As soon as the world became ready to witness one young socialite chase another around a barn with cow dung on her glove, Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton appeared. Twenty years ago, it was that filthy frolic from The Simple Life that marked a turning point in reality television. The genre had recently turned its eye toward celebrities thanks to The Osbournes, The Anna Nicole Smith Show, and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, and a new breed of media-savvy debutantes far removed from Edith Wharton or the Barbizon Hotel wanted to seize the tabloids’ gaze. Here came a show that further legitimized their fame.
The Simple Life’s immediate success — 13 million people watched the premiere on December 2, 2003 — was never a guarantee. Earlier that year, an advocacy group called the Center for Rural Strategies had launched a national campaign protesting The Real Beverly Hillbillies, a CBS reality show that planned to relocate a lower-middle-class family to a Los Angeles mansion and more or less ridicule them. (“Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids,” one tone-deaf network executive quipped.) After CBS nixed the Hillbillies greenlight, WME agent Mark Itkin called The Real World creators Jon Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim with an inverted idea: an unscripted show inspired by the 1960s riches-to-rags sitcom Green Acres. Around the same time, a casting exec at Fox met with a 22-year-old Hilton about potential television opportunities.
Out of those various conversations, The Simple Life was born. Two upper-crusters would spend several weeks living among an all-American family, sans credit cards or stylists, and working the sort of odd jobs that were absent from their spoiled upbringing. Paris’s sister, Nicky, wasn’t interested, so the elder hotel heiress suggested other famous offspring: Casey Johnson, oil scion Brandon Davis, and childhood pal Nicole Richie. Richie came in for a meeting, during which the pair reminisced about their high-school-era mischief. “We rolled tape on it, and when we sent that over to Fox, they said, ‘Magic,’” Murray recalls.
Two decades and a lot of drama later, The Simple Life has an unshakable place in the cultural imagination, helping to cement a reality subgenre fixated on the foibles of the wealthy. The Cut called up a handful of producers who worked on the show to find out what unfolded along the way.
While developing The Simple Life, producers traveled to four Southern states searching for Hilton and Richie’s makeshift family. They asked mayors and chamber-of-commerce officials to recommend local candidates, eventually landing on the Ledings, a multigenerational Arkansas household that stood out because they were so likable and unassuming. “They would be the heroes of the story, in a sense,” Murray says. “They’re the ones who were dealing with these two women who have no idea what happens between Los Angeles and New York City.”
Hilton and Richie’s ease in front of the cameras was a producer’s dream, but those early episodes reveal how much they were still molding their public personas. The exaggerated “baby voice” that became Hilton’s signature drops in and out, and Richie’s madcap charm reaches an inflection point when she angrily pours bleach on a pool table at a dive bar in the sixth episode. Producer Patty Ivins Specht says Richie petitioned her not to air the outburst, but the duo didn’t yet wield that kind of power.
Similar scouting occurred for season two (subtitled “Road Trip,” inspired by Murray and Bunim’s long-running Road Rules) and season three (“Interns”). Producers mapped cross-country treks based on the gigs they arranged for Hilton and Richie. They might be housekeepers at a nudist colony, mechanics at an auto-repair shop, or wedding-cake decorators. By then, the women were savvier. “They’d seen what the audience responded to, and I think at that point you could start to see that maybe they were playing versions of themselves,” Murray says. Hilton has since suggested that the Simple Life brass assigned them “characters”: Richie was the “troublemaker,” and Hilton the “dumb blonde.” However it happened, the baby voice was here to stay. “The whole world assumed that’s who I really was,” Hilton said earlier this year.
Producers say Hilton and Richie were up for anything, mostly. The pink truck they drove in season two could be easily swapped for Greyhound rides the following year. Jeff Jenkins, who became the showrunner during seasons three through five, really wanted them to intern as nuns, but he couldn’t find a Catholic diocese willing to participate. “One bishop wrote me a letter that said, ‘Not only will we not allow Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to come be interns for a week at our parish — we are offended that you would even think we would contemplate this,’” Jenkins recalls.
Of course, some ideas were just too daunting. When developing season four, a Wife Swap–ian premise in which Hilton and Richie filled in for stressed mothers, the pair first agreed to let the show strand them on a deserted island in Fiji — until Jenkins told Hilton that meant no nightclubs. “She was like, ‘Oh, I totally misunderstood. I cannot do that,’” Jenkins says.
Sometimes Hilton and Richie reordered a Sonic marquee to say “½-Price Anal Salty Weiner Burgers.” Other times they sneaked boiled crawfish into designer handbags to avoid upsetting an intimidating boss. They even found themselves staying at the home of a young Kesha, auditioning men to go on a date with her mom. Producers introduced the scenarios, but it was up to Richie and Hilton, more or less, to get themselves across the finish line. “It was almost like an escape room,” says Ross Breitenbach, a director during seasons two and three. “Every once in a while, we kind of had a secret entrance or a secret exit: What if you do this or that? But as soon as they did, they owned the idea — and that’s all that mattered.”
Journalists covering the series often used scare quotes. A 2006 Vanity Fair profile of Richie characterized it as a “so-called reality show.” Our collective understanding of reality television was still developing, and some skeptics struggled to embrace a genre that borrowed documentary techniques but didn’t always adhere to documentary ethics. Murray and his colleagues positioned The Simple Life somewhere in the fuzzy, frothy space between reality and sitcom. It wasn’t scripted, but it was contrived to produce the most amusing results possible.
“You might sit Paris and Nicole next to characters that seemed particularly vibrant,” says Jeff Fisher, a field producer who helped to write the show’s tongue-in-cheek narration, which was meant to evoke Carrie Bradshaw’s pithy scenesetting. “There was a structure. Once you knew what their jobs were going to be, you’d shoot around that.”
Often, Hilton and Richie got through setups without much intervention. When they needed to pay a toll and buy gas in Florida, Richie approached random cars to ask for money. “Their genius is that they know what’s funny,” says producer Claudia Frank, comparing them to Laurel and Hardy. (Others cite Lucy and Ethel.) Take the season three premiere, when Richie stole a police cruiser in New Jersey and drove to a strip mall. None of that was premeditated. If anything, Breitenbach says, the crew was worried such lawlessness would get the production shut down. Instead, Jenkins received an arrest warrant in the mail and paid a penalty to the county. Worth it. He hasn’t set foot in Jersey since.
Even if the creatives tried to engineer everything credibly, these were pampered heiresses unaccustomed to a life lacking in conveniences. After season one aired, Hilton and Richie became global brands, which gave them more leverage while shooting. “I remember one night we had them staying at a family’s house, and Paris and Nicole called me at, like, one in the morning saying, ‘We don’t want to stay here,’” producer Farnaz Farjam says. “I snuck them out and put them in a hotel and brought them back early in the morning.”
Producers insist they never wanted to mock the locals who donated their time to The Simple Life’s antics. The joke was meant to be the ineptitude Hilton and Richie displayed when executing labor tasks, and as far as anybody can recall, no one except New Jersey law enforcement objected to their behavior. Then again, such grievances weren’t as easy to broadcast in an age without Twitter and Instagram. “We didn’t want to be Hollywood assholes rolling in,” Breitenbach says. “We did our best, but I’m sure we rubbed some people the wrong way because we were a circus coming to these small towns.”
Zephyr Lutz-Carrillo, whose Texas family farm was a destination in season two, appreciates the way the series spotlighted regional differences. He and his brother, Sky, kicked back with Richie and Hilton in their trailer and found them far more relatable than their TV personas implied. But when he watched his episode, Lutz-Carrillo felt he and Sky had been “selectively edited” to seem shyer than they are. “They liked using a lot of clips of me laughing and not speaking much,” he says. “It’s all in good fun, though.”
It’s no secret that things sometimes got testy between Richie and Hilton. Two 20-somethings who’d never had to work in their lives were suddenly clocking 12- to 16-hour days. Their private lives were laid bare, too. Neither of them wanted to address tabloid troubles on the show the way the Kardashians later would, but Hilton’s ex-boyfriend leaked their notorious sex tape in 2004 and Richie got out of rehab shortly before the first season began shooting. (Insiders briefly wondered whether they’d need to recast Richie, at which point Ivins Specht says Kathy Hilton asked her to meet with Paris’s aunt, future Real Housewives stalwart Kyle Richards. Ivins Specht reluctantly agreed, but Richards told her she wasn’t interested in leaving her kids for weeks at a time.)
After the first year, the pair’s relationship seesawed. Early in season two, production shut down for several days, with Hilton and Richie threatening to walk away. Murray called their moms to intervene. “They helped work out the disagreement between the girls,” he says. “I think they were just tired. We had a crew of 20 people, we had a schedule, we had delivery dates, and so we needed to keep the train running. Despite everyone thinking they’re scripted, they’re real people. Sometimes these things turn out to be great television, and sometimes they’re a pain in the ass. Everyone came back to work.”
That lapse was a blip compared to the highly public feud that imperiled the show’s future after season three. “Nicole knows what she did, and that’s all I’m ever going to say about it,” Hilton told People in 2005. The details of their clash remain blurry, with various jealousies and personality divides arising. (This Medium post offers a thorough chronicle of what’s been said over the years.) “We were never completely sure what the feud was,” Murray recalls. “Generally, it seemed like Nicole felt Paris should be more thankful to her for bringing her humor to the show, and Paris felt Nicole should be more grateful to her for bringing her into the show in the first place.”
That fall, Fox dropped The Simple Life, which Murray attributes to both the falling-out and a regime change at the network. But producers had resolved Hilton and Richie’s conflicts before, and they felt confident they could do it again. Lisa Berger, then-president of entertainment programming at E!, thought The Simple Life fit perfectly with the fresh DNA that The Girls Next Door and The Gastineau Girls established at the network in 2005. When E! gave the series a new home, Hilton and Richie still weren’t on speaking terms. They shot the fourth season separately, but if there was any hope for a fifth go-round, the higher-ups needed them to reunite. Throughout that year’s shoot, Jenkins and his team reminded Hilton and Richie that what viewers really wanted was to see them together.
“It was all of us recognizing that this series shines when it’s a buddy comedy,” Farjam says. “We really wanted to have another season, so with lots of conversations and lots of realizations, I think everybody agreed, and we brought them back together again.”
There was one condition: no more travel. Hilton and Richie wanted to film in a single location close to home. For season five, The Simple Life Goes to Camp, which premiered in 2007, the producers set up shop at an unoccupied summer camp in Malibu. Hilton and Richie acted as counselors to different groups of kids cast according to themes (beauty-pageant camp, weight-loss camp, theater camp). Farjam remembers talk of a sixth season, but ratings were declining and the show had clearly run its course. E! pulled the plug in 2007. “It was time for us to move on,” Berger says. By then, Hilton was acting, making music, and releasing branded products, and Richie launched a fashion line and soon became a mother.
When Luann and Sonja: Welcome to Crappie Lake premiered on Bravo in July, it had The Simple Life’s prints all over it. The eponymous Real Housewives left their glam squads behind and descended upon the small town of Benton, Illinois, to spearhead community-development projects, host a talent show, and live out of a motel. No wonder the shows were similar: Jeff Jenkins produced Crappie Lake, too, though he lists Schitt’s Creek as its prime influence. He says it was originally pitched to Kathy Hilton, who passed because she didn’t want to encroach on her daughter’s terrain.
The Simple Life inspired copycats right away, starting with international reboots and a spin-off featuring Kelly Osbourne and Kimberly Stewart that never made it to air. In 2005, ten celebrity progeny, including Kourtney Kardashian and George Foreman III, appeared on an analogous E! show called Filthy Rich: Cattle Drive. And in 2006, Aly and AJ Michalka headlined the Disney Channel movie Cow Belles, a scripted knockoff. The Kardashians and the Housewives also owe some of their “famous for being famous” renown to The Simple Life, and not only because an unknown Kim appeared in season four as Paris’s friend. Even Breaking Amish and Undercover Boss channel the same fish-out-of-water foundation, says Danielle Lindemann, a Lehigh University sociology professor and the author of the book True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us.
“Across reality TV, there’s a hunger to watch rich people, like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Lindemann says. “But we also like to make fun of rich people or watch them fall, especially if we’re not rich ourselves. There is some sort of subversive pleasure in seeing someone who is rich portrayed in this ditzy, infantile way. It really teaches us about the impact of social backgrounds in shaping who we become, our attitudes, our values, even what types of tasks we’re able to do.”
Murray says he discusses a potential reboot with Fox, which still owns the rights to The Simple Life, “every few years.” Richie hasn’t shown interest in returning to the show, but Hilton sometimes says she’d be game. (Both declined to speak with the Cut for this story.) “We’ve made lists of people” who could be cast, Murray says, refusing to name names. But could anyone possibly recapture the series’ early charisma?
“Maybe we’d have a slightly different take on it,” he says. “You don’t want to just send two new socialites to a farm somewhere. It’s hard to repeat. Those first and second seasons, that’s what I’m most proud of, because it felt special. Everything about it felt fresh.”