I’ve seen Paris Hilton, her skin a pale greenish-grey against the darkness of her surroundings, her eyes glowing like highlighter ink, perform mediocre fellatio on her well-hungish ex-boyfriend.

And I’ve seen Cameron Diaz’s perky little tan-lined breasts, not in the before-she-was-famous photos now at the centre of a lawsuit, but in some candids snapped on a nude beach by a paparazzo.

I was compelled by the lure of celebrity sleaze to hunt down these images and mpegs after the recent, highly publicized legal controversies over Hilton’s private pornographic video and some erotic photos Diaz posed for before she was famous. Both women have expressed shock and dismay that their indiscretions have surfaced. Yet I don’t feel guilty. I’m morally entitled — as a tax-paying, ticket-buying member of the post-millennial North American Church of the Celebrity — to see and hear and drool over these women’s embarrassing intimacies, past and present. It’s part of the Faustian bargain celebrities strike when they take their extremely privileged public position in society.

A celebrity enjoys a status next to mythological in the worshipping public’s mind; she is not adored and absurdly well-paid for her specific talents but for the intangible quality that makes her larger than life, like the mythological figures of the ancient world, a part of how we understand the order of our universe. The price of such adoration is inviting the public into her personal life. We share in her triumphs and her humiliations. And we want details: good, bad and ugly (though pretty is better, depraved best). Where evidence exists (whether mug shots or home videos), we want to examine it.

Ask Bill Clinton, or Madonna, or Jack Nicholson, or Marilyn Monroe. Giving up your privacy is not part of the deal — it is the entirety of the deal. But this well-known trade-off is not acknowledged by the lawsuits aimed at blocking the publicizing of these materials.

Hilton, who might a year or two ago (when paparazzi photos of her neatly trimmed crotch first appeared on the internet) have protested that she was simply born into a famous family and therefore deserved some privacy, has only recently signed her deal with the devil, appearing in The Cat in the Hat and scheduled to be the star of her own reality show later this season.

But the protestations for modesty seem particularly ridiculous in the case of Diaz, who’s built her career on sex (as an object of open lust in There’s Something About Mary, in posing for fig-leaf cheesecake photos for magazines like Esquire and Maxim, in allowing her butt to be the uncredited but acknowledged star of Charlie’s Angels). She’s as aware as anyone that the lusty thoughts she inspires are the foundation of her celebrity, yet she’s sworn an oath never to show her naughty bits in movies. In this she’s trying to draw a juvenile distinction between sex and pudenda, between explicit lust and explicit nudity.

I suspect that in doing so she’s not as worried about modesty as she is about image control. It’s about money. She’s admitted as much in saying that the reason she wants the photos destroyed is that she’s afraid she won’t get roles in family-friendly movies. Which is a load of hooey: I’ve tried in vain to find a celebrity career that was ruined by the revelation of sexy photos, but generally it provides more of a boost: witness Monroe, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Madonna, Rob Lowe (ultimately), Vanessa Williams, Simon Rex or Vanna White.

Diaz’s real concern is that she’ll look to her public like the type of woman who would pose for naked pictures when she was down on her luck. Pure vanity. But guess what? She is exactly that type of woman. And now, more than ever before, the public thinks there’s nothing wrong with that. Sex and nudity are no longer a big reputation-ruining deal. In truth, these photos change her image not one iota. She’s been coyly advertising her body for years. Now we get to see it.

In today’s celeb-saturated mass mediocracy, image control is impossible, or nearly. You could actually live in a way you’d like your image to reflect: if Hilton, for example, didn’t want people to think she was the type of person who makes low-quality porn videos with her boyfriend, she shouldn’t have made one.

These lawsuits are simply about Hilton and Diaz feeling like their dirty laundry is being aired, their privacy is being invaded. And that’s too bad. They’re entitled to be embarrassed, but they are not entitled to this kind of privacy. The actor at your local community theatre asks to be admired for her talents. The Hollywood star begs to be loved for who she is. That distinction completely removes from celebrities the expectation of privacy to which most of us are entitled.

Besides, no lawsuits are going to put the genie back in the bottle; we all know about what they’ve done and how and, by now, most of those interested have seen the Brazilian-waxed evidence. In the age of easily duplicated videos and the land of a million hard drives, nothing — no matter what the courts rule — stays buried. Pamela Anderson (looking like a genius for maybe the first time in her career) understood this. Instead of trying to keep her pornographic honeymoon video suppressed, Anderson reached a settlement to share in the profits generated by its sale.

Diaz and Hilton should take a cue from Anderson, and from past starlets with nudes in the closet. You can help your career and your pocketbook by accepting the bargain you made with the public and the financial spoils that come with it. Or you can compound your embarrassment by looking like an idiot trying to preserve your constructed image over your well-known and lusted-after reality. Either way, we’ve already seen you naked.

Originally published in Eye Weekly November 27, 2003.