By Tom Shales
Thursday, June 28, 2007
Guilty pleasure? No, not really. It was more just guilty guilt -- though Paris Hilton, the subject of the interview seen round the world on CNN last night, kept insisting that she had passed a crossroads in life and is a better person because of it.
Hilton's appearance on "Larry King Live" was, as CNN had been trumpeting all day, her first since being released from jail early Tuesday after serving 3 1/2 weeks for driving with a suspended license and while intoxicated. Hilton told King she had been under the impression that the license was legitimate and said she'd had only one drink the night of the original arrest.
"Sadly, this is part of American culture," lamented King's colleague Anderson Cooper on his own show, "Anderson Cooper 360," following King's. Cooper seemed embarrassed to be covering the interview even though he'd been doing promos during the day as well. On the low-rated "Paula Zahn Now," which preceded King, CNN ran a "countdown clock" headlined "Paris Tells All," in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.
She didn't exactly tell all, but then she wasn't exactly asked all, either; King seemed to be playing more a grandfatherly than journalistic role as he gently questioned the infamous heiress. Sometimes the pauses in interviews say more than the responses, and that was the case late in the hour when King asked Hilton -- who said she read the Bible every day while in the slammer -- to quote her favorite passage. Hilton said "hmmm" and then sank into what seemed a vast and vacant pause.
Finally she averred, "I don't have a favorite."
"God makes everything happen for a reason," Hilton earlier philosophized. Although she said a lifelong battle with claustrophobia made the first hours of incarceration unbearable for her -- after becoming hysterical, she'd been briefly allowed, with typical California confusion, to serve time at home, then hustled back to jail -- she said she vowed to make the best of a bad situation and "went by the motto, 'Don't serve the time, let the time serve you.' "
She passed hours in her small and sparsely furnished cell meditating, closing her eyes and pretending she was somewhere else, and writing in a journal, portions of which she read to King. One passage was about making it through a crossroads in life: "It is only then that we find out who we truly are and what we're made of."
Why, indeed, should America care who she truly is? Hilton's chief claims to fame had been her status as an heiress, her reputation as a party girl and her notorious performance in a porno film still being sold. All that is behind her, she told King, saying she wanted to use her fame to help various causes, that she sympathized with the other women she met in jail, that she now wants to be "a good role model" for young women, and that jail was actually good for her in that "I've definitely matured and grown a lot from the experience."
Even if one were willing to accept that notion from Hilton, it was hard to keep a straight face when she later told King, "I consider myself normal."
It was also hard at times to determine which had less depth: King's questions or Hilton's answers. When he asked her what she would change about herself, he probably expected Hilton to come up with a deeply self-analytical rumination. But what she said she didn't like was that when she's nervous or shy, "my voice gets really high," and she vowed to correct this disturbing character flaw.
She'd like to marry within a year or two and raise a family, Hilton said, to which King responded, "Don't you think you'd be a load for someone now?" Whatever one might have expected, King did not take the opportunity to propose. Hilton said of her dream man, "He's out there somewhere." Were millions of men raising their hands and shouting, "Here! Here!"?
It would be easy to dismiss the entire event as much ado about less than nothing, but America has always loved bad girls, stories of people conquering adversity, and tales of reform and repentance. This saga has all those elements and a beautiful blonde besides, making it essentially irresistible. Of course for all the hoopla about CNN landing the first post-jail interview, other networks reportedly had turned it down. NBC was said to have made a $1 million offer to Hilton's father but negotiations apparently fell through.
Meanwhile TV blogs were chortling over remarks made in the past by CNN news director Jon Klein, who once boasted that CNN is "the most essential source of information" in the country and said, "The American people want serious news, and they're not getting enough of it from cable." They certainly didn't get a lot of it from CNN last night.
To look at the spectacle from yet another perspective, watching Hilton for an hour was in its way more edifying and encouraging than enduring more hateful rants from publicity hound Ann Coulter on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" the night before. Matthews was still discussing the Coulter appearance on his show last night. Next to Coulter, Paris Hilton is pure refreshment.
Hilton said that in addition to suffering from claustrophobia all her life, she has been besieged by attention-deficit disorder since the age of 12. Somehow this made jail all the worse for her, she said. There were times during the interview when any viewer's attention might have been at a deficit or disordered, but it's still bound to be the most talked-about television show of any that aired last night.
And it will hardly be, as certainly no one needs to be assured, the last time we see Paris.