How It Feels to Be the Reality Show Villain: An Interview with Kari Ann Peniche

By John Lavitt 05/30/19

Those shows continue to haunt me and do me damage in my personal life. I was portrayed as this crazy person, and that portrayal is something I find myself having to fight against on a regular basis.

Kari Ann Peniche-Williams with her family
I am trying to create a new picture of who I am for the public so I can be seen for who I really am. Picture Credit: Marcel Indik

Kari Ann Peniche was thrust into more scandals before the age of 30 than most fictional Hollywood starlets. She was crowned Miss Teen USA 2002 before her 17th birthday, then in 2004 the title was taken from her after she appeared nude in a celebrity pictorial for Playboy magazine. Then, from 2009 to 2010, Kari Ann appeared in succession on the reality shows Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, and Sober House. Set up as the troubled bad girl by the producers, Kari Ann received little help and lots of negative press. She was also the subject of tabloid celebrity stories covering her volatile engagement to Aaron Carter in 2006, a nasty public quarrel with the late singer Mindy McCready in 2009, and the leak of a controversial nude home video that included married actors Eric “McSteamy” Dane and Rebecca Gayheart in 2009.

With hard work, Kari Ann moved on from that chapter and today she is happily married with two children. She found her true calling as an interior designer and creative director, and in 2017 she launched DAF House, a "luxury design, fashion and art firm." 

The Fix recently had the pleasure of speaking with Kari Ann about her journey. 

After appearing nude in the November 2004 issue of Playboy magazine, you were stripped of your crown. Why did you decide to appear in Playboy? Since Hugh Hefner was still alive at this point, I imagine you spent time at the Playboy mansion.

When Playboy was introduced to me, I didn’t really know how I felt about the idea. All I knew was that it was a nude magazine that my Dad had kept hidden in a drawer when I was growing up. I thought it was weird to even consider the idea at first. Then, the agent went on to tell me about all these iconic women who had posed for the magazine in the past: Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Sharon Stone, Shannen Doherty, Drew Barrymore, and many more. I thought, “If they posed for the magazine, then I definitely want to pose for the magazine and do a celebrity pictorial because I will be in such good company.”

So, I agreed to do it, and I did spend time at the mansion. I lived there for a couple of months, and Hef was always very nice. He taught me how to play backgammon, and he let me stay in the guest house. I don’t think it was too much for me, but it definitely opened my eyes to a world that I hadn’t been exposed to before.

In an interview with Steppin' Out magazine, you revealed that you had been raped twice before you turned 18, first by a neighbor when you were 13 and later by a U.S. military officer when you were modeling in South Korea. You also had a series of abusive boyfriends that took advantage of you and introduced you to hard drugs. How difficult was it to be in the national spotlight while dealing with such extreme trauma?

I know now that being busy with modeling and Playboy and all the attention that I was getting at that time really helped to distract me from that trauma. At the same time, I never really dealt with what happened. I just pushed everything aside because I was too busy to stop and really think about it. I would tell myself that I was fine, I’m not a victim, and those things aren’t about me. The ones that did those things to me, they’re the ones that need help and they’re the sick ones. They should deal with it, and I don’t need to deal with it because I’m just fine. That was my attitude about all that back then.

When I did the Steppin’ Out interview, I was starting to kind of crumble, and I was reaching out for help. Everything had slowed down, and suddenly I had a lot of time to myself. Finally, being with myself allowed me to reflect on what had happened. I realize now that I shared stuff that they didn’t even really ask me questions about. The interview really captured where I was emotionally and mentally. I was breaking down, and it felt like everything was falling apart. It happened to be the same time that I got the calls to do the reality shows. I knew I needed something so I thought it made sense: I would help my career and help myself at the same time, but that’s not what ended up happening.

You went on Sex Rehab with Dr. Drew because your manager thought it was a good idea. Today, you say that you were never a sex addict. Instead, would you describe yourself back then as a love addict or a relationship addict?

I like to say that I had more of a shopping problem, I mean, I didn’t even know what sex addiction was and I didn’t know why I was going on that show. I was the first person cast for that show, and I had only been intimate with a handful of people. Never had I ever had a one-night stand or hooked up with people I didn’t know. I was never promiscuous in that way, but I knew how to play that part in a weird sense.

I do know that I used sex as a kind of protection. I would use sex as a way to ward off guys that I thought were trying to make moves on me. I thought that being graphic or explicit would intimidate my guy friends and keep them in line. I always had people over at my apartments and my houses. I would buy sex toys and bondage stuff that I would have in my bedroom and on my bed, but I had never even used these things before. It was all like some kind of strange decoration, and it was my way of protecting myself. I don’t know if that makes sense, and I know it sounds kind of confusing, but it actually worked really well. Rather than use sex toys and bondage equipment, I really just shopped for them and displayed them, and that’s why I like to refer to it as more of a shopping problem. My goal was to make guys think, “I’m not even going to try to hit on her because I am inadequate. I won’t be able to keep up with a girl like her.” In truth, it was all one big illusion. I had been through so many bad things in the past, and I needed to have a way to protect myself.

When you were on Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew and Sober House, it seemed like the producers cast you as “the villainess.” Did you feel unfairly portrayed on these shows?

When I did those shows, I had really bad management, and I was coached to be a certain way by the producers. I was told that VH1 was looking for a new starlet to come out of these reality shows, and the cast was going to include Tom Sizemore and Dennis Rodman. We had big names on the show, so I thought it made sense to be a part of that group; I thought it would help my career.

I do feel unfairly portrayed because the producers did a lot of things to provoke negative behaviors. I could have behaved differently, but so much of what happened wasn’t shown. You saw the reactions but never the provocations. We’re being filmed 24 hours a day for 21 days, and all that’s aired is 47 minutes once a week for ten weeks. Obviously, a lot of the story is edited out. They never showed the full story of what led to my outbursts on the show.

I also felt like they were digging things up and putting words into my mouth that weren’t true about my drug use and past trauma. At first, I would just say whatever they wanted me to say. I didn’t really know the answers to the questions they were asking.

As time passed, I knew I wasn’t being true to myself. It really started to bother me, and I started regretting a lot of the things we had filmed earlier. I didn’t want to be there anymore, and I knew that doing the show wasn’t right for me. At the same time, I also knew that I needed some kind of intervention because I was going down a bad path in my life. I really wanted to be helped, and it was a struggle to try to get something positive out of the experience when I also felt manipulated and not properly cared for.

At the end of the day, we were just a cast, and our pain didn't matter. All that mattered was them getting the material that they wanted. They were creating characters, and I hated the character that they created for me. Rather than help me get well, it felt like it was designed to do just the opposite.

If you could sit down and talk to the producers of those reality shows today, what would you say? Should behavioral addictions like love addiction, relationship addiction, and sex addiction be used as fuel for the engine of the entertainment machine?

I would first thank them for the experience because I did learn a lot. However, I don’t think they were fair or considerate. Rather than manipulate those experiences, they should have let things unfold naturally. If they had done it naturally, I believe they would have had great content anyways. There already are enough things that unfold in rehab anyhow. I don’t understand why their focus wasn’t helping the patients as opposed to doing things to provoke the drama.

The producers and people on the show used our addictions and our traumas in these therapy sessions as entertainment, but they didn’t provide any follow-up care. It was a bad idea, and it caused a lot of hurt for my family and for me because they opened wounds without trying to heal them. It was like pulling off psychic scabs, and they would be blaming my mom or my dad for what had happened to me when I wasn’t even blaming them. I have never blamed them for anything. I was an adult, and I made those choices on my own. I knew better, and I knew I shouldn’t have put myself in those situations or done those things. Rather than help, they made me more confused.

After those shows, I left each one of them feeling worse than I had before I went on them. They had ripped off those scabs, and I left filming with all these open wounds and no one to help heal them. Even today, those shows continue to haunt me and do me damage in my personal life. I was portrayed as this crazy person, and that portrayal is something I find myself having to fight against on a regular basis.

I don’t think those settings should be televised. Everyone comes off poorly, and it’s not a good message. It does more harm than good.

On the DAF House team page, you are quoted as saying, “Change is possible no matter who you are, what you’ve done or where you’ve been. It starts with creativity.” How did your creativity help you overcome the trauma you experienced as a girl and young woman? When did you realize that it was time to change and how did you change?

I believe we are all artists in our own way, and we are all here to create, whether we are creating art or music, writing or designing, building or financing, marketing or selling. It all depends on our identity, but everything can be done creatively. For me, the quote on the DAF House website refers to that chapter in my life. There has been so much said about me that’s honestly not true, and I had spent four or five years honestly embarrassed about who I was or even who I am. I was afraid of anyone Googling me and finding out about what had happened because the reality had been so twisted. I was scared about what was going to happen.

I recently went through a tough time in my marriage where my husband and I spent almost two years divorcing. It was really ugly and crazy in retrospect because we never got divorced, and we are still together. During that time, everything from my past before I was even married and before I was ever a mom was being brought up in court. I was being portrayed as a bad mother because I was an addict, and I had been on those celebrity rehab shows. It was all in the past and completely irrelevant to my being a mother or being married at that point in time. It was so in the past, but still, the judge ordered me to do random drug testing where they go in the bathroom with you and watch you pee three times a week. It was awful, and during that period, I did over 80 drug tests in a six-month period, and every one of them came back negative.

Look, I was happy to do those drug tests because I knew I had nothing to hide, but never did any of that get publicized. Only the negative headlines are focused on by the eyes of the world. My husband’s lawyer brought forth a torrent of allegations against me, all this bad stuff that had happened long before we were married and all this bad stuff that was untrue. What was so disturbing is that the false picture that lawyer tried to paint of me kept coming out in the press and being published as truth. I cannot tell you how hard it was to go through something so awful.

My husband and I did manage to reconcile, and we have done our best to repair our marriage. He was going through his own crisis mentally at the time, and the divorce had little to do with me and our relationship. However, given my celebrity and the scandals in my past, I became the punching bag of that process. He was influenced by a lot of outside people, and he let those people dominate his perspective. For a long time, all I could do was love him from far away and do my best to let him know that I wasn’t playing games. I wouldn’t say anything mean about him because I knew it was all going to be public record. I didn’t say anything about him being a bad father because it wasn’t true. He’s always been a good father, and I would never say such things about the man I love.

We have been married for nine years, and we have put that behind us. For me, that quote is about focusing on the present and the future, leaving the past behind. I am trying to create a new picture of who I am for the public so I can be seen for who I really am.

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.