Is Paris Hilton burning?
A staple of the gossip columns for the last few years, she's been described as a "wild child" and "hot blooded heiress." Her social life has been chronicled in excruciating detail: Here dancing on a table, there wearing nearly nothing on a fashion runway, there getting a drink thrown in her face for allegedly stealing someone's boyfriend.
And now, a 3-year-old videotape that shows her having sex with her then-boyfriend in a Las Vegas hotel room is being offered for sale all over the Internet. EBay is selling T-shirts that read, "I've seen Paris." Last week, according to the New York Post, her parents issued a statement saying, "Anyone in any way involved in this video is guilty of criminal activity, and will be ... vigorously prosecuted." A few days later, the ex-boyfriend filed a slander suit against the 22-year-old Hilton Hotel heiress, her parents and her publicist, claiming Hilton and her family have waged a "malicious campaign" to portray him as a "rapist" to protect her image, which the family has denied.
All of which raises another question. As a contender for party girl of the new century, exactly what image might she be trying to protect?
After all, Paris and her younger sister, Nicky, 21, have been trading on their wealth and their sexuality for years now. They are the classic "it" girls, who owe their fame to the fact that they are heirs to a $3.8 billion hotel fortune, to their good looks and willingness to flaunt them, and to a voracious media. In recent weeks, the public fascination with these real-life Barbie dolls -- particularly Paris -- is at a crescendo.
Today, Paris Hilton is expected to top The Lycos 50, a list of the most popular user searches for the previous week on the global Internet group. "Only an era of deep irony could make these people even remotely popular," said Robert J. Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "When you had three channels, you had to create only so much celebrity, but now you have to cast the net much wider. ... We watch them as we scratch our heads and wonder how they ever got to where they are."
Betsy Rott, vice president of original programming for E! Networks, produced a biography about the Hiltons that first aired in March. She believes the public's fascination is the result of an unspoken partnership between the media and the Hilton sisters themselves.
"These girls would go out at night and work it," said Rott. "They knew where the paparazzi were and they would pose....They were tailor-made to what the gossip columns and the paparazzi wanted to see, and they dug it, too. It was addictive. They got to be celebrities without having to do anything."
Although you usually hear about the sisters as a pair, Paris is by far the more famous. "Nicky isn't hanging from the chandeliers like Paris," Rott said. "That in itself was a twist, though, because you had not one, but two blonds who looked like they could be twins."
The Hiltons have been a boon to Richard Johnson, editor of the New York Post's Page Six, who has covered them almost excessively. "People often ask me, 'Why do you keep writing about the Hilton sisters?' " said Johnson. "They are pretty, rich and fun. Paris loves the camera....I imagine when she's old, ugly and poor, people will lose interest, but she has a long run yet."
They aren't likely to go broke any time soon. The Hiltons are great-granddaughters of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton and granddaughters of Barron Hilton. They grew up in Manhattan's ritzy Waldorf-Astoria, the family's New York home, in Beverly Hills and in the Hamptons.
Michelle Lee, author of "Fashion Victim: Our Love-Hate Relationship with Dressing, Shopping, and the Cost of Style," said she first noticed the Hiltons in September 2000 when Paris, who was 19, appeared in a come-hither spread in Vanity Fair. "Paris -- there's something magnetic about her. I think she's beautiful. Part of the reason is the aura of scandal around her. You know, she's sort of a bad girl.... She always has this faux sexy look on her face. You can tell she's spent a lot of time in front of the mirror perfecting it for the camera."
The Hiltons have been invited to walk runways in New York and L.A., for designers such as Joey & T and Jeremy Scott. "I'm not a big believer in using socialites as models," said publicist Kelly Cutrone, who produces fashion shows in both cities. "But when I met Paris and Nicky, I was shocked by how flawless they are. Their skin and their bodies are just perfect."
Rich and perfect? No wonder people are fascinated.
Simon Doonan, the acerbic creative director of Barneys New York and New York Observer columnist thinks their appeal is based on something else as well: they are behaving below their social class.
"It's that juxtaposition of dynastic wealth and really trash behavior," said Doonan. "We're used to seeing people from dynastic wealth and being intimidated by them. We've always thought, 'Those are the families where the girls would be debutantes ... and the Hiltons have kind of gone in the completely in the other direction. They're basically uneducated, and the way they behave is very much sort of downwardly aspirational. They are people who are perceived to have everything, yet they live almost like strippers."
The Hiltons in fact were helping to publicize parties, bars and clubs well before they were 2.
Bryan Rabin, an L.A.-based party organizer, thinks that the adults who encouraged the sisters' exploits should be ashamed of themselves. "You have a responsibility to the public and to yourself," he said. "The exploitation of minors is not glamorous. [Paris] is somebody's little kid and she has been encouraged to wear belts for skirts."
Alvin Valley, a fashion designer who has used the sisters as models, disagrees. "I don't think people are taking advantage of them," he said. "If anything, they are giving them the opportunity to promote their brand, which is the Hiltons."
Indeed, both Paris and Nicky have designed a high-end collection of purses for the Tokyo label Samantha Thavasa. And on Dec. 2, the new reality show "The Simple Life" debuts on Fox. In the show, Paris Hilton and her best friend Nicole Ritchie, singer Lionel's daughter, swap their charge cards and Chihuahuas for life on an Arkansas farm.
Rabin, for one, feels it's time for the Hiltons to grow up. "If these girls truly want to become members of the community and not a joke, they can change their public perception," he said. "People in America love a success story. They could go head first into charity work. They have access to so many worlds, in terms of music, fashion, film. They have so much exposure. They could be an inspiration for young girls, because they could say look, 'I was out of control and I came out of it.'"
There does seem to be some soul searching going on chez Hilton. On Monday, in a story about the sex tape and the lawsuit filed against her by her ex-boyfriend, Rick Solomon, Paris Hilton told the Associated Press, "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 that these things would become public." (Hilton's publicist, Siri Garber, did not respond to an interview request.)
E!'s Rott predicts that if Nicky were to continue to work in fashion, she could become the next Diane von Furstenberg. (The designer was once a regular on the Studio 54 party scene.)
As for Paris, said Rott, "I'm sure she'll get acting work. Maybe she'll even host a TV show. Then she'll get married and divorced, married and divorced, and get a few face-lifts. At some point, someone will replace the Hiltons. Maybe brunette triplets."