Larry King has been having a big summer. The last few shows alone have featured the Beatles, Colin Powell, Michael Moore, Isaiah Washington, and, of course, Paris Hilton. Through "The Larry King Show," CNN has come up with an unbeatable strategy for "news"-makers of every stripe: Offer the salacious guests a false veneer of respectability and give the already respectable ones a chance to bloviate unchallenged for an hour. Not that this is anything new: Whether it's JonBenet Ramsey's folks, Natalie Holloway's mom, a recently divorced actress, a celebrity who has some explaining to do, or--on a slow night--the always-on-hand Dr. Phil (ready to tackle the issues of the day with Larry in what can only be described as an orgy of self-importance and inanity), King has always been a few miles shy of "hard-hitting."
Which is why it is all the more perplexing that his Paris Hilton interview really got under my skin. After all, King is just doing what he always does, and I have long since given up the idea that just because something is on CNN it should be considered news. And it isn't just me. Paula Zahn, who covered the Anna Nicole Smith paternity case like it was Brown v. Board of Education, even said of Hilton, "All of this is sick. When is this kid going to grow up?" And an MSNBC clip of reporter Mika Brzezinski actually shredding her producers' Hilton script has become wildly popular on YouTube. For the last week, I have been trying to discern just why this interview seemed so especially galling. Maybe it is the strange fact of Paris Hilton's existence on our collective radar to begin with. I mean, it seems the more projects she signs on to, the weaker becomes our sense-memory of a time when the heiress was famous for nothing at all. Even Hilton herself no longer seems to understand the concept of being famous for nothing--if, in fact, she ever did.
When King asked the celebutante what the biggest misconception about her was, Hilton immediately replied that she hates it when people think that she doesn't work or that she takes her parents money instead of earning her own. (To be honest, I thought her first answer was sure to be that she hates that people think she's stupid.) To set these critics straight, Hilton detailed the many projects she has pursued--the television show, the movies, the modeling, the album, the retail brands--stating that she is a businesswoman. Fair enough. Yet what Hilton fails to see is that these projects came about as a result of her incomprehensible fame; she did not originally become famous for doing them. Unlike, say, the Olsen twins, Hilton was not a famous actor before her empire was born. The truth is, prior to the reality show "The Simple Life," which sends Hilton and spitfire, rich girl pal Nicole Richie out into the real world where normal people do things like work for a living, the vast majority of the country had no idea who she was. The fact of her fame was presented to the nation as a fait accompli, as though fame were just an ontological certainty saturating the DNA of wealthy people's children.
This doesn't seem to be such an impossible concept, yet the more Hilton works in Hollywood, the more she can evade questions of the origins of her fame, pretending her spontaneous celebrity has a deeper foundation. And she spins this evasion well, reminding King that she wrote a New York Times best-seller as though she were Joan Didion and not the author of Confessions of an Heiress (the irony that her dog Tinkerbell also wrote a New York Times best-seller does not seem to diminish this accomplishment). Speaking of which, it seems a tad silly to remind America that one earns one's own money and doesn't rely on mom and dad when one wrote a book that embraces the term "heiress." Just sayin'.
But what was most striking about the Larry King interview is perhaps why so many of us are so outraged over Paris Hilton: She is no one. She is a tabula rasa, awaiting the firm if clumsy hands of professional publicists to create her latest identity. Hilton's utter blankness as she sat alone with King was almost frightening. Trying out her big-girl voice but more often than not slipping into the baby-doll timbre she is known for, Hilton seemed utterly unprepared to talk about herself--a subject most people would find is their expertise. Expressing a newfound desire to give back, Hilton spoke of transitional centers for female prisoners, breast cancer, and multiple sclerosis as though she were picking causes out of a salad bowl or going through the list of celebrity walk-a-thons she'd heard of. Then, after saying she read the Bible in the clink, King asked what her favorite passage is. This wasn't a trick question or even hard-hitting. God knows, it's Larry King after all, and the question was pitched as a softball, a chance to let the heiress come off with a smidge more depth than she normally exhibits. Hilton paused awkwardly and actually studied her notes for what felt like ages before admitting that she did not have a favorite passage. The jig was up, and everyone watching the disastrous interview now knew that Hilton had not--surprise, surprise--actually read the Bible in jail, or apparently ever.
While funny at first, it also seemed a tad eerie. I kept wondering why she would even bother to lie. I don't care if she read the Bible in jail or not. And further, once the lie had been told, why couldn't she, the supposedly media savvy businesswoman, just say something generic, like "Revelations," "Genesis," or "I find the whole book inspirational, Larry"? Once off script, however, Hilton reverted back to the blank slate, unable to speak for herself, unable to say anything that hadn't been covered by her media trainer. What was so haunting about her unfocused eyes and monotonous incantations ("I really have grown"; "Everyone makes mistakes"; "I have a new outlook on life"; "I feel stronger than ever."), wasn't just her, well, total stupidity but her unquestioned dependence on others to speak for her, to sell for her, to tell her where to go, where to be seen, and how to answer. It is as though, without the media glare and publicists, Hilton would cease to think at all and therefore, in a real way, cease to exist at all. Absent the entourage and the catchphrase ("That's hot"), it is unclear whether Hilton would have any idea how to form a sentence or make a decision. Even in "The Simple Life," Richie is clearly the leader, the prankster and arch commentator who freely admits, "I have no idea why I'm famous, either!" No matter her shallowness, or even morality, Richie's candor is actually refreshing after an hour of Hilton.
Hilton's fame--no matter the projects (an album that tanked, an amateur sex tape, acting badly in movies, being one's vapid self on TV)--is still derived from absolutely nothing. Call me when Hilton is cast in a play, sings a cappella, or in any way proves talented at something--and not just marketing herself. The interview was perhaps never more ridiculous than when King said the words: "Paris Hilton. Tomorrow night, Colin Powell." Whatever failings CNN has, the Hilton interview crossed a line for me because, unlike every other Larry King interview, whether profound or witless, this time the subject was no one at all. Hilton is a ghost, a body languishing until others inscribe thoughts and actions onto her. It is one thing to give an hour to somebody--anybody. It is another to give an hour to a vacuous blonde shell without, by most measures, any consciousness whatsoever.
By Sacha Zimmerman