a photo surfaced early this year showing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and
a flirtatious Paris Hilton schmoozing at a post-Grammy party, their
pairing was written off as Los Angeles' two biggest publicity hounds
capitalizing on yet another photo op.
LAObserved.com, a media Web site that focuses on the city's
movers and shakers, even ran a contest seeking the wittiest caption,
then published a Letterman-like Top 10 list of what the mayor and the
celebutante might be saying.
Few, however, gave any serious thought to the significance
of the moment - the obsession Villaraigosa and Hilton have about being
in the public eye and society's corresponding fascination with the
politician who has sold himself as the poster child for the American
Dream and the heiress who has lived it every day of her life.
Increasingly, in Los Angeles and across the country,
celebrity has become the name of the game - transcending entertainment
to encompass politics and public policy, as well.
"Celebrity worship has become big business," says
psychologist James Houran, an author and nationally recognized expert
on celebrities and celebrity worship. "But from a social standpoint,
it's not healthy.
"Are you looking
at Paris Hilton just
because she is attractive or because you want the intimate details of
her life and want to be part of her inner circle?
"And socio-political leaders are just as popular as celebrities
because of the political power they have. Celebrities have power, but
not in the same way. Their decisions and actions influence us in very
Last week, when the Hilton case erupted onto the national
consciousness, it marked the crossover of two more local political
figures into the realm of celebrity from which neither of the two -
Sheriff Lee Baca and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo - shied away.
On national television, Baca - a regular fixture at local
celebrity events who has proposed involving the Sheriff's Department in
no fewer than five reality TV shows - defended his controversial
decision to release the hotel heiress prematurely to her Hollywood
"The only special treatment is that because of her
celebrity status, she got more time," said Baca, who maintains that
Hilton got a stiffer-than-average sentence for violating probation for
a reckless-driving conviction.
At the other end of the spectrum was Delgadillo, a rising
star in Latino politics while Richard Riordan was mayor in the 1990s
who has since been overshadowed by Villaraigosa's magnetism and
Having lost his bid for state attorney general last year
and due to be termed out of his current office in 2009, Delgadillo had
been courting publicity when he happened upon Hilton's early release.
"This was a perfect opportunity for someone in Rocky
Delgadillo's position to pounce on, to capitalize for his own
celebrity," says Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, a
specialist on celebrity and fame.
Today, celebrity has also
become a self-generating commodity that Lieberman says might account
for the meteoric rise of U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat
with only two years in Washington, to be considered a serious contender
for his party's presidential nomination.
"People like Paris Hilton are famous for being famous, and
there is a value being put on just how famous you can be," she said.
"It doesn't have to be for any accomplishment except for getting the
cameras to follow you around.
"In the case of Barack Obama, it's almost been like he's
been feeding on himself. He's been able to gather air time because he's
charismatic and he's black and he's attractive and young, and that's
just fed into more air time and more media obsession."
Experts say the obsession with celebrity has permeated
every aspect of the country's culture, with a special impact on teens
Limousine services enjoy an economic boost in the spring,
when the luxury cars are rented for teenagers trying to make
celebrity-style red-carpet entrances to their proms and graduations.
YouTube.com, MySpace.com and similar Web sites have become
magnets for teens attempting to take on Hollywood-like personas, and
politicians are following suit.
In the 2004 presidential
election, the Internet was used by candidates simply as a way to raise
money. This time around, candidates realize the capacity to reach
existing and potential supporters, and have made the Internet an
integral part of their operation.
In L.A., no politician has embraced celebrity more than
Villaraigosa, whose meteoric rise has been built on his television-age
magnetism, unrelenting ambition and a Bill Clinton-like scripting of
overcoming an early life of abandonment and abuse.
"He gives us the sizzle we didn't know we craved after a
dozen years of bland white guys named Dick (Riordan) and Jim (Hahn),"
journalist Kevin Roderick wrote adoringly of the mayor in last
December's Los Angeles Magazine.
"Villaraigosa's brand of inclusive politics fits right into
this metropolis of a thousand cultures, one of them being the cult of
"Villaraigosa possesses the star power to adorn the cover
of Newsweek, play himself on `George Lopez,' and share a joke with Tony
Blair. For once we have a leader who is recognized on the Westside, the
Eastside and the East Coast."
Villaraigosa's celebrity and appeal played such an integral
part of the 2005 mayoral campaign that on election night, a humbled and
defeated incumbent James Hahn lamented, "You know, maybe I have a
charisma deficit disorder ... ."
The role of charisma in
the Villaraigosa-Hahn campaign, experts say, was eerily similar to that
in the Arnold Schwarzenegger-Gray Davis gubernatorial recall campaign
in 2003, when the action star's magnetism helped him unseat an
undynamic governor who had just been re-elected a year earlier.
"Together, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and L.A. Mayor
Antonio Villaraigosa may represent what voters see as a model for
political leadership in California - the charismatic consensus-builder
whose powers of persuasion enable him to transcend the institutional
weakness of office and rise above partisan gridlock," Tom Hogen-Esch,
assistant professor of political science at California State
University, Northridge, wrote for HispanicVista.com.
"By replacing traditional candidates for governor of
California and mayor of Los Angeles with candidates of exceptional
charisma, consensus-building, stamina and, perhaps, vision, voters may
have significantly raised the bar for future political leadership in
Much of the first two years of Villaraigosa's tenure as
mayor was marked by his exhausting schedule and omnipresence,
especially at celebrity and Hollywood red-carpet events.
To deal with chronic vocal cord problems, he began visiting
a throat doctor, whose patient list includes several famous singers.
But in making a homestretch plea for L.A. to host the 2016
Olympic Games, he may have overreached in boasting about the recent
signing of soccer superstar David Beckham by the Galaxy.
"We've got the beaches, the glitz and the glamour, and now we even have David Beckham," he told the U.S. Olympic Committee.
I think are fine, but I think the U.S. Olympic Committee and the
International Olympic Committee will be focused on the games that you
can provide, the venues and the experience your games will deliver,"
countered Patrick Sandusky, a spokesman for rival Chicago, which
ultimately got the USOC nod.
It is an example that celebrity can have its pitfalls for
politicians - as Baca is learning from the backlash to his involvement
in the botched attempt to free Hilton, experts say.
In addition to the criticism for his role, Baca now faces
the prospect of a recall and possibly a slew of lawsuits from inmates
who feel they received discriminatory treatment while in jail.
"He's fallen into the swamp that seems to happen to all
public people when dealing with celebrities," says Raphael Sonenshein,
a political science professor at California State University,
Fullerton. "It's the blind spot in Los Angeles politics.
If indeed it is, it is a relatively new blind spot, with
politics and celebrity having taken a heightened status during the
years when Bill and Hillary Clinton became fixtures in Hollywood, as
well as the increasing importance of star-studded fundraising for
national campaigns in California.
Veteran political consultant Joe Cerrell, whose political
involvement dates back to Adlai Stevenson's 1952 presidential bid, says
that while charisma and personality took on a life of its own during
the historic nationally televised debates of John F. Kennedy and
Richard Nixon in 1960, it might have been the more recent changing
focus of a revolutionized news media and television that has ultimately
"It may have started with Kennedy," Cerrell says, "but
(President Ronald) Reagan had an impact on changing the way politicians
were viewed and talked about. Now, in the last few days, what you hear
more and more is people talking about Paris Hilton and Villaraigosa in
almost the same breath."
On the same day Hilton was ordered back to jail,
Villaraigosa announced that, despite adamant denials to the contrary in
recent months, he and his wife, Corina, were separating after 20 years
On Monday, even as Hilton's incarceration continued to
dominate local and national newscasts, Villaraigosa publicly accepted
blame for the demise of his marriage. On Tuesday, Corina Villaraigosa
filed for divorce citing "irreconcilable differences."
"In these times, when you see divorced politicians running
for president like (Rudolph) Giuliani, (John) McCain and Fred Thompson,
it's not a death blow to his political career," Cerrell said. "It's
just sad that this is the cost public life has extracted."
In Villaraigosa, that public life at times has meant long hours away from home but in the worshipping presence of fans.
recent party was especially telling. In a room crowded with people,
Golden Globe-winning actor Martin Sheen, a film veteran and star of
NBC's acclaimed "The West Wing," stood against a wall - alone. Nearby,
Villaraigosa held court, surrounded by autograph-seekers.
Fame experts like Houran say this phenomenon is the
outgrowth of the public's obsession with celebrity and a narcissistic
connection to stars and attractive public figures.
"People are always drawn to actors, sports figures and
political leaders because of their looks," said Houran, who pioneered
research at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in 1998
and was part of a national team of scholars who studied celebrities and
their impact on human behavior.
"Good-looking people are treated differently - they're
treated better. Society tends to ascribe all kinds of wonderful traits
to them. And when you connect beauty with success it makes people
believe that what looks good must be good, and (they) aspire to have
what they have," he said.
"This is even more true in politics. Politicians who look
good and sound good tend to be more connected with people than regular
celebrities. Ultimately, a good-looking, charismatic politician is the