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Famous by Association

What Nicole Richie and "The Simple Life" teach us about America and celebrity.

11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2004 • By MATT LABASH
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THE SHOW WAS CONCEIVED, of course, for one simple reason: People can't seem to get enough of those blonde hotel-fortune scions, the Hilton sisters--Paris and Nicky. While they did absolutely nothing to earn their celebrity besides kick up their Lucite heels while canoodling with similar B-list celebrities at it-bars across the world, their stars (Paris's family nickname was actually "Star") were officially launched in a 2000 Vanity Fair spread. At the time, Paris and Nicky were just 19 and 16 years of age, respectively. But they let it all hang out, literally in Paris's case. In David LaChapelle's photo spread, Paris was caught wearing a see-through mesh tank-top while flipping the bird in her grandmother's Beverly Hills living room, as well as playing peek-a-boo with her right nipple while laying sprawled on a beach surrounded by surfers, who looked more puzzled than lustful.

Their parents played along with writer Nancy Jo Sales. They made delusional comments, like Momma Hilton's claim that "Paris is the most modest girl," while their little angels behaved like Gabor sisters gone bad. (At one point, when Nicky's younger brothers were blabbering to the writer about what a mean sister she was, she disappeared, then returned with a large security goon who bounced the two siblings.) Whether lording it over the help at the Waldorf-Astoria (the crown jewel of the Hilton empire) or offering patently absurd clichés to hard-sell their humanity (at one point, Paris segued from talking about a bad slasher movie she'd just done to saying, "But what I'd really like people to know is that I'm working on fundraising for breast cancer"), one couldn't help but be left with the impression voiced by a an older Italian gentleman to whom Paris had claimed she was "American royalty": "If I were their parents, I would kick their asses," he said.

WHEN THE SHOW WAS CONCEIVED, younger Nicky took a pass, doing the Hilton-sister equivalent of getting serious by going to fashion school so she could design overpriced handbags. But Paris, who needs attention like the rest of us need food, not only signed up, but brought along her trollish, dumpy, childhood friend, Nicole Richie. Hilton didn't really have any better options. Sure she'd been romantically linked to everyone from Leonardo DiCaprio to one of the Backstreet Boys, but the only thing (as opposed to people) she did was get in cat-fights over men with the likes of Shannen Doherty or Lisa Marie Presley (the latter of whom accused her . . . well, Paris told it best: "Lisa Marie just threw a drink over me because she thinks I f**** Nic Cage").

Aside from such résumé sweeteners, the aspiring actress only had snicker-inducing screen credits. She hadn't exactly gotten the chance to stretch in the tiny roles she'd taken. She played a "female club-goer " in "Cat in the Hat," a "strung-out supermodel" in "QIK2JDG," and a "girl on beach" in "Wishman." That was, until her infamous homemade porn tape leaked last November, in which millions of Internet users learned, while watching her in grainy night-vision, that she is capable of doing a convincing turn as a vapid socialite who enjoys getting stuck like the family pin cushion, all while making diving lunges at a ringing phone, because, well, a girl's gotta keep up with her schedule. (Paris, to be fair, was so horrified by the tape, that she started stepping out in Valentino, rather than the streetwalker landing-strips of fabric that usually barely covered her nethers.)

CONSENSUS SEEMS TO BE that Paris, with her nearly whitish-blonde hair, her thousand-dollar a month spray-on tan, and her feline blue eyes, is a real looker. But for a homegrown beauty, I've always found her suspiciously exotic, her voice pitched a little too low--usually a sure sign that the she is a he. Fortunately, her sex tape put the lie to that notion. Even if it didn't exist, there's little chance that she owns a male set. Because if she did, Hilton, never one for restraint, would have doubtless shown it to us to us by now.