June 09, 2004,
Lack of middle-class values is usually considered an underclass problem. But watching season two of The Simple Life, the Fox reality show that throws heiress Paris Hilton and her friend Nicole Richie (daughter of Lionel) into the lives of ordinary working Americans, it occurred to me that the moneyed set's lack of middle-class values such as restraint, hard work, and a willingness to make the best of a bad situation can cause equal damage to the character.
In these new episodes, which begin next week, Paris and Nicole are sent on a road trip from Miami to L.A., sans cash and credit cards. For a while they mooch off strangers at gas stations, a few dollars at a time, which works because they're cute, giggly and trailed by a camera crew at all times. But soon the producers set them up with a series of grunt-level temp jobs, like cleaning up cow patties at a ranch.
The girls insist to the rancher they're expert riders, which is doubtful from the way Paris bounces around in the saddle like a sack of beans. Apparently she has enough experience to be confident "I love to go fast!" but not enough to actually know what she's doing. Because once the horse bucks a little, Paris immediately lists to the left, then falls off.
She's bruised and shaken but not seriously hurt. And at this point, most ordinary middle-class people with a modicum of ordinary middle-class pride would remember the old adage about getting back on the horse. Paris, however, feels no embarrassment whatsoever about being airlifted by helicopter to a trauma center, from which she is soon released.
"I've been riding horses my whole life and this has never happened to me ever," she sullenly tells assembled reporters. "Luckily there was no internal bleeding."
"I feel real bad about what ol' Red did to you," the rancher says the next day.
"I hate him," says Paris, still sulky.
When The Simple Life premiered last year, I liked the way this slumming heiress and her friend handled scolding questions from the press with canny aplomb and unapologetically capitalist good cheer. How could Paris spend $1,500 on a designer dog carrier, one reporter asked piously, when that's more than the farm family she and Nicole stayed with probably spends on their mortgage?
"Well, I always, like, give money to charities," Paris shrugged. "And I just really liked the dog bag. It's cute!" Did they learn anything from their experience? Because it seems like they didn't! "It's not like we were horrible to begin with and now we're nice," Nicole said serenely. "We were nice, and now we're really nice."
She had a point. Part of what redeemed Paris and Nicole in the first season was their constant good manners. "Nice to meet you!" they enthused to their amazed country-mouse hosts. "Thank you so much for having us." They didn't drop the act under stress either. "Thanks, Braxton," Paris says wearily, as the farm family's four-year-old son, armed with a flyswatter, rescued them from ticks invading the bedroom.
"My family always taught me to thank everyone and be humble," she explained later at the press conference. "My dad was really, really strict to always be polite and please and thank-yous and all that jazz," said Richie. Still, no princess ever complained about a pea more than Paris and Nicole complain about everything. "Eew! Barf!" exclaimed Paris when sent to the store with a shopping list. "'Feet' is bad enough. 'Pig's feet' is worse. Let's see, what else. 'Generic.' What's generic?"
And forget trying to get the girls to pluck freshly killed chickens. "I'm not plucking anything except my eyebrows," said Nicole. Still, they remembered their manners by the time they sat down to eat, despite their horror at how dinner got there. "Tastes like chicken!" remarked Paris brightly.
It was a funny line. But, as I was reminded when the girls sneakily covered the cow dung with dirt ("like a catbox") this season instead of hauling it to the compost area as instructed, they have a let-them-eat-cake disregard about how their laziness means more work for someone else later. The concept that even a lowly job, if done at all, ought to be done well is apparently a completely alien (and laughably tacky) bourgeois notion.
WE'RE ALL RICH KIDS NOW
And I've noticed that in recent years these rich kid's habits have trickled down in society, so that now even the offspring of the merely well-off often do no more work around the house than Paris and Nicole. The excuse their parents/chauffeurs give is that the kids just don't have time, what with all the sports and ballet and SAT test-prep classes and volunteer work for college applications. But I see the sense of entitlement these kids often radiate even well into their 20s, and it isn't very pretty. My 15-year-old daughter is responsible for folding laundry and washing dishes, which shouldn't be unusual. But among the fancier private schools (which she doesn't attend), it is.
I suppose these things are all relative. According to Paris, she's a fairly tough cookie compared to her younger sister. Originally Simple Life producers wanted both Hilton girls. "But she wouldn't have lasted, there's no way," Paris said of Nicky Hilton. Paris wouldn't have lasted either if she hadn't been allowed to opt out of certain activities. Nicole was gamer. "I preg-tested cows," she told reporters. "So I just stuck this latex glove on my arm, and I put baby oil on and shoved my hand up their ass. It was so gross. It was warm."
"I wouldn't do it," said Paris. "[The cow] was, like, screaming."
Nicole would have none of that. "It loved it, what are you talking about?" she insisted. "It was the luckiest cow in Arkansas." Making a snappy comeback like that is worth knowing how to do well. But so is even a lowly job, if that happens to be your task for the day.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy's World. She is an NRO contributor.