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The new celebrity standard

We want them ditzy, brainless and willing to say whatever comes to mind, if the recent wave of star-centered reality TV is any indication.

Published December 2, 2003

[Photo: FOX]
Paris Hilton, left, and Nicole Richie find out where the milk in their lattes comes from on Fox’s The Simple Life.

As the legend goes, a TV executive took a meeting with Paris Hilton for the sole purpose of deciding whether it was worth building a reality series around the socialite/hotel-fortune heir.

Five minutes into it, impressed by her, um, "unsophisticated" intellect, he knew there was TV gold in her attitude: a sitcom-style dim blond wrapped in a $30-million fortune.

Viewers watching Fox's The Simple Life tonight will get a heaping helping of what persuaded Fox to save this series originally planned for summer for the fall as Hilton and "celebutante" pal Nicole Richie forgo their cell phones, famous pals and jet-setting lifestyles for 30 days on an Arkansas farm.

Hilton asks her host family if "like, they sell wall stuff" at Wal-Mart, and Richie (daughter of pop star Lionel) refuses to help prepare a freshly killed chicken, saying "I'm not plucking anything but my eyebrows." Walking around in pink-tinged work clothes and $350 sunglasses, it's obvious they're in the middle of a huge, reality-TV-fed joke.

But on whom? And why would a wealthy celebrity subject herself to such world-class ridicule?

Hilton had few answers when speaking to reporters last summer. "I thought it would be fun and interesting," said Hilton, who swore that her Wal-Mart question was a joke, though it's plain in tonight's episode it is not. "I thought it would be fun just to show everyone . . . how I am, and, I don't know, sometimes it was gross, but we got into it."

Okaay. That's one explanation, sort of.

But the sad truth is, it's probably a good career move.

Last year, only past-their-prime celebrities such as Anna Nicole Smith and Ozzy Osbourne were willing to expose their stupidity to a mass audience via reality TV. But these days, even up-and-coming stars are building fame on a mountain of televised mental missteps.

Consider Britney Spears wanna-be Jessica Simpson, who has parlayed her intellectual shortcomings on MTV's Newlyweds - she asked if Chicken of the Sea tuna was chicken or fish and if Buffalo wings were made of buffalo - into a sitcom deal with ABC, record-sales spikes and appearances on shows from Entertainment Tonight to David Letterman's Late Show.

"America loves the dumb blond . . . but there's a difference between (lacking) intelligence and (revealing) some facts you don't know," said Ted Harbert, a former head of entertainment at ABC and president of NBC Studios, whose production company is developing Simpson's new series for next fall.

"I used to run a network, and I've asked the Buffalo wings question."

Like many TV executives involved with this new brand of celebrity, Harbert defends Simpson's onscreen gaffes as part put-on, part goofiness.

"Everybody likes to see a train wreck, and better still if you can see a celebrity in it," he said, laughing. "It's clear people like to see Jessica in a jam. There's an honesty about it that people respond to."

Harbert is meeting with writers to negotiate a more difficult feat: turning Simpson's real-life sitcom persona into a fictional one.

"It was a fascinating process to take Jessica around to all the networks. . . . Every single network was interested and wanted to be involved with her," said Harbert, who noted that her sitcom will "blend fact and fiction" in making a series close to her real life (no word on whether hubby Nick Lachey will appear).

"What I've grabbed onto is this idea of "America's Sweetheart.' . . . America has gotten to know this person and said "I want to be a part of this.' "

But why?

Is it a backlash against feminism, presenting a succession of young, ditzy blonds for mass amusement? Or is it the pleasure of seeing someone good-looking and famous revealed as a complete moron?

Tom O'Neill, a senior editor for the celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly, said such shows may actually comfort the average viewer.

"It points out the great lie that we as a nation celebrate intellect," he said. "(Simpson) is living proof that we only say we do. And these shows tell the stupid American masses, "You didn't need brains after all. . . . It's just bad luck that you (aren't rich and famous).' America isn't laughing at them but laughing with them . . . (because) they want to believe the fantasy that they could be in their shoes someday."

TV producer Cris Abrego, working on the WB's celebrity reality show The Surreal Life, flew to M.C. Hammer's Northern California home last year to beg him to sign on for the series about seven past-their-prime performers isolated in a house for two weeks.

This year, Abrego had 100 eager volunteers for the second, six-episode installment, which debuts Jan. 11 with porn star Ron Jeremy, evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, rapper Rob "Vanilla Ice" Van Winkle and CHiPs star Erik Estrada, among others.

What changed? The series deal Hammer scored, the movie part actor Corey Feldman earned and the TV work former Motley Crue frontman Vince Neil snagged, all courtesy of their Surreal Life turns.

"You tell (celebrities) "Will you have another opportunity to get on prime time TV?' " said Abrego, outlining the pitch. "Sure, Ozzy Osbourne looks like an idiot. But he's making $20-million. It made it much easier to cast this time around."

And what kind of celebrities are best for these shows? Abrego likes subjects with lots of personal baggage, strong points of view and a willingness to let it all hang out on camera.

The key quality: an outsize, even dysfunctional personality that must also be compelling to viewers.

That may be what separates Simpson from celebrity reality TV failures such as Roseanne (and Mike Tyson, who reportedly is pitching a self-centered reality show all over Hollywood, with no takers): the likability factor.

"Last year, Corey Feldman, people hated him, but they couldn't stop watching him," Abrego said. "Jessica Simpson, you couldn't help liking her. The best reality subject has no qualms about being out there (and says) the first thing off their mind. And though it's obvious regular people will do anything to be on TV . . . any celebrity worth their salt also truly wants to be on TV."

That's partially how The Simple Life producers explain their success in luring Hilton and Richie to their production, which filmed in April, before Simpson's show debuted.

"Basically, our line to them was that we wanted to do an updated version of (I Love Lucy's) Lucy and Ethel . . . (friends) who get themselves in crazy situations," said Jonathan Murray, co-founder of Real World creator Bunim-Murray Productions, which is also producing Surreal Life. "We had to convince them this would be well-meaning and comedic. Certainly, Paris didn't need to do this for the money."

Still, as an aspiring model and singer, Hilton had to be aware of the career bounce that could come from prime-time TV (her momentum has since been blunted by the Internet release of a video showing her having sex with an old boyfriend, prompting the 22-year-old to cancel a raft of recent interviews).

In the end, such shows may be a Faustian bargain for the celebrities involved: trading a measure of self-respect and any pretense of smarts for a higher profile and the career opportunities sure to follow.

"This is only going to get bigger," Surreal Life's Abrego said. "It's the culture for us now. I grew up watching the Real World and Road Rules, and it's not that much of a stretch to what they're doing now."

At a glance

The Simple Life debuts at 8:30 tonight and Wednesday on WTVT-Ch. 13. Grade: B-.

[Last modified December 1, 2003, 09:09:06]

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