Festival Daily

By Ghita Loebenstein

Once upon a time celebrity status was the reward for producing great works of art. Now fame is bestowed on people who simply trade on being themselves. Although both had a knack for opportunism, celebrity heiress Paris Hilton and reality TV star Pedro Zamora approached the getting of fame from very different angles.

Zamora recognized the power of reality television when it was in its infancy, and turned a burgeoning small-screen concept into a platform for social change. Hilton used a sex tape scandal and the ubiquitous power of the Internet to fashion herself into a multi-million dollar brand. In the films Pedro and Paris, Not France, first-time directors Nick Oceano and Adria Petty focus on the role of celebrity in wielding the influence of one’s own publicity machine.

In Paris, Not France, Petty takes a look at the making of one of this century’s most iconic faces. From a Page 6 darling to an accidental porn star, a reality television personality, and now a global media brand, Paris Hilton is the ultimate self-made celebrity – a woman whose fame is as vexing as it is alluring.

“What intrigues me the most about her is how mysterious she is and what an incredible relationship she has with the camera,” says Petty, speaking from Los Angeles. “She has this incredible resilience and a kind of magic to her.”

Five years ago, few people would have associated the name “Paris” with anything but the city. Today, however, Hilton enjoys a unique kind of celebrity. “Paris is an icon for this generation, based on the dawn of a new media age. She was the first celebrity created through the “viral-ness” of the Internet. She stoked that engine so effortlessly and spoke the language of this new media so well.”

So successful was Hilton’s creation that she transformed the nature of celebrity, definitively proving that you can be famous simply for being famous. In the process she fashioned a new genre of notoriety: the celebutante. “She created an aspirational being that a lot of Americans responded to: a slim, tanned, blonde, rich person that doesn’t have to work. She just walks around and is recognized as being fabulous. But the irony of Paris is that she works extraordinarily hard to define her image.”

Hilton was born an heiress but has become a shrewd businesswoman. The deeper reality suggested by Petty’s film is that as the line between celebrity and brand narrows, “Paris, the woman” finds herself increasingly distanced from “Paris, the brand.” While her core messaging says “be whoever and do whatever you want,” in Paris, Not France we see her tightly directed by a bevy of brand managers, image makers and publicists. So, is Paris still the master of her image or is she simply stuck on a treadmill of her own making? “She works incredibly hard, but I think that that’s part of her makeup and the way she likes to move,” says Petty. “She’s the James Brown of the blondes. She’s very, very hard-working. She will show up and she will deliver, no matter what’s going on in her personal life.”

If there’s a point at which Hilton’s celebrity finds commonality with the subject of Nick Oceano’s biopic Pedro, it would be this willingness to live one’s life on camera. Pedro Zamora became famous as a contestant on the third season of MTV’s early-90s hit The Real World, one of the first shows to successfully turn reality TV into high-rating entertainment.

On the third season of The Real World, there were two people competing for the spotlight. One was Puck, an obnoxious Californian bike messenger who became the blueprint for the modern reality TV star. “He was completely self-involved and egotistical,” says Pedro’s co-producer Wash Westmoreland. “He knew how to get camera time. He knew how to get sound bites.” The other was Zamora. “When you look at the TV show you see the difference in their approach. Pedro used celebrity for a social political cause rather than self-promotion and egotism.”

As a young, gay Latino man living with HIV, Zamora was a passionate HIV/AIDS activist. In The Real World, he saw a loud speaker for his message. He used the cameras to bare his life story to the world, speaking freely about living as a homosexual man and offering himself as a real-life example of what it meant to live with HIV at a time when misconceptions about the disease and the homosexual community were rife in America.

“Pedro [was on the show] for a political mission, but that mission was very much tied in with his personal life story,” says Westmoreland. “He took this incredibly brave step in 1994, just when the perception of AIDS was that it was the scariest kind of death sentence and the perception of gay people was not at all what it is today.”

First-time director Nick Oceano was 18 when The Real World premiered. As a young Hispanic gay man, he felt enormously empowered by Zamora. “In the Hispanic community, if you’re HIV-positive and gay, that’s a big no-no,” he says. “I was very moved and impacted by the fact that he made the choice to take something that’s so private and make it so public. He was unapologetic about who he was. It was definitely a touchstone for people of my generation, who were enthralled by this character who dispelled all types of stereotypes.” Zamora made it safe for America to start talking realistically about HIV/AIDS, and ultimately helped Oceano to feel comfortable enough to come out of the closet.

Zamora had the foresight to see that reality TV had the potential to be huge, but more so that he could harness its powers for good. “I think he was aware of the media, of his image being on television, and of the impact that would have,” says Oceano. “For me, it took away all these thoughts I had about people who were HIV-positive: that they were diseased and undesirable, that they were people who preyed on children – things that society [told] us. I certainly didn’t think it could be somebody young, charismatic and full of life. His presence said a lot to me.”

Zamora affected the lives of ordinary Americans. “I mentioned to my next-door neighbour a few months ago that we were making this movie about Pedro Zamora, and asked if he knew who he was,” says Westmoreland. “He said, ‘Of course I know who Pedro Zamora is. What he did, that took balls. That really, really took balls.’ So here’s a straight, working-class guy with his girlfriend, and Pedro touched him. [Pedro] had the courage to say it, and people needed to hear it.”

Sept. 9, 6:00pm, Ryerson

Sept. 7, 3:15pm, AMC 2    
Sept. 9, 8:45pm, AMC 10   
Sept. 13, 12:00pm, AMC 1