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'Simple' sighting at the springs

Simple Life's Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie show up at Weeki Wachee, amid rumors the county will be part of the second season.

KELLY VIRELLA
Published March 19, 2004

WEEKI WACHEE - The metallic pink pickup truck that Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are reported to have set off in from Miami last week turned up in the parking lot of Weeki Wachee Springs Thursday afternoon.

A crowd of families gathered at the gate around 2 p.m. and were shepherded in by a man who identified himself only as an employee of Bunim/Murray Productions, the Los Angeles company that is producing Simple Life 2, the Fox reality show in which Hilton and Richie star.

At 6:30, Hilton and Richie came out of the park, dashed to the truck, grabbed leis and pairs of sunglasses from a large white plastic bag in the cab and decorated some of the mermaid statues at the entrance of the park.

Rumors flew Wednesday and Thursday that the duo and the Simple Life 2 crew were in town getting footage for next season's show, despite denials from Weeki Wachee Springs officials. The word on the street is that Hilton and Richie might visit a semimonthly rodeo that prominent Hernando County farmer Jimmy Batten holds at his ranch on the first and third Saturdays of the month.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Batten said he didn't know whether he'd been chosen for the show.

"I might have been," he said. "But I haven't heard anything."

Bunim/Murray held auditions in Brooksville on Valentine's Day as part of a nationwide casting call designed to find families to host the women for a few days at a time during their 30-day road trip.

Evidently, Bunim/Murray picked Brooksville after Weeki Wachee Springs grabbed national headlines over threats that it would close, Karen Phillips, Brooksville's city clerk, said the day before the auditions.

The selection of Brooksville as an audition site upset some, who felt the show would ridicule the semirural and conservative lifestyle of many Hernando County residents.

Others just wanted to rub elbows with the rich and famous. Karen Hand, 42, and one of her four children, a precocious 8-year-old named Victoria, auditioned, but were not selected, Hand said.

"I wish I was," she said. "I'd like to meet them or something, get their autograph, shake their hands."

Hilton and Richie showed up at the park at about 1 p.m., said Chris Stephens, 30, of Spring Hill, a customer representative for Pepsi. He was unloading the park's usual supply of sodas from his delivery truck when he saw them drive up in the pink double-cab GMC.

"I am not impressed," Stephens said of the women's reputed beauty, while pushing an empty dolly back to his truck. "I think they're just glorified."

Eric Stevenson, 38, of Tampa and Rick Leonard, 38, of Spring Hill, also work for Pepsi and said they saw the stars.

"They were sitting right there smoking," Leonard said, pointing to the pink truck, which was parked on a curb about 100 feet away from their delivery truck. "We were bringing in a cooler, but the film crew told us to wait because they were going to film them going in." The delivery men saw Hilton and Richie following a man with a camera into the park, they said. The women stood behind a mermaid mask inside the gift shop and got their photo taken, they said. Afterward, they disappeared into the mermaid theatre, the Pepsi employees said.

Thursday afternoon, the spring where the mermaids perform was the focus of the group of 30 to 40 adults and children who had been waiting at the front gate to go into the park. After being ushered in, they crowded under an awning overlooking the spring, clutching sheets of white paper containing a wall of writing.

None of the families approached agreed to comment or explain why they were there. Weeki Wachee Springs public relations consultant Vince Vanni said that if the women are here, people who have seen them have probably been forced to sign confidentiality agreements that carry heavy penalties for violations. Had he signed one? "Not yet," he said.

- Times staff photographer Maurice Rivenbark contributed to this story.

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