Sex, Lies, and Celebrity Trainwrecks

There were a few moments there when it looked like Paris Hilton would quietly pay the penance for getting through life on her celebrity. But that was before the rumors of staph infections, the hurried release for medical reasons, the hypothetical parties planned to celebrate, her subsequent tearful reincarceration, and whatever future prison drama has not yet transpired. Once again, due to her own shortcomings, the heiress has demonstrated why she is one of the most well-known women on the planet.

As is her want, Ms. Hilton has turned a near non-event into a headline-stealing extravaganza. Like the numerous other celebrities and over one million Americans arrested per year, Ms. Hilton was pulled over for driving under the influence earlier this year. But Ms. Hilton will not go gently into that prison cell, and the DUI arrest is spiraling into the story that kept on giving. Seeming to bounce in and out of prison hourly this past weekend, she triggered helicopters to her homes for real time coverage and countless sleepless paparazzi to jockey for photographs — a tearful photo of Ms. Hilton snapped by famed war photographer Nick Ut will likely be one of the most recognizable photos of 2007.

Last summer Ms. Hilton told The Sunday Times “every decade has an iconic blond like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana, and right now I’m that icon.” The declaration was equal parts audacious and disturbing.

Ms. Hilton may not inspire the same adulation as Monroe or affection as Princess Diana, but she has achieved a strangely iconic status — due more to her failings than her aptitudes. She also shares with the late Princess of Wales a penchant for public emotion. Last year’s award winning film “The Queen” attributed the English citizens’ loyalty toward the former princess over the royal family to this tendency, and Ms. Hilton’s breakdowns in public this week have once again brought her to the forefront of public attention.

Princess Di brought the world into the royal family’s affairs like no one before her and Ms. Hilton has a shocking tendency toward sharing private moments with the public. Aside from watching her have sex in night vision, the public has been privy to the contents of Ms. Hilton’s address book, her storage locker, and what most women cover with underwear.

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THE HEIRESS has continually fed our appetite for access into the private lives of public people, and has subsequently been rewarded with fame and fortune. In fact, Daniel Boorstin’s definition of a celebrity as “a person well-known for his well-knowness” seems tailor-made for her. The historian lamented the prevalence of “pseudo-events” in his influential tome The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, chastising our culture for valuing artifice over reality. But the trends he documented have metastasized into common features of modern life today.

In 1961, Boorstin wrote: “In a world where the public acts of politicians and celebrities become more and more contrived, we look ever more eagerly for happenings not brought into being especially for our benefit. We search for those areas of life which may have remained immune to the cancer of pseudo-eventfulness.”

This trend has resulted in the airing of some very public embarrassments today. With the omnipresence of the media in the lives of public figures, unprogrammed moments are hard to come by. The ones that slip through the curtain of public artifice are often less than stellar.

And despite her synthetic hair, tan, and clothing, Ms. Hilton has provided the public with more than her share of spontaneous events. The heiress forged territory in up-skirt shots, drug scandals, and awkward dating moments.

But as soon as a new embarrassment goes public and proves popular, it is plagued by rumors of fabrication. The game of finding truth in the artifice of public life has spawned a booming industry in magazines and the blogosphere, countering the rapid decline of print publications in most every other area.

In the realm of professional wrestling, this pursuit even has a name. A growing segment of the audience is composed of “smarks,” who both realize that much of the action in the ring is staged and remain interested in the events that transpire. Considering themselves to be a combination of both a “smart” and a “mark,” smarks look forward to moments in wrestling that are so well choreographed, or undeniably brutal, that they can momentarily get caught up in the action and “mark out.”

Increasingly, we are looking for moments to “mark out” in society. The undulating line of perception both makes it difficult to discern fact from fiction and retains the public’s interest. Just as her own exploits are often rumored to be manufactured for publicity, the public reward for Ms. Hilton’s embarrassments have spawned knock offs.

More than a few substandard celebrities have attempted to catapult their fame with sex tapes. Embarrassing missteps include Screech from “Saved by the Bell” and female wrestler China, who both believed there was a demand from the public to see them have sex on camera. Similarly, a recent advertisement in the L.A. Weekly looked for starlets willing to be filmed in adult videos. Boasting a sliding pay scale according to fame, the company tantalized: “You’ve seen what it’s done for the careers of others. Now you can show the world what you’ve got.”

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Today sex tapes, stints in rehab, and other public humiliations seem prerequisites for public life. But with her ongoing prison saga, Ms. Hilton continues to forge new territory in reality programming. Despite her contrived persona, Ms. Hilton loses control of her public image on a regular basis.

Because these moments of realism provide such a stark distinction from the insincere state of public life that has become the norm, people enjoy watching them and trying to tease out the spontaneous moments from the norm of manufactured reality. From O.J. Simpson’s Bronco in hot pursuit by the L.A.P.D. to Britney Spears shaving her head in public, we have become obsessed with the screw-ups and embarrassments of public persons. Today reality has become the exception. But when we can get it, we reward it handsomely.

And as P.T. Barnum once said in defense of his various humbugs, “the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”

Meghan Keane is a 2006 Phillips Fellow living in New York City.

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