I Want to Be a Hilton

by Terry Sawyer

20 June 2005


The Hilton Plague

It’s nearly impossible to describe the many offenses efficiently compacted within the excruciating hour that is I Want To Be a Hilton. I haven’t been this pissed off since Queer Eye taught gay people all over the world the best way to sing “Camptown Races” while shuffling their feet.

Here Paris Hilton’s inexplicable “career” expands to bring her preening mother into the undeserved fame fold. “Onetime actress” Kathy Hilton wants to bring vapid elegance to a group of contestants vying for a chance to live like a Hilton, which presumably doesn’t include calling people “niggers,” boning your boyfriends on camera or visiting America’s heartland to scoff at the unbearable ugliness of poverty. No, this time the heartland gets imported.

cover art

I Want to Be a Hilton

Cast: Kathy Hilton
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET


This process begins as contestants chosen for their lack of “culture” (i.e., people who work for a living) are divided into teams and given show pony tasks to test their etiquette. (You might recognize this premise from The Apprentice and Survivor, other reality shows filled with people looking for embarrassing short cuts to their fantasies.) Upon completion of the fancy obstacle course, participants engage in the usual backstabbing to determine who is will be returned to a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Weekly winning teams get to play “rich” for a night and the ultimate winner gets a trust fund, a swank Manhattan pad, and, most ominously, access to Hilton “connections.”

Most of what’s taught as etiquette here feels more like secret handshakes. Does the regimentation of their pleasure, with all its rules, faux pas, and carefully pruned presentation, offer anything other than the high school cliquishness of the wealthy?

Most interestingly, Hilton’s Ilsa the She Wolf School of Breeding reveals an essential moral underdevelopment, where “manners” has nothing to do with benevolence and everything to do with Byzantine superficiality. During the first competition, Hilton gives the two teams (dubbed “Madison” and “Park Avenue”) money to buy the hostess a gift, which, she tells them, is mandatory. In my poor folks upbringing, I learned that you don’t invite guests with the expectation of a payment. If they happen to bring something, you should just be grateful for the gesture and not judge it according to some intricate measure of appropriateness. At this rate, I’ll never be a Hilton.

The tests predictably focus on errors, as spirited and, for the most part, kind-seeming human beings put themselves through a training regimen designed to make them equate poverty with savagery. At one elegant dinner, construction worker JW says he’d rather not eat escargot and the entire table erupts at the audacity of their charity case. The biggest mistake of this show is its critical alignment against the contestants. When Hilton’s guest, Ted Allen rolls his (queer) eyes at a player who can’t explain why Chardonnay goes with lobster, I had to ask myself how many viewers will be on the insulted end of I Want To Be a Hilton‘s consistent, appalling arrogance. I’ve never had enough money to let other people tell me how to eat.

The show’s dizzying conflations of economic class with social status with cultural consciousness promise to make themselves even starker in future episodes, as these feature trips to art museums, those places rich people donate to when they want to remodel and buy new stuff. I’d bet Hilton’s jewel-encrusted fuck-me pumps that neither of her spawn could name the painter of the Mona Lisa or even a single book she’s read in the past decade. No matter, I’m sure “culture” is simply a façade, where the successful upper class type memorizes a few artists and styles to appear knowledgeable and avoid actual engagement in a conversation. I mean, in environments this arid, does one dare have anything so “factory worker” as an argument?

The only delicious irony in this patronizing shit-pie of a show is that someone so ensconced in the paradise of vintage wines and mandatory jackets for dinner would desire a grubby grab of limelight in the gutter of reality television. Worse, she’s had to exploit her daughter’s backwash in order to score a show in the first place. My god, how déclassé.

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//Mixed media