Heir Heads......Celebutantes Paris Hilton (left) and Nicole Richie move to Altus, Ark., population 817, for 'The Simple Life'
INSIDE THE LEDINGS’ modest farmhouse, Hilton and Richie face surprise after nasty surprise. A single bathroom. A well. “What are wells for?” asks Hilton. “Water,” says mom Janet Leding. Richie is so bewildered, she needs to check her bearings. “Do you guys hang out at Wal-Mart?” she asks. “I’ve always heard that people hang out at Wal-Mart.” The Ledings look confused. So does Hilton. “What is Wal-Mart?” she asks. “Is it, like, they sell wall stuff?”
Could anyone be this stupid? Thank heavens, yes. Richie (Lionel’s daughter) and Hilton (the hotel heiress) are the stars of Fox’s “The Simple Life,” which like all TV shows steals its concept—in this case, it’s “Green Acres” with two real “celebutants” filling the stilettos of one Gabor. “The Simple Life” debuts in December, and it already looks like the next reality-TV phenom. By then, we’ll be well primed by a slew of rich people behaving badly. Later this month MTV will launch “Rich Girls,” which follows Tommy Hilfiger’s daughter, Ally, and her spoiled friends as they navigate high school from the back of a limo. And HBO will air a documentary called “Born Rich,” in which Ivanka Trump, Georgina Bloomberg, magazine heir S. I. Newhouse IV and others discuss the burdens of inherited wealth. Though you don’t have to be an heiress to be a successful TV airhead. The reigning rich ditz, pop star Jessica Simpson, and husband, Nick Lachey, just signed on for a second season of MTV’s “Newlyweds.” Perhaps she wants a shot at atoning for the moment this year when she debated whether Chicken of the Sea is tuna or chicken. “I hate fish, so I didn’t understand why I liked this tuna,” Simpson tried to explain to David Letterman last week. “It doesn’t make any sense at all, I know.”
Canned tuna would have been haute cuisine on “The Simple Life.” “We had to fry this squirrel on our very first night. That was gnarly,” says Richie. She and Hilton spent five weeks with the Ledings, a family of seven. MTV didn’t tell the jet setters where they’d be stationed, and when they pile their Louis Vuitton bags into a pickup, you know instantly that Arkansas is going to be as foreign as polyester. To their credit, the girls are unfailingly polite, even when it comes to sharing that bathroom. But they do have their limits. “They tried to make us pluck a chicken and I almost barfed,” says Hilton. “We had a midnight curfew, which we broke every night,” says Richie. Where did they hang out? “The most fun place was the gas station,” says Hilton. “We met some cute country boys.” Actually, all 817 citizens of Altus got to know our intrepid cultural-exchange students. Hilton and Richie showed up more often in the local paper than they do in Liz Smith. “It was like we were Michael Jackson,” says Richie. “They wrote that our skirts were too short. They said we came to church in fur coats. It hurt my feelings. I never went to church!”
When you’ve got more money than god, why risk TV when the camera adds pounds and removes dignity? There’s vanity, of course—and the gnawing feeling that you should be at least as famous as Jack Osbourne. Richie and Hilton come off sweet enough to forgive their shallowness, but not everyone is so lucky. MTV’s “Rich Girls” attempts to show us that life in the penthouse isn’t as rarefied as it seems. Hilfiger and her pal Jaime Gleicher may vacation on Mustique and use a personal shopper, but they still worry about getting a prom date. The problem is that as much as “Rich Girls” wants to prove that money doesn’t make adolescence any easier, it’s hard to care when the girls say things like “My dad invented cargo pants and everybody copied him” and “We had a photo shoot on the boat, the Christina O. You know Jackie O, or something? Whatshisname O—Onassis?” By the time Jaime’s prom date drinks too much and bails from the limousine, you don’t empathize with her. You want to jump out of the car, too.
Despite way too much evidence to the contrary, not every rich kid wants to be on television. Jamie Johnson spent three years making “Born Rich,” in part because dozens of wealthy kids turned him down for interviews. “Everything they do revolves around money. They are either making it or spending it—that’s their identity. But they don’t want to talk about it,” says Johnson, of the Johnson & Johnson dynasty. To his credit, Johnson puts himself and his dad in “Born Rich.” He also interviews Bloomberg (“having the last name Bloomberg sucks,” Georgina says), Newhouse IV (dislikes Newhouse III) and Trump (the most surprisingly grounded person in the film). “Born Rich” does a thorough, if earnest, job with a touchy subject. So touchy that a casino-gambling heir named Luke Weil—who does an ugly rant about how any woman who won’t sign a prenup is an “ungrateful b—h”—sued Johnson to get his interviews removed. “I think he got pressure from his friends and family, and that made him nervous,” says Johnson. A judge dismissed the suit, which is a certain kind of justice. It would have been more fun if he’d sent Weil to share a bathroom down on the farm. I actually might watch this??