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What Paris Hilton and 'The Simple Life' Taught Us About a Work Ethic

Changing a burger joint sign so that it reads "1/2 PRICE ANAL SALTY WEINER BURGERS" is surprisingly deep.

You already know about Paris Hilton, the noughties inventor of "that's hot". Paris, who gets paid thousands to turn up to clubs and pose. Paris, who indulged in the gaudy pantomime of learning about employment with Nicole Richie on The Simple Life. But for all its comedy boings and obvious set-ups, The Simple Life will always be a surprisingly solid foundation class in Work Ethic 101.

Debuting in 2003, the reality show was developed in Fox's comedy department by visionaries looking to take old sitcom concepts and make them real. Brad Johnson, Senior VP of comedy development, told TV Week he wanted to riff off Green Acres, a 1960s sitcom about a couple from the city relocated to the countryside. So the premise of The Simple Life, as the banjo-riddled theme tune goes, was: "Let's take two girls, both filthy rich/ From the bright lights into the sticks." The situation: the sticks. The comedy: that they will muck up terribly, every episode.


Paris, a 22-year-old heiress to a £200million [€256 million EUR] fortune, and Nicole, 21-year-old daughter of Lionel Richie, have their Sidekick mobile phones and purses confiscated before being sent for a month to Altus, Arkansas. Population: 817. They lodge with farming family the Ledings, in a bedroom on a porch replete with bugs and a functioning well.

The culture shock doesn't end there. There's no money to be made by strolling into a shop (Paris thinks Walmart "sells walls") and juggling a Starbucks frappé while paparazzi snap away. Instead, our protagonists must do like Arkansans do, and work. And each job they do – and are subsequently fired from – is manual, hand-callousing work: dairy farming, ranching, prepping fast food and pumping gas. But they do it all – sort of.


Janet and Albert Leding set a great example: after painfully early morning starts, they still manage to chalk up a list of Paris and Nicole's chores, rub off that list after doing said chores for their errant guests and then spend time explaining how Paris and Nicole have fucked up. At first, it's reasonable questioning: Why did they use the dairy farmer's hot tub while at work? Why did Nicole lie about her cat dying as an excuse for being in bed on a work day? And they work hard to suppress the frustration imbued by Paris every time she quietly mumbles "That's not cute" before slinking off.


There's a worrying moment on their first day at Sonic Burger, in season one's third episode, where Paris is adept at making crispy bacon on the grill, and Nicole has mastered popping onions into rings to batter. You wonder if this is it. If the series will show them getting on in their new life, scoffing burgers in their 09.50 break, each settling down with one of the truckers who turn up for breakfast and chuckle along with Paris's helium-pitched baby talk and Nicole's goading of "Do you work with hot guys? Hot guys like you? Do you take baths together?"

But of course, it can't be. Responding as anyone should to the tedium of having to pervert vegetables into hydrogenated fat-laden tubes of stodge, Nicole shoves whole onions in the machine, jamming it. Later, Paris and Nicole change the 15-foot noticeboard outside to read: "1/2 PRICE ANAL SALTY WEINER BURGERS". It's giddyingly stupid, but it's entertaining. And sure, they're "bratty" enough to be able to take the piss out of jobs they'll never have to do; but they send the drudgery up, not the people. A genuine fondness grows between the girls and the Ledings, whose Grandma weeps as they leave, telling them they're "good girls". The toddler son asks if Nicole can be his sister.


Paris and Nicole's various supervisors moan that they're "not needed anymore" and have "pretty much messed everything up". But as Arnold Toynbee, the 19th century economist and social reformer who helped labourers in slums unionise, once said: "The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play."

And on The Simple Life, Paris and Nicole did just that, whether falling about dressed as fast-food mascots, topping up milk bottles with a bucket of water and quipping: "It'll be less fattening, I'm doing them a favour", or flirting with the local boys and promising them jobs as model in LA. All the while, the series debuted with 13million viewers (gaining 300,000 more for the second episode) and four more seasons followed. What The Simple Life can teach us: to persist, to entertain, to say thank you when it's due and to not let a man called Albert trap you in his house.



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