already
reaching for their cigarettes.
“Would you like to grab some coffee?” Nikki asks.
This takes me by surprise. “Um, I’d love to but I’m sort
of under the gun. I need to...” I’m not sure how much I want
to tell this virtual stranger. “It’s a long story,“ I say,
hoping she’ll let it drop. She doesn’t.
“What? You can tell me.”
I sigh. “I’m being evicted. Can’t pay my rent at the
Oakwood—that’s where my mom and I were staying before she
moved back to Kenosha a few days ago. I blew through all my
money on you-know-what so I need to find a cheap place to
live. By tomorrow. Or I’m out on the street. Pretty pitiful,
“Small potatoes, babe. My own mother planted coke on me
just to get me out of her house and into jail. ‘Course it was
sort of redundant since I was already carrying a fuckin’ kilo
of heroin.” She laughs a throaty laugh that turns into a
“So where ‘ya headed?” she asks.
“The west valley. I have a 2:30 appointment to see a
studio apartment in...I pull out my phone, start scrolling.
“...Chatsworth. I’m still not familiar with anything but the
west side. Is that far from here?”
“Trust me. You don’t want to live in Chatsworth.”
“Oh. It’s one of the few places I can afford. That, and a
place in...” I scroll through my phone. “South Central?”
Nikki cracks up, starts coughing again.
“Devon, listen. You can stay with me until you get back
on your feet. I live in Laurel Canyon. It’s not luxurious but
you can have your own room. I’ve got tons of space.”
I remind myself I just met this person two seconds ago. I
also remind myself that I’m desperate. And someone told me
Chatsworth is the porn capital of the world.
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I ask. “You hardly know me.”
“Of course I know you. You’re me, thirty years ago!” That explains the crying, I think. She heads for the double doors, apparently deciding the conversation’s over. I follow her outside where she cuts through the cluster of smokers. Enveloped by haze, she looks like an apparition.
I’m driving into Laurel Canyon in my Mini Cooper,
breathing in the scents of chaparral, sage and eucalyptus, my
new friend, Nikki Barnes in the passenger seat. She told me
she hitched to the meeting; her car’s in the shop.
Sometimes my mom and I would take this canyon through the
Hollywood hills to get to our furnished apartment at the
Oakwood near Universal Studios. She found the canyon charming,
appreciating the narrow, winding streets, reminding her of
Europe. I’d never been to Europe but I liked Laurel Canyon
because lots of musicians and artists lived in its wooded
hills and it had a funky country store at its center where I’d
buy Snapple and Mint Milanos.
It’s just minutes from the congested Sunset Strip but you
really feel like you’re in a small, rural town when you’re up
here. When we first came to L.A., we used to fantasize that
someday I’d be making enough money to live in this idyllic
oasis of nature. My mom would ape Joni Mitchell’s high voice
and sing about the hippie chicks who lived here back in 1970—
Trinna and Annie and Estrella, the “Ladies of the Canyon,” who
would bake and sew and sing and draw. I’d picture myself as
one of those lovely canyon ladies but in my fantasy, there was
always a hot canyon guy nearby, one of those long-haired types
with wirey arms who made his own musical instruments out of
“Turn left here, then follow this road all the way to the
top,” Nikki says and we drive higher into the hills, past
quaint cottages with peace sign flags, next to multi-million
dollar mansions with avant-garde sculptures in front.
“Once I start work, I’ll have plenty of cash coming in. I
I’ve got to pay off some debts,” I explain, but I’ll be able
to give you rent in a few weeks. And then, in a few more I
should have enough to get my own place.”
“Don’t worry about it. You can stay as long as you like.
It’ll be good for me to have some company again. I’ve lived
alone for I don’t know how many years and that shit’s getting
Nikki points up ahead. “See all that purple
Bougainvillea that’s covering the carport? Pull in there.”
I come to a stop behind a filthy yellow Porsche with four
flat tires that looks like it’s been sitting there a long
time. I wonder if this is Nikki’s other car, the one that’s
not in the shop.
“You don’t have to pay a cent. I paid cash for this house
years ago, so I only have utilities and property taxes to
worry about.” She genuflects. “Thank God for residuals.”
The home is a two-story Spanish Colonial, enveloped by
more bougainvillea and climbing vines. The stucco badly needs
painting and some of the red terra-cotta tiles are missing but
the 1920’s architecture is impressive and I feel like I’ve hit
the jackpot. This is the kind of home I might’ve bought had I
not squandered away my money on drugs.
“Here—take a look,” Nikki says as she leads me through an
archway on the driveway. Before us is a spectacular view of
the canyon. Tall cypress trees in one direction, palm trees in
another. Cabins and cottages dot the rolling hills like in a
fairy tale. We come to the front entrance way. Nikki steps
over a mound of junk mail and unlocks the door.
“This is so generous of you,” I say. Nikki opens the door
and we step inside. My smile instantly fades and my first
thought is what the hell have I gotten myself into?
Any charm the Spanish-style interior might have—walls with rounded corners, wrought-iron bannisters, exposed wood beams—is obliterated by the worst of 1980s décor. It’s as if Nikki purchased and decorated the mansion at the height of her fame and then just let the whole place deteriorate around her, never updating the furnishings or even maintaining them. I’m reminded of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations—the reclusive woman who suffered a mental breakdown when she was jilted by her fiancé and never left her crumbling manor.
The living room is so dark I have to squint; mangled
vertical blinds, in mauve, no less, cover the windows and
sliding doors, and I wonder why anyone would block out the
breathtaking canyon view.
Nikki notices me scanning the room. She lights up a
cigarette and says, “take a look around,” clearly proud of her
The room is huge. One wall has peeling shiny pink and
black vinyl wallpaper, another displays mirrors in geometric
shapes. There’s a wonderful fireplace but the space where logs
should be is crammed with Interview magazines. Directly above
it is an original Andy Warhol of Nikki, her unmistakable
Margaret Keane eyes in impossibly vivid colors. Surrounding it
are three framed posters bearing the signature “Nagel”
depicting soulless New Wave women—jet black hair, porcelain
skin, full lips.
In the center of the room are massive leather couches and
chairs, ripped beyond compare. There’s a pseudo Art Deco
entertainment center the size of Milwaukee next to a hulking
Pac-Man arcade video machine.
A wet bar is in one corner—dirty cocktail glasses and
empty bottles evidence of a party that might’ve taken place
last night or years ago. The lighting fixtures are garish
monstrosities of brass and glass. The ceiling has brown water
stains; soggy clumps of it litter the soiled wall-to-wall teal
“Excuse the mess,” Nikki says casually. “My maid’s been
sick for a few weeks so the place has gotten a little
“No, no, it’s fine,” I say, trying to pretend the
overpowering smell of mildew doesn’t bother me. I glance down
at my phone, the address of the Chatsworth apartment still on
my screen. Surely not everyone who lives there is in porn, I
tell myself. One night. Just one night at Nikki’s. Tomorrow
I’ll scour L.A. for a place to stay. Doesn’t matter how small
it is, or if it has hardwood floors or gets southern exposure—
it just has to be clean.
“Here, let me show you your room.” Nikki leads me through
the living room—we step over take-out containers and pizza
boxes to a staircase that climbs up to the large second floor.
Some of the Spanish tile risers are beautiful, others broken.
We walk down the hallway past several rooms until we reach the
last one. Nikki opens the door and we step inside a
surprisingly large room.
“This used to be my office.”
The first thing I notice is a faded cardboard standee of Nikki as her character Jennifer Thyme, smiling in the corner like a ghost. Yellowed Jennifer Thyme posters line the walls. Lots of cleavage and bare midriff, obviously made to appeal to testosterone-filled teenaged boys, or more likely, horny middle-aged men. There are two file cabinets and boxes of One More Thyme memorabilia stacked against the wall and on a desk.
“I used to have a staff to answer fan mail, send out
autographs and shit. Long time ago.” I nod.
“The couch turns into a bed—it’s pretty comfortable.” She
picks up a Cabbage Patch doll resting there and holds it in
her arms as if it were a real baby. She speaks with the
cigarette between her lips. “And there’s an adjoining
bathroom. That TV works, too.”
“Cool,” I say and glance at the bulky dinosaur on a
rolling stand. The only televisions I’ve seen like this are at
the back of thrift shops or in old movies.
“Don’t worry,” she says, motioning toward all the boxes.
“We can move all this crap into the garage.”
Damn. I have to say something. I can’t let Nikki go
through all the trouble of cleaning up this room only to walk
out on her tomorrow.
“Nikki—I don’t know if this is such a good fit.”
She looks at me and cocks her head as if she’s having
trouble hearing what I’m saying.
I search for words that won’t sound harsh but can’t find
any. “We just... I think we may not be compatible exactly.”
Nikki doesn’t say anything, just looks at me with deep
concern, waiting for me to say my piece. I wuss out and place
the blame on myself. “I’m sort of a neat freak,” I lie.
“Got it!” she says, letting out one of her throaty laughs. “In my house, people wipe their feet on the way out! I’m a fucking pig—why didn’t you just say so?”
Now she’s got me laughing. “In Kenosha, we’re told not to say such things, aloud, anyway. It would just be rude, or mean.”
“At Casa Nikki it’s just honest. I’m an open book, Devon.
You can say just about anything to me without hurting my
feelings. I’ve been dragged through the mud so many times, my
skin is as thick as a crocodile’s.”
“Crocodile or pig” I ask. “Which is it?”
“Both.” Nikki sits down on the lumpy couch. I remain
standing, afraid if I sit down, I’ll arise with an STD.
“I’m just now pulling out of a clinical depression.
That’s why my place looks so messy. That, and I don’t have any
cash to renovate it the way I’d like.” Nikki looks down at the
couch and smoothes her hand over the nubby fabric. When she
looks up again, her face is that of an ashamed child.
“Do you know what it’s like? To be depressed?” she asks,
“Yes. Yes I do.” And in that instant I decide to stay.
Not sure for how long—a week, a month, however long it takes
to get back on my feet. “I can help you clean. I’m really good
at it. I spent one summer as a maid at the Value Inn.”
Cleaning gives me a sense of accomplishment. There’s a
beginning, a process and a positive result. Kind of like
“Then you’ll stay? I could sure use the company.”
“Of course,” I say as a wave of sorrow sweeps over me. I don’t know if it’s for Nikki and her sad life or for me and mine. Maybe both. I feel the urge for a drug, any drug, and am glad I have nothing on me. One Day at a Time, I remind myself. I place my trust in the twisted higher power that has, for some strange reason, delegated washed-up Nikki Barnes as my savior.