How the 'The Simple Life' Changed Celebrity Culture – and Fashion – Forever

We look back on the iconic show 15 years after its premiere.

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In 2003, the world was encountering a very new type of celebrity culture. Previously, for the most part, people were famous for doing things. In the early-2000s, socialites changed all of that, in a blur of Juicy Couture tracksuits, flip phones, and drug scandals. Their incessant partying, designer clothes and apparent lack of “real” problems infuriated “ordinary” people: they were famous, ostensibly, for being famous. They were fun to watch and the hate was mostly unwarranted; seeing super-rich women spending money worry-free drove people crazy. They were chased by paparazzi but lived on the precipice of the internet, making it easier for their worst moves to be made public. Still, the fury that socialites inspired in “regular” people gave birth to one of the greatest cultural touchstones that blessed us 15 years ago: The Simple Life.

The Simple Life was a reality show in which two ultra-rich, seemingly spoiled girls – Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie – had to work and live as “normal” people. In the first season, they went to live with a family in Arkansas and help with chores, work on local events, and get jobs. The ratings were phenomenal as the show appealed to not only fans of the girls, but viewers who voyeuristically wanted to watch city girls milk cows and live on a budget. It was quickly revealed, though, that the joke was on the viewer, as their preconceptions were swiftly turned on their heads.

The Simple Life Paris Hilton Nicole Richie 15th Anniversary

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The conceit of The Simple Life is simple: as the reality department at Fox said, it’s “stilettos in shit,” watching two brats suffer. But the actual joy is where they flourish; the moments where their true selves are revealed. At the time of its release, Paris Hilton was already a joke for being perceived as dumb. After meeting her Sharon Klein, senior VP of casting at Fox, said that Hilton “did not come off stupid”, but they played up these elements for the show. With a high-pitched voice octaves away from her real one, Hilton “revealed” just how little she knew about things like Walmart whilst Nicole Richie’s job was to be the naughty one with a dirty mouth and a penchant for trouble. They play on these personas, sure, but it’s evident where they’re told to behave a certain way or where they’ve been edited to seem stupider. We were supposed to be laughing at the girls for trying to fit in with regular folk. What we do is laugh with them, which is unsurprising: The Simple Life was always intended as a comedy.

“We were supposed to be laughing at the girls for trying to fit in with regular folk. What we do is laugh with them.”

Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are deliberately funny. They make each other laugh and, most importantly, they make the local people laugh, through songs, jokes, and antics. We can poke fun all we want at the girls thinking Walmart sells “wall stuff” or cooking bacon with an iron, but then we have to admit that moments like Nicole asking Paris if she has 25 cents to cover a near-$50,000 jewelry bill are deliberately funny. The tricks that the girls play, from wearing disguises to putting an employer’s dating profile in a magazine, are played for laughs. Their conversations, often erring on inappropriate towards families’ teen sons, are authentic, and just a result of two girls trying to make a boring day go faster.

We’re also supposed to believe that the girls are selfish and there are incidents where they cause problems – or have bleach-throwing tantrums – that only make other peoples’ lives harder. But as they stay with different families on “Road Trip” or “Interns”, a key part of the plot is that they bring something positive to the families’ lives. When they help a family quit smoking, or try to find a boyfriend for Kesha’s mom, they genuinely mean well. They take pleasure in the look on a family’s face when they see that they’ve been gifted something they’ve wanted for years. And even when it goes wrong, like when they buy a woman two huge dogs she can’t afford, or give a small boy a makeover that makes him cry, they have only the family’s best intentions at heart.

Bound not only by mutual richness, Richie and Hilton were, at least until a highly-publicised falling out during the making of the show, genuine friends. It’s evident in the way that they hug, the way they laugh, the way the end every night with a “love you, b*tch”. But it’s also clear in the way they stick up for each other. For the most part the families they stayed with enjoyed the girls’ obscene, silly spirit, but they do encounter some misogyny. In a season two episode set in Mississippi, one son has a preconceived idea of who the girls will be and mocks them for being stupid. Nicole has had enough: she threatens James, saying that if he calls her or Paris dumb again, “I am being dead f**king serious, I will beat your f**king face in”. Not content with that, they sneak a special sausage filled with dog food to James.

“Even when it goes wrong, like when they buy a woman two huge dogs she can’t afford, or give a small boy a makeover that makes him cry, they have only the family’s best intentions at heart.”

The Simple Life is often looked back on as a remnant of our shared history; it’s a time capsule of Louis Vuitton luggage, Sum 41 T-shirts paired with Juicy tracksuits, and Von Dutch caps that we want to never relive. It’s also silly humour and genuine, hedonistic friendship through the eyes of two forces of nature who are barely friends now and both have lives that aren’t so ridiculous. But it would be doing Richie and Hilton a disservice to act like that’s all it was: The Simple Life not only showed us a side of America rarely honestly explored on TV, but it gave us an unironically watchable bit of TV that can teach us all a lot about treating one another with understanding and kindness, regardless of where someone is from or how much money they have. Not only that, but it taught us to approach any tasks with fun, sweetness, and all of our effort – even if it involves cow butts.

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