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Paris in the fall

The Hilton heiress has reveled in her looks and wealth for years. Has reality bitten the party girl?

November 18, 2003|Booth Moore and Renee Tawa | Times Staff Writers

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?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday November 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 0 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Hilton sisters -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar about the Hilton sisters should have said they helped publicize parties, bars and clubs well before they were 21, not 2.

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.

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