On this day (August 5) 10 years ago, the last episode of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s infamous reality series, The Simple Life, aired. If you’ve burned this piece of pop-culture from your memory, which is totally understandable, here’s a quick refresher: Two obscenely wealthy socialites (Hilton and Richie) traveled from rural town to rural town wreaking havoc on civilians’ daily lives. And by “wreak havoc,” I mean they exploited and embarrassed them, but packaged it as harmless fun.
That was, after all, the M.O. of The Simple Life: Hilton and Richie had never worked a day in their lives, so they embarked on this “journey” to gain some real-world skills. So what if they screwed up a few times and inconvenienced their host families? They were just trying to learn!
It’s not that simple, though. In my opinion, The Simple Life had a pretty insidious agenda underneath Richie’s provocative one-liners and Hilton’s endless repetition of the phrase, “That’s hot.” The show wanted to benefit from the humiliation culture that dominated entertainment in the early and mid-2000s.
Look back at the most popular television shows from that time, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. The crown jewel of the small screen in 2003 was American Idol: a music competition show that, yes, focused on talent, but it certainly didn’t mind getting a boost from naive hopefuls’ abysmal auditions. Idol essentially turned mocking people into a sport: Host Ryan Seacrest would tee up an untalented contestant’s audition with a cringe-worthy interview—and maybe some type of video montage, also cringe-worthy—and Simon Cowell would come in for the kill. This poor person would sing their heart out, only to endure a public tar-and-feathering that was presented as “entertainment.” It was sick and wrong—but people loved it.
They also loved the trashy, vicious tabloids that hung proudly at their grocery stores. They are still pretty awful now, but they were particularly hateful in the mid-2000s: a time characterized by extreme fat-shaming (especially toward women), operatic love spectacles, and an aggressive hunt for the next breakdown. This was right around the time Perez Hilton launched his first website and only two years before Britney Spears’ catastrophic fall from grace, which was relentlessly documented…and disgustingly celebrated. Pop-culture, simply put, was a pretty big bully in 2005.
This was the perfect environment for The Simple Life to thrive. The show’s first season was a ratings smash for Fox, drawing in roughly 13 million viewers each week. Seasons two and three were successful, too. There was a slight dip when the show jumped ship to E! for season four, but the numbers were still strong. People seriously couldn’t stop watching two rich girls roughin’ it in the sticks.
Did the show have its funny moments? Totally. Hilton and Richie had amazing chemistry together on screen. It’s hard not to chuckle at the scene from season one where they write “Salty Weiner Burgers” on a Sonic Drive-In sign. Or when they randomly give one of their host families two monstrous Great Danes in season three. Some of their shenanigans truly were, like I said earlier, just harmless fun.
But most were not. Granted, Richie and Hilton weren’t as overtly mean as Cowell, but they didn’t have to be. The cruelty was in the nuances. In practically every episode of The Simple Life, Hilton and Richie gawked at the people and places around them like they were in a zoo. They’d ask insipid questions to the locals, like, “Do you guys hang out at Walmart?”—and the intention was clear: “Awww, look at these provincial country folk! Let’s laugh at them because we’re so rich and they’re so, so simple!” These moments juxtaposed Hilton and Richie’s fabulosity with the “drab” existence of everyday Americans. The families were poked and prodded at, metaphorically, as if they were aliens from another planet. It was exploitation through and through.
And these people weren’t bold enough to object…or even notice what was actually happening. That’s the real tragedy here. Seedy producers most likely lured them in with a flashy pitch about being on television, but little did they know they’d be debased in the process. Truthfully, Hilton and Richie aren’t really responsible for the problematic elements of The Simple Life. They were just two inexperienced personalities who saw an opportunity and took it. The real blame goes to the people behind the scenes, who picked up on Americans’ hunger for humiliation—and were happy to feed it.
Thankfully, we’ve moved on from this exploitation culture. Not only are viewers savvier about reality TV trickery, they’re just not into watching people degrade themselves anymore—not with the same ferocity, at least. The Voice is arguably the most successful talent competition show on air right now, and it doesn’t feature any laughably bad auditions. (It’ll be interesting to see if AI follows suit when it returns next season.) Entertainment media has also entered a more positive space; if a gross tabloid publishes something unfair about a celebrity, several reputable outlets will call it out. There’s definitely a push nowadays to empower people—famous or not—instead of shaming them. And that’s incredible.
It’s also exactly why The Simple Life wouldn’t work in 2017. Something tells me Twitter would have a very low tolerance for two privileged women teasing working-class Americans just for shits and giggles. That is absolutely not hot.