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Do Gentlemen Prefer Paris?

Why Paris Hilton has become a dominant cultural force.

11:00 PM, Mar 25, 2004 • By RACHEL DICARLO
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PARIS HILTON and her younger sister Nicky, the staple bicoastal "it" girls have been trading off their good looks and $3.8 billion hotel fortune for years.

Paris, the more famous sister, has long been a mainstay of the gossip columns. Dancing on the table at this bar, stripping at another, getting a drink thrown in her face by someone else's boyfriend at a Los Angeles nightclub.

Not long ago, a three-year-old tape surfaced of her having sex with her then-boyfriend at a Las Vegas hotel. Since then she's generated an even greater firestorm of publicity. For the 20th week in a row--coming in at number one this week--she's made the Lycos Top 50, an online list of the most popular global Internet searches. Ebay is selling T-shirts that say, "I've seen Paris." This month she made the cover of the upscale women's magazine Elle. Why? It's a good question.

Elle is almost in the same league as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, the quality of its writing and status of its writers and photographers leaving it slightly behind. It's a sophisticated magazine with real content. There are book and movie reviews, interesting profiles, essays, and artistic fashion spreads. It's not a publication one would be embarrassed to leave lying around her parents' house. But what is appealing about Paris Hilton to the kind of women who read Elle? Does she have anything to discuss other than her sex scandal or reality TV show? If not, then why would anyone want to read about her in Elle? And what has she actually accomplished to merit the accolades the magazine gives her? The answer is nothing. "It's like putting Pamela Anderson on the cover of Elle. It makes it look cheap," a source from the New York Observer says.

The most ridiculous part is not that Hilton made the cover or appears in Elle at all, but that the article refers to her as an "icon" and draws comparisons between her and Lorelei Lee the heroine of Anita Loos's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a book Edith Wharton once called, "the great American novel."

Gentleman Prefer Blondes was published in 1925, just five years after the 19th Amendment gave women the vote. Lorelei Lee was a new kind of heroine who became an icon by bursting into the jazz age right after the suffragette movement. Her taste for orchids, diamonds, and champagne made her seem narrow-minded, but she cleverly feigned naivete and innocence to climb her way out of a middle-class upbringing in Arkansas and charm and outsmart men who would buy her things.

Like Paris Hilton, Lorelei was a jet-setter of sorts, but she wasn't particularly worldly. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which is her diary, Lorelei writes of her trips to the "Central of Europe," "Eyefull Tower" and the "Foley Bergere" and "Louie the sixteenth, a man she is always hearing about who seemed to be in the anteek furniture business."

Her image is something similar to what Paris Hilton has. She was beautiful and glamorous, albeit a little scandalous--she managed to trick married men into buying her presents and often traded them up after they'd fallen for her--but she wasn't vulgar and trashy. She didn't seek out negative attention and didn't behave below her social class.

And therein lies the appeal of Paris Hilton. It's the juxtaposition of her wealth coupled with her trashy behavior. Proper debutantes from family dynasties used to be intimidating, even if they didn't achieve anything themselves. But Paris Hilton hasn't just not achieved anything. She's unashamedly downwardly ambitious, or at least she acts that way. "It's the difference between her high-style upbringing and her low-rent behavior," the source says.

Sure it's fun to watch someone occasionally misbehave. And Paris Hilton does seem like she could be some fun. As my friends point out, "she just likes to hang out" and as far as I know she's never said anything particularly nasty about anyone. But that's no reason to label someone an icon.

Rachel DiCarlo is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.