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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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While Paris is the reason so much ink has been spilled over "The Simple Life," she is hardly the show's driving engine. That dishonor belongs to Nicole Richie--the daughter of Lionel, who wrote the hit song "Ballerina Girl" for her (a song I always disliked; now I know why). Her hair, while artificially highlighted like Hilton's, is less like Barbie's and more like Cyndi Lauper's runtish sister. Built like a pot-bellied stove, she laughs constantly and inappropriately, her buzzard-like beezer pointing southward, while her cheeks scrunch, making her look like she's trying to grind down her nose with her teeth. While she canters around in bun-hugging micro-minis (just pop them back in, you want to say), she acts as if she's about five times as good looking as she actually is. But she's not just worthy of cosmetic cheap shots. A spoiled brat who has already been busted three times--for a DUI, a bar-fight, and most recently, heroin possession--Richie is ugly on the inside, too.

And if Hilton's résumé is thin, Richie's is even thinner. In her few screen appearances, she's had to play something worse than a "strung out supermodel." In shows like "Punk'd," she's played herself. Her only accomplishment--besides being Lionel Richie's daughter--seems to be that she's Michael Jackson's goddaughter. Regarding the molestation charge pending against him, Richie has insisted on his innocence. She's spent the night there, she says, and "If he didn't do it to me, why would he do it to anyone else?" Good taste, one suspects.

Critics, always in need of finding larger social implications, have misguidedly written thousands of words on how the ascendance of Paris Hilton means our culture is now so addicted to celebrity that we are willing to reward people with fame who've done nothing to earn it. Last summer, an Associated Press writer even diagnosed the condition with the coinage "PAC"--for "pre-achievement celebrity." But it's hardly a new grievance. Andy Warhol marked the same phenomenon in the '80s. And Homer took notice of it well before then, having written, in the "Iliad," "How vain, without the merit, is the name."

But if critics have correctly diagnosed the problem, they've undersold it's severity by pegging it to the wrong poster girl. The mystery isn't why Paris Hilton can become famous for having done nothing (she did, after all, allegedly make out with former Madonna girl-toy Ingrid Casaras in a bar). The true mystery is how someone like the charmless Nicole Richie can become famous for nothing more than being the friend of someone who's famous for nothing.

AS A RESPONSIBLE REVIEWER, I should probably load you up with all sorts of specific instances and outrages which illustrate the hollowness of our protagonists. I could tell you about how, in the course of the show, when Paris was sitting around with her host family--the Ledings of Altus, Arkansas, population 817--she asked, with a straight face, "What is Wal-Mart. Do they sell, like, wall stuff?" Or how she paraded around even young children dressed like an anorexic hooker whose pimp was withholding her lunch money.

Or I could tell you how Nicole sucked face with a townie, calling a halt to the session because the boy "smelled like onions." Or how, when she lost her purse at a local watering hole, she yelled at the bars' patrons, finally throwing bleach all over the pool table. Or I could tell you about how the girls, who were tasked with working real jobs like real people during their one month stay, made a mockery of everyone who actually has to earn a living, by belittling their jobs, stealing from their employers, and in one case, at the local Sonic burger joint, posting on the billboard "1/2 price anal salty weiner [sic] bugers [sic]," to the best of their spelling ability.

But I won't do that, even if I just sort of did, partly because there's not enough space and partly because I suspect neither of us has the energy for that sort of thing. Suffice to say that the show attempted to wrap in the traditional vein. Sitcom writers have a trade term called the "M.O.S."--or "moment of shit." It's shorthand for the formulaic necessity of concluding every show with the sappy, group-hug, ham-fisted moral of the story that's supposed to balance all the misanthropy and cheap one-liners that came before it.

"The Simple Life," too, reaches for such artifice, when the Leding family's patriarch, Albert, gives some aw-shucks, dirt-kicking speech about how he tried to instill some of his families' values in the girls--a hard work ethic, honesty, the kind of crap that doesn't cut much ice in Paris Hilton's world, or, increasingly, in ours. It rings as false as anything from one of your more rank sitcoms, like "Good Morning, Miami."

But the beauty of reality television is that no matter how meretricious a situation is, some truth usually peeps out, even through the heavy editing. In the case of "The Simple Life," it came at the end, as the townsfolk, who evidenced almost nothing but disdain and suspicion toward Hilton and Richie, pretended to play nice while bidding them adieu. On a barbecue sign that one could see usually bearing messages like "Jesus saves" or "3.99 Chicken Fried Steak," read "Goodbye Paris and Nicole, Where Legends Are Made and Lies are Told."

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.