New Memoir Unpacks The Life And Tragic Death Of 'The Hot One'

Jul 30, 2017
Originally published on July 30, 2017 7:00 am

When Carolyn Murnick met her childhood best friend Ashley, it was like love at first sight. They were in elementary school — Ashley had just moved into the area and they became inseparable, sharing all their secrets and dreams. As often happens, as they got older they drifted apart. Ashley would move to Los Angeles, start dating young celebrities and making money dancing at clubs. Carolyn lived in New York and worked in the literary world.

Then, on a winter's night in 2001, 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin was found brutally murdered in her Hollywood Hills home. The tabloids ran the news, because Ashley was about to go out on a date with actor Ashton Kutcher. But Murnick tells the real story of Ashley's tragic death and vibrant life in her new memoir The Hot One.

She says the book's title is a reference to the way our society tries to categorize young women. "You have a group of women together, one becomes the hot one, or one is maybe the conservative one or the smart one, and in my book I explore the ways that those labels sort of take hold, and how they can kind of influence your sense of self."


Interview Highlights

On her relationship with Ashley, towards the end

I realized that being around Ashley was making me feel uncomfortable with myself, and I think that's true for a lot of female friendships, especially in your teen years — that you're looking to your friends for how to be in the world, and when they start making different decisions, it can feel like a referendum on your own choices, and you start thinking, "Does she have it all figured out? Should I be more like this? Can I be more like this?"

On sitting in on the pretrial hearings for Ashley's alleged killer

As I write about in the book, and as Ashley was open with me about, she was sort of dabbling in the sex industry in the last year of her life, working in strip clubs and doing light escorting. And at the time of her murder, she was flying to Vegas for the weekends to do that, and I think that she sort of kept that part of her life separate from her LA life.

And I think the defense definitely kept wanting to harp on it. Every witness who got on the stand was asked about her pole dancing, and was she someone who was considered promiscuous, and was she someone who, you know, entertained the company of a lot of men. Unfortunately, I see that as a thing that is used to sort of erode sympathy for female victims, both in the media and in court proceedings, and I'd love for this book to push back about those ideas of the way that female victims are often subject to some slut-shaming and light victim-blaming tendencies.

On how she felt about the portrayal of Ashley's life

I felt a lot of outrage and I felt a lot of disconnect, and it also felt appalling, the way that those sorts of questions can serve to strip humanity away from a victim. And the way that I remember her is as my best friend in girlhood, as a 9-year-old who played piano duets with me, and she did nothing to deserve what happened to her.

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

When Carolyn Murnick met her childhood best friend Ashley, it was like love at first sight. They were in elementary school. Ashley just moved into the area. And they became inseparable, sharing all their secrets and dreams. Then, as often happens, as they got older, they drifted apart. Ashley would move to Los Angeles. And she started dating Hollywood celebrities and making money dancing at clubs. Carolyn lived in New York and worked in the literary world.

On a winter's night in 2001, 22-year-old Ashley Ellerin was found brutally murdered in her Hollywood Hills home in California. The tabloids ran the news because Ashley was about to go out on a date with actor Ashton Kutcher. But the real story of her tragic death and vibrant life is the subject of the memoir "The Hot One," written by Carolyn Murnick about her friend. She joins us now from our studios in New York. Thank you for coming onto the program.

CAROLYN MURNICK: Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You called this book "The Hot One." Can you explain that?

MURNICK: The title to me is a reference to the way I think that our culture tries to put girls and women in boxes and sort of implicitly holds them up in comparison to each other. You have a group of women together. One becomes the hot one. Or one is maybe the conservative one or the smart one. And in my book, I explore the ways that those labels sort of take hold and how they can kind of influence your sense of self. And I think Ashley was definitely seen as the hot one in the last year of her life. And I believe that she was beginning to chafe against the expectations of that label.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You write in your book that, for girls in particular, there is an innocence, a freedom until a certain moment which you define as the advent of the male gaze. I'd like you to read from page 27 when you talk about that.

MURNICK: Sure.

(Reading) It meant attention was on you at all times for what you wore and how you looked and whether the proportions of your body measured up to whatever standard was the norm that year. It meant that if you were deemed worthy, a new ocean of power and opportunity opened up to you. And if you were lucky and smart, you'd surf that wave for as long as you could stay on. It was as if Ashley had taken that essential truth I woke up to at 10 that the male gaze was a given and stared squarely, defiantly right back at it, while I was still attempting to avoid eye contact for as long as possible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us about the man who's suspected of killing her. It' - he's a suspected serial killer.

MURNICK: Right. It's a horrific case. His name is Michael Gargiulo, and he lived down the street from Ashley and infiltrated himself into her world and kind of would show up at her house unexpectedly. And he's also charged with another murder of a young woman who lived in his apartment building in Santa Monica in 2005. And he was finally arrested for an attempted murder in 2008, where his victim survived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You sat in on the pretrial, where you learned so much about Ashley's life. And the way you describe her life - as a fun-loving girl who's 22, having a good time in Hollywood, as would be expected of any young girl, you know, who can - was not the way it was portrayed by the defense.

MURNICK: She was working as sort of dabbling in the sex industry in the last year of her life, as working in strip clubs and doing light escorting. And at the time of her murder, she was flying to Vegas for the weekends to do that. And I think that the defense definitely kept wanting to harp on it. Every witness who got on the stand was asked about her pole dancing. And, you know, was she someone who was considered promiscuous? And was she someone who, you know, entertained the company of a lot of men? And, unfortunately, I see that as a thing that is used to sort of erode sympathy for female victims, both, you know, in the media and in court proceedings. And I'd love for this book to kind of push back around - push back about those ideas of the way that female victims are often subject to some slut shaming and light victim-blaming tendencies.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So the trial is coming up. Are you going to testify, and what is it that you think the jury should hear about Ashley?

MURNICK: Well, as of right now, we are being told that the trial could potentially start in October or November. But, you know, certainly, this alleged killer has been in jail since 2008. And so there's been a lot of false starts. But I have been approached about testifying during the penalty phase. And I plan to talk about our childhood. And I hope that I can be a voice for bringing to life the girl who I knew, who was not the girl who's being portrayed as, you know, someone that was supposed to meet Ashton Kutcher one night. And she wasn't a Hollywood party girl. And she wasn't someone who was dating lots of guys and trying drugs. She was someone who was my first best friend and who I really consider to be a part of my identity. Even today, I think that we figured out the world in reference to each other's kids. And she will always be a part of me. And I think that I continue to be shaped by our relationship even 16 years after her death.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carolyn Murnick's new book is called "The Hot One: A Memoir Of Friendship, Sex, And Murder." Thank you so much.

MURNICK: Thank you.

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