When 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 direct ways."

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 Hills estate.

"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 showmanship.

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.

Celebrity value

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 and adolescents.

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.

Craving sizzle

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 celebrity.

"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 ... ."

Charisma's draw

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 the state."

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.

"Celebrities 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 transformed politics.

"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 of marriage.

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.

One 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 consummate celebrity."


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