"Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss knows her life sounds a bit strange. But Fleiss' three-year stint in jail, run-ins with exes like Tom Sizemore and struggles with drugs sound almost normal compared to her other addiction: Caring for more than 20 exotic macaw parrots.
Fleiss' relationship with those birds forms the basis of a new Animal Planet special, Heidi Fleiss: Prostitutes to Parrots. The one-hour program, from Craig Piligian's Pilgrim Films and Television, airs Sunday at 10 p.m. and doubles as the pilot episode to a potential series.
Fleiss, who lives in Pahrump, Nevada (where she continues to consult for brothels), was pitching another reality show concept with her brother when Piligian suggested turning the camera on her and her birds. It's an expensive hobby, one that she supports by running a laundromat and a doggie day care — as well as starring in reality shows (like this one and Celebrity Rehab).
With her macaws squawking in the background, Fleiss spoke with TV Guide Magazine about her love/hate relationship with the birds; her brutally honest take on Dr. Drew Pinsky; why she didn't care for Mike Tyson's Animal Planet show; and how she manages to stay sober.
TV Guide Magazine: How did your involvement with the birds first come about?
Heidi Fleiss: When I moved to Pahrump it was obviously to get into the sex trade, because that's what I know, it's in my blood. I know that business better than anyone on the earth. There's a bed-ridden madam who used to run the exotic bird department at the Tropicana Hotel. And her single-wide dumpy trailer was filled with hundreds of birds. Basically she was dying and her last words were, "You take care of my birds." And I [at first] said no. I have one bird left from her now. All the rest have their own stories and their own histories.
TV Guide Magazine: It sounds like this got out of control.
Fleiss: What I learned is they're not meant to be pets. I think the species needs to go extinct. There's no more room for them in this world, with deforestation and the illegal pet trade. They wind up in garages. I had one bird come to me that hadn't seen sun in 14 years. These birds have the worst lives. And they're such extraordinary, complex, sensitive creatures. It's not fair. And these rescuers aren't usually rescuers, they're hoarders with a bunch of cages. My birds are free. They get distilled water, whole foods, organic. Look, I'm their caretaker, I'm their nanny. I work for them. Every day I tell them it's their world. Whatever they want.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you enjoy the birds? Or are they more of a hassle?
Fleiss: Some days I'd love to give them all lethal injections. But I can never turn my back on them. I love them. They have my heart. And I'm 45, but they're going to live to 100. I worry about what's going to happen to them when I'm gone.
TV Guide Magazine: Given your struggles with drugs and alcohol, is this a hobby that helps keep you sober?
Fleiss: No, this probably prevents me from moving forward and doing things that I should be doing. It's such a handicap and such a tall order, what I've taken on here. I'm not delusional where I think this is a normal lifestyle. But I can't throw them away. I can't see them in cages or eating seed from the pet store. I tasted it, the premium macaw food. It tastes disgusting.
TV Guide Magazine: This sounds like a rather expensive endeavor.
Fleiss: Oh yeah, they're bankrupting me.
TV Guide Magazine: But there's no way to give them away?
Fleiss: I give plenty away. But this would be my dream situation: If the Getty Center would open a rainforest exhibit on the environment and have the birds there.
[Fleiss shouts to a bird: "Young lady, you get over here right now, young lady!]
TV Guide Magazine: You've got a laundromat and a doggie day care business, is that what's funding your birds?
Fleiss: I do these stupid shows, I've somehow been able to maintain a little bit of money. Anyone who does these shows, they're doing it for the money, of course. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. And I think this show will do very well and make some money. [To the birds: "You hear that, babies? You're paying for your own food. You're taking care of me. You're going to be buying me a mansion, you hear that?"]
TV Guide Magazine: How did this show come about and end up at Animal Planet?
Fleiss: I pitched [Pilgrim] another show project I'm working on. It's a thing I'm going to do with my brother called Extreme Pet Owners. Craig turned it into, "Let's do your life." He called me a couple of weeks later and said, "Marjorie [Kaplan], the head of Animal Planet, hates you, there's no way are you appropriate for her audience, she can't stand you" — you know, the usual. He asked if I would fly to L.A. to have lunch with her...we sat down and had lunch and had a normal conversation. When I left, Craig called me and said, "She can't wait to do a project."
(Piligian clarifies that he said they "might have an uphill battle with the show," but that they should pursue it.)
TV Guide Magazine: You must have pulled off quite the charm offensive.
Fleiss: I wasn't charming, it was just genuine. To be honest, people know me for being a criminal, a madam, sex trade, drugs, all that stuff. So for her to have believed I was perfect for her audience would be kind of strange.
TV Guide Magazine: Animal Planet just did Taking on Tyson, featuring Mike Tyson and pigeons. Did you watch any of that?
Fleiss: I know Mike and I like Mike, and he's so interesting, but I saw some of the flaws. Did you see it? It was awful.
TV Guide Magazine: Since you didn't like it, were you concerned about how your show would turn out?
Fleiss: No, because Mike is fascinating, but there's not one thing we have in common. I have Macaws.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you hope this turns into a regular series?
Fleiss: Pilgrim Entertainment is not a one-time production company, and neither am I. It's going to be a series. Look at Pilgrim's track record.
TV Guide Magazine: How are you doing these days? You've been sober, doing well?
Fleiss: Celebrity Rehab was the best thing I ever did in my life. I was so horrified when I saw myself on TV, I almost had a nervous breakdown. When you're high, you think you look OK. You don't have a clear vision or understanding of things. I was so horrified when I saw myself. I deserved that humiliation.
TV Guide Magazine: You must do a double take whenever someone like Amy Winehouse dies. I saw Dr. Drew just mentioned that Amy Winehouse reached out to him before she passed away.
Fleiss: Whatever. Who cares. She's dead. I love Dr. Drew, he's so awesome — only if you're famous. I could say right now, "Dr. Drew, help me, I'm smoking crack with a bunch of black men in a downtown apartment in Atlantic City," and he would get on a plane to help me. But if I wasn't famous he would hang up the phone. But he's been great for me. I've known him since I was first arrested, and he's an awesome guy.
TV Guide Magazine: Are you ever amazed that you're still alive?
Fleiss: Honestly, I feel that my drug addiction was very self-destructive, but not to the point where I was going to die. It just made me make poor decisions. You're just an idiot, but not to the point where you're a Mike Starr or an Amy Winehouse. Mike Starr was in Celebrity Rehab with me and later died. They're miserable. I'm not that person. I hate drugs. Everything about drugs I find repulsive. I do love life. And it has to do with my own shortcomings and my insecurities and my personal issues.
TV Guide Magazine: Why are you still in Pahrump?
Fleiss: My birds. I live way up on a hill, and there's no neighbors, so they fly all around. I'm not at the point where I could afford that kind of luxury in Los Angeles or I would be there. I have thought about trying to get a home in Central America, Belize or Mexico and moving the crew there, but I don't know. Also, Dennis Hof — he has the Cathouse show at HBO — he just bought more brothels close to Pahrump, and I'm a consultant with him on that.
TV Guide Magazine: He appears in the show as well.
Fleiss: He, believe it or not, plays the voice of reason.
TV Guide Magazine: I've got to ask you about Charlie Sheen.
Fleiss: You can ask anything you want. I have nothing to hide.
TV Guide Magazine: He's now trying to go back to work. What's your sense on Charlie and how he manages to work around his addictions? How does he pull it off?
Fleiss: I'm not sure what his current state is, but I just love his style. I love that he spends all his money on women. I love that he says whatever is on his mind. I love that he's such a rock star. You gotta love him for it. How can you not like the guy?
TV Guide Magazine: How's your house? [Fleiss' home caught fire last November.]
Fleiss: We filmed at the worst time possible. My house had just burned down. There's stuff strewn about all over, and it looks like maybe it's a part of my addiction or something.
TV Guide Magazine: How did it catch fire?
Fleiss: One of the birds chewed the spark arrestor off of the chimney, and you'll see it just went up like gasoline.
TV Guide Magazine: It all comes back to the birds.
Fleiss: I'm the one in the cage here.