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Anna Nicole, Paris Hilton redefine ‘celebrity’

Erin McGinn | Thursday, February 22, 2007

Marilyn Monroe is arguably America’s first and most recognized celebrity icon. She dominated the 1950s with her terrific movie career, and, although she was a talented actress, she is perhaps better known for being the original “blonde bombshell.” She appeared in the very first edition of “Playboy,” was married to both Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller and was rumored to have had an affair with President Kennedy (her friendship with the president also spawned one of the greatest renditions of “Happy Birthday”).

Flash forward to 1992, when small-town American girl Vickie Lynn was discovered by Hugh Hefner and decided to make a name for herself. And make a name for herself she did: Anna Nicole Smith. In the vein of Marilyn, Anna Nicole modeled for Playboy and was infamous for her marriage to an 89-year old billionaire oil tycoon. Where Marilyn legitimately made herself into a star through her popular film career, Anna Nicole was famous solely for being herself. She later went on to have her own reality television show (“The Anna Nicole Show”) and became the spokesperson for Trimspa, a dubious weight loss drug. Despite these “achievements,” she never had the same amount of true personal success that Marilyn enjoyed, despite being a bona fide celebrity. Essentially, she was popular for being popular.

The “Anna Nicole syndrome,” where celebrities are seemingly created out of nothing, is an omnipresent phenomenon today. New stars are promoted daily out of the rising success of reality television shows. People like Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter (“The Bachelorette”), Amber Brkich and Rob Mariano (“Survivor: All-Stars”) and Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth (“The Apprentice”) are famous for being famous, even though they arguably accomplished nothing.

At the pinnacle of this talent-free mix sits the reigning queen, Paris Hilton. Daughter of a hotel monarch, Paris lived the innocuous life of a decadent socialite until she decided that she wanted to be famous. In 2001, Paris came into power as the quintessential party girl. When her first sex tape (“1 Night in Paris”) was “released” in 2003, she solidified her place at the center of the pop culture universe. Falling victim to the “Anna Nicole syndrome,” Paris has tried to move on to some semblance of a “real” career.

She has starred in Fox’s reality series “The Simple Life” with fellow celebutante Nicole Ritchie, playing off of their public personas as talented, spoiled socialites. She has also acted in films (“House of Wax” and the upcoming “The Hottie and the Nottie”), recorded an album (“Paris”), “designed” perfumes and even partially wrote a book, the aptly titled “Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose.”

So what happens to these celebrities when they have no talent to fall back on? Networks like MTV constantly feature legions of contestants seeking their 15 minutes, then doing whatever they can to retain the little fame that they have. Enter shows like the “Real World/Road Rules Challenge,” where former contestants are able to perpetuate the illusion that they are still important.

To stay in the public eye, it is necessary for such faux-celebrities to act out in their personal lives. Even after her death, the controversy over the paternity of her infant daughter Dannielynn is keeping Anna Nicole a household name. Paris Hilton, having realized that she was slipping off of the public radar, found her third sex tape “leaked” to the public.

Anna Nicole Smith claimed that she planned to be “the next Marilyn Monroe,” and Paris Hilton has been quoted as saying that she is “the iconic blonde of the decade,” comparing herself to figures like Monroe and Princess Diana. Although both claim to be following in the footsteps of Marilyn, Ms. Monroe had one attribute that her successors seem to lack – talent.

Contact Erin McGinn at emcginn@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.