Thursday, December 11, 2003

Paris Hilton, in an Age Beyond Embarrassment 

Paris Hilton, in an Age Beyond Embarrassment (washingtonpost.com)

Paris Hilton, in an Age Beyond Embarrassment

By Tina Brown
Thursday, December 11, 2003; Page C01

The success of society babe Paris Hilton's reality TV show "The Simple Life," hard on the heels of the bootleg porn tape showing her steamily in flagrante delicto with her dirtbag then-boyfriend Rick Solomon, proves once again there is no such thing as bad press. We live in the post-embarrassment age. New promotional and marketing offers are pouring in for Paris, and a sequel (to the Fox series, not the sex tape) is in the works. Today, if some private sex act of yours winds up on the Internet, the only appropriate response is: How did I look?

As image rehab, her publicist Dan Klores shrewdly got Paris onto "Saturday Night Live" last weekend. The guest host was presidential candidate Al Sharpton, who, in the inevitable Michael Jackson skit, at one point played the celebrity lawyer Johnnie Cochran riding a Neverland roller coaster. Surreal? No more so than Gen. Tommy Franks choosing the influential news organ Cigar Aficionado this month to ruminate on America one day winding up under martial law. Everyone has to play his part in the Andy Warhol apocalypse.

Ms. Hilton's skit was a double-entendre exchange with Jimmy Fallon on the "Weekend Update" mock news sequence:

"Is it hard to get into the Paris Hilton?"

"Actually it's a very exclusive hotel, no matter what you've heard."

"Is it roomy?"

"It might be for you."

Ooooh! In her "SNL" dressing room the 22-year-old, dressed in a seven-inch-long bright pink miniskirt, teetered around like a gorgeous extraterrestrial stork. Her skin has the perfectly smooth, honey-colored finish of Scandinavian furniture. She signed an autograph for my 13-year-old daughter on notepaper she produced from her very own baby pink "Hello Kitty" wallet and adorned the envelope with stickers. "You never grow out of 'Hello Kitty,' do you?" she asked me with an adorable, needy smile.

The post-embarrassment age probably became official with Bill Clinton and the Starr report, but the British royal family were the pioneers. The pirated telephone tape of Prince Charles in 1989 telling his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, that in the next life he would like to come back as her Tampax was a high-water mark in unlivedownable revelations. Nothing in Princess Diana's "Squiggy" tapes of her love banter with Maj. James Hewitt equaled this indelible image provided by the Heir to the Throne; his mournful jug-eared profile behind the smoked glass of the official car never regained its aloof authority.

Before Monica's blue dress, even something as marginal as a wayward presidential brother could mortify the White House. Billy Carter drank beer and burped. Result: a nation horrified. Roger Clinton snorted and smoked. Result: a nation shocked. Neil Bush romped around with call girls on business trips to Thailand. Result: a nation indifferent.

It was the late Clinton years and the explosion of the Internet that inured us to the daily parlance of traduced intimacy. By the time Monica Lewinsky did her sit-down with Barbara Walters, the only thing we cared about was the color of her lip gloss. (Glaze from the Club Monaco chain, appropriately enough. Every woman I know bought it.)

Four years later, revelation alone is not enough. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee's marital workout raised the bar. There has to be a new angle to satisfy the media maw. In the case of poor Paris Hilton's nude frolics, the angle is class: the defiling of a posh girl (or, "Riding Miss Daisy"), which adds a piquant element of political porn to the grainy videotape. After the Bush administration's gigantic tax bonanza for the super-affluent, perhaps the hoi polloi just want a little payback.

What people don't get about the Hiltons, though, is that while they live in the Waldorf and work the New York social scene, they are more like a moneyed version of a trailer-dwelling circus family than drop-dead socialites. Paris's mother, Kathy Hilton, a former child actress who had a tchotchke shop on the Sunset Strip and sold gewgaws on QVC, colludes with and protects her wild-child girls like an indulgent but shrewd stage mom. There is a lot of love and loyalty, as well as self-promotion and silliness, in the sprawling Hilton clan. This makes them nicer.

Unlike the stuck-up snobs who appear in the MTV series "Rich Girls," Paris comes across as a gentle exhibitionist who is eager to please. This means waking up in full cover-shot makeup and going out with a half-naked behind in freezing weather. Her need for attention is a bit like a souped-up version of Monica Lewinsky, who, lacking skinniness and golden hair extensions, rambles on in this month's GQ about what it's like to live in the lonely aftermath of exposure and innuendo. "Only when you get older can you turn around and think, oh my God, what was I thinking?" she says. "When you come out of college you think you are invincible. Let this be a lesson."

Since the porn tape, Paris too may have a hard time meeting a nice boy when her 15 minutes is up. But she won't have Monica's other difficulty, cash. The new transparency, it seems, applies to sex but not money. There were a lot of red faces in the Hollywood community this week when the Los Angeles Times revealed that charity fundraisers are securing celebrity appearances from stars like Cher, Bill Cosby and Sylvester Stallone with big fat fees and costly merchandise. In the post-embarrassment age, stars are shocked only when you ask them to pay.

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