Whither Chloë Sevigny, indie “It” girl of yore? Samantha Ronson, tomboy D.J.? Shoshanna Lonstein, cheery bikini designer? Nineties “It” girls dressed cute, sang karaoke at Moomba, and wore underwear. They would be nowhere today. A knack for fashion, a touch of talent, famous parents, photographic je ne sais quoi—that’s not enough to be “It.” In 2004, you must walk on the dark side. Your dissolute nature and quality of tragic legend, your promise never to grow up—this must be guaranteed at the outset.
The example par excellence is, of course, the seedy, preening, evanescent Paris Hilton, the most iconic “It” girl since patrician and Pop-scene star Edie Sedgwick. Now, this is not all about Paris—though you know it’s always all about Paris, darling. It’s about Paris’s sister Nicky, she of the 85-day marriage, and co-star Nicole Richie, she of the arrest for heroin possession. It’s about Lindsay Lohan’s father needing half a million to post bail, and Tara Reid’s surgery-scarred breast escaping her dress on the red carpet and her not noticing. It’s about the return of Bijou Phillips doing all the things Bijou does but no longer being called a “wild child”—hacking at someone’s finger with a cigar cutter and assaulting a clubgoer with a dildo apparently no longer cuts it. It might all be bullshit, of course, a cry of the wild manufactured to garner buzz and that lucrative little-known-soft-drink endorsement. One can imagine it’s hard for a hormonal 19-year-old gamine to resist providing a little Maxim-worthy titillation—or, in Paris’s case, a lot of titillation—when it can be spun into dollars by our lowest-common-denominator media machine. So what if the tabloids beat you up a little? Who really cares about Mary-Kate Olsen’s eating disorder—it’s more fun to scoff as she mopes in her bug-eyed glasses and masterful rendition of couture’s take on early-nineties grunge, very the–collection–that–got–Marc–Jacobs–fired–from–Perry Ellis, very “I’m a sad little monkey dressed up in Mommy’s clothes so you can’t see my sad little bag of skin and bones.”
So these girls are crazy. We love it. Such is their power that the very staples of “It”-ness—models and socialities, perhaps you remember them—have been wiped from greater public consciousness. Fashion hasn’t made a name model since Gisele, who shot her first Vogue cover in 1998, nor has Park Avenue produced one perfectly highlighted handbag designer since the millennium. Paris raised the bar. The sex in her (debut) porno is robotic and nonorgasmic, yes, but it’s a lot more graphic than Pamela Anderson’s oeuvre. Nicknamed Star as a toddler, Paris was famous as a teenager on the New York boutique-opening circuit because she dressed like a porn star, for fun, and then she became a porn star, for real, and then she became a star. A big star, lending her name and collecting her checks—perfume, jewelery, Guess, a Planet Hollywood founder’s Club Paris in Vegas. (“Planet Hollywood is hot,” she explained.)
In any case, the story of Paris is not exactly a cautionary tale. Edie Sedgwick—now, Edie is a cautionary tale. The Youthquaker with a taste for black tights and arson became a Warhol superstar and vitamin-shot freak, then Bob Dylan’s muse and LSD aficionado, then heroin addict and electroshock patient. Then she died, from a barbiturate overdose in Santa Barbara at 28. Paris can’t be held to that standard. Still, her talent as an “It” girl can be measured by considering what comes to mind when you imagine her at 50. If you can.