Fame by Numbers
From Page Six and Rush & Molloy to the front pages of The New York Times, November was a month-long Paris Hilton media festival. While headline writers indulged ("Is Paris Hilton Burning?," "They'll Always Have Paris"), trendspotters held forth on celebrity culture. Along the way, a star was born out of thin air.
For what is Paris Hilton if not a social construct? The only difference between her and every other photogenic, ambitious, and available young babe is that Hilton is loaded. The only difference between her and every other Hollywood star who pays to suppress unauthorized nude shots is that Hilton never studied the performing arts. All her dramatic appearances to date seem to be a case of acting naturally.
Yes, she's pretty and flirty. But this chick's overnight celebrity is so undeserved that it's hard to shake the feeling the whole thing was scripted in a late-night call between Paris and Rupert Murdoch. Consider the connections: For years, Page Six has slavishly chronicled her party-girl antics. Her first acting gig was with Fox TV's reality series The Simple Life, which Fox planned to air in August, but which generated so much buzz that the network decided to hold it for a better time slot. (It debuted on December 2.) On November 5, when Page Six broke the news that a Hilton sex tape was surfacing, the budding starlet just happened to be on a modeling assignment in . . . Australia! Just by luck!
A recap follows for those unaware of the Paris phenom, which has coincided with an attempt to restrict news coverage in Iraq (never mind the civilian casualties). This year's sexpot is the great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, who founded the Hilton hotel empire. She lives at the Waldorf-Astoria and her family values are not in question. Indeed, her real-estate-mogul father has said, "I was raised to respect money and I instilled that in my daughters." Paris and her sister stand to inherit $28 million each.
Aside from her star turn on reality TV, Hilton is famous for a sex tape, circa May 2001, which features her and actor-producer Rick Solomon and was obtained by Marvad Corp., a porn company that had planned to sell it online.
On November 3, Us magazine got a "first look" at the Paris Hilton sex tape, a/k/a the PHST. Two days later, the New York Post reported that an anonymous source was offering samples to media outlets. Also on November 5, Hilton's parents began threatening to sue anyone who helped make the tape public. Many defenses emerged, such as that the poor girl was underage,intoxicatedthe obvious "victim." All the principals retained lawyers, and the Post and Daily News gossip columns competed for the daily scoop.
By November 11, the day when PHST excerpts surfaced on the Web, porn sites and tabloids were filled with the sordid details. Lawsuits were filed, and on November 13, Hilton talked to an Us reporter on a flight from Melbourne to L.A. In exchange for an unrevealing interview, she landed on the cover of the December 1-8 Us. By the time the story went to press, Hilton's family had paid an undisclosed sum to stop distribution of the tape.
"For now, at least," Us quipped, "Paris's virtue appears safe." But not her credibility: When New York magazine learned of the tape last summer, Hilton denied its existence. Page Six now reports that she had considered blocking distribution of the tape last July, but held back, "perhaps because [as a result] she's more famous than ever."
Shortly after the PHST showed up on the Web, The New York Times began attempting to have it both ways, reporting the scandal while minimizing the litigation risk and the appearance of frivolity. On November 13, Boldface Names, which calls itself the "first postmodern gossip column," introduced the tape obliquely by referring to it in subheads. The next day, Boldface called Dr. Ruth, whose comments served to legitimize the "story" and frame the debate. After that, PHST mentions in the Times became as routine and synthetic as a digital bassline (though they never appear in the A section).
On November 16, a front-page Arts & Leisure review of reality TV shows waited for the jump to mention that Hilton "allegedly appears in an amateur porn tape . . . that's reportedly making the rounds." All Times lawyers must not have the same standards, because the very next day, a story on the front page of the business section began with the sentence, "Thank you, Paris Hilton." (The quote was from the owner of a new porn site that had attracted millions with a dub of the PHST.) The next three nights in a row (November 18 through 20), the Boldface staff went around asking every celebrity they met about the sex tape (now "tapes"), while muttering, "Forgive us . . . we've got Paris Hilton on the brain."
Something weird was happening: Serious news outlets were scrutinizing a celebrity who had done nothing to merit the attention. What was needed was self-conscious comment on the media's role in manufacturing such spectacles. But first, columnists had to exhaust the angles. Thus, in the run-up to Thanksgiving, various press outlets published straight reviews of The Simple Life and winking reviews of the PHST qua porn ("not even the hint of a plot," scoffed The New York Observer; "unimaginative," shrugged Frank Rich). Linda Stasi blamed Hilton's parents (shades of John Walker Lindh), while Richard Cohen saw Hilton as a poster girl for identity theft.
Among the intelligentsia, two talking points emerged: Why do we care, and how exactly has the tape hurt this girl's reputation? Hilton's PR rep Dan Klores tried to explain why we care when he told the Observer, "It seems like a particularly dour time in our culture." A better answer came from Frank Rich in a November 23 Arts & Leisure piece. Forget the sex, Rich suggested, we're only interested in the PHST because of our obsession with ambitious, ridiculous, rich people, of whom there seems to be an endless supply. New York's Simon Dumenco pointed out that we care because the media tell us to.
As for Hilton's reputation, the only answer is, "What reputation?" On November 18, the Los Angeles Times pointed out that Hilton has been flashing her wealth and sexuality for years. ("As a contender for party girl of the new century," the L.A. Times asked, "exactly what image might she be trying to protect?") On November 23, The New York Times' John Leland echoed the West Coast theory. In a piece dressed up as parody (less risky), Leland explained that Hilton's fame is "pure tabloid notoriety," based on "years of public canoodling, cheesy outfits and conspicuous flaunting of wealth." She is so trashy, he quipped, that her image could only be hurt by a hint of intellect or social conscience.
Hilton may really be a victim, in that no one has discovered her artistic talents. Perhaps one day she will start dating a director who can make sure that any publicly released digital images are flattering to the max. In the meantime, her best shot is to embrace irony. She should go on Letterman, and never let her tongue out of her cheek.
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