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Paris -- poet or plagiarist?

The hardest part of investigative journalism is knowing you have put the truth out there, no matter what damage it might cause. Even if it ends the poetry career of Paris Hilton.

Hilton presented what is by far the most famous poem of this century when she told Larry King that she, like Oscar Wilde, Sir Thomas Malory and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before her, used her jail time to write. The poem, which she also submitted to the literary journal People magazine, is surely well known to all by now:

They say when we reach a crossroad

or turning point in life

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it doesn’t really matter how we got there

but what we do next after we get there,

usually we arrive by adversity

and it’s then

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and only then

we find out who we truly are

and what we are truly made of,

it’s a process, a gift, and a journey

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and we travel it alone,

the road may be rough at the beginning

but we find we are able to walk it.

After I heard Hilton read the poem on “Larry King Live,” I called my friend Scott Brown and asked him to set her words to a rocking ‘80s power ballad. We submitted a clip of it to Will Ferrell’s website, FunnyOrDie.com, where it received more than 200,000 views -- nearly a third of the hits received by “Haunted Lesbian Sorority.”

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I did not imagine that people would one day fight over authorship of those words. But Judi DeBella, a 43-year-old chef-turned-real-estate-agent-recently-turned-back-into-a-chef-becaus e-of-the-housing-crash, living in Utica, N.Y., saw my name on the music video and e-mailed me to do just that. She claims that she wrote Hilton a fan letter in jail that started with those precise 13 lines, the ones that evoke Nietzsche, Oprah, Whitesnake and Robert Johnson in a way most poets don’t have the guts to try without a guitar and a keyboard, and probably one of those keyboards shaped like a guitar.

DeBella -- who keeps photocopies of everything she writes -- faxed me a copy of the first of her trilogy of handwritten letters to Hilton, which went on, quite convincingly, in the same style for two pages and ended, after quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, with the line, “I’m just an everyday person who has been to the crossroads.”

If DeBella thought she knew from crossroads before, she knows them a lot better now. Also, turning points. “I knew in the first four words that it was my letter,” she says about watching the Larry King interview. “I battled writing those words. ‘Do I want to put crossroads? Do I want to put turning point?’ And then I decided on both,” she said. That’s the moment when I totally believed DeBella.

I’ve spent five weeks e-mailing and calling Elliot Mintz, Hilton’s publicist, making it clear that the L.A. Times was about to run a story about this accusation. Though he said he’d get back to me, he hasn’t. I’m guessing when you’re Hilton’s publicist, you’re a busy guy. In retrospect, I should have gotten his attention by saying Hilton wore the same dress as DeBella.

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Meanwhile, DeBella’s family and friends -- who mocked her ruthlessly when she told them she was writing letters to Hilton -- are encouraging her to sue. But DeBella, who has talked to a few lawyers, isn’t sure. " Honestly, I’m flattered that she would take it and use it. Writing is pretty much my whole life,” she said. “I could go after her and People magazine, but I did this to support her, and I don’t want to turn it against her.”

So she’s decided to see if Hilton really takes the message to heart, instead of just repeating it. She’s waiting to see if Paris actually does quit her partying, as she announced she would on “Larry King,” and focus on being a better person.

I didn’t have the heart to tell DeBella that last month I was at the bar Hyde for a birthday party, and I saw a blond woman walk in, immediately step up onto the first raised surface she saw and begin gyrating for attention. They were the gyrations of a woman who would steal another person’s writing. Doris Kearns Goodwin-type gyrations.

But I think DeBella’s real conflict isn’t about whether Paris follows her counseling. It’s the conflict everyone feels who expresses themselves: Did you want people to be affected by your work or to acknowledge you?

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Unfortunately, DeBella, annoyed by a speech made by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, never mailed him her six-page letter about horrific real estate practices. I would have loved to turn that guy’s plagiarism into gangsta rap.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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