Kathy Hilton's daughter Paris, who knows a little about being on camera, offered her mother some helpful hints about starring in a reality TV show.
"She told me, 'Never look at the camera, always be camera-ready, and never trust the producers,'" said Hilton, the host of a new unscripted program that offers ordinary citizens a chance to sample life in the Hilton-esque lane. "And I'm lucky on that last tip, since my husband, Rick, is one of the producers. We've been involved in everything about this show."
The program, more lighthearted and funny than fiercely competitive, features 14 eager but less-than-elegant contestants who converge on New York City in cutoffs and capris, vying for a chance to live the way the Hiltons do, for one year. The victor's prize package includes a $200,000 trust fund, a new wardrobe, jewelry and an apartment, as well as a wealth of new experiences.
"This is 'My Fair Lady' meets 'The Apprentice,'" Hilton said. "It's about the whole person and wish-fulfillment. And having a little culture." That's pop culture, too -- Hilton's daughters Paris and Nicky drop by to take the contestants out for a night of dancing.
The show exposes the wannabes to such niceties as visiting a museum, choosing a fine wine and learning to eat lobster. ("Tastes like bubble gum," one contestant commented.)
Each week, the candidates, divided into two teams and housed in a Manhattan hotel suite, compete to complete a task of Hilton's choosing, whether it's organizing a charity auction or picking an appropriate hostess gift. The losing team meets with Hilton to discuss what went wrong. She then pens a list of those still in the game. One candidate goes home in a limo, while the winning team gathers for a victory dinner, joined by the returnees. Personality conflicts crop up, spicing the atmosphere with tension.
"It's a fish-out-of-water story," said Danny Salles, one of the show's executive producers. "You take people who are great in their own world, with their own set of skills, and put them somewhere else. They are all gunning for the prize, and that's what makes for great fireworks."
An earlier incarnation of the show, Salles said, had "a debutante's kind of feel. We were not interested in social queens, but in construction workers, football players. We wanted a good mix."
That mix includes a waiter, a ranch hand, a receptionist, a Las Vegas Irish dancer, a motor vehicles clerk, a plumber, a perfume salesman, and a former beauty queen who bursts into song at random moments.
"You just can't stop Ann [Poonkasem] from singing," Salles said. "And every time she sings something, we have to pay the rights for it. She has no idea how much she cost us."
Hilton said each of the candidates gained something from the show -- from grooming to business sense to self-confidence.
"I wanted to get through to them that you don't have to grow up on Park Avenue, your last name doesn't have to be Hilton, to walk into a room and be incredible," Hilton said. "I tried to empower them."
Aside from empowerment, the contestants absorbed an all-new vocabulary during last summer's five-week taping. One describes "getting pounded with all that etiquetticy . . . learning to be etiquette," and another believes "the Hamptons" to be friends of the Hiltons, not the posh Long Island retreat of the famously wealthy. A Hamptons summertime staple, the polo match, is referred to as a "fancy rodeo," where the contestants hoot and holler like fans at a football game.
And then there's the escargot. "Even I have a hard time manipulating escargot," Hilton said of the dinnertime delicacy. She advised the candidates that good dinner guests must sample everything on their plates out of politeness, but J.W. Whitehead, a construction worker from Mississippi, simply could not bring himself to comply. Ranch hand and fellow competitor Jabe Robinson allowed that while his native Texas does have snails, "we just don't eat them."
Hilton said it was tough to keep a straight face. "He didn't realize the line about the snails was so funny," she said. "It is a fun and light show. We don't have to say swear words. It's an hour just to laugh and enjoy.
"And it is hysterically funny to see someone eating oysters for the first time."
I Want To Be a Hilton
Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC
Reservations at the Hiltons'
Kathy Hilton has a few tips for those who are invited to her table -- or for those dining with other hostesses:
* "Don't show up 10 minutes early. It drives me crazy. Let the hostess, or host, light a candle, get the fireplace going, make it warm and inviting."
* "To be a polite guest, help your hostess. She's nervous and busy. If I'm tossing a salad and wanting the people to meet and mingle, I'm happy when I see my guests help to carry the ball. I always appreciate that."
* "Don't just stand around seeming put-upon. Bring something of yourself to the party and put out a little effort."
* "Show those nice table manners. Don't eat with your hands. I always say, leave a little for the mouse. No being in the clean-plate club."
-- Kathy Blumenstock