Backstory: The Parisites
Hundreds of teenagers wait hours in line to meet Paris Hilton, American's premier 'celebutante,' at a mall in California. Our correspondent goes to find out why, exactly.
We have been waiting for five hours. We have paid $100 each for the privilege ("Buy two Eau de Parfum $49/Get autograph in person," say ads).
Surrounded by more radio-armed security personnel than a Danish editorial cartoonist, 500 twitterpated teenagers and I are jammed, cheek-by-shopping-bag, onto the ground floor of the Robinsons-May Department store in this Los Angeles suburb.
We are cordoned tightly onto a tile path that winds like the Yellow Brick Road through acres of retail clothing to a throne-like podium - empty at the moment - gleaming like Emerald City in the distance.
Paris Hilton - heiress, model/actress, "celebutante" - is about to descend like Glinda, Good Witch of the North, into Munchkin land ... down the escalator from Sporting Goods/Level 2. She will introduce the youthful exuberance and versatility of her fruity new perfume ("as multidimensional as she is," say handouts). She will meet, greet, and sign autographs.
"I'm literally speechless; I can barely stand it," says Kelly Tomlinson, 18, a self-described "Paris Hilton nut," who looks as if she may ascend a balcony of mannequins and burst into the refrain from "Hakuna Matata."
Fifteen-year-old Martina Etheridge, her face frozen like MacCauley Culkin's eye-bulging mugshot from "Home Alone," could benefit from some deep breathing. "If I flare up, spray me off with that fire extinguisher," she says.
As Paris Hilton's freshly coifed blond locks finally descend into view, twinkling in TV flood lights and falling over tan shoulders and a lycra-tight dress, there is a department store full of high-pitched, Janet-Leigh-in-"Psycho" shrieks.
Such reactions offer some proof that Paris Hilton has reached Western capitalism's highest color category: "red hot." Here to promote her third new woman's fragrance ("Just Me by Paris Hilton"), Hilton is still getting her legs as a successful marketing commodity and teen idol. Exactly how she did this is confusing to some but not to Harry Garcia, a teenager with one of those early attempts at a beard, who also sports a Hilton tattoo from arm pit to belly button ... and is gyrating like Chubby Checker to show it.
"Duh, dude! ... take a look ... she's a diva ... she's off the chain!" (Translation of this available from any nearby teenager.)
I am here to get to the bottom of this. I was lured by the bare-shoulder, hand-on-hip photo of Hilton in the local newspaper. The first 500 people who made a two-item, $49 fragrance purchase would get to "meet Paris Hilton," it said. Who would do that? I wanted to know - out of sociological interest, of course - and jumped in my car.
Forty-five minutes later in a jammed mall parking lot, I met Henry, a 40-something male who was taking the afternoon off from the US Postal Service for the same opportunity.
"I think we both know why I'm coming to see Paris Hilton," he says with a smile that was probably broader than he wanted it to be.
As I found out, there are lots of reasons people wait in line for hours just to glimpse someone who is alternately depicted as a teen idol, sultry socialite, wealthy bad girl, and a platinum hair-do on a cubic zirconia head.
"It's that factor that when she comes in the room, you just want to run over to her and look at her and touch to see if she's real," says Kristina Moreno, a 17-year-old, gushing as cotton-candy pink as her "I (HEART) Paris Hilton" T-shirt. "There's no way you can take your eyes off her."
For one end of the age spectrum, Hilton has an alluring, come-hither look. We'll just leave it at that. Also appealing to many is her pedigree and wealth, the American princess quality of being born into an unattainable caste. Some want to see what that's about, others want to make fun of it, some hope she'll slip on a banana peel and smudge her $1,000 makeup.
Granddaughter of Barron Hilton, owner of the upscale worldwide hotel chain, Paris Hilton had a brief career as a model and acted in a few B-grade movies. She grew up in Beverly Hills and New York, where the family lived primarily in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. She's heir to a reported $50 million. "I love the fact that someone out there has a totally rich life unlike mine," says Eilene, 22, a college graduate who works at a health maintenance organization. "It makes me glad that [somebody] can do whatever they want, whenever they want. I also love that she is rich and beautiful."
Whatever she wants is not always what somebody else wants, which is part of her appeal too: She's a bit of a rebel with a checkbook. For years, she was known for thumbing her nose at the snootier side of Big Money America - by appearing at parties and celebrity events in states of inebriation and (un)dress that made the pearl-and-earrings crowd blush.
Three years ago, Hilton provided an equal-opportunity insult to low-brow America, with the TV series "The Simple Life." Hilton and friend Nicole Richie (daughter of pop singer Lionel Richie) left behind their lives of privilege and lived on a small farm in Arkansas. They did everyday chores - such as cleaning stalls, milking cows, meeting small town blokes, hanging out in feed stores.
The mall gang here loved it.
"She was hilarious in that show because she made fun of rich America and poor America at the same time," says 21-year-old Tommy W. in an oft-heard sentiment here. "There was a very knowing, human quality to her that made you like her just for being her."
Soon after her television debut, Hilton was caught in compromising positions with her boyfriend on a videotape that found its way onto the Internet. Alongside embarrassment, law-suits, and Hilton family hand-wringing came a boost in ratings and more notoriety for Hilton. A Carls Jr. Hamburger ad with Paris washing a car in a skimpy swimsuit has also fanned the notoriety quotient.
"She does what she wants when she wants and doesn't apologize for being overindulgent," says Alyssa Shelasky, Entertainment Writer for Us Weekly. "Kids all over America live vicariously through that."
That "oh yeah!" quality produces an "oh, no!" moral dilemma that you can see on the faces of several fathers in this line.
"No comment," says Randy Wilcox, a phone company employee standing next to 12-year-old daughter Veronica when asked if he wants his daughter to grow up to be like Paris Hilton. Yet he has brought her here for her birthday.
"I don't want my daughter to be like that," he says. "But hey, I wanted Elvis's autograph when I was a kid, and I didn't grow up to be like Elvis."
After another hour of investigating the moral implications of American celebrity (that is, waiting in line), I meet Hilton myself. For a moment, I sympathize with what a life in front of exploding flashbulbs could do to anyone's head. "What's the best thing about being Paris Hilton?" I ask, reaching across the small table for my autographed photo. She pauses.
"That I've been lucky enough to have so much handed to me," she says with a smile so bright you could almost hear harps. It could have been Glinda back in Oz, except there was no bubble, wand, or crown.
Back home hours later, I tell my 15-year-old son where I have been. He grabs the photo from my hands and bolts from the room, with an explanation that could have saved me the trip.
"Duh, dude ... it's Paris Hilton!"