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Dallas Morning News

 

Why We Love To Loathe Paris

December 03, 2006

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Despite her fame and good fortune, for most sentient adults Paris Hilton, the naughty blond heiress, personifies the decadence of our cultural moment. With her nightclub brawls, her endless sexcapades, her vapid interviews, her rodentlike dog and her lack of ostensible talent, she reeks of every vice ever ascribed to our poor country.

She has become a synonym for American materialism, bad manners, greed, "like" and "whatever" Valley Girl inarticulateness, parochialism, arrogance, promiscuity, antifeminism, exposed roots and navels, entitlement, cellphone addiction, anorexia and bulimia, predilection for gas-guzzling private transportation, pornified womanhood, exhibitionism, narcissism – you name it.

Paris deserves almost all of this. But something still doesn't compute: Why, if Paris says so much about us, do Americans – not just college professors and the commentariat but celebrity watchers and tabloid junkies – hate her so much? And why, if she is so offensive, is she so ubiquitous?

Well, hating Paris Hilton is fun: Americans always enjoy a good sneer at the undeserving and decadent rich. Paris Hilton is our communal dartboard; skewering her gives the American public a chance to reaffirm who we are.

Paris, the oldest of four, was born in 1981 to Kathy and Rick Hilton, grandson of Conrad, the hotel magnate. She grew up stinking rich, mostly in Los Angeles, until 1999, when the clan settled in the family-owned Waldorf-Astoria in New York. Paris wasn't much of a student. She was spending most of her time with her younger sister Nicky, first crashing society events at the Waldorf and then, as they advanced into their older teens, getting high at clubs with similarly fortuned friends, while having their pictures taken for Vanity Fair and the New York Post's "Page Six."

By the time she was 19 or so, it was time for young Paris to find a meaningful vocation. What to do? Her vocation would be her: she would find fame and fortune just by being Paris Hilton. Her life was enviable, she knew, with its luxury cars and penthouses, hot-ticket events sparkling with movie stars and Yves Saint Laurent dresses, private-jet trips to St. Tropez, no-limit credit cards and nonstop parties. She was living a fairy tale that could make us ordinary schlubs pant with desire.

By 2002, Paris had met most of fame's requirements – modeling revealing clothes, appearing in movies and bedding well-known men. But everyone, especially Paris, knows that to become famous in America you have to be on TV. In 2003, she landed a reality series called The Simple Life , a clever but hardly Nielsen-shaking concept that would have Paris and a wealthy friend sample life in rural Arkansas.

But then: kismet! A few months before her television series was to air, The Tape hit the Internet. It revealed Paris, 19 when it was made, in various states of undress and sexual acts with her boyfriend at the time, and it temporarily silenced cynics who claimed she had no talent. So big was the impact of The Tape that it changed the dynamics of celebrity making and turned Paris into the first New Media superstar. The Internet, with some help from cable television and tabloid magazines, launched her into the celebrity stratosphere.

The lesson of The Tape continues to hold: The worse she behaves, the more famous she becomes and the more money she makes. An arrest for drunken driving? Embarrassing photos and gossip from her lost cellphone all over the Web? A $10 million slander suit brought by romantic rival Zeta Graff? A video of her stealing a copy of her sex tape from a West Hollywood newsstand? Bring them on! They mean more headlines, more paparazzi, more Paris.

At this moment, Paris Hilton may be the most famous woman in the world, God help us.

Beyond celebrity

People who write and think about our intense attraction to the famous often say that when we worship celebrities, we are following a Darwinian urge to revere beauty or pre-eminence. Paris Hilton attracts our interest much the way Arnold Schwarzenegger does, according to this view: They are alphas, creatures that have made it to the top of the pack, and we can't help but gaze at them with fascination. Paris certainly knows how to show off her considerable evolutionary advantages to the camera, where it matters most these days; she adroitly tilts her perfectly styled head like that, angles her sweetheart chin just so, arches her long, lean back comme ça, and gives that sideways, heavy-lidded, come-hither look that has bewitched fans since the days of Silver Screen.

But the evolutionary theory of celebrity does not begin to explain Paris mania for one reason: People hate the woman. Cries of "nonentity," "rich white trash," "no talent," "brainless hussy," and "hotel heirhead" echo throughout cyberspace. Politically incorrect slurs like "tramp," "tart," "slut" and "skank" have suddenly become acceptable again, as long as Paris is their target.

But that's just the everyday bile. Hilton hatred has been muse to striking bouts of creativity from the popular press. In the 1930s, Walter Winchell coined the term "celebutante" to describe Brenda Frazier, a socialite famous enough to make the cover of Life and Paris Hilton's closest sociological ancestor; well, in the spirit of Mr. Winchell, "Page Six" has anointed Paris "celebutard." Not to be outdone, the online gossip zine Defamer ventured "celebutante vaginalist."

What drives Americans crazy about Paris is what has incensed Americans since before the Revolution: her haughty air of highborn privilege. She is our Marie Antoinette: "I'm the closest thing to American royalty," Paris explained when she wrote to Prince Charles to ask for permission to use Westminster Abbey or Windsor Castle for her wedding to her soon-to-be ex-fiance. We Americans, uncomfortable with inherited wealth and power, just don't cotton to that sense of entitlement.

Paris' presumption comes off as especially obnoxious in this hard-nosed, meritocratic age. Who is she to flaunt her easy privilege, her mindless entitlement, her careless idleness? Paris violates all of the unspoken rules for the born-rich in our democratic republic. Grandes dames of yesterday, such as Brooke Astor, might be idle, but they had the virtue of reminding us of a lost world of tradition, breeding, high culture and noblesse oblige philanthropy. Paris wouldn't know Astor old-school manners if she tripped over them in her gold stilettos. At least in the past, the upper classes kept their unconventional predilections quiet, with whips and handcuffs stowed discreetly in the closet. Paris, by contrast, makes a career out of scaring the horses.

To get a sense of the decline that Paris represents, consider great-grandpa Conrad Hilton, founder of the hotel empire. Conrad lived up to his class's reputation for randiness. But Conrad also had principles. He was an industrious, self-made millionaire, who, having struggled to make his own fortune, didn't much care for the idea of turning his offspring into trust-fund kids. He was also a devoted, though obviously flawed, Catholic. Accordingly, and to the dismay of his potential heirs, he left the vast bulk of his fortune to the Catholic Sisters. It was only through the energetic legal maneuvering of his son Barron that the Hilton progeny got their mitts on Conrad's money.

What would Hilton Sr. make of the vulgarity of present-day Hiltons? As if Paris weren't bad enough, her parents also make a mockery of Conrad's industriousness and self-discipline. Following the success of the first season of The Simple Life, Rick and Kathy Hilton produced and starred in a takeoff on the hit game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? called I Want to Be a Hilton!, shamelessly flaunting the lucky accident of their birth that the Hilton patriarch had tried to annul. Surely old Conrad would not be amused by such flaunting – or by the irony that Paris buys her stripper wardrobe and sleazy nightlife with money meant for the nuns.

Paris' failure to observe the rules of trust-fund decorum, a concession to the awkward status of patricians in a country that believes in self-made success, explains the surprising tsk-tsking about her sex life. Paris is exhibitionistic in a way that goes beyond the everyday sluts and hos of contemporary popular culture. When Janet Jackson arranges a wardrobe malfunction, we may rue the decay of prime-time television, but we recognize that we have seen a performance – a publicity-ravenous, cheesy performance, but a performance nonetheless. Paris, on the other hand, trumpets her name-your-pleasure promiscuity in a way that speaks only of unthinking, careless decadence.

It's not that she is a working girl willing to go too far to sell her next record; it's that she is above morality. She can do whatever she wants, and she's proud to rub your nose in that fact day after day. How could you not hate someone who thinks she doesn't have to live in the same world as the rest of us?

Original Source: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-parishilton_03edi.ART.State.Edition1.3e4d234.html#

 

 
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