Paris Hilton had an improbable dinner date in L.A. Saturday: a gray-haired, orange-robed "shaman" who blessed her and urged her to give a diamond necklace to a total stranger.
Like most everything she does, the event was captured by dozens of cameras. News quickly spread to London tabloids, TMZ.com, the New York Daily News and websites of the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle, who wondered if she'd found religion or was seeking spiritual guidance.
"He's really changed my life," Hilton told paparazzi from her car, adding she offered the necklace "because the greatest gift is to give."
Turns out, as some outlets later discovered, the "mystic" was an actor named Maxie Santillan Jr., who has appeared on "CSI" and "My Name Is Earl." And though some accused Hilton of getting "Punk'd," the joke's on them: The entire scene was staged for a new show from "Punk'd" producer Ashton Kutcher premiering Sunday on E! (10:30 ET/PT).
"Pop Fiction," an eight-episode series, is a prank show targeting paparazzi and gullible media outlets. It's made with the eager help of stars, who were the laughing stocks of Kutcher's former MTV show. This time the shoe's on the other foot, and the series has been kept so tightly under wraps that E!'s own website fell victim to the Hilton hoax and other planted stories that producers won't yet divulge.
In all, says Kutcher's producing partner Jason Goldberg, about 20 celebrities -- including A-list actors whom he declines to identify -- are in on the joke and in "full control" of the pranks. After the producers quietly circulated word of the show's concept, interest among celebs "was pretty heavy."
"You're speaking their language. We live in a culture that's driven by media and obsessed with celebrity, to the point where they don't have private lives anymore," Goldberg says.
"Two people going out to eat turns into, 'They're engaged.' It's a feeding frenzy. It's dangerous and it's irresponsible in some cases."
Goldberg says the show is not meant as a forum for celebrity "whining," but is instead played as a comedy. "We're having fun, but we want to say to people, 'Can you really believe everything you read and see?' "
He claims major media outlets have been duped into reporting false stories about celebrities in recent months, though he would not elaborate.
"This is about selling magazines," he says. "But it's not just at the expense of celebrities; it's at the expense of the population, because they're being sucked into it, too."
The show's segments vary, but generally consist of a sympathetic sit-down interview with a celebrity as they concoct scenarios to dupe the media. Viewers will then see them interacting with the Hollywood press hordes -- "you're going to see how aggressive these people are," Goldberg says -- and the aftermath of the resulting coverage.
Unlike "Punk'd," Kutcher does not appear on camera to confront those who have been hoodwinked. Says Goldberg: "The end results speak for themselves."