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The reality of Tila Tequila's situation

Casey Johnson's death sent her into a tailspin. Now the 'Shot at Love' star says she just wants to be a businesswoman. Can she really step out of the spotlight?

March 14, 2010|By Amy Kaufman >>>

Tila Tequila had looked everywhere, but she could not find her pills.
"I need to take my medication. My happy pills," she said, as she pushed aside some of the empty Red Bull cans that were strewn about her Studio City house. She wouldn't name the medication but explained, "Just so much has been going on, my doctor has been giving me stuff to help me cope."
It was a late, very rainy evening in January, and the 28-year-old reality television star and tabloid mainstay -- born Thien-Thanh Thi Nguyen -- had not had a good day. Only a few moments earlier, she'd opened the door to her home to find that her dog, Onyx, had chewed up a pair of her Lucite heels. She chained him to a stripper pole. With a Swiffer mop from the kitchen, she tried to brush aside the pieces of chewed up shoe, but the Velcro mop affixed itself to her rug instead. "I don't know how to use this thing," she said, tossing it aside in frustration.
She was trying to clean up before being photographed, a prospect she found irritating, although she had previously agreed to it.
"What is this for again?" she said, sitting down at her piano, which was covered in Christmas tree lights and vases of roses. "I'm not gonna do like a model, Maxim thing. That's not who I am anymore." Instead, she had opted to play a tribute song to her late fiancée, 30-year-old Johnson & Johnson heiress Casey Johnson, who died in January from diabetes complications.

"Summertime," Tequila sang, her eyes closed, "summertime has gone away."

Seeking a new image?

Indeed, it has been a dark couple of months for Tequila, who is probably best known as the star of a MTV reality show that ran for two seasons, the bisexual dating competition "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila." Tequila insists she is tired of the sexualized image of herself she established on the show and would now like to be seen as a businesswoman. But she seems unable to stop perpetuating the drama of her own life.

Back in 2007, after "A Shot at Love" debuted, Tequila seemed like the embodiment of a 21st century success story. A Vietnamese immigrant who longed for the spotlight, she had adopted a provocative stage name, posed nude in Playboy and cultivated a loyal following on MySpace just as the social media site was taking off. But after her MTV series ended, Tequila was left without anything to promote. So she began selling the drama of her own life: blogging and tweeting constantly, posting suggestive videos of herself online and posing for paparazzi outside popular nightclubs. Last September, Tequila alleged that NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman had choked and physically restrained her. He denied the charges, and the San Diego district attorney declined to make it a criminal case.

Her sometimes outlandish antics made her both a tabloid staple and target, especially when she entangled herself with others who made news, like Johnson. In December, the two began dating and quickly got engaged; Johnson died only a month after she began seeing Tequila. Several gossip blogs deemed their relationship a publicity stunt, referencing a December video the two uploaded from bed -- clad in push-up bras as Tequila kissed Johnson and showed off the 17-carat engagement ring her new fiancée had given her -- as evidence.

Johnson's death threw Tequila into a tailspin. She wrote online about her grief, posted videos of herself sobbing. Her publicist quit, saying the two needed to part ways while Tequila dealt "with the loss of her fiancée." Tequila herself announced she was pregnant and would retire from Hollywood to work behind the scenes as a record executive and manager.

In February, she wrote on her blog that she was deleting her Twitter account. "For now. . . . I must disappear for a few months. . . . Tila Tequila, a legend in the making, the Saga continues. . . ."

Before there was Tequila

Tequila's family fled Vietnam while she was still in the womb. They traveled by boat to Singapore, where she was born. When the girl was 1, her family immigrated to the United States, settling in Houston.

She described her upbringing as a challenging time, living on welfare and food stamps. By day, her mother worked as a seamstress and her father washed dishes. By night, the whole family shared one bed.

"At night you could literally hear all of the roaches, hundreds of them, flying around," she said.

Tequila paused as her young male assistant arrived.

"Look," she said, bouncing up to show him the one-piece pink fleece pajamas she wore. "I'm a Teletubby! If I have to poop, I just pull down this little flap in the back." She demonstrated by yanking down the flap, revealing her bare behind.

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