Heidi Fleiss Talks Sex, Drugs, and Saving Macaws

By John Lavitt 08/26/19

I’ll get high to hide my pain and as an excuse. It’s stupid, just plain stupid. I’ve never known drugs to help anyone. It’s so crazy to hate it so much but to do it still. I don’t understand that insanity.

Heidi with macaw on shoulder.
They need to have some other option beyond living and dying in a cage. Today, I am that option. I did not want to do this with my life. I still do not want to do this, but somebody has to do it. Images via Heidi Fleiss

The "Hollywood Madam" lives today with scores of noisy exotic birds in the small town of Pahrump, Nevada. Remembering her prison days, she now dedicates herself to freeing macaws from their cages.

When Fleiss was arrested in 1993 for charges including attempted pandering, her escort service employed 500 beautiful girls-next-door who were like porn stars in the bedroom. They charged clients what today would be almost $3,000 a night, and Fleiss grew rich by keeping 40 percent of those earnings. Partying hard and living in the fast lane led to struggles with addiction.

Although she never served time for her work in the sex industry, a federal tax evasion case led to 20 months in prison in Dublin, California. While incarcerated, she longed for her freedom; this longing served as the genesis of her efforts with macaw rescue.

We recently got the inside scoop from Heidi on prison, reality TV, addiction, and her mission to free birds.

The Fix: Today, your passion is providing freedom to dozens of macaws, beautiful parrot-like exotic birds that you live with on the outskirts of Pahrump, Nevada. You describe how seeing a caged bird reminded you of your experience in prison. Is being of service to these birds who once were forced to live in boxes a reflection of personal redemption?

Heidi Fleiss: You pretty much got it. After prison, I did see the world differently. I saw a beautiful macaw in a cage, and it really bothered me. I asked the owner when was the last time it was out of its cage. She said, “I don’t know. Maybe 20 or 30 years.” The bird actually had dust on it. I realized I could not go on with my life, knowing that bird was still in that cage. It seemed so awful to have wings and be stuck in a cage, of all things. Imagine 45 years in a basement with another 45 years to go.

It has never been properly addressed. We are a civilized society. How can we do this? The subjugation of this species is selfish and self-absorbed. It’s a tortuous, bleak existence. It’s so painful for them because their bodies aren’t meant for sedentary lives. They struggle with this lonely, painful existence. Do you really think these animals with wings are on this earth to say bad words and to dance for us? It’s disgusting, and everybody should find it offensive. Are we really that selfish?

Before prison, I never paid attention to or cared about a bird in a cage. I lived with this one rich boyfriend, and we had lots of birds in cages. I’d walk by them every day, and I looked at them like I looked at pictures on the wall. It didn’t matter. Now that I’m aware, I can’t ignore it. I have to be proactive. I rescue them from parrot prison and give them a life outside of a cage. (In the background, macaws screech loudly.) They need to have some other option beyond living and dying in a cage. Today, I am that option. I did not want to do this with my life. I still do not want to do this, but somebody has to do it.

In terms of your attempts to maintain your sobriety, you say, “I struggle. I struggle with my addiction. And it’s tough because I’ll be doing so well. And I don’t know what will make me flip.” When you have fallen off the proverbial wagon in the past, what triggered you? What tools do you use today to avoid such triggers?

I am just coming off of a slip right now. I’m barely off of one. Obviously, there are some personal demons that I can’t confront. Sometimes I cannot accept the mistakes that I’ve made. Dealing with a relapse seems easier than continuing to deal with the pain. I’ll get high to hide my pain and as an excuse. It’s stupid, just plain stupid. I’ve never known drugs to help anyone. It’s so crazy to hate it so much but to do it still. I don’t understand that insanity.

Was the business a pure money-making venture for you? How many of the women involved in the sex business view it purely as a money-making business, and how many of the women struggle with substance use or behavioral disorders like love addiction and sex addiction? Do you think a madam is to a sex addict what a dealer is to a drug addict?

Absolutely not. In any professional field, whether it’s the medical industry or the legal industry or education or the sex industry, you’re going to find the same amount of problems: sex addiction, drug addiction, hang-ups from being molested, or this and that. You’re going to find just about the same ratio that I went through in the sex industry with just about any of these other professions. You really will.

As for the sex addiction question, that’s the man’s point of view. They think the women do it because they love it. They don’t do it because they love it. They do it for money. And they are introduced to a world they would never have experienced otherwise. Who else gets to spend a summer yachting on the French Riviera? The people that worked for me traveled the world, and many had incredible, unique experiences. It’s very hard for people to understand the world that I was in. When you are dealing with the wealthiest people in the world, what happens is rare and beyond expectation. A million dollars is nothing to a billionaire. It’s hard to fathom that kind of life when it’s combined with having a good time.

You don’t have to have a golden pussy to get a hundred thousand dollars. It has nothing to do with that. Rather, it’s about the circles you travel in, and I was able to access the people with that kind of money. That’s what it’s all about, and it’s really hard to understand the way money works at that level. All that stuff was a long time ago, it was a lot of fun, but it seems silly now to me, particularly in light of what I do today.

Speaking to Vice, you said that the public humiliation you experienced on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew was actually therapeutic. Can you help us understand how it was therapeutic to have dirty laundry aired on national television? 

When I was asked to do that show, I was like no way. I’m not going to be humiliated on television. You have to be a real idiot to do that show. There’s no way on earth. I turned it down, and then they contacted me again. I changed my mind. I don’t know why I decided to do it, but it was probably the five hundred thousand dollars. It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life, and I wish they would start doing that show again.




I think it’s really helpful to people both on and off the show. Yes, you’re watching someone else’s train wreck, but that’s what we always do. I don’t think it’s any more exploitive than anything else. You learn when you watch other people that you’re not alone whatever you’re going through and that there might be a way out.

Dr. Drew is a genuine person and a great guy. He truly cares, and I found him to be one hundred percent sincere. He’s the real deal. He’s not a fraud or a phony. Ever since I first met him when I was 27 and sent to my first rehab, he’s been a consistently wonderful guy.

You are famously quoted as saying, “I was too lazy in bed to be a prostitute.” Did this laziness change when crystal meth entered the picture? Was your sexual relationship with Tom Sizemore as charged and powerful as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew made it out to be?

I hate crystal meth. It still plagues me. I don’t see it as a sex drug. I think if you connect with someone, you connect with someone. I did crystal meth before and after I was with Tom, and I didn’t have these freakily intense sexual relationships. If you do not want to sleep with someone, drugs certainly do help. They really help.

Personally, when it comes to sex, I don’t want to see anyone disrobe in front of me again. When it comes to sex, I’m done. I don’t want to have sex ever again. And this is from someone who’s slept with everything and everyone. I slept with a guy who rode on the Queen Mary when it was a ship, and I’ve only known it to be a tourist attraction. I’m not saying that I’m a new virgin or anything, but I don’t even want to have sex ever again. It doesn’t matter to me at all.

Do you think people can be addicted to sex? What about addicted to love? Do you believe that you have suffered from sex addiction or love addiction?

I definitely have never had a sex addiction. I’ve had a sex drive, and I’ve had lots of sex, it’s never dominated my life. I’ve felt that I’ve got to get laid or I got to have sex or my life will fall apart. That’s not me. Mind you, I’ve had mornings where I’ve woken up and looked over to find someone in my bed, and I have to ask myself, “Is that a boy or a girl?” Never ever has sex been the driving force in my life. I think the word “addiction” can mean a lot of things. People always talk about moderation, but I don’t believe in any of that. If you want to ruin your life, just do drugs.

Love addiction can be co-dependency. I know women who do not feel complete unless they have a man in their life. I also know girls who go out at night with one purpose in mind. If they don’t get laid, then no matter what happens, it’s not a good night. It’s only good if they get laid. Father complexes and mother complexes drive those behaviors. They feed off of abandonment issues and get even complex.

Also, my girls were not sex addicts or love addicts. They were prostitutes, and they were professionals. I went for the best. I wanted the cover of Seventeen magazine. None of them were underage, but I wanted the girls that looked like cheerleaders. I wanted the girls that knew how to fuck like a porn star but looked like the girl next door. (The squawking of the macaws intensifies.)

You once lived a life that most people cannot even imagine. You told Vice about the parties at your house in the Hollywood Hills, saying, "They didn't have sex for money at my house, but they would come to hang out. It was social... You've got people like Jack Nicholson and Mick Jagger partying at your house… I remember coming home, and Prince was dancing in my living room." Do you miss those days?

I remember walking out of my bedroom to see Prince dancing in my living room. I thought it was way cool, and I couldn’t even stick around to enjoy it. I had to go to a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow to check in so I could manage my business. It was too loud at my house to get anything done. There were a lot of good times, but I also worked hard.

Do I miss it? (There is a pause as a macaw screeches in the background.) Look, when you’re young and a girl in Los Angeles, it’s hard to do any better than I did. For a long time, I had the best of everything: food, sex, drugs, people, clubs, hotels, and more. I was having a good time, and it seemed like the party never ends.

As a woman gets older, it’s harder and different. When those things don’t work anymore, it changes you. The only thing I miss about Los Angeles today is there’s a lot of opportunity there. I don’t miss that life even when these birds are driving me crazy. I’ve had a great life and good times, but saving these birds right now is the only thing that matters to me.

(This interview was edited for length and clarity.)

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.