THE LAST TIME I saw Paris Hilton -- across a crowded lawn, during a pre-Oscars picnic lunch at Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg's Beverly Hills estate -- I kept my distance.
After all, what was there to discuss? I'd banned the publicity-craving heiress from my gossip column in the New York Daily News in December 2004. I was faithful to the injunction right up until the moment, less than two years later, when my column was discontinued. But Paris persisted -- untroubled by, and no doubt ignorant of, my feeble protest against her terrifying campaign for world domination.
Despite a lack of any discernible talent, education, scruples, manners, modesty or underpants, she is bigger than ever. Her hegemony over the popular culture is so pervasive that a Google search retrieves nearly 16 million "Paris Hilton" citations (although some small portion of those may be references to the Hilton Hotel in Paris), compared with only 3.5 million for "Hillary Clinton," a woman who would be president.
So I can hardly blame the Associated Press for losing its nerve. The nation's biggest wire service -- which provides breaking news to tens of thousands of media outlets -- vowed last month to ignore the trivial pursuits of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton's leggy, blond great-granddaughter, who combines the sex appeal of a Swedish bikini model with the survival skills of a Norway rat.
Just before Valentine's Day, the AP's entertainment editor declared a Paris news blackout. "Next week, the print team is planning an unconventional experiment: We are NOT going to cover Paris Hilton," Jesse Washington wrote in a leaked internal memo. "Barring any major, major news, we are not going to put a single word about Paris on the wire."
Brave talk, indeed. But the AP couldn't even hold out for a week without mentioning the planet's most famous flibbertigibbet in stories about Britney Spears, Nicole Richie and -- go figure -- the Nevada Democratic Party.
By the last day of February, the noble experiment was over. The wire service joined everyone else in reporting that police had stopped the 26-year-old Hilton after she exceeded the speed limit on Sunset Boulevard -- less "major, major news" than force of habit -- and had ticketed her for driving with a suspended license, impounding her blue Bentley.
Since then, the Paris Hilton stories have rained down on our heads in their usual torrent, to be eagerly lapped up by besotted readers. My favorite from last week was the National Enquirer's scoop about Paris getting kicked out of a Beverly Hills market after she allegedly rammed her shopping cart into an old lady's and screamed: "That's what you get for being rude and blocking the aisle!"
All of which raises some troubling questions: First, what accounts for the apparently insatiable appetite for all things Paris? Second, what does this widespread obsession say about the health of Western democratic society (I mean, other than the tired old Osama bin Laden critique)? And third, is there any way to break the ugly web of mutual addiction between Paris and her enablers in the news biz and the public?
A few years ago, I thought -- and I was wrong -- that Paris would have worn out her welcome by now. Her notoriety has been certified for nearly a decade, ever since the New York Post's Page Six column began chronicling her shameless behavior at posh parties, such as her penchant for climbing up on tables and banquettes and dancing sans panties with her younger sister, Nicky.
With the reality show and the sex video, the various fragrances, television commercials, photo shoots, vapid pop CDs and quickie books (which there's no evidence that she even read, let alone wrote), Paris was already overexposed last fall when a visionary entrepreneur launched a premium website featuring deeply intimate items that she'd abandoned in a storage facility, whose owner sold them for back rent. The items included trashy tapes and seamy photos (such as Paris smoking a tampon), bank statements, dream diaries, a hospital bill for a miscarriage and several empty prescription bottles (notably one for herpes medication). Even Paris was embarrassed.
The mystery -- probably the only one -- is that the market for such stuff appears to remain robust. Why, why, why?
When I was still writing about her almost every day, I came to think of Paris as the Human Cheeto. I just couldn't resist dipping into the nearest Paris bowl and grabbing a salty, yet nutritionless, item (nightclubbing Paris hurls ice cubes at a rival; cover girl Paris tells a magazine interviewer something stupid), then plopping it into the mouth of my column. Invariably, afterward, I felt a teensy bit sick.