America's obsession with celebrity reached a fever pitch last week as Paris Hilton voyeurs paid $39.97 to subscribe to a Web site that has catalogued the scarlet letters of her larger-than-lusty life -- 18 personal diaries, sex tapes, topless photos, love notes, medical records and friends' phone numbers scribbled on paper napkins.
The highly personal collection -- even for a star who has flaunted everything from her micro dog to her public puss -- has been flogged on the Web site parisexposed.com. Hilton's paper and digital trail was reportedly acquired after she failed to pay the $208 fee on her Los Angeles storage locker in 2005 -- one she rented while moving between mansions.
Hilton filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles Monday seeking to shut down the site and alleging that defendants Nabil and Nabila Haniss paid $2,775 for the belongings before turning around and selling the goods for $10 million to entrepreneur Bardia Persa and David Hans Schmidt, known as the "Sultan of Sleaze" because of his ties to the celebrity porn industry.
"The suit speaks for itself, it's pretty comprehensive," said Elliot Mintz, Hilton's representative.
The collection could be worth $20 million, according to Schmidt. His Web site has been overwhelmed with traffic, proving that one woman's trash can be another man's treasure.
But some, including Paris Hilton and her lawyers, say the invasion of privacy boundaries has gone too far.
Celebrity Worship Is on the Rise
"This is certainly a smart move from a business standpoint," said psychologist James Houran, author of the book "Celebrity Worshippers: Inside the Minds of Stargazers."
"Celebrity worship is big business," he said. "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?"
Celebrities tap into powerful motivational systems designed to foster romantic love, according to experts. Stars summon the most basic human yearnings: to love, admire, copy and, of course, to gossip and to jeer.
"Celebrity equals fame," said Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired magazine. "You can't have fame and privacy. There is no privacy even for celebrities."
That notion of privacy, particularly in cases of property rights, is blurred even further in the age of the Internet, according to Scott Altman, professor of law at the University of Southern California. "One of the challenges is that the Internet frequently allows for people other than the wrongdoer to distribute and profit from invasions of privacy."
"If someone steals something from Paris Hilton's locker, and through a series of transactions someone comes to possess something embarrassing or compromising and it ends up on the Internet, it goes everywhere. A third party is always in an ambiguous position as to stolen and compromising goods, but on the Internet the harm is so much swifter and greater," Altman said.
Back in 2005, Schmidt told the Los Angeles Times that Hilton's diaries contained "everything that would be dear to a woman's heart: relationships, personal feelings, sex, love, breakups, sexual experiences -- all those little things that make up a little girl's life -- her deepest, darkest secrets."
Random items included bottles of the prescription drugs used for anxiety and sleep and a herpes medication. Also catalogued on the Web site are: a medical bill for a miscarriage in March 2003 under the billing name "Amber Taylor" -- with the same birth date as Hilton; her sister's marriage certificate; videos of visits to her sick grandmother; and bank statements -- one with a balance of $9.26.
Video footage includes a series of short tapes of a naked Hilton being filmed by Joe Francis, the "Girls Gone Wild" creator, and her former fiancé, Jason Shaw. Hilton's friends' phone numbers are scrawled on everything from envelopes to soiled napkins.
Airing the heiress's dirty linens may say more about the celebrity-crazed culture than it does about the age-old huckster business.
Hall's Reports of Stamford, Conn., which tracks magazine content, counts more pages devoted in recent years to entertainment and celebrity news, in titles as various as Us Weekly and National Geographic
In 2003, New Scientist magazine reported that one-third of all Americans were suffering from "celebrity-worship syndrome," a phenomenon that was on the rise.
In one of the largest studies of its kind in Britain at the University of Leicester in 2004, researchers claimed celebrity worshipers were harming their health by choosing their idols rather than face every day stresses. Their studies suggested that intense-personal worshippers use neurotic ways of coping, such as living in a state of denial.
Celebrity Worship Scale
"There is a stalker in all of us," warned Houran, who pioneered research at 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. He uses a celebrity worship scale to evaluate potential for harm.
"The most severe forms of this behavior have strong correlations with heightened levels of anxiety, depression and poor body image in women," said Houran. "This shouldn't surprise us."
While normal fans appreciate the skills and talents of their chosen celebrities, more fanatic celebrity seekers show signs of mental deficiencies. A worst-case example is Mark David Chapman, who stalked and killed John Lennon in 1980.
"They are different from normal fans," said Houran, whose research showed that celebrity worship does not just fall into healthy and unhealthy categories, but, moves predictably along a continuum.
When ordinary interest in celebrities like Paris Hilton moves from water cooler talk to seeking out personal items on the Internet, normal boundaries are crossed.
"That kind of interest in celebrity is irrespective of age, gender, type of celebrity - be it musician, actor, sports hero or political leader," he said.
Houran's Celebrity Worship Scale takes on three stages. The first is the "entertainment or social phase," where there is a healthy, voluntary interest in celebrities as an escape from stress and to increase social bonding.
"Hey, did you see a game last night or 'Desperate Housewives?'" asked Houran. "It brings people together who voluntarily immerse in fantasy, then leave and go and lead normal lives."
The second stage is the "intense-personal" stage when a celebrity worshipper shows addictive or compulsive elements of behavior. "People withdraw from family and friends and believe they have a close relationship with a celebrity and personal insights into their lives," explained Houran. "They might believe the celebrity is a soul mate and have frequent thoughts even when they don't want to."
The final stage involves "borderline pathologicals" who have a clinical problem with their celebrity obsession. "These people not only say they have a have close personal connection, but they are ready to act on an irrational belief," said Houran. "If my favorite celebrity asked me to do something illegal as a favor, I would do it."
At this level, fans are writing love notes to David Letterman or planning to break into George Clooney's house -- or worse.
"Loyalty is an illusion," said Houran. "These are people they don't even know."
Those who are less likely to move up the celebrity worship scale have strong, extroverted personalities. The most vulnerable are those who are more neurotic and tense, more narcissistic and impulsive -- "the kind of person who tends to act before thinking about it," according to Houran. Those who move furthest along the unhealthy scale usually experience high levels of anxiety and depression.
"From a social standpoint, people who are strong celebrity worshippers are lonely and desperate and feel disconnected from their social group," said Houran. "They may be going through an identity crisis, a divorce, a job loss."
Seeking Paris Hilton's Loyalty
Or -- as in the case of the vacuous, but vivacious Paris Hilton -- they seek to "identify with someone who can return unconditional love and acceptance."
Celebrity worship is fueled not only by the Internet, but by television shows that blur the line between entertainment and news -- "shrinking the distance between fans and celebrities" -- and the reality shows that make "everyone a celebrity," he said.
Not all celebrity promoters are evil -- many are positive mentors, giving their names to charity and serving as positive forces in society.
But warns Houran, Web sites like exposedparis.com exploit celebrity worshippers who are "already on a slippery slope," he said. "Any business that seeks to encourage false relationships instead of real ones feeds a special problem. It's like showing a piece of chocolate to a person on a diet."
Now, it will be up to the courts to decide whether in this case, any laws were broken.