Why Do Stars Steal?

Winona Ryder reportedly took makeup; Bai Ling lifted $16 worth of magazines.

BySheila Marikar

March 21, 2008 — -- They have loads of money, fabulous clothes, beautiful bodies and people following their every move.

And yet, they steal.

Winona Ryder reportedly set off the alarms at a Hollywood pharmacy recently when she tried to walk out with a bag of makeup she hadn't paid for. Her publicist told ABCNEWS.com that the report, originally published by the National Enquirer, "was not accurate." The LAPD said they had no record of the incident on file but admitted that if Ryder had simply returned the makeup and left the store, a police report "probably wouldn't have been filed." Of course, Ryder's no stranger to shoplifting -- she's known less, perhaps, for her movies than for stealing $5,500 worth of clothing from a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue in 2001.

Earlier this month, actress and model Bai Ling was charged with petty theft for taking $16.22 worth of batteries and tabloid magazines from a store at Los Angeles International Airport. (She later explained the incident was a mix-up, the result of an "emotionally crazy" day she was having because of a recent breakup with her boyfriend.)

Sure, Hollywood's messed up. The heady mix of fame, money and any number of mind-altering substances could drive anyone nuts. But the compulsion to steal is one of the most baffling ailments of the rich and famous. Why stuff a fistful of baubles in your Birkin bag when you could easily put them on your black card?

"It's a compulsion. It's irrational. It's totally unrelated to their need for it," said Dr. Norman Sussman, a psychiatry professor at New York University's School of Medicine who has treated people in the public eye for kleptomania. "In some strange way, it makes them feel better. You go through the door, your heart's pounding and you get away with it, and you feel better, at least for a little while."

Kleptomania among stars is nothing new. In 2003, actress Shelley Morrison was charged with stealing more than $400 in costume jewelry from a Los Angeles Robinsons-May department store. (Ironically, at the time, Morrison played a housekeeper constantly accused of stealing on "Will & Grace.") In 1993, newly established as one of the best tennis players in the world, Jennifer Capriati was also arrested for shoplifting costume jewelry at a shopping mall.

Why steal fake jewels rather than real bling? Cost often has nothing to do with it.

"It goes deeper than whether or not they can afford what they shoplift," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who has also treated famous kleptomaniac clients. "Usually a kleptomaniac is feeling a loss, a depression, which is what they're trying to fill up with their stolen goods."

Indeed, Morrison later said her incident was an unconscious cry for help, the result of her mind having a "mini earthquake." Capriati admitted she was "pretty close to being not in existence" at the time of her arrest.

What is new about stars and stealing, at least in Hollywood, is the amount of paparazzi tailing anyone who's done so much as chew gum in front of a camera. In years past, there wouldn't have been a batch of photographers camped out in front of a drug store waiting to see Ryder walk out with lifted L'Oreal. These days, that may not be the case. But instead of preventing stars from engaging in risky behavior, the thrill of potentially getting caught only encourages a klepto.

"One could speculate that unconsciously, [Ryder] would do it to get attention," Lieberman said. "This is how she got the most attention in the past. She could be longing for that again, just like kids who do something mischievous. She knows that'll put her in the headlines again."

Lieberman added that, like certain ex-governors of New York, stars who steal see themselves as "above the law" and believe they're entitled to whatever they want, consequences be damned. That's not usually the case. Ryder was sentenced to three years' probation, 480 hours' community service and more than $10,000 in fines and restitution for her 2001 offense. Ling must pay a fine and penalties totaling $700 for taking less than $20 worth of newsstand goods.

But if your star power's dimming or you're nearing the bottom of the barrel, potential punishments just don't matter. As alcoholics hit the bottle, kleptomaniacs hit the mall, until they get the therapy they need to stop stealing.

"Winona is in a very unenviable position right now," said E! online gossip columnist Ted Casablanca. "She's a woman getting older in Hollywood, and that is not easy. What's the last decent movie Winona was in? If she was nominated for an Oscar this year and had a hit movie out, I don't think she'd be lifting any makeup."

"But Winona shouldn't be pulling this," he continued. "It's like, honey, write a movie if things are this bad. Write a movie about kleptomania."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events