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How Paris and Nicole made their mark on America in 'The Simple Life,' 20 years later

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Before "The Real Housewives," "Keeping Up With The Kardashians," or "Selling Sunset," there was "The Simple Life." The reality TV show that brought Beverly Hills party girls Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie into the American mainstream premiered 20 years ago this week. Together, Hilton and Richie traveled the country with their seemingly carefree, never-worked-a-day-in-their-life attitude.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPLE LIFE")

NICOLE RICHIE: I've always heard that people hang out at Walmart.

PARIS HILTON: Why?

RICHIE: I don't know.

HILTON: What is Walmart? Is it - like, they sell wall stuff?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No.

SUMMERS: The pair gained an audience that either loved them or just loved to hate them, popularizing the phrase - that's hot - along the way. Matthew Jacobs wrote a brief history of the show for The Cut, and he is here to talk to us now. Hello there.

MATTHEW JACOBS: Hello.

SUMMERS: So for people who have never seen "The Simple Life" before, how would you describe it to them? And who were Paris and Nicole, and what were they doing on our TVs?

JACOBS: "The Simple Life" took two famous celebrity offspring who were familiar to tabloid audiences - we would have called them celebutantes at the time - and essentially sent them to scenarios that were completely unfamiliar to them. So they spent a season living on a family farm in small-town, rural Arkansas, and then they traveled across the South or other parts of the country taking odd jobs, so-called internships, working various levels of manual labor or everyday minimum wage jobs that had eluded them throughout their extremely privileged upbringing.

SUMMERS: Before "The Simple Life" hit screens, what was the reality TV landscape like?

JACOBS: Before "The Simple Life," reality TV, which was still a fairly young format at the time, was really focused on putting ordinary people in relatively extraordinary circumstances. So you had a bunch of people living in a house together, like "The Real World"...

SUMMERS: Yeah.

JACOBS: ...Or "Big Brother." You had them eat gross things on "Fear Factor" or compete for romance on "The Bachelor." And "The Simple Life" kind of inverted that, and so it really introduced this look at how wealthy, privileged, famous or semi-famous people function day to day.

SUMMERS: I mean, thinking back, I was a teenager when the show first came out, and now when I look back on that time with a 2023 lens, it's surprising and pretty sad, frankly, how often young women were put in the position of being publicly humiliated during that time. I mean, gossipmongers like Perez Hilton were launching websites that seemed to have a sole purpose of mocking women for their appearance and their weight. Can you just, like, take us back to that time period and remind us how all of this played a role in how audiences responded to "The Simple Life"?

JACOBS: We loved to hate and hated to love the party girl, so I think for as much love as there was for "The Simple Life," there was also a lot of skepticism and a lot of mockery at the same time. Part of that, I think, also owed to the fact that we didn't yet have a deep grasp on the reality TV genre and how it was made. I think we almost take for granted now how much we know about the ways reality TV is constructed and contrived. And I think a lot of people looked at a show like this and said, I don't see the value in this, and so I'm repulsed by it. But the other side of it is that it's also extremely influential. I mean, do we get "The Kardashians" or...

SUMMERS: Right.

JACOBS: ..."The Real Housewives" without Paris Hilton and without "The Simple Life"? I'm not sure.

SUMMERS: Well, I mean, the show and its spinoff - they ended back in 2007. What do you think the ultimate legacy of "The Simple Life" is for better or for worse?

JACOBS: I think "The Simple Life" and its knockoffs spawned a world in which seemingly everybody wants a piece of fame and is competing to adopt the markers of fame whether or not they'll truly achieve it, and I think we can spend a lot of time talking about whether that's a net good or a net bad for society.

SUMMERS: That is Matthew Jacobs from The Cut. Thank you so much.

JACOBS: Thank you, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARS ARE BLIND")

HILTON: (Singing) Even though the gods are crazy, even though the stars are blind... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
Kathryn Fox
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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