The ‘Celebrity Rehab’ Death Trap

Four participants in 'Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew' have died in less than two years. By Maria Elena Fernandez.

Getty Images (3); AP Photo (top right)

In the past 18 months, four of the past 43 participants in VH1’s Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew have died from either drug use or illnesses related to their drug addictions. The tragic roster includes Alice in Chains’ bassist Mike Starr, 44, actor Jeff Conaway, 60, police brutality victim Rodney King, 47, and reality TV star Joey Kovar, 29.

As the show enters its sixth season on Sunday—with non-celebrity addicts for the first time—the question of its effectiveness in treating alcoholics and substance abusers in front of cameras is at the forefront again. It’s an issue the show has faced from its inception, but is now more gravely spotlighted in light of the succession of public losses. Is rehabilitation just impossible to attain for some addicts, or does the endeavor become hopeless when cameras are introduced and addicts are paid to participate?

Starr, who appeared in the show’s third season and often spoke about the overdose death of Layne Staley, the Alice in Chains singer, died in Feb. 2011 from a prescription overdose. Two months later, Conaway, who was also addicted to painkillers because of back pain and participated on the show in its first and second seasons, died after he aspirated medications into his lungs and developed pneumonia. King was featured in the second season and maintained his sobriety for over a year. In June, he drowned in his pool after mixing alcohol and marijuana and going into cardiac arrest. Kovar was in the third season and was found dead in a friend’s home on Aug. 17. His autopsy was inconclusive and toxicology tests are pending.

“Once in a while the disease wins,” said Dr. John Sharp, the show’s on-call psychiatrist. “And it’s really not infrequent. It makes me sad. It makes me angry. It makes me glad that I’m in the healing profession all at once. My wife has to remind me that it doesn’t always go well.”

The deaths of King and Kovar this summer especially shook up the Celebrity Rehab production because both men were believed to be progressing, even though the show’s head counselor said that he was aware that King had been periodically drinking as he wrote his memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption, which was released in April. His death, followed by Kovar’s two months later, called into question again whether addition treatment in a reality show context can be effective when staying clean—even without the demands of a show and so much public attention—is already so challenging for most addicts.

“It’s not hopeless, but it’s just really hard,” said Bob Forrest, a former addict who appears as a counselor on Celebrity Rehab. “It’s hard to stay sober because there’s so much accessibility and life is so difficult for addicts to live. Every addict that gets sober is a miracle. Rodney was the biggest shock to me. He had been sober a year and a half, and I knew he had relapsed but, still, when he died, I was just like, ‘Oh my God.’”

When VH1 committed to the series with Dr. Drew Pinsky in 2008, the network signed up to tell the story of a “devastating disease without making it prettier than what it is,” said Jeff Olde, VH1’s executive vice president of original programming and production and an executive producer on the series. The show introduces the addicts by showing them in their home life abusing drugs or alcohol and then checking into the recovery center in Pasadena where they are followed as they suffer through withdrawal and undergo individual and group therapy. After production ends, VH1 offers all the participants free outpatient care five days a week for six months.

The show has had some notable successes, such as Tom Sizemore, featured in the third season, has been clean since May 2009 and is working regularly in film and television, with a recurring role on CBS’ Hawaii Five-0. But there have also been some high-profile falls from sobriety. In just the last few months, Kari Ann Peniche (Season 3, plus Sex Rehab With Dr. Drew and Sober House), Seth Binzer (Seasons 1 and 2 and Seasons 1 and 2 of Sober House), Brigitte Nielsen, and Chyna (Season 1) have all been the subject of drug-or-alcohol-fueled headlines.

“Not all of them make it,” Olde said. “Not all of them stay sober and that is an absolute reality of people dealing with addiction. I’ve learned a lot personally about how the process works. The show does a real service by showing what the journey is like, how difficult it is, and how fragile it is. Like Dr. Drew says, ‘You have to fight for everyone of these people to make it and not all of them will. But if you don’t fight for them and they don’t fight for themselves, they definitely won’t make it.’”

On A&E’s series Intervention, which offers treatment to addicts in treatment centers that specialize in their issues, with the added involvement of their families, the rate of relapse has been lower than with Dr. Drew’s celebrities. This season, Rehab With Dr. Drew dropped its celebrity clients and returned to Pinsky’s original pitch for the show—to help the same kinds of addicts he saw in his practice, Olde said. Executives persuaded Pinsky to treat celebrities because that was in keeping with the network’s culture and programming a few years ago, Olde said. Pinsky, who hosts and produces the show, declined to be interviewed by The Daily Beast.

“It was really effective and our audience became attached to the celebrities they had known and it gave them a way to watch a show that might have been difficult to find an audience for,” Olde said. “But our audience has changed. And as the show has been on, we have received so many calls of people wanting to seek help for themselves or a family member.”

Three of the eight participants in the sixth season are addicted to prescription medications, which Forrest calls a “medical tsunami” that is making his job as a counselor tougher than it’s ever been. As he tries to help people stay off certain substances, their psychiatrists prescribe them anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications to which they then become addicted. Forrest, the leader of the Los Angeles punk band Thelonious Monster, has been sober since 1996.

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“Everybody’s got a pill for every kind of feeling now,” Forrest said. “Most people are socially awkward and uncomfortable in unfamiliar social settings. That’s now called ‘social anxiety’ and there are pills for it! I don’t want to seem like Tom Cruise, like I’m against psychiatry. Psychology, in particular, is one of the reasons I’ve been able to stay sober. Having a good therapist to talk to, that’s invaluable. I would have turned back to drugs because the light is too harsh once everything hits you.”

But what about the light shone by the cameras? Recovery professionals have criticized the show for taking advantage of people when they are at their most vulnerable and for trivializing the recovery process in the editing. Additionally, they charge that addicts flaunting their problems in front of cameras—especially addicts used to performing—cannot possibly be participating in an authentic journey of recovery, particularly when they are getting paid.

Sharp, who joined the show two seasons ago because he wanted to dispel misconceptions about psychiatric medicine, said that the cameras are not as much of a factor as people think. The care the addicts receive, he noted, represents a well-developed treatment program comparable to what he’s used to offering in private care. Because relapsing is an addict’s biggest hurdle, he added, the after-care the network provides is invaluable.

“I thought celebrities would be more guarded and wouldn’t be as honest,” Forrest said. “We haven’t had a problem with that, except with maybe Dennis Rodman. They did cry and they did open up and I was shocked. I thought it was interesting and peculiar. I think it has something to do with wanting to get something off their chests and be heard for so long. Then I thought the non-celebrities would clam up because the cameras would make them nervous. But that didn’t happen either.”

Being compensated for their journey, Forrest acknowledged, “is strange.” “Early on, it wasn’t much. Initially, I don’t think people did it for the money. As the success of the show grew, some of the agents and managers thought it was a good idea to get their clients on it.” (As The Daily Beast noted in 2010, manager David Weintraub would even package his D-list clients on the show in return for a fee.)

“But,” Forrest said, “if you look at the people who have had their careers improve, it was the ones who really got sober.”

Jordana Mansbacher, a Los Angeles therapist who has appeared on two reality shows, MTV’s The Hills and E!’s What’s Eating You?, believes anyone can improve their lives and their health through therapy, even if there are cameras. But the agenda of the TV shows, she said, didn’t always correspond with the work she felt was necessary for her clients. On The Hills, for example, long counseling sessions were edited to make them more appealing to viewers—not necessarily to reflect whatever real work transpired between her and Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the stars of the show. Other times, the work she intended for Montag and Pratt played second fiddle to the creative demands of the production.

“I had to get used to the notion that their seeking of professional help is not necessarily about professional help,” she said. “The client may want to get better but the initial draw to anything on camera is some sort of notoriety. I have confronted Heidi and Spencer about what their impetus was coming to see me and their answer wasn’t ‘Because I really want to work on something.’ It was suggested to them or this is where the story is going or it makes them look good.”

Mansbacher has never worked on Dr. Drew’s show, but she is familiar with the process of helping someone sober up. The fact that four people from the show have not survived, she said, only highlights the simple truth most people ignore.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a celebrity, addiction can take your life,” she said. “When someone gets to the point where they’re seeking rehab, it’s likely they have sought other types of treatment that haven’t worked. By the time they get to 24-hour care, they are really deep in their disease. It’s sad to say but that is not a big percentage to me. It’s a pretty realistic view of how addiction can just take over one’s life and cause their death whether it’s through overdose or other systems in the body that just stop working and become ravaged by the addiction.”

Forrest, who had been friends with Conaway since the ‘90s, called his death “the saddest thing ever” and said he still kicks himself for not being able to help the man who helped him stay sober many years earlier.

“We got him off drugs,” he said. “But with his Xrays that show he has fused discs, you can get whatever pills you want in America. That was really sad. I couldn’t battle his rationale. I would say, ‘So you’re in a little bit of pain. It’s better than living the way you’re living.’ That’s the sad tragedy of Jeff Conaway right there.”

Best known for his roles in the film, Grease, and the TV hit comedy, Taxi, Conaway told the Los Angeles Times after his Celebrity Rehab experience that the support of the show’s fans is what had kept him going.

“I don’t know where actors go after they die, but I know people who help other people have a nice place to go, Conaway told the Times in Dec. 2010. “And I would like to go there if I can.”

Conaway died five months later.