Love her or loathe her, Paris Hilton is America’s most infamous heiress. She’s overexposed, overpaid and now she’s over here, filming her latest hit TV show.
Hundreds of young women are stampeding, branded handbags at the ready, to the front of a queue snaking into the Four Seasons. It’s a scene akin to the January sales, only it’s June, and these women are in search of fame rather then fashion. Each one, eagerly being corralled, cattle-like, into a pink-ribboned lobby, is auditioning to appear on Dubai’s highest-profile television show yet; ‘Paris Hilton’s My New BFF’.
Heir to the Hilton Hotel fortune, Paris is the ditzy doyenne that has made her name through securing an almost permanent spot in the tabloids. From flings to falling outs, to federal charges; it’s all fodder for the flashbulbs. And now the Hilton show has found its way to the Middle East.
The 28-year-old is here in search of a friend, or, in Paris parlance, a BFF (Best Friend Forever). It’s not that the socialite is short on company, rather that the production firm behind her reality TV series has scented a new market in the Arab world and is eager to exploit it.
The formula is simple. A handful of female Dubaiites will slog it out through a series of tests for a chance to be catapulted into Ms Hilton’s celebrity world. Foxing those who said the recipe wouldn’t translate to the Middle East, the spin-off show has already garnered 500-plus applicants and the series finale is to be filmed in Los Angeles. US and British editions of the show have sold strongly, said producer Michael Hirschorn, so Dubai is the next step on the road to a bestselling global franchise.
It’s not bad for a girl who is ostensibly famous for being famous, and whose chief achievements seem to be that she is slim, stupid, and swimming in cash. A symbol of all that is wrong with materialistic America, she’s the celeb the public loves to hate. But is she in on the joke?
Paris pundits divide into two camps; those who attribute her media success to the blonde leading the blonde, and those who argue the airhead heiress is a globetrotting workaholic and the most underrated branding guru out there.
While they argue the toss, however, Hilton herself is busy amassing a fortune. In 2006, Forbes magazine estimated her yearly earnings at $7m. Her business profits now outweigh her inheritance, which, after a decision by her grandfather, Barron Hilton, to donate 97 percent of his $2.3bn hotel fortune to charity, has shrunk to around $5m after tax.
To date, the celebutante has lent her name to a slew of merchandise deals including perfumes, sunglasses, handbags, clothing lines, cosmetics and craft kits; all handled by Paris Hilton Enterprises. In terms of a diversified brand portfolio, it ranks alongside the best and Hilton is keen for the credit.
“There’s a lot of heiresses out there,” she has said, “and I don’t see any of them doing what I’ve done. It’s Paris Hilton PLC! I have so many projects — bags, fragrances, make-up. I go round the world every three days, designing and personally approving it all. I’ve got movies to make, a tour, TV shows. Every day of my life is scheduled.”
For better or worse, Hilton is on course for worldwide fame, albeit in a less-than-dignified fashion. She has starred in seven movies, four of which went straight to video, released one critically mauled album on her own label, Heiress Records, and penned one autobiography ‘Confessions of an Heiress’, which spent five weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list.
She already has one top-rated TV show to her name — MTV’s ‘The Simple Life’, which trailed Hilton and fellow rich kid Nicole Ritchie across the States as they slummed it in a string of blue-collar jobs. The show, which ran to five series, is one long play on the gulf between the daily grind and Hilton’s highborn high-life.
Taking a leaf from fellow mogul Donald Trump’s book, she has even trademarked her catchphrase; “That’s hot!” — and then sued Hallmark Cards for using it on a greetings card without permission.
She’s nipping at Trump’s heels in other areas too: Hilton was reportedly offered $1m by The Learning Annex to teach a 60-minute class on ‘How to Build Your Brand’. After Trump, that would make her the firm’s second-highest paid speaker, ahead of ex-Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, Al Gore and Richard Branson.The majority of Hilton’s cash is garnered from endorsements, with personal appearances coming in a close second. In 2008, she was paid $1m to fly to Vienna, wave at a crowd and tell them she loves Austria.
US author Naomi Wolf has been quoted as saying, Hilton is “an empty signifier you can project anything on to”. Arguably, it’s her greatest strength. With no discernable skills or talent, she can manipulate her fame — and brand — to sell almost anything.
Parlux Fragrances, the firm behind her perfume range, describe her as “a marketers’ dream”. By signing her up, they estimated the company’s value has tripled. Yet no one knows Paris’ worth better than herself.
“I like to play the dumb blonde,” Hilton has said. “The media and public think they know me, but they really don’t. But I love having the last laugh.”
Hilton may have met her match in Dubai, an emirate that understands better than most how prizing style over substance can breed success. Still, her detour offers the American public a well-deserved break from her vapid, valley girl persona. All press is good press, it’s said, but amid one of the worst recessions in history, Hilton’s well-publicised privilege is starting to grate.
A recent poll revealed 65 percent of the US population believe Hilton is overexposed. To put that in perspective, of the nearly 4,500 celebrities ranked, most others averaged between three and seven percent.
The signs may show that Hilton has worn out her welcome but, as ever, Paris will have the last word. The reason for her enduring fame, she believes, is that she is “the closest thing to American royalty”.
“There’s nobody in the world like me. I think every decade has an iconic blonde — like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana — and right now, I’m that icon.”
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