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Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age

by Kay S. Hymowitz
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The Trash Princess
Kay S. Hymowitz

Why Americans love to hate Paris Hilton

Maybe 500 channels and an epidemic of bloggerhea mean that Americans have less of a common culture, but we all still share . . . Paris Hilton. The naughty blond heiress is, like, wallpapering our brains. Even if you don’t read the tabloids, you can’t escape her. There’s a (topless) Vanity Fair cover, a Barbara Walters interview, a best-selling single, a CD, a jewelry line, a best-selling book, a nightclub chain. Madame Tussaud has immortalized her in its wax museum. She can command $100,000 just to show up at a restaurant or club opening for an hour. She is among the top Googled people in the United States. And don’t think you can just get on a plane, go to (say) Auckland, and live Paris-free. In 2005, she was among the most popular search topics in New Zealand—not to mention Germany, Japan, and Australia. She is also a huge lure in Mexico, Turkey, France, and Sweden (so much for the enlightened sexuality of the Scandinavians). Who could top her in the fame department? Liberal commentators have dubbed estate-tax repeal “the Paris Hilton tax cut,” and the term has stuck. Madonna never had a piece of federal legislation named after her.

Now despite her fame and good fortune, for most sentient adults Hilton personifies the decadence of our cultural moment. With her nightclub brawls, her endless sexcapades, her vapid interviews, her rodent-like 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, cell-phone addiction, anorexia and bulimia, predilection for gas-guzzling private transportation, pornified womanhood, exhibitionism, narcissism—you name it.

Paris deserves almost all of this. You don’t need to share Osama bin Laden’s view of America to see that Paris mirrors us at our contemporary worst. 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.

But first, a brief outline of La Hilton’s life and . . . well, career, for lack of a better term. 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, to use an old cliché, and she dropped out of the Dwight School (sometimes said to stand for Dumb White Idiots Getting High Together). It is generally believed that she eventually got her GED, and, of course, that is entirely possible; but the truth is that Paris 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 “Page Six.”

Still, by the time she was 19 or so, though her life was full, it was time for young Paris to find a meaningful vocation. An animal lover, she had always wanted to be a vet; to this day, she has a menagerie of dogs, ferrets, monkeys, frogs, and fish. But to become a vet, you probably have to, you know, lose the manicures. What to do?

It’s hard to know whether the answer came in a sudden, blinding flash or whether it only dawned gradually on the soul-searching Paris. 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 Saint-Tropez, no-limit credit cards, and nonstop parties. She was living a fairy tale that could make us ordinary schlubs pant with desire. With the help of a hair colorist to turn her from ordinary blondish to starlet platinum, a plastic surgeon, a contact-lens tinter, and, most of all, a procession of high-end publicists, the pretty-enough Paris could turn herself into a princess and make her life seem even more irresistible. The sweating proles wouldn’t be able to resist!

As it happened, Paris was lucky not just in picking her great-grandfather but in choosing the timing for her launch. Just then, rags like Us Weekly, which gained traction in 2002 under the editorship of trash-loving Bonnie Fuller, and cable networks like E! were stoking the country’s insatiable appetite for tabloid gossip. These new outlets needed material, especially fashionable, alluring pictures, which Paris, with her elegantly long torso and luminous complexion, could provide with ease. Camera lust was in her DNA. Paris may have been old money on her father’s side, but her mother was pure Hollywood B list. Kathy Hilton’s sisters had both been popular child stars, and she herself had appeared in several television series in the 1970s. Paris often recounts a conversation she had with her maternal grandmother when she was 15: “You’re my Marilyn Monroe. You’re my Grace Kelly. You’re going to be the most famous woman in the world,” the older woman told her; indeed, her childhood nickname was “Star.” And so, the perfect melding of Park Avenue and Hollywood, and at the ideal Us Weekly moment, Paris Hilton set about turning herself into “Paris Hilton.”

By 2002, Paris had met most of fame’s requirements—modeling revealing clothes, appearing in movies like Zoolander and The Cat in the Hat, and bedding well-known men, which, in her case, included Leonardo DiCaprio and various overpaid athletes. But everyone, especially Paris, knows that to become famous in America you have to be on TV. In 2003, she was able to check that off her to-do list when 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 engaged in a Kama Sutra of sexual acts with Rick Solomon, an entrepreneur and her boyfriend at the time, and it temporarily silenced cynics who claimed she had no talent. Websites that merely mentioned the video, titled One Night in Paris, crashed. In office cubicles, workers ignored their spreadsheets and desperately tried to track down clips of naked Paris; an industrious scholar could probably locate a blip in worker productivity the exact week the video hit the Web. 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. While “Page Six” and Vanity Fair helped to give her fame, it was the Internet, with some help from cable television and tabloid magazines, that launched her into the celebrity stratosphere.

Paris began earning money like a rap star. The Simple Life was a hit, as is her top-selling single and her CD called Paris on her own record label, Heiress Records. (It’s not clear that she’ll be touring, though, since she evidently cannot “sing live,” as the euphemism has it.) She sells a jewelry line on Amazon; a clothing collection will debut soon. For a reported $700,000, she is putting her name on a chain of nightclubs; the first Club Paris, opened in Orlando this spring, was an instant sensation. The owner of the club, which also sells Paris logo’d tank tops, thongs, hats, and men’s briefs, was breathless: “Anything she touches is big. The marketing is unbelievable.” Though Paris isn’t known for sparkling conversation, she does frequently coo, “That’s hot,” so in October 2004 she trademarked the phrase. You can just imagine the marketing possibilities, from the predictable underwear to (send me royalties at City Journal) barbecue aprons and oven mitts. Last year, Paris earned $6.5 million.

Many more millions are likely to follow. Paris is not like other celebrities, whose scandals leave them drowning their sorrows in smoky dives. 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 cell phone all over the Web? A $10 million slander suit brought by jewelry heiress and 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.

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 preeminence. 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 (now known as a Come Fuck Me) that has bewitched fans since the days of Silver Screen.

But the evolutionary theory of celebrity does not begin to explain Paris Hilton mania for one reason: people hate the woman. She must be the most powerful snark magnet in history. Sure, she has her adoring fans. Why else would we have ParisHilton.com, Parisfan.com, Parishiltononline, and others like them? A lot of people really think she’s hot and love to look at her. And there are those—many of them very young, alas—who actually believe her fairy tale. After all, someone is buying Paris Hilton perfumes and jewelry.

Still, to check out the megabytes of commentary that follow Paris’s every embarrassing move is to be struck by a loathing that confutes the Darwinian explanation. Cries of “nonentity,” “rich white trash,” “no-talent,” “brainless hussy,” and “hotel heirhead” echo throughout cyberspace. Politically incorrect slurs like “tramp,” “tart,” “slut,” “skank,” and “skanktron” 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 Winchell, the New York Post’s “Page Six” has anointed Paris “celebutard.” Not to be outdone, the online gossip ’zine Defamer ventured “celebutante vaginalist.”

And that’s only prologue for the epic of vitriol aimed at the heiress. She’s earned the title “Worst-Dressed Celebrity” from the popular fashion critic Mr. Blackwell. The 2007 Guinness Book of World Records will reportedly call her the world’s most overrated celebrity. A Jane magazine survey cited her as one of the top people whom readers would “like to see on Cottonelle” toilet paper. Young people with pages on the Internet site MySpace frequently include her in their list of “Things I Don’t Like.” Even people who earn a living in what journalist Maureen Orth has called “the celebrity-industrial complex” love to engage in Paris mockery. “Even a gossip columnist has limits,” Lloyd Grove wrote last year in the Daily News. “Over the past five years—without any discernible talent, education, scruples, manners, modesty, or underpants—[Paris Hilton] . . . has waged a terrifying campaign for world domination. . . . I’m through with her. . . . We’re a better country than that. Iraq is a better country than that.”

Still, the reason for this bile goes even deeper than Grove’s accurate indictment. 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-fiancé. We Americans, uncomfortable with inherited wealth and power, just don’t cotton to that sense of entitlement.

Paris’s 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? One reason her “celebutard” IQ grates on us so much—“Could anyone be this stupid?” Newsweek asked in its review of The Simple Life—is that it comes at a time when we believe brains, or at least Ivy League degrees, are a necessary precondition for legitimate success. The panic over fancy diplomas dominates domestic life for many Americans and seems to spare almost no one, even the sons and daughters of the very rich. Evidently Paris didn’t have the gray matter to do what so many of our country’s young heiresses do these days: that is, go to Brown. We might excuse her if she had.

In fact, 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. She is a trash princess, as vulgar as Bart Simpson and dressed in T-shirts that say “Got Blow?,” tacky, Pepto-Bismol pink hoodies and matching shoes, and underwear that she notoriously neglects to wear under. Unlike reticent Park Avenue bluebloods, she is deeply exhibitionistic. Though she cried foul when The Tape was released, who could take her outrage seriously? After all, during “lovemaking,” to use another of the euphemisms Paris’s life seems to collect, she wrestled Rick Solomon to the side to make sure the camera was Paris-centered. 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. He was married three times, including to actress Zsa Zsa Gabor (who, erudite trivia mavens might want to know, claimed that she lost her virginity at 15 to Kemal Atatürk, first president of the Republic of Turkey and reformer of his nation’s practice of Islam). 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 I Want 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. (“These people are idiots,” viewers ranted about the Hiltons on the show’s message board. “It’s like the Addams family, in pink.”) 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’s 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. After all, these days even suburban housewives go to pole-dancing classes and devour Internet porn. But in branding Paris a “slut” or “skank,” or in cackling when Cher’s son accuses her of giving him an STD, we distinguish between middle-class women’s “empowerment” and the sexual depravity traditionally associated with the haute monde. A 2005 ad for Carl’s Jr. Burgers, in which Paris appears to be performing a sex act involving a hamburger and a Bentley, and for which she was reportedly paid $400,000, brought howls of disgust. One of her most outraged critics was Desperate Housewives star Nicolette Sheridan, who herself once starred in an ad that featured a wardrobe malfunction second in fame only to Janet Jackson’s. In the ad, the camera shows Sheridan’s back as she faces football star Terell Owens, when she drops the towel that was hiding her naked body. Yet perhaps because she sees herself as a hardworking actress, unlike the patrician Paris, and because, despite the cynicism of our times, she still expects dignity from someone with a name like Hilton, Sheridan professed shock at the burger caper. “Tacky, . . . classless,” the towel-dropper huffed.

But Sheridan is onto something. 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, we may boycott her albums or send angry letters to the FCC, 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 album; 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?

And so rather than being an alpha female, as theorists of celebrity would have it, Paris is America’s national cartoon heroine, a caricature who allows us to mock the undeserving and decadent rich we have scorned since the time of Tom Paine. We follow the Perils of Paris the Heiress in new episodes that seem to come almost weekly, snickering at her vapidity, her coarseness, her libertinism, and her outrageous assumption of entitlement. In a recent episode, Paris goes to a just-opened, ultrahip New York club, where the bouncer, instructed not to admit “the likes of Paris Hilton and her ilk,” refuses to let her in. In the last frame of the little narrative, Paris cries in her friend’s arms as she wonders why everyone is “so mean” to her.

In an earlier installment, Paris goes shopping and buys $10,000 worth of Christian Dior shoes, purses, and sunglasses for her mother for Mother’s Day. A deliveryman leaves them at the gate of the Hiltons’ L.A. mansion, from whence, unsurprisingly, they disappear. Later that night, Paris tries to drown her sorrows at a nightclub, when she catches sight of her former friend Lindsay (Lohan, that is, a starlet whose recent antics threaten to usurp Paris’s title as America’s Slut in Chief). Hilton’s drunken companion, oil heir Brandon Davis, screams at Lindsay that she is a “firecrotch” and goes on to describe Lindsay’s said body part in unflattering terms. The last frame shows Paris laughing uproariously. In the most recent episode of Paris the Heiress, our heroine goes to a charity benefit at L.A.’s Dragonfly, another supercool club, drinks a margarita on an empty stomach, gets into her Mercedes and drives to In-N-Out (snicker) Burger, and gets stopped and handcuffed (snicker) by the police. Later, her publicist explains: “She is a big fan of fast food.” She would be.

The only thing complicating this picture of dissipation is that Paris Hilton isn’t quite the airhead she plays on TV. She created her persona of Paris the Heiress with an instinct for America’s suspicion of the idle rich. Confession of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose is the title of her best-selling book. It’s the title of a woman who is in on the joke.

For example, in The Simple Life, her television series whose fifth season will air in 2007, she knowingly goofs on the immense gap between her life of privilege and the daily grind of ordinary folks. In the series’ first and best season, Paris, playing herself, moves in with a family in Arkansas, along with her similarly trust-funded friend Nicole Richie. The show is one long, self-conscious gag about the sloth and ignorance of the very rich. Paris and Nicole refuse to prepare the slaughtered chickens for dinner, because they don’t pluck anything “except eyebrows.” Told to herd the cows to the barn, Nicole screams, “Move, motherfuckers, move!”

In contrast to Paris and Nicole, the Arkansas folks are hardworking and decent. The couple with whom Paris and Nicole live warns the girls when they are leaving for their new job at a dairy farm that they are representing their own families, too, and their actions will reflect on them all, a hilariously underhanded jibe at Ma and Pa Hilton. Of course, the girls are destined to embarrass themselves and everyone connected to them. “I’m not sure exactly what it is that y’all are looking for in life,” the farmer says later, after firing them for napping on the job, “but I hope you find it.” The Simple Life may be simple, but it is not stupid. And neither is its star.

Still, Paris is profoundly unwise. She did something even worse than fail at high school or shred the traditional rules of her tribe. She—and this isn’t just metaphorical—sold her soul. Celebrities crave the spotlight, but in an age of mass media they still have to find a way to carve out a private life away from the grasping fans and intrusive cameras. The tabloid press and the Internet, where any individual can post a picture of Tom Cruise eating lunch with a friend or a story about seeing Sarah Jessica Parker with her son within minutes of the events, have made this task that much harder.

Part of the job definition of the publicist, in addition to increasing his clients’ fame, is to manage celebrity so that megastars can keep a piece of themselves for themselves. Paris Hilton said to hell with her private self. She erased the boundary between her life and her career and turned her entire existence into a public story and herself into a “brand,” as she has put it. She deliberately and programmatically offered herself up to us as an “It,” a being without an inner life, a personality whose only value is to be seen and known by all. She is, in other words, the total incarnation of postmodern identity, the individual who has disappeared completely—and happily—into her image.

Paris Hilton may be a composite of contemporary American sins, but hating Paris Hilton is another thing entirely. It’s a sign of lingering cultural sanity.

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More by Kay S. Hymowitz:
Did Inequality Make Dasani Homeless?
The Child Is Father of the Man
Boy Trouble
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