Rehab Review: Behind the Scenes of the Celebrity Rehab Reunion

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“I was reminded again how incredibly brave and open those guys were. They just throw themselves into stuff,” Dr. Drew told me a few days after the taping Celebrity Rehab reunion late last month. Not that I needed reminding. I hung around backstage that day from early afternoon through the five-hour (!) finale shoot, and witnessed a group of people to whom sharing themselves comes as easy as breathing. Just try to get them to hold back!

I can think of no better person who illustrates the act of putting oneself out there than Mary Ellen/Carey.

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“I’m happy with the experience I had in the porn industry. It’s definitely unique. It’s a weird industry…I could never win (the AVN Award for) Performer of the Year, which is the girl who does the most dirty movies of the year. I never did anal, I never swallowed, I never did two guys at once. People in porn think I’m lame because I don’t do that stuff, but I feel better about myself not having done it. I save anal for personal life!”

Mary told me all of this (and much more) within minutes of meeting, as if by showing off those newly enhanced breasts (she got them done in November, due to sagging, she says) didn’t do a good enough job of putting herself out there. I love this woman, and I have since way before Celebrity Rehab was even a concept. I saw her as a feature dancer in a South Jersey strip club in 2006. I reminded Mary of that performance, and she proceeded to introduce me to everyone else for the rest of the day with some variation of, “This is Rich, and he saw me dance at this dingy strip club in New Jersey a few years ago.” That is not just the best, but the only way to be introduced by a former porn-star-turned-gubernatorial-candidate, let me tell ya.

Mary (as well as Jamie, who arrived a bit later) took me under her wing that day and I hung out with her the most. This is going to sound trite and maybe entitled but being around her felt so…normal. I don’t know if it’s just that she’s exactly how you’d expect from seeing her on TV or if it’s just that you can’t help but be familiar with a woman who announces her attitude toward anal sex as an alternate way of saying hello or what, but Mary’s charms are never less than fascinating.

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(Jamie Foxxworth arrives and gets to Sidekickin’ it with Mary. Texting habits die hard.)

Brigitte Nielsen exuded an openness similar to Mary’s — she told me that her husband was her “bodyguard” from substances and in the next breath informed me that “he’s great in bed!” (Brigitte, by the way, says she hasn’t had a drink since July 20, 2007 and she quit smoking on September 4, 2007.) Her openness, in fact, can be best described as habitual: “They told me that I couldn’t go to rehab on TV, and I said, ‘Oh yes I can.’ If they’ve seen me drunk, if they’ve seen me foolish, then they can see me trying to get better and get help. There’s nothing wrong with that. I know it’s very controversial, but like Dr. Drew said, this experience is like walking on the moon. Let’s see how it’s gonna go.”

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Chyna, whose reservation characterized her on the show (and was as palpable in person), wasn’t so eager to dive in. “I felt like I was going to be judged,” she told me. “I wanted to hide away while the show was airing. I was nervous until I started noticing that what had bothered me for years, the negativity, the judging, the vicious attacks on the Internet…the public doesn’t feel that way. It’s been exactly the opposite. I walk down the street and people are genuinely concerned. They’re rooting for everyone. And it’s helped! There’s really good hoo-rah out there. It makes a really big difference. I know it’s hard for people to understand that, but it really does affect you.”

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It hasn’t been so breezy for Ricco Rodriguez. He says he’s faced a lot of scrutiny over the story that he shared about getting into a car accident and trying to deflect the blame by moving his wife’s body behind the wheel. He thought she was dead. She wasn’t. It’s interesting that Chyna feels the way she did, while her entire reason for being in rehab throughout the show’s run was somewhat mysterious, while Ricco shared something major and has been scorned.

“You have people on the blogs. I’m not on them, but [wife] Carmen reads some of it and gets hurt,” he told me in his dressing room. Ricco, I should add here, gave me undivided attention and was more thoughtful than you’d ever expect from a UFC Heavyweight Champ. Gentle giant! “People have passed judgment on some of the stories that I’ve told, but that’s what you do in rehab: you talk about some of the crazy things that you’ve been through. You talk about the fact that you’ve made some bad mistakes and you hope they’ll never happen again. I’m with someone who forgives me and stands by me and then the blame gets shifted on her: why would a woman be with someone like that? People don’t understand that that’s why I love her so much more. She’s someone who understands and sympathizes and gives me the opportunity to improve as a person. For that part, I can’t thank her enough. People don’t understand the full concept of the story. One thing that I can say about my accident is that it happened years ago. It’s not as bad as it sounded and I totally fessed up to it. No one got into trouble because I was honest. People really don’t understand that there’s more to the story than what you see on TV. You have to give a little bit of room.”

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(Right before this picture, Mary teased Ricco for the amount of makeup he was wearing, and he explained that it was because of the two black eyes he was rocking underneath. If there’s any way to butch up pancake foundation, surely it’s that.)

I, frankly, expected Jamie to be at least difficult and unfriendly, just judging her overall tone on the show and her attitude toward Shelley. I told Jamie that, too, because I couldn’t have been more wrong — she was just as warm and down-to-earth as Mary was. And like Ricco, she said that she was frustrated by being scrutinized as a result of the show. In her case, it wasn’t so much because of any past indiscretions, but for the very reason she was attending rehab: people just don’t take marijuana addiction seriously.

“That pissed me off,” Jamie said as we walked with Mary to the lunch tent. “Addiction is addiction. If you can’t stop something that you normally abuse, it’s a problem and needs to be cut out of your life. I got a lot of messages like, ‘You could just stop!’ But obviously I can’t. It’s like anything. Gambling, cigarettes, anything. It just made me kind of upset.”

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Again, the juxtaposition continues: it seemed like those who didn’t receive (or, at least, weren’t focused on) criticism from the outside as a result of the show became their own naysayers. Mary told me that her MySpace comments have expanded from being mainly from “guys saying that they jerk off to me” to now “girls telling me that they look up to me.” Replacing sadism with masochism, she had plenty of criticism reserved for herself:

“I kind of gave up on wearing makeup and I gained a lot of weight in rehab. I’m not used to eating three meals a day. A lot of times there’s not a lot to do but sit around and eat. And my skin broke out. I’m watching it, like, ‘Wow, my looks are falling apart as the episodes progress.’”

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Brigitte’s ready for drastic measures as a result of seeing herself on Rehab. “I never, ever watched anything I did,” she said. “Never in my life. I was too worried about what I was going to see. But I watched this and I really enjoyed it. I’m just really upset about how old and how scary I look. I think I look 90. So now that I don’t smoke, I can’t wait to be pulled. I’m gonna do everything. Everything possible! But I want to do a beautiful job. I want to take a picture of me from 15, 20 years ago and work toward that. We’re gonna do it one way or another. I want all kids of lips! I’m going to do everything, but in the most natural way possible.” Reconstructing Brigitte sounds like a reality show — don’t be surprised if it actually becomes one. Oh, and as a kicker, Gitte added: “And maybe once I’ve done all that, I might want to have another kid.” Taketh away, giveth, taketh away, giveth. The cycle is endless.

Of course, there were some people who didn’t have the luxury of sharing their thoughts on themselves or anything, for that matter. Daniel Baldwin was scheduled to appear but backed out just before the shoot. Jessica Sierra did not attend because a judge rules that she is not allowed to be within 100 feet of a camera or a microphone. Dr. Drew isn’t pleased about that.

“Jessica is amazing. It was a major loss that she couldn’t be at the reunion,” he told me later. “She was a beacon in that group. She’s obviously a firecracker, but for me she was a go-to person in the group. That’s why I was so pissed off that the judge was so rough on her. He treated her like a bad patient. She isn’t a bad patient, she’s just a sick person.”

Mary, who bonded with Jessica the most closely (the two of them and Jamie dubbed themselves the “Mary J’s”) explained just how big of a firecracker Jessica can be. “I had a bad experience with sober living because Jessica and I got into a fight, we were roommates there. She attacked me, she tried to choke me. I packed up my stuff and left, a week into it. ”

They’ve since reconciled and Mary visits her in rehab. Mary told me stuff about Jessica’s current frame of mind that I’m sure would sadden Dr. Drew if he’s not already aware: “She’s really excited that her porno’s up to No. 1. She needed money really bad, so she told the guy that she’d do it.”

It doesn’t seem to be in Mary’s disposition to take a self-righteous stand and dissuade her friend from repeating the mistakes that led her to rehab in the first place (as much as we maybe wish that she would). Ricco and Brigitte, on the other hand, weren’t shy about holding up their accomplishments against those of the rest of the group (Ricco and Brigitte, after all, are the only two thus far who say they are completely sober). “Look at Jessica’s situation, look at Daniel Baldwin, look at Mary, look at Joanie,” said Ricco. “What is their outcome? For me, I said, I’m going to be sober, I’m going to change my life. And that’s what I did.”

When asked about how she felt about attending the reunion before the taping, Brigitte very much lived up to the informal nickname Dr. Drew has given her: “No-Bulls*** Brigitte.” “I think it’s a pain in the ass! It’s exhausting. I’m glad to see everyone, but being here all day…And because I know people are going to say they’re sober and they’re not. I’ve seen them on TMZ and I know they’re not going to be honest.”

Perhaps she underestimated her fellow patients. Those who weren’t completely open at least weren’t liars. Mum was the word from Seth, who’s the only cast member that attended that I didn’t even at least informally interview. While mild in temperament and otherwise completely pleasant, he seemed withdrawn before the show and I figured that since everyone else was so tangible, I could let him have his space.

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Later, of course, while on stage, we’d come to find out that Seth had relapsed just days before the reunion taping. Dr. Drew said that Seth’s standoffish vibe could be attributed wholly to that. “Seth is normally not like that,” Dr. Drew said. “He had just come off a binge. He was ashamed. He was scared he was going to get ambushed, he was so afraid to be honest. Addicts feels so bad about themselves that they expect people to shame them and demean them and he was so elated when everyone came around and supported him.”

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And then there’s Jeff.

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I’d seen him hobbling around backstage, often with his notorious girlfriend Vikki in tow, but I didn’t really jump at talking to him, because I had no idea what kind of state he’d be in or if he’d even have anything to share. Stupid me: of course he wanted to talk. The guy’s a performer! He loves talking, especially about himself. This I found out when I finally approached him as he was outside smoking a cigarette. He was nice, although his icy blue eyes with pupils so small that they’d make pinpricks jealous, were unnerving. It was like looking into the eyes of an eagle.

Our conversation was…bizarre. I’m including it in transcript form in an attempt to doing it justice:

Me: What’d you think of the show?

Jeff: I thought it was a great show. When we were shooting it, I said, ‘This show’s gonna be huge.’ I’ve been in the business for 50 years, well, 48. I think we had a big hit.

Me: Well, you pretty much stole the show.

Jeff: I don’t like to say things like that, but I wouldn’t disagree. We went through it. Everybody gave 100 percent of themselves and I think it really shows.

Me: Is it painful to see what kind of state you were in?

Jeff: When I breakdown and cry [on the show], I end up crying watching me cry. I go through that moment again and I’m kind of a sensitive guy.

Me: You went to some very deep places emotionally.

Jeff: If you’re gonna do it, do it. Don’t beat around the bush. I was there to do a job and whatever rehab came out of it was a perk. It was an add-on. I’m an actor. Hire me and I do my thing. As an actor, there’s a myriad of choices you make, so I would choose the one that would be the best for the show and do that. So, in a way it was acting, but it was real.

Me: So how are you doing now?

Jeff: I’m doing OK. My back is still a real issue. They want me off the pain meds, but it’s like, are you going to take the pain for me? I’m fused between L1 and T10, so more than half of my back is fused. Four operations in three months. People say I’ve lost weight, but I say, You’d lose weight, too, if you had that many operations.

Obviously, the most problematic bit of information from this exchange is the suggestion that Jeff was acting. And I include that information here not to undermine the work of anyone (including the network that pays my bills), but because this was suspected all along by Jeff’s fellow patients. Plus, in his current, off-the-wagon state, I’m not sure that Jeff is an authority on even his own behavior (at the very least, admitting this so openly seems like a high thing to do, right?). I asked Dr. Drew about it later, and here’s how he explained it:

“My sense of that was, the difference between acting and reality for Jeff can be very fluid. He either doesn’t know whether he’s acting or not, and when he feels bad about something he just chalks it up to acting. That’s OK with me. I don’t care.”

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Drew’s comment got me thinking. I bet he’s right. It’s totally plausible that Jeff’s divide between entertaining and existing is in flux, because the divide between entertaining and existing is in flux, period. Reality TV, YouTube, TMZ and online social networking all have contributed to the weird, simultaneous inflammation and reduction of what it means to be famous. I once made a comment to Dr. Drew as to why it makes sense to film famous people in the process of rehabilitation: if you live in public; it’s only natural to heal in public. He brushed that off as philosophical, but the more time I spent with these people, the more I became convinced that I was onto something. These people put themselves out there on and for this show precisely because putting themselves out there is what they know how to do. Or maybe it’s just that, like anything that feels good, sharing yourself becomes addictive. And I say this not to downplay anyone’s bravery, which I do feel is vast and admirable. But the whole ordeal, the whole Celebrity Rehab phenomenon, finally made me wonder if maybe that old adage that states that “all the world’s a stage” is no longer true. Maybe in 2008, all the world’s a group therapy session.

For Dr. Drew’s part, he said he was mostly happy about the way everything wrapped up. “There are things from an outcome standpoint that I wish had been different. I wish that Jeff had agreed to go into the hospital. I know I’ll get him eventually. I wish Jamie had made a firmer commitment to M.A. But every one of them showed me what I believe to be true: a) they were transformed by the experience and b) they’re all in the process. But as far as the experience went, it couldn’t have been better.”

I couldn’t find anyone involved who disagreed.

Click through the shots below for some rehearsal shots. Pay attention to the ones of Jeff nodding off. They’re special.

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