Fools for Scandal

On Nov. 17, three days after he’d been hired by the family of Paris Hilton, public-relations consultant Dan Klores had his saltpeter powder puff out, and he was giving everyone who ventured into his orbit-his new client, the press and even himself-a good whack. If anyone had a proper excuse to see the grainy Whitman’s sampler of sexual positions featuring Paris Hilton and former boyfriend Rick Salomon that, since Nov. 10, had become one of the most heatedly disseminated and discussed files on the Internet, it was Mr. Klores. And yet, he told The Observer , he had abstained.

“I’ve never seen it, nor do I have a desire to,” Mr. Klores said by phone. “If it were Nicole Kidman, I might be a little interested.” he added with a small, dark chuckle, but Ms. Hilton, who was 19 or 20 when she made the film, was just “a kid,” Mr. Klores said. “She’s as interesting as Britney Spears that way, and that’s not terribly interesting.”

In terms of technique and pure carnal thrills, Mr. Klores has a point. Watching Ms. Hilton behave, thumb-in-mouth, like a bony-assed version of Playboy ‘s Little Annie Fanny, or seeing Ms. Spears tromp around the stage of the American Music Awards in an Elvira-meets-Ilsa getup doesn’t do a whole lot for the libido. But what is pretty interesting is watching two post-adolescent women, both in their early 20’s, experiment with volatile mixtures of sex and celebrity and get burned in the process.

In the past couple of weeks, a good part of the media-the New York Post and Daily News particularly-but the entire Internet culture, TV cable-box mechanism and glossy-magazine landscape has conspired to make the American glands throb with blown-up photographs of Britney Spears presenting netherward. That combined with the technological triumphant leap forward of clips of a cheap, ghosty porn video starring a rich girl, Paris Hilton, that seems to have been e-mailed into the dorm rooms of every college freshman in America have opened up a new era in cheap, disposable, dismissable, irresistible sexual distraction in America. When Vice President Thomas Marshall said, “What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar,” he may have been imagining Britney and Paris.

Ms. Spears has nominally been the mistress of her own domain, but that is, as feminist author Camille Paglia says, a matter of some dispute. “She’s just nice. She’s very niii-iiice ,” Ms. Paglia continued, with some edge in her voice, “and vulnerable,” which is exactly what Ms. Spears often looks like when she’s stuffed into some skimpy number for the cameras. Her pudenda has been marketed from Sixth Avenue to Burbank, and probably Beijing and Bangkok with no stops in between.

“Other than the desire for survival, the strongest single desire we have is for sex,” said Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine. It is the lowest common denominator in a world geared toward getting the largest numbers of asses into seats. And for those who understand the quantum physics of sex, it can be a powerful tool, as Mr. Flynt seemed to demonstrate when, near the beginning of Iraq war, veteran Jessica Lynch’s book tour for her Knopf memoir, I Am a Soldier, Too , he let slip that he had purchased nude pictures of Ms. Lynch, but ultimately decided not to print them. That was more salable than pretty much anything the pie-eyed media naïf Ms. Lynch would end up saying on any of her many media appearances, and once the spotlight was shown on Mr. Flynt, he took the opportunity to politicize the story: “You see we need a hero to sell the war in Iraq, and the fact that it became a woman made it even more attractive to the media as well as the government,” Mr. Flynt told The Observer . “So both the media and the government continued to perpetuate this Joan of Arc myth. And it turned out to be far from that.”

According to Mr. Flynt, “The young soldiers that brought me those photographs were not as interested in money as they were to exposé, you know, what a joke the whole thing was,” he said. These boys said they lost friends and there were a lot of people that were hurt and mangled up pretty bad and that there were many others in her unit who were more likely qualified for the hero status.”

But Mr. Flynt also said: “Just because there might be a loose woman doesn’t mean she can’t be a hero, too. I’m a person who’s always been an advocate of sexual liberation to begin with. And it would have made me pretty much hypocritical to basically attack Lynch, who’s really a victim in this whole situation.” (Ms. Lynch’s attorney, Stephen Goodwin, did not return calls for this story.)

Given Mr. Flynt’s seat at the nexus of celebrity and porn, it’s not surprising that, he said, “I was offered the Paris Hilton video three months ago,” but rejected it “because the quality was so bad. It was like it was [filmed through] night goggles-that green color from Iraq,” he said, referring to the green tint of part of the film.

Asked who tried to sell the film to him,” Mr. Flynt said: “I guess her former boyfriend, who was the one who had actually filmed the video.” That would be Mr. Salomon, who has claimed that the tape was stolen from him and recently filed a $10 million slander suit against Ms. Hilton and her family. (Mr. Salomon’s attorney, Martin Singer, was in mediation and could not be reached for comment.)

As the newsstands full of lad magazines suggest, a little sex can do positive things for a starlet’s career, and Ms. Hilton, an aspiring actress who has a cameo in The Cat in the Hat and will debut in her own Fox reality TV series, The Simple Life , had clearly gotten that message. For the September 2000 issue of Vanity Fair , photographer David LaChapelle shot Ms. Hilton lying on Zuma Beach in Malibu, Calif., with her right breast exposed and a blissful look on her face as a group of surfers checked her out. In the story that accompanied the photo shoot, Ms. Hilton’s mother, Kathy Hilton, insisted that her daughter was “modest.”

Were Ms. Hilton to continue to mine the sex-bomb vein, she probably would have followed a strategy similar to Ms. Spears-in which each successive photo shoot seemed to involve fewer and fewer fig leaves, usually in conjunction with fewer and fewer sales of whatever these celebrities seem to be selling. Ms. Spears’ first two albums sold approximately 20 million copies altogether; her third, 2001’s Britney , sold a little over four million. So it’s no surprise that, in the promotional wind-up for her new album In the Zone , which was released on Nov. 18, Ms. Spears posed quasi-topless for the cover of Rolling Stone and then tastefully bottomless for the cover of Esquire . The pictures inside were even more racy and, though Ms. Spears later expressed regret over them, they left the distinct impression that Playboy could be a possibility in the near future.

But the release of Ms. Hilton’s and Mr. Salomon’s video vaulted the actress over all that, and left her with … what? Well, a lot of it will depend on whether Ms. Hilton can act or at least keep a reality television audience interested. Otherwise, there’s only the sex and, well, as Mr. Flynt will tell you, there’s no shortage of supply.

Meanwhile, Mr. Klores has to try to roll back the clock a little bit, perception-wise. He did that by injecting a little old-fashioned shame and familial conviction into the mix on Nov. 17, when Ms. Hilton and her father, who has seemed as disconnected from this brouhaha as he does at social events, each released statements to the press.

“I feel embarrassed and humiliated, especially because my parents and the people who love me have been hurt,” said Ms. Hilton. “I was in an intimate relationship and never, ever thought that these things would become public.”

“I love my daughter,” said Mr. Hilton. “It goes without saying that I was severely unhappy when I heard about this tape. I will, however, do everything I can to support my daughter in every way possible.”

Mr. Klores is also seeking to prevent any more pictures of Ms. Hilton shedding tears at the Ivy in Los Angeles. “It’s my advice she needs to be low key,” he said. “She’s supposed to do a lot of press for the show. I’m suggesting that all of it except for one thing get canceled.”

The public-relations man is betting that if Ms. Hilton lays low for a while, and if she’s “somewhat self-effacing and she can express her disappointment in herself,” the media will eventually move on.

But even though Ms. Hilton’s film is “inconsequential to everything that’s going on in the world and it’s not really even interesting sex,” Mr. Klores also knows “it seems like a particularly dour time in our culture,” and so “there will be outlets that want to keep it alive and to some extent that will depend on how she handles herself.”

As if to illustrate his point, on the evening of Nov. 17, the same day that Mr. Klores spoke to The Observer , another of his firm’s clients, Jay Leno, devoted much of his Tonight Show monologue to Ms. Hilton’s sex video, including a skit where comedian Fred Willard played the film’s director. Commenting on the do-it-yourself quality of Ms. Hilton’s taped tryst with Mr. Solomon, Mr. Leno said: “Even bad pizza is pizza.”

Strangely, Mr. Leno’s lead guest that night was Britney Spears. Mr. Leno talked about pizza with her, too, but it was in the context of a question from the audience about what kind of food she could eat every day. It was Mr. Leno who suggested pizza, and maybe he was trying to be euphemistic here, but nobody seemed to get the joke, and, for all of the cheesecake pictures that Ms. Spears has taken and suggestive lyrics she has sung, the Tonight Show interview was remarkably chaste and high-school girlie. Mr. Leno noted that in the five or six years that Ms. Spears had been coming on the Tonight Show , “each year gets sexier,” and, after showing the Rolling Stone cover, he asked her if she’d gotten a call from her father about the photos. Ms. Spears said yes, but her answer did not hold any tension, theatrical or otherwise: “Dad, I’m 21. I’m making my own decisions now.”

Contrast this appearance with Madonna’s tense and sexually charged appearances on David Letterman over the years and Ms. Spears’ recent hitching of her star to Madonna’s-their lesbian kiss on the MTV Video Music Awards, their collaboration on In The Zon e’s first single and video, “Me Against the Music”-doesn’t make so much sense anymore. It’s easy to understand why Ms. Spears and her handlers might have thought it was a good move: Madonna is just about the only pop star of the last 50 years who successfully built an empire out of sex. It was a hard slog and not always pitch perfect-remember Sex , the book, the last big distraction the culture got in the year after the last Gulf War?-but out of the blood, sweat and carnality arose Maverick Records, which has spawned the likes of Alanis Morissette and Michelle Branch and respect for Madonna.

But as Ms. Paglia, a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, noted, Madonna’s highly sexed image stood for something. “Madonna was a rebel against church and family authority early on and formed her identity as this kind of pagan dissident, the Whore of Babylon, shaking her fist at the Bible,” she told The Observer .

With Ms. Spears, however, “There’s no sense of rebellion. She’s always the Good Daughter. And there’s none of the Sturm und Drang of the guilt-ridden Catholic system. You don’t have the complexities of sado-masochistic power plays that you get in Madonna and this dizzy-making compulsion to pose in a thousand forms. And Britney-in fact, no one-has Madonna’s ability to create songs. She’s a great composer of songs. She can work in collaboration with all kinds of producers and all sorts of material. They sound fresh and last forever.

“She comes out of a Protestant past. Protestantism in general is a much more individualistic,” Ms. Paglia explained, and “on the whole, the ritual, the ceremony, the pageantry-all that stuff that’s in the Catholicism that Madonna reinterpreted on her stage shows, that’s not in Britney’s [performances].

“Britney’s meltdown on the Diane Sawyer interview? Madonna would never have done that,” Ms. Paglia said. “By the time Madonna became a national figure, she had been a scrappy street urchin. She had learned how to fend for herself long before Sean Penn.”

In other words, Ms. Spears had adopted Madonna’s playbook in a post-Madonna era.

And that’s one of the reasons Ms. Paglia defines Ms. Spears and Madonna’s relationship as “toxic. It lowers Madonna and drains Britney, usurps her identity. It drags Britney back to a period in Madonna’s career that took place in the 80’s and early 90’s. “It’s passé,” she said.

“Britney has adopted Madonna as a surrogate mother. But Madonna is actually the archetypal witch queen of the Snow White fairy tale and what Madonna is giving Britney is a poison apple that is putting Britney to sleep and making her go into hibernation and trapping her in the regalia of Madonna past. It’s terrible,” Ms. Paglia said. “What Madonna is actually doing is paralyzing Britney. It’s like a cocoon of spun sugar. Britney needs to evolve and get past her original influences and find her own identity in order to survive as a performer on the world stage anyhow.”

Ms. Paglia contended that the alliance isn’t so good for Madonna either. “I really think that Madonna should not be vampirizing these young girls like Britney the way she is. I think it does telegraph Madonna’s desperation to remain in the public eye,” she said. “She’s not mastering the lessons of Dietrich, who was her great role model. Dietrich who knew how to preserve her mystery and glamour until the very end. Madonna’s just throwing it away. Constantly. It’s a joke. All this preaching about kabbalah and fourth-rate children’s books. What can I say?”

If you read the Nov. 17 New York Times story about Time Warner pondering whether to refinance or buy out the Maverick label, as well as the value of the stock options that the Material Girl holds, you might say that a dénouement to the Madonna era is close at hand.

But Ms. Paglia did have something else to say: “The great stars, their fans remain loyal for life. That’s how I feel about Madonna.”

Madonna may feel that way about herself as well. But she’s a smart woman. She’s cashing out while the market’s good.