A day in court with Paris Hilton

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LOS ANGELES -- My day in court with Paris Hilton, like so many legal proceedings involving celebrities, began with a jostle with other reporters to get into a packed hearing room.

It ended with a ringside seat on the hysterics of the 26-year-old hotel heiress as she was ordered back to jail.

Ushered out by bailiffs, her cries of anguish reverberated behind her as she left the courtroom.

How far removed that moment was from the meticulously controlled interview I was granted in April with Hilton and pal Nicole Richie to promote their collaboration on the reality TV show "The Simple Life."

The contrast between my stage-managed encounter with an immaculately groomed Hilton and her emotional day in court illustrated how thin the veneer of stardom can be.

It also reminded me of a fundamental truth of entertainment journalism -- that celebrities rarely open themselves to public scrutiny unless they have something to sell.

Like the judge who sent her back to jail, I had waited two hours for Hilton to show up for my interview.

When she did appear she was perfectly turned out, sitting opposite me in a bright yellow dress on the set of a Hollywood studio looking aloof and bored.

It was a far cry from the quivering, weeping bundle of raw emotion who pleaded to be allowed to remain under house arrest rather than be forced back to jail to complete her sentence for violating probation in a drunken-driving case.

Her term had been cut to 23 days under a standard credit for good behaviour. She had been released from jail to house arrest after three days due to an unspecified medical condition before a public outcry forced a review of the decision.

Before the interview I was told repeatedly by handlers to avoid any "personal" questions, including queries about the legal difficulties Hilton and Richie then faced.

Publicists cut me off in mid-sentence repeatedly to say I had strayed off-limits. After less than 10 minutes -- I had only been allotted 15 with the pampered pair -- I walked out.

I still ended up with a story -- Hilton and Richie had ducked questions about their traffic arrests and night life but were happy to discuss how they gave enemas to perfect strangers on an upcoming episode of their reality show.

One of the dirty little secrets of Hollywood is that permission to interview or take pictures of stars is almost always granted as a quid pro quo for writing about their next movie, TV show, album or book.

Journalists accept this arrangement -- acquiescing in our role of furnishing free publicity -- in the name of gleaning some "newsworthy" insights into the artists and their art, or their place in popular culture.

It is because access to stars is almost always carefully managed that their unscripted appearances in places like a courtroom are so tantalizing for the press and public.

Whether celebrity worked for or against Hilton in court there was no question that she was well outside her comfort zone during that Los Angeles hearing.

Her handlers and publicists were relegated to the sidelines. She had her lawyers, but they weren't calling the shots.

It was the closest most people come to seeing what the heiress to a hotel fortune looks like early in the morning.

And that's what the press, and by extension the public, came to see.
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