Paris Hilton: Paris is Burning

Paris Hilton is the latest in a long line of rich girls who partied their way to fame. But with a hit TV show, a budding singing and acting career and a tell-all book, could the sexy heiress actually be more than this year's model?

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Someone could make a chart of Paris Hilton's dizzying rise to fame and practically use it as a Rorschach test to measure American attitudes toward celebrity. To some, Hilton's speedball ascent on the 21st century fame-o-meter might be viewed as an inevitable outcome of being born famous--great-granddaughter and heiress to one of America's wealthiest men, hotel baron Conrad Hilton. Others watched Hilton, now 23, as she grew into young adulthood and soared higher and higher in the public consciousness, undoubtedly shaking their heads and uttering clichés like "poor little rich girl," as she emerged bearing all the earmarks of a relentless post-Madonna-style self-promoter. Until very recently, one might well have asked, "Who is this Hilton girl, anyway, and why are we always hearing about her?" Is she a model? A celebutante? Just another float-rider in the passing parade of interchangeable and transitory "It" girls? Or could she possibly be the real thing, a genuinely absorbing personality that Hollywood will catapult to new levels of fame and fortune?

"It's not about fame, really," says Hilton, in the currently fashionable style of those who pretend not to want it even if they do. "Years from now, I would just want people to say, 'She was young. She was a crazy girl for a while or whatever, but then she married and had a great big family. She was good to people and did a lot for the world. And that she was a nice person.'"

Well, OK, but as a nation, we've seldom elevated and worshipped nice the way we have famous. When you come right down to it, there is nothing especially new, scandalous or even toxic about Paris Hilton and her fame. Rich and famous have long gone hand-in-glove and, as a deeply class-conscious populace, we have always been profoundly entertained by the excesses and escapades of the rich, the egomaniacal and the wayward. We take comfort somehow in watching how an heiress, for all her privilege and advantages, can act just as wild and crazy as one of our own trashy, low-rent cousins at a suburban wedding.

Think of glamourpuss Barbara Hutton, who inherited a $40 million fortune in Woolworth money when she was 4, made her high society debut in 1930 during the economic ruin of the Great Depression at a bash costing well over $60,000, then spent much of her life earning headlines with her non-stop partying and seven marriages to various scurrilous barons, princes and counts (including Hollywood royalty Cary Grant) before dying a virtual pauper in 1979 at age 66. Or what about eccentric tobacco heiress Doris Duke, who died in 1993 after parlaying a multi-million bequest into a $1.2 billion fortune, enjoying widely reported affairs with the likes of General George Patton and Errol Flynn, and "accidentally" in 1966, crushing to death her lover while he was opening the iron gates of her estate?

Duke, Hutton and other gilt-edged playgirls of the past ducked the limelight because they knew how harsh and unforgiving it could be. But that was then. These days, notoriety is the new cool. Fame is almost a constitutional right, the instant reach of the Internet (exhibit A: Hilton's sex video) making anyone a known commodity in 15 minutes. But it's Hollywood that propels a merely well-known personality into the stratosphere of icon. Madonna sang, "Everybody comes to Hollywood." It's true. That's where the money is bigger, the stakes higher and the sunshine eternal. Where else can a white-bred, nearly bankrupt mogul like Donald Trump reinvent himself as a sexy symbol of American know-how, or a aging, doddering rock 'n' roll star like Ozzy Osbourne become an overnight sensation for, well, being himself? Get yourself a reality TV show like, say, The Apprentice, The Osbournes or The Anna Nicole Show and suddenly, you're not merely rich and famous, you're mega. Entire new universes open to you. Everyone wants to know you, do business with you, to be "in bed" with you. TV commercials? Celebrity product endorsements? Spin-off shows? An unending stream of magazines covers? Movie and record deals? Sure, whatever you want. You're not merely rich now, you're a full-fledged multimedia star--that sexiest, most sought-after permutation of 21st-century fame. And now Paris Hilton is the newest member of this exalted club.

Hilton may look merely like the latest incarnation of that alternately beloved and reviled phenomenon--the rich girl who can do anything she damn well pleases. Yet, one hallmark that sets her apart from her predecessors, that makes her very modern, is an iron-clad determination and brilliance in achieving fame by using a famous family name as a mere jumping-off point. Why be just "a Hilton," when you could be "the Paris Hilton"? (It's telling that her family wanted her to go into the hotel business but she wanted no part of it.) And in that effort she is cunning and thoroughly up to speed in knowing how to manipulate the apparatuses of fame. Hilton transformed herself from bad girl to hugely famous by starring in a reality TV show called, ironically, The Simple Life. With Pais having notched that achievement on her Prada belt, don't be surprised to watch her now make a full court press for global domination on the scale of, say, Madonna or Jennifer Lopez.

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