Paris Hilton: Cult of Celebrity

William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 1:00 PM

Twenty-six-year-old hotel heiress Paris Hilton was released from an L.A. jail after serving three weeks for violating probation in a drunken-driving case. She emerged from the Century Regional Detention Facility in suburban Lynwood, Calif., this morning at about 12:15 local time. Her incarceration set off a media frenzy and public debate about celebrity justice.

Washington Post staff writer William Booth, who has been covering the story, was online Tuesday, June 26, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the media frenzy over involved in the case, why it matters, who cares and what it all means.

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A transcript follows.


William Booth: Hello all. So I'm here. You're here. What are we to make of the Hilton Affair. She's out of the clink. She's talking about using her celebrity for the forces of good. Questions and thoughts about media and pop culture? And do we have no one to blame but ourselves?


Cambridge, Mass.: Comment:

Finally this idiotic and stupid "news story" can come to an end. I cannot believe the amount of news coverage this trivial event has received -- when compared to other important news worthy events -- such as Darfur, etc.

Shame on everyone of the news organizations, outlets and newspapers who invested such obscene amount of air-time on this.

William Booth: I can relate.Though I might suggest that most news organizations, including the Washington Post, can walk and chew gum at the same time. Meaning: look at today's newspaper. Plenty of Cheney, politics, Iraq, wildfires, movie reviews, stock market analysis and a little scoop of Paris.


Silver Spring, Md.: What, if any, disciplinary action would the sheriff deputy who released Paris to house arrest after just three days face following the investigation?

William Booth: Actually, it wasn't a sheriff deputy. LA Sheriff Lee Baca made the call. He defends it.


Washington, D.C.: Is the infatuation with Paris Hilton, the fascination of watching a life fall apart? It's like Anna Nicole Smith. She loves the attention, the public loves to watch her fall apart.

William Booth: I think its a life falling a little bit apart, which is easier to watch, than true tragedy. This is more farce, yeah?


Silver Spring, Md.:"Hilton was met by her mom and dad, the older heiresses Rick and Kathy Hilton...."

Umm, Rick is not an heiress.

William Booth: Heir.


Washington, D.C.: In and of herself, Paris Hilton doesn't matter. She is not an artist, a thinker or a policymaker. She is simply someone with notoriety. I use the term notoriety specifically because she isn't famous, but rather notorious. I point this out as it is the reason she DOES matter. She is probably the best known member of her generation ... a generation that believes celebrity is the goal, not the hard work and accomplishment that might lead to celebrity. Does THIS generation have what it takes to lead us in the future?

William Booth: Now we're getting somewhere.


St. Louis, Mo.: Bob Schieffer has it right. He said on "Face the Nation" that he did not request an interview, since he did not have any questions of importance to ask Paris. Non-story right?

William Booth: Well, Wednesday night on CNN might be unkindly described as the battle of wits, between Larry King and Paris Hilton.


Mclean, Va.: Do you think she learned anything from this or is she just going to go out boozing again tonight?

William Booth: Ms. Hilton told Barbara Walters that this has been a life altering experience for her and that she now plans to dedicate part of her life to a noble cause. I wouldn't invest.


Arlington, Va.: Not to sound cynical, but in five years, nobody's going to care about Paris or that she ever existed in the mass media. Time takes its toll on ALL pop culture icons, and the spotlight can only last so long. Just look at Britney Spears! In 2000 she was a pop culture hit. In 2007, she's little more than tabloid material.

William Booth: Five years is a lonnnng time in pop culture, but your point is well taken. Paris more than most is pretty forgetable after about 20 or 30 minutes. Fifty years from now? Some one might write a book entitled "When Humans Lost Their Minds."


Los Angeles, Calif.: There is a rumored reputation that the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department protects celebrities, knowing their importance to the Los Angeles culture and economy. Is there truth to this or this myth?

William Booth: I think they do protect celebrities and that Hollywood actors are given special treatment. In jail, they are kept in special units, for their own protection and to keep the inmate population from going nuts.


Harrisburg, Pa.: It was reported that in 80 percent of similar cases defendants received a lesser sentence than Paris Hilton ultimately received. Isn't this a case where her celebrity might have worked against her?

William Booth: Yes. If I were to go down on the same charges, I'd be out in 24 hours.


Fairfax, Va.: What causes do you think Hilton will get involved in? And is she really under watch until 2009? I heard some report about that this morning. Is she still on probation or something?

William Booth: Three years probation, if I remember correctly.


Los Angeles, Calif.: It seems to me the media frenzy surrounding Paris Hilton is a catch- 22. Everyone complains that she's on the news too much, yet a large percentage of those people, including me at times I must admit, watch the very stories that we chastise the news stations for devoting too much attention to. What is it about her that draws us in? She has done absolutely nothing noteworthy and as a college educated student I find myself feeling pathetic that I was even slightly interested in her going to jail. Do we feel better about ourselves for watching her suffer? Or is a part of us jealous of the fact that until now, she did seem like she could get away with anything? Do we criticize her lifestyle because we secretly wish we ourselves were able to have it? I find it frightening that young people today know more about Paris Hilton than they do about the next presidential candidates, yet I can find myself at times feeding the attention she gets. I guess my question is: how can the media make young people today interested in things other than entertainment? Or does that responsibility rest on our shoulders alone?

William Booth: You are a thought leader, my friend.


Virginia: Was she charged with a criminal or civil complaint? Hard to figure it.

William Booth: Misdemeanor crim.


To Washington, D.C.: No, our generation can't and won't lead because we don't like you. Okay in all seriousness. What? If you are looking for leaders in a celebrity rag, may I suggest you rethink your search parameters. Try googling "volunteer organizations" or "youth movement." Those kids are the ones actually doing the leading. Paris is just kinda fun to follow and gossip about. WE the younger generation get that.

William Booth: I sincerely hope everyone -- even my fellow geriatrics -- get this...


Washington, D.C.: When Paris says she's not a kid and it's not cute anymore to act how she acts, is she referring to the fact that the voice she uses is not her real voice? On the deposition for the Francis trial, her voice is very low and I even noticed her moving in and out of her real voice on the show.

William Booth: Wait. It's all ... an act?


Washington, D.C.: Does anyone question the motives of the parents? On Kornheiser this morning, I heard the parents were trying to broker a post-jail release interview for Paris on a national news show for money. Seems they would have her take inventory of her life, and plan a positive life direction after her brief stay in jail, and not rush her over the the Larry King show the next day. Am I old and stupid for thinking this?

William Booth: Nope. Her parents were involved in brokering post-release interviews.


Boodleville, Va.: Just want to thank you for your great coverage of this and other "frivolous" news in the Post. There's plenty of room for war, murder and torture alongside the red carpet, silly heiresses and Tomkat.

You've become one of my favorite Post writers. I look for you in the paper. Keep up the good work!

William Booth: My point exactly. Its a big world. I think Angelina Jolie is worth writing about, so as Danny Pearl is.


Boston, Mass.:"A generation that believes celebrity is the goal, not the hard work and accomplishment that might lead to celebrity ..."

Okay, enough. As a member of Paris Hilton's generation, I personally take great offense to that statement. Sure she's famous. More famous then the people in my generation who will be running the world some day. Frankly, we're too busy going to law/grad school, scrapping at low-paying jobs typical of mid-20s professionals. We're not old enough to be on the Supreme Court or to run a company. So Paris is famous because she has tons of money, runs around half-naked and has nothing to work for. But please, don't insult the rest of us by assuming we want to be anything like her. I'll take my life and whatever future accomplishments I have to work for any day of the week.

William Booth: Keep going...


Houston, Tex.: What's commonly missed in the "Paris received a harsher sentence than most ..." arguments is that she was sentenced for violating her probation. The sentence in such cases is totally dependent on the judge involved, and can be whatever he or she feels appropriate, up to and including revocation of probation and sentencing the defendent to the maximum extent of the law for the original crime that she committed. Judges don't like it when you violate the terms of your agreement with the court, and tend to be fairly harsh in sentencing those in such cases.

William Booth: Judges don't like it, as we saw here.


Arlington, Va.: Re Larry King: PARIS HILTON BUMPED MICHAEL MOORE. Words fail me. But my remote does not. I won't be watching. I'd rather watch the Nationals lose to Atlanta than that train wreck of an interview.

William Booth: I betcha Michael Moore might get another bite of the apple soon.


Washington, D.C.: Larry King ought to be ashamed of himself, in addition to all in the so-called credible media for feeding into this circus in the first place ...

I know the King interview is solely for entertainment (I use the term loosely) purposes, but does Ms. Hilton really have any pearls of wisdom for all humanity?

William Booth: Umm, have you watched Larry King lately?


Huh?:"Her parents were involved in brokering post-release interviews."

What, they suddenly need the money?

William Booth: That is an EXCELLENT question.


Suitland, Md.: Co-worker asks: What is she famous for? What 'should' she be famous for?

William Booth: For being famous. It's like one of those Zen koans.


Re: your first "Comment": Funny how that chatter bashed the media for all the Hilton coverage but then s/he was the first one here today writing ... hmmm, must have some interest or just a real boring desk job.

My thoughts: Whatever Paris does, it'll be tabloid material for a few years and maybe she'll actually give a few bucks to some orphanage but in the end, she'll still be a spoiled rich girl from Hollywood and we will all be caught up in the whirlwind of it. I mean, don't we all just wish we have her money for even a day?

William Booth: I wish I had her money for an hour.


Alexandria, Va.: Who needs Paris Hilton, we have Roy Pearson, the pants guy to talk about.

William Booth: Perhaps they'll join in some charitable work together?


Washington, D.C.: Why do reputable news organizations continue to give this lead coverage? Obviously, ratings is the dominant factor. What are the chances that collectively media could band together and agree not to give (dominant) coverage to such superficial things as Paris Hilton when there are so many more pressing things.

William Booth: Name three and I'll post em.


Washington, D.C.: A prominent family with a worldwide name that is a brand known for quality and class, is there anyone in the clan/extended family that is angry at the Paris Hilton phenomenon? I am not a frequent traveler, but I dislike her enough that on my casual trips I have skipped Hilton properties.

William Booth: Strange... we never hear about those Motel 6 kids..


Bethesda, Md.: I'm no fan of Paris, but I thought it was terrible to put her under house arrest then put her BACK in Jail! Had you ever heard or seen this happen before?

William Booth: Yes, I have. IF you violate your parameters of house arrest. This one was weird.


Fairfax, Va.: Ok, I really must agree with with Boston. Most 20-somethings are so intrigued with Paris not because we want to be like her, but because watching her is like taking a break from reality. More and more of the people of Paris's generation are not just going to COLLEGE but are continuing into post-graduate education so watching someone act as STUPID as Ms. Hilton is like a vacation for our minds.

Trust me, we want to be NOTHING like her ... but watching her make a fool of herself while we work our b---'s off? It's kinda fun. Most especially because in a few years, we'll be sucessful and she'll be a "has-been."

William Booth: You go.


Alexandria, Va.: Different option, perhaps: That Paris is an interesting persona is clear -- otherwise, there wouldn't be a discussion forum now. Could this interest simply be commentary on the 24-hour news machine? It's not that 'we' don't care about Darfur or global warming or the emerging political slate for next year's elections -- maybe we just need a break, where increasing gravitas begets increasing frivolity

William Booth: That 24-hour news cycle is a goat that want to be fed. But I think re: the cablers. Covering Paris draws eyeballs and is much cheaper than getting on a plane with a news crew and covering Darfur.


Your travel habits: OMG. The Motel 6 comment was priceless!

To the casual traveler -- you have probably stayed at a Hampton Inn. They are owned by Hilton.

William Booth: Love the Hamptons..


Germantown, Md.: Remember Bogart's line to Bergman in "Casablanca"? "We'll always have Paris." Takes on a new meaning these days.

William Booth: I'll pass that along to our headline writers.


Oak Hill, Va.: Is this a fill-in for Gene Weingarten's chat?

Did Ms. Hilton do any ironic work in prison like vacuuming other inmates' cells or changing their laundry?

William Booth: No, though she did play some ping pong.


Paris looks great: Okay -- I have never understood the interest in her since she is not worth as much as many lottery winners. However, she looks great in the shots emerging from jail. I hope she cuts down on the makeup. She is a pretty girl and actually looks real in those photos.

William Booth: She's tan, ready and rested.


Reston, Va.: Please, Paris is no more an indictment of her generation than Zsa Zsa Gabor was of hers. She's famous for being famous. There are always a few of those. Personally, I think it's because we don't have royalty to obsess over.

William Booth: We have American Idol instead.


Reston, Va.: Was the first thing she did really eat Taco Bell food? Isn't that worse than prison food? And what happened to blue blood old money taste?

William Booth: WAIT!!! News flash!!! Did we miss that?


Clearwater, Fla.: Maybe Paris will step up and do something good for society now that she's experienced the darker side of life ...

William Booth: She says she will. That would really be something. Suggestions? Some activists in LA want her to advocate for jail reform and more humane treatment for drug/alcohol addicted inmates.


Ottawa, Ontario: Does anyone ever get the impression that we're all being suckered?

Someone is making a lot of money selling their lifestyle vicariously, with tremendous success, I might add.

Her image is managed, her appearances calculated and her public satements are often vetted and tweaked for maximum effect by professional spinmeisters.

At the end of the day, isn't this a commercial enterprise where we are being sold a product like any other?

William Booth: Oh, Canada.


Atlanta, Ga.: The whole Hilton arrest thing just goes to show a really scary trend in the past few years. People don't care about things that are really important and meaningful in the world. Ask anybody what they think about the three AFRC generals in Sierra Leone who finally were charged with war crimes after five years of trial, and you'll get plenty of blank stares. but ask people if they know what happened with Britney, or Paris, or any other celebrity, and they can tell you about it as if they're some sort of encyclopedia.

Is this a generational thing? Or are we really headed downhill from here, and should we expect this to get worse?

William Booth: More....


New York, N.Y.: What exactly did the negotiations over interviews with Paris entail? We assume it's money, but why on Earth would they need that?

Or could it be something else? Like an interview in exchange for greater coverage or more favorable coverage or her own TV show?

William Booth: I'd guess it was PR management more than anytime. Keep the brand viable.


Williamsburg, Va.: I'm somewhat offended at comments that Paris Hilton is the best-known member, and defining spirit, of her generation. As a (fellow) member of that generation, watching this "non-story" story, I would like to point out that "we" can't be categorized by this one person. She's obviously in a unique situation ... which is why we're fascinated.

But, please, this generation isn't all Paris.

William Booth: Unique situation for sure.


Bethesda, Md.: The fact that The Washington Post devoted a forum for this is ridiculous. Don't you think?

William Booth: I do believe something on universal health is coming up later on..


Bethesda, Md.: She's on 3 years probation. Prohibited from doing WHAT?

William Booth: Drinking and driving.


Anonymous: Well always have Paris has been used several times already. Not as often as the many, many, many editorial cartoonists who thought a drawing of PH in jail with "The Simple Life" as a caption was so original and clever. Yawn.

William Booth: Touche.


Gainesville, Va.: More power to Paris! She makes a mint and deserves it. Let the nitwits and NBC or CNN pay her for an interview. I'd do the same if they paid me -- who wouldn't? (Talent or value or whatever it is people think she should have notwithstanding.) People want to buy what she's making (which is nothing, really, just her "charisma"). When people aren't interested, she won't be famous any more. Simple enough.

William Booth: Capitalism at work.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Another point in response to the "Paris received a harsher sentence than most" -- she was also treated a lot better than most of us would have been in a similar situation. If I'd done what she had done and been sentenced to the same amount of time, I certainly would not have been given the relative privacy of a two-person room, or had my visitors whisked to the front of the line, or (supposedly) been able to skip the cavity search. Of course, at 26, no way would I have behaved as she did; at 16 no way would I have behaved as she had. Nor would my parents have been enabling me. But still: she got a lot of privileges that the average person would not have in that situation, so it's very hard to see how the supposedly longer sentence is unfair.

Now, are we really supposed to believe she can manage probation for three years? She couldn't even handle a few months.

Also, I can see her parents wanting the money by selling her story. Isn't her father one of a gazillion or so kids, all with their own kids? So while they're going to inherit enough that most of us would be very happy, except for the parents-being-dead part, couldn't it be more along the lines of a Spelling-type will, in which the 20-something generation (by age) really doesn't get all that much?

William Booth: We do forget sometimes that she is 26 years old. Regarding the possible sale of image/interviews/future TV shows, most of the rich people I know seem to keep getting richer, unless I'm missing something.


Larry King: Okay -- we dont have cable (yeah, yeah -- big dorks) but why Larry King? I would think that a female would have been more "sympathetic." Surely I am wrong since I think she is shrewd. Why Larry King?

William Booth: If there is a more sympathetic interviewer on the planet, name him or her.


Arlington, Va.: Frankly, I am disgusted by the behavior of the press covering this non-story. She has accomplished nothing in life, other than being a topic of conversation. Unlike her cousins, who are deeply involved in charitable work, Paris is only out for herself. Her parents did her no favors by allowing her to live her life in this totally shallow way.

William Booth: Mom's fault?


Washington, D.C.: I heard Paris's Benz was repossessed while she was in jail. How will she ever get to work now? Maybe that is why the Hilton's were trying to get paid for a Paris post-jail interview in order to get the Benz from the repo-man. I read where the loan amount she defaulted on for the Benz was $400,000. Can a Benz cost that much? Will Paris have to catch the bus?

William Booth: I have nothing on that.


Alexandria, Va.: Nothing new here. The media went ape over Elvis 50 years ago. What IS new is the technology to track celebs. Instant everything and lots of it ... Paris is a product of the technology to cover her.

William Booth: True. It is very instanteous now, very global, very saturated.


Washington, D.C: The Los Angeles Times, a serious news outlet, had a story on how Hilton's Hollywood Hills neighbors are dreading her return (they endured the media crush on June 8 when Hilton made her return trip to jail and aren't fond of her wild parties). Online gossip powerhouse broke the news that Hilton would make a "run for the border" --- a sly way to tout their "scoop" that Hilton's first post-incarceration meal may take place at Taco Bell.

William Booth: Yes, some of her HW Hills neighbors are/were peeved. I don't know. They live 100 yards from the heart of the Sunset Strip. Some of this goes with the lifestyle.


House Arrest: The judge specifically said she could NOT be under house arrest, that she had to serve her sentence in jail. The sheriff decided that he had the power to modify the terms of the sentence. I don't think any other sheriff in the country would be so bold.

William Booth: Beg to differ.


Baltimore, Md.: Paris is hardly the first: Ever since the American cult of celebrity ginned up in the 1920s, there have been a number of women like her who gained fame simply because they were rich and attractive. The model for them all was Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the many times married to rich guys gal of the 1930s who parlayed her notoriety briefly into a film career. Hilton just had the fortune (or misfortune) to come along in the era of the Internet and 24 hour cable.

William Booth: I'm googling Peggy Hopkins Joyce as we type.


Washington, D.C.: I agree with Atlanta - Paris' cultural contribution is a detrimental one. There are many young girls, sexualized way before they need to be, who see her lifestyle as a goal and Paris as a role model. She normalizes an excessive lifestyle of partying and spending money on riduculous things. Like it or not, she is an influence. Hopefully parents, teachers and the responsible media can counteract the effects of her behavior on impressionable kids.

William Booth: And she's not the worst, is she?


Washington, D.C.: Is it true that it only takes 12 seconds for celebrity news to get completely around the world when something breaks? I saw mention of that in a New York Times article yesterday on

William Booth:12 seconds sound too long.


Charlottesville, Va.: I'm more up on the Paris Hilton story than I am on the Darfur crisis or Cheney's end-run around the Constitution. Sad, but true. I suspect we are drawn to her story because, unlike the true calamaties going on in our world, we think we could fix Paris, given a chance. I don't know how to help Darfur, but I know Paris needs to acquire some self-awareness and values. Perhaps that's why her story has so much traction?

William Booth: Very interesting point.


Vienna, Va.: Does anyone besides me find it ironic that several people in this forum are complaining about the media coverage of the "Paris Non-story Story" ... yet they are posting in this forum? If they truly didn't care, wouldn't they not be paying any attention to the story? And therefore NOT post anything?

William Booth: So we come full circle to riddle out this mystery on our own. Thanks for joining in the wapo yapper.


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