by Tom Johnson
Ville Voice Correspondent
One of the dirty little not-so-secrets of Derby Week is that a lot of the celebrities who come to town are getting paid to do so. We may imagine the ‘Ville to be the center of the world this week, and to those in the thoroughbred business it certainly is, but for celebrities Derby is as much about cash cows as it is fast horses.
The celebrity guest that has everyone talking this year is Paris Hilton, who will make appearances at both the Barnstable-Brown Party and the official Barnstable-Brown after party. The after party will be held at the just-opened Sports and Social Club in 4th Street Live. The Sports and Social Club is, of course, a collaboration between the Cordish Company, developer of 4th Street Live, and Mayor Jerry Abramson, who forked over almost $950,000 in taxpayer money to get the club remodeled and open in time for Derby.
Keep in mind that Paris Hilton isn’t worth as much as everyone assumes. Daddy’s billions are destined for a charitable foundation, and various estimates put Paris’s trust fund at between $20 million and $50 million. Assuming reasonable investment scenarios, and remembering that the last year hasn’t been kind to those living on investment income, her fortune throws off between $1-million and $4-million a year.
A lifestyle of private jets and top hotels can burn through that fast. If you think of Paris Hilton as a business, and I guarantee that even if Paris doesn’t think of herself as a business, she has lots of people around her who do, she has to find ways to reduce costs and increase revenue, while preserving the Paris Hilton brand. It’s that last part that’s tricky. If you’re going to keep being Paris Hilton, you can’t secure your financial future by endorsing a K-Mart clothing line or marrying an elderly rich guy.
So Paris does what lots of celebrities do: she rents herself out for appearances at hi-glam media events. It’s a brilliant solution. She cuts costs by spending a few days living on someone else’s credit card, increases revenue by pocketing a big appearance fee, and reinforces her brand by showing up where the action is, at the wildest party (insert city name here) has ever seen.
Celebrity appearance fees are based on a complicated calculation that balances the publicity the celebrity will generate and the downside of failing to generate that publicity. If you’re opening a $10 million nightclub and your whole investment depends on not fizzling opening night, it’s worth a lot to have paparazzi-attracting celebrities strutting in through the front door.
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How much is the potential for worldwide publicity worth? It wasn’t too many years ago that Hilton asked $50,000 for a one-hour walk-through. During the bubble years her rates, like everyone else’s, skyrocketed. (Kevin Federline asked and apparently received $20,000 per appearance, a sure sign of what Alan Greenspan called a frothy market.) Hilton has denied reports that she received a half-million dollars for a night of drinking and dancing at the opening of a Las Vegas nightclub. Various gossip columnists have reported her appearance fee at between $37,500 and $150,000. Since the crash, those who follow this kind of thing say appearance fees have plummeted.
What Paris will get for dropping by Derby will likely never be publicly acknowledged. Donít expect journalists to look into it, because there’s nothing that brings out the booster in local media like Derby. Admitting that we pay people to come to our party would be unseemly and would diminish the glamor of reporting live from inside the velvet rope. For the same reason, none of those either writing or cashing the checks are going to talk about it, either. Why risk blowing an illusion that serves everyone so well?
A far more interesting question than how much, it seems to us, is who? Who’s writing the check that will bring Paris to the ‘Ville? Is it the Barnstable-Brown Foundation, which knows a thing or two about leveraging fame to attract ticket-buyers and enable a significant contribution to charity? Is it the Cordish Company, which just got $950,000 in taxpayer money to remodel a nightclub into which most of Louisville’s taxpayers will never set foot? Or is it some combination of the two?
Thatís the real question, and it likely won’t be answered any time soon.
Tom Johnson is a Louisville writer who will appear anywhere, anytime for a two-drink minimum. He operates the blog LouisvilleJuice.com.