The trouble with It girls

Paris and Nicky Hilton are America's It sisters, a pair of platinum-haired, micro-skirted hotel heiresses who live for publicity. But there is such a thing as overexposure, as they found out when that video cropped up on the internet.
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"We're nice girls." This was Paris Hilton, the 22-year-old great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, the founder of the hotel chain, talking about herself and her younger sister, Nicky, to a bunch of reporters in Australia two weeks ago. She paused before adding, "It's not my fault."

What's not her fault? That she and Nicky are heirs to a $300m (£180m) fortune? That they each have impossible, sex-on-the-beach looks? That they grew up in deepest luxury, first in a mansion in Beverly Hills and, during most of their teenage years, in a penthouse suite of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan? Or that half the planet is envious of them, while the other half lusts after them?

You can't altogether blame them for any of those things. But, as Paris was implying, not everything said about them is flattering. Spoiled, underfed, frivolous, media-hogging, party-mad, sex-addicted, obnoxious and drunk are all adjectives that have been applied to them at some time or another. Behave badly if you must, but be discreet! But Paris and Nicky don't know the meaning of the word.

The matrons of American high society used strictly to instructtheir offspring to allow themselves just three mentions in the newspapers in the whole of their lifetimes: when they were born, when they married and when they died. But these Hilton lovelies, with their blonde locks, lip gloss and micro-skirts, have already generated enough column inches between them to paper over a small country.

And it keeps coming. Open any gossip page nowadays in America, or any glossy magazine, and there you will find the latest scoop on the Hiltons. Why? Whose fault is that? What does it say about them that they seem so adept at getting our attention, mostly by behaving badly at parties, especially when cameras are present? And what does it say about us that we pay that attention?

No one could argue that these young things - dubbed by the tabloids as America's It Girls or "celubutantes" - have contributed much. Paris was taken out of school in New York aged 17 and whisked by her mother, Kathy Hilton, to London (to the Park Lane Hilton, of course) and placed in the hands of a private tutor. By her own admission, she never even considered university, because she "didn't need to". Nicky, 20, attends fashion classes in New York and has her own line of handbags. Both have professional ambitions that are limited to the inevitable: modelling, fashion and acting.

But Choire Sicha, the editor of, the Manhattan-based website that has become a must-read and vaguely highbrow alternative to the tabloid gossip pages in town, says that the girls really don't have to do anything much to occupy centre stage. They symbolise our celebrity- and beauty-obsessed times. "There have no equivalent - there have been no other rich girls ever who have been as emaciated and supremely blonde and as sexually alluring to straight men as these two. It is some combination of their constant jet-set partying and Barbie-like ridiculosity that has hit the cultural nail on the head."

Wait, though. Paris, called "Star" by her parents, has done something more, which is making her into a super-heated commodity. It isn't just her cameo appearance in the Mike Myers Christmas flick, The Cat in the Hat, which opened across the US last Friday. What ingredient of popular culture today is so far missing from the Paris story? Reality television. Starting next week, Paris and her good friend Nicole Richie (the daughter of Lionel Richie) will be appearing in a weekly show on Fox Television called The Simple Life. And its premise is suitably simple: the super-pampered pair are parachuted for five weeks into a family farm in the town of Altus, Arkansas (pop 817), to partake in such pleasures as chicken-plucking and Wal-Mart browsing.

But even that prospect, tantalising as it may be (although a New York Times reviewer confessed to being so appalled by episode one, he watched most of it through his fingers), has been trumped, albeit inadvertently, by Ms Hilton. Two weeks have passed since the Hilton headlines went jumbo-sized following the surfacing on the internet of a pornographic home movie featuring Paris with nothing on at all and a similarly undressed former boyfriend, Richard Salomon. Dignified the tape is not. Discreet, hardly. Paris, who was 19 at the time, can be seen cavorting naked before the camera, sex-kitten style, showing off her breasts in the bathroom, where she says they will be better lit, and so forth. If you desire more details of the performance, you will have to find it on the internet.

Rarely have the gossips and pundits had more fun (although Mr Sicha, whose Gawker site was the first to get hold of the saucy segment, decided against hosting it online out of concern for the possible legal consequences). "The parents should be thrashed," fumed Dominick Dunne in Vanity Fair. "I mean, these girls have had PR reps since they were 12. What kind of a way is that to raise your child?" And, of course, there has been much tizziness from all parties involved. The Hilton family hired the high-powered Manhattan PR chief Dan Klores to try to contain the mess. He responded by ordering Ms Hilton, who was just returning from Australia, into purdah. Hidden from the glare of the media, which in itself must be a strange experience for her, she is being allowed to attend only one event to promote The Simple Life.

Mr Klores has tried to suggest that the video storm belongs in a teacup. He told The New York Observer that the film is "inconsequential to everything that's going on in the world and it's not really even interesting sex". But he recognises that that's hardly the point. "It seems like a particularly dour time in our culture. There will be outlets that want to keep it alive."

Under Klores's direction, the carefully crafted statements started to flow. These are the last words that we have heard from Paris: "I feel embarrassed and humiliated, especially because my parents and the people who love me have been hurt. I was in an intimate relationship and never, ever thought these things would become public." And this from Rick Hilton, her father, a property developer: "I love my daughter. It goes without saying that I was severely unhappy when I heard about this tape. I will, however, do everything I can to support my daughter in every way possible."

Mr Salomon, meanwhile, claimed the tape had been stolen from him by a former room-mate who sold it to a Seattle porn internet company. He then sued the Hilton family for $10m (£6m) for alleged slander and lodged a second $10m suit against the internet company, Marvad Corp, alleging that it had distributing the 27-minute video without the proper rights. The suit against the Hiltons contended that Paris was an "active participant" in the making of the tape and that the family had waged a "cold, calculated and malicious campaign to portray Salomon as a rapist". For good measure, he claimed that the family's criticism of him was designed to distract attention from Paris's "sexual promiscuity and drug use". Marvad has now joined the game, filing its own lawsuit, also for $10m, against the former room-mate.

So, what does all this mean for young Paris and her future as an aspiring actress and all-around celebrity? Few doubt that her earlier antics - dancing on club tables, and blurting lines such as "Don't you know who I am?" to anyone who dared to get in the way of her having fun - were carefully measured to keep the media hooked. This time, however, she has been burned. Having a camera rolling during sex is not a fantasy beyond most of our imaginations. But having the resulting footage disseminated through every college dorm and on office PC screens across the nation must be, well, rather ghastly. But will it diminish her star status? Perhaps not. "If her goal is fame, it is not a problem at all," argues Sicha.

Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, has little reason not to be delighted. Indeed, the timing of the scandal, just weeks before the launch of The Simple Life, could not be more fortuitous. The channel is expecting sky-high audience numbers, and the main attraction will not be young Ms Richie. Ironically, the programme, filmed in April, was originally meant to air in August, but was held back for the year's end.

Gawping at the lives of the "rich and famous" has long been a television staple. But de-mythologising and ridiculing them is the fashion of the moment. This autumn saw the broadcast by HBO of Born Rich, an earnest film study of America's richest and youngest heirs and heiresses made by one of their own, Jamie Johnson, himself a scion of the Johnson & Johnson dynasty. Not surprisingly, Johnson had the hardest time persuading his mates to expose their mostly languid lives on camera. Those who did agree to discuss the "burdens" of hereditary wealth, however, included Ivanka Trump and Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is collaborating on a reality show of his own, with the makers of Castaway. And MTV recently gave us Rich Girls, featuring Ally Hilfiger, offspring of Tommy, and some of her spoiled friends riding in the backs of limos, plotting on how best to drain their parents' credit cards and fretting over their romantic failures.

Even without the porn-video bonus, Paris was always going to be ideal for The Simple Life. Episode one shows her and Nicole enjoying a final shopping spree along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills before being carted off to take up residence among the seven-member Leding family in Altus. When Wal-Mart first comes up in conversation, Paris looks confused. "What is Wal-Mart?" she asks. "Is it, like, where they sell wall stuff?" Other highlights of the series include Nicole and Paris plucking chickens, frying a squirrel and thrusting their delicate wrists, sans Tiffany accessories, into the nether parts of a cow to determine if it is pregnant. As they say, "Eeeuw." Nicole is only in on the bucolic party, apparently, because Paris's younger sister said no to the project. Wisely or not. "The most fun place was the gas station," Paris later commented. "We met some cute country boys." And Wal-Mart, of course, which became a regular stopping place for the fish-out-of-water pair.

Much of Paris's energy in the wake of filming the series was dedicated to explaining how much better - nicer - it made her as a person. Above all, she wants us to know, it taught her to appreciate how easy she has had it until now, compared at least to the farming Ledings. "I never realised that people work for their money," she dared to observe. "Their life is not so simple," she went on. "People work their butts off there. So it's simple in the fact that there's no distractions. But it was hard."

Is it possible that some sense has been knocked into Paris at last? If so, it is deeply ironic that the job has been done by Mr Murdoch and Fox, with all its tabloid sensibilities. Certainly, the antics of Paris and her sister to date have hardly seemed an advertisement for the parenting skills of Kathy and Rick. "Star just does what she wants," Kathy admitted earlier this year to one reporter. And if the series hasn't sobered Paris, then maybe the pain of the inadvertent blue movie has done the trick. But then a sober, well-behaved, responsible Paris Hilton would be of no interest to anyone. Instead of an It Girl, she would become a "What Girl?" Is that what she wants? Probably not. But it might be good for her - and a mighty relief for many of us.