To hear the locals tell it, only once did the town of Altus, Ark., get a first-hand glimpse of the Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie of tabloid notoriety. Taking a break last spring from filming The Simple Life, the FOX reality series that plunks the two Beverly Hills socialites smack dab in the middle of farm country to see how they’d survive, Hilton and Richie, both 22, entered an Altus bar, Alligator Ray’s, with two teenage boys they’d met in town. Around 10 p.m., the bar’s curfew for under-21 patrons, the boys were ordered out—prompting an enraged Richie, daughter of singer Lionel Richie, to take a bottle of bleach sitting nearby and pour it all over a pool table (the show’s producers paid $600 for the damaged table).
As for Hilton, an heir to the hotel fortune, well, “she was always kind of flaunting herself,” says Steve Woodard, owner of Alligator Ray’s. While chatting up some customers—and this was long before the sex tapes of Paris and an ex-boyfriend ended up on the Internet last month—”she just reached down and pulled her miniskirt up. Up to her waist. She was wearing a thong. That got a lot of attention.” But for the most part, he says, Paris and Nicole (who later apologized for the pool-table incident) “seemed like normal people,” albeit the kind who carried their Louis Vuitton purses to work on a dairy farm. “This was just a totally different world to them,” says Janet Leding, 39, whose family hosted the girls for 30 days last spring.
The Ledings—Janet and her husband, Albert, 41, an accountant and grape farmer; their sons Justin, 19, Cayne, 15, and Braxton, 4; and Albert’s parents, Richard, 76, and Curly, 72—were chosen by FOX producers out of the half-dozen local families suggested by the town’s mayor. As Janet recalls the mayor’s pitch, “It would be like hosting exchange students.” Result: predictable culture shock on both sides. The girls were appalled at sharing one bathroom with the whole family—which left Albert bemused. “I was one of eight kids,” he says. “We’re used to working out [bathroom] routines here. When you bring in two complete strangers, it sort of throws that off a bit.” His wife laughs, “Oh, it was real crowded. But the boys knew to rush in and rush out.”
Gradually the Ledings and their houseguests warmed to each other. “They were both all right to talk to,” says Justin. After a while, though, “it got a little annoying,” he says. “They were always talking about parties and partying. That’s pretty much it. And they’re real immature, especially Paris. When she had to go to do something, she would whine about it.”
Such as being awakened at 5 a.m. to report for work at a neighbor’s dairy farm 20 miles away. “They didn’t want to work,” says the dairy’s owner, Danny Council. In the end, though, “they did milk 40 cows by themselves and did a good job of it.”
Since filming ended, says Janet, “we’ve talked to them a couple of times just to see how they’re doing.” But that was before Paris’s sex-tape scandal, which the Ledings decline to discuss. They’d rather remember their favorite Paris and Nicole moments from The Simple Life, such as “when my grandma tried to get them to pluck the chickens,” says Justin. “They didn’t like that at all.” In contrast, the Ledings like how they and their neighbors are portrayed on the show. “Rural life,” says Al, “comes off pretty good.”
Michael A. Lipton. Steve Barnes in Altus