Mindy McCready's Death, the 'Celebrity Rehab' Curse and an Attempt to Make Sense of Tragedy

Mindy McCready 2000 - P 2013
Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

Mindy McCready 2000 - P 2013

The late country singer, who shot herself on Feb. 17, is the fifth alum of the six-season VH1 series to die after appearing on the show.

“These are hardcore, decades-long f----ups and alcoholics who have decimated their careers and their lives. You've got to be awfully desperate and often close to hopeless to come on our show. But everybody's looking for somebody to blame, so it's going to be Dr. Drew.”

So says Bob Forrest, a former addict himself, now a substance-abuse expert, on-call counselor and Dr. Drew Pinsky’s right-hand man on the VH1 series Celebrity Rehab. It’s understandable that he would be defensive. Aside from the latest tragedy of a suicide -- country singer Mindy McCready, whom the pair treated in 2009, shot herself on the porch of her Arkansas home on Feb. 17 -- there is the undeniable fact that five graduates of the six-season-long series have died in recent years: Rodney King, Taxi star Jeff Conaway, Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr and Real World cast member Joey Kovar. The latter two, like McCready, were alums of season three.

It begs the question: Of the 43 stars they’ve treated, does the show’s 10 percent mortality rate seem particularly high? Forrest readily acknowledges that “in celebrity terms, it looks like an abnormal amount of deaths,” but explains that such “late-stage addicts” have the deck stacked against them no matter what their profession or stature. Using another season three grad as an example, Forrest adds: “There's no stage you can go beyond what Tom Sizemore is as an addict -- it’s just death after that. The fact that he's alive, sober, flourishing and working is a miracle.”

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But plenty are vocally criticizing Celebrity Rehab’s very existence as TV-ready drama rather than a well-intentioned recovery effort. “If you’re going to focus strictly on celebrities, it seems really exploitative,” says Gary Stromberg, author of 2007’s The Harder They Fall: Celebrities Tell Their Real Life Stories of Addiction and Recovery. “And doing it on television -- are Dr. Drew’s intentions to help people, or is he doing it to get good ratings? The bottom line is that this is not a game. Five people have died.”

To be fair, the most recent incarnation of Pinsky’s Rehab has dropped “celebrity” from its title and eliminated the fame factor from process-group sessions entirely. It had an eight-week run in early 2012. But in the wake of McCready’s death, the great unknown, besides why she chose to take her own life and leave two children motherless, is who failed her. Was it the system that incarcerates rather than treats? Her family? Former lovers? The pressures of the music business? A chemical imbalance?

In the case of McCready, all signs point to a lethal combination of alcohol and opiate addiction coupled with mental illness in the form of a personality disorder that contributed to her decade-plus-long struggle. The latter was a point Pinsky made sure to emphasize on CNN shortly after news broke of McCready’s suicide.

Later, in a statement released to The Hollywood Reporter and other news outlets, Pinsky revealed that he recently reached out to McCready upon hearing about the apparent suicide of her boyfriend, David Wilson, father to their 10-month-old son Zayne (she had another child, six-year-old Zander, with ex Billy McKnight), who is thought to have killed himself in the same spot where she took a gun to her head. (The investigation into the cause of his death is ongoing.) “She was devastated” by Wilson’s loss, said Pinsky. “Although she was fearful of stigma and ridicule she agreed with me that she needed to make her health and safety a priority. Unfortunately it seems that Mindy did not sustain her treatment.” He added: “Mental health issues can be life threatening and need to be treated with the same intensity and resources as any other dangerous potentially life threatening medical condition.”

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According to Nashville insiders, McCready, whose 1996 debut album, Ten Thousand Angels, sold more than 2 million copies and yielded three Top 10 hits, had long ago fallen out of favor with the country-music industry, mainly due to her headline-grabbing behavior (convictions for assault, fraudulent prescriptions and probation violations landed her in jail more than once). But plenty who knew her also describe a different side. Speaking to Billboard, producer David Malloy recalls that McCready “was very charming and full of energy.” Stephen Dale Jones, who wrote her hit song "Ten Thousand Angels,” says she was “a generous person.” And John Rich, a former labelmate from his days at Lonestar, tweeted, “A tragic end to a talented life.”

But Forrest, who admits he wasn’t surprised to hear news of her death, remembers McCready’s “dissociative state,” in which “she would not know where she was or what happened and be very vague about events in her life when she wasn't even drunk.” It all points to deeper issues that three weeks in televised rehab simply could not tackle. Says Forrest: “It's not simple, like, ‘Oh, some TV show's killing people.’ That has nothing to do with it. People are dying. It’s not just some horrible part of the population. This is all of us.”

With additional reporting by Gabrielle Chepurny

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin