Busted Heartthrob

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington. -- Hugh Grant's arrest has changed my mind about prostitution.

My libertarian side has long felt it should be legalized. It is, after all, a victimless crime. The other crimes, sins and catastrophes that have come to be associated with prostitution (drugs, pimps, extortion and AIDS, to name a few) could all be better controlled and even eliminated if we only legalized and regulated this underground industry the way some of our European neighbors do.

But I have second thoughts about that in the wake of film star Mr. Grant's humiliating arrest for engaging in what Los Angeles police described as a lewd act with a "known prostitute," Divine Marie Brown, 23, in Mr. Grant's white BMW on a residential street in Hollywood.

For all we would gain from legalizing and regulating this barely underground business, we would lose a lot of entertainment value.

Since Mr. Grant's bust near the Sunset Boulevard corner where Ms. Brown climbed into his car in the wee hours of a night in late June -- under the watchful eyes of vice cops, as it turned out -- his little tryst has caught the nation's fancy in an astonishing way, even for a Hollywood sex scandal.

Coincidentally, President Clinton's former press-secretary-turned-CNBC-talk-show-host Dee Dee Myers, 33, was charged with drunk driving that same night, June 27, here in Washington, but that was sad. Drunk driving is not a victimless crime and drunkenness has lost its charm these days. So we feel sad about Dee Dee -- and we feel glad about Hugh!

Yes, glad. Seldom have I seen the nation gripped with such sheer, unbridled Schadenfreude, that sinfully delicious joy one tastes only through the misery of others. Let me count the ways:

Here's a fellow who, in a fairy-tale fashion, suddenly finds himself blessed with just about everything the material world could offer a human. He has fame, wealth, youth (he's 34), drop-dead good looks and a girlfriend, Estee Lauder model Elizabeth Hurley, 29, who makes a living out of being gorgeous.

He also has a super-hit movie, "Four Weddings and a Funeral," on his resume and another potential hit, "Nine Months," now opening in theaters that, if successful, could raise his asking price to millions of dollars per picture.

So, I hate him. Don't you hate him? Be honest.

Breathes there a man with heart so dead that never in his life has said, "Hmmmmmm, I'd sure like to trip that bloke (or words to that effect) into a mud hole"?

Breathes there a woman with heart so dead that never in her life has said of some stuck-up pretty boy, "I'd like to comb his perm with Super Glue"?

Well, gotcha! It happened. Men are delighted to see that one of the world's hottest heartthrobs has to (gasp!) pay for "it." Women are just as delighted to see that cute guy with the goofy grin marched off to the woodshed to get his comeuppance from his infuriated girlfriend.

And Schadenfreude is not the only emotion on display here. One woman faxed a message to one of CNN's daytime talk shows to ask why Mr. Grant would hire a hooker when millions of other women ("including me," she said) would do it for free.

That, in an age when it has become increasingly difficult to shock anyone, seems to the most shocking matter in this story.

It certainly seemed to be a big question for the Sun, a British tabloid that posted flyers in Los Angeles with a photo of the divine Ms. Divine Brown and an offer of $150,000 for a "world exclusive interview with Hugh Grant's lady of the night."

She took them up on it, according to "Entertainment Tonight," which quoted the Sun quoting Ms. Brown quoting Mr. Grant as saying he did it because he had always wanted to have sex with a black woman, which, by the way, Ms. Brown is.

Ah, as my old city editor used to say, what a story. Besides sex, stardom, sex, wealth and, in case we forget, sex, it also strikes a blow, so to speak, for better race relations.

It says a lot about our ambivalent Anglo-American morals these days that so much of our media, while innocently muttering tut-tuts of disapproval at Mr. Grant, coyly play down the untidy little fact that Mr. Grant and his girlfriend are not married.

Instead, the coverage pumps up the couple's virtue with reverent references to their "stable eight-year relationship."

What twaddle. I am old enough to remember when "shacking up" would have been a scandal in itself. But, like it or not, standards change. Who knows? A few decades from now, maybe Hugh and his hooker will be seen as ahead of their time.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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