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'A kinder, gentler reality show'


It's The Apprentice meets My Fair Lady.

That's how Kathy Hilton describes her entertaining new NBC reality show, I Want To Be a Hilton, in which she tries to teach 14 regular folks -- cowboys, showgirls, homegirls, clerks, ranch hands -- how to eat escargot, hold a wine glass and live the high-society life.

"It's a feel-good show," says Hilton. "When I signed up for the show, I said I don't want to be involved with anything that would be humiliating. This show isn't mean-spirited or making fun of anybody. It's a kinder, gentler reality show."

In case you've been on a mission to Mars the last several years, Kathy Hilton is that Hilton -- the matriarch of a wealthy, well-known family.

If that little tidbit doesn't ring any bells or jog your memory, perhaps this will -- she's Paris' mom. Ah!

Speaking of the tabloid queen, we all know Paris knows a thing or two about reality shows -- and homemade movies. So, what kind of advice did she give Mom?

"Forget the cameras are there, be yourself and don't trust the producers," Hilton says.

The last piece of advice, though well-intentioned, doesn't really apply. Hilton's moneyed hubby, Rick, after all, is one of the show's executive producers. Unless he has a serious ax to grind, Hilton should come across as a matronly saint -- which she does in the show's first two episodes.

Unlike the lovably gruff Donald Trump who barks "You're fired!" on The Apprentice, Hilton sweetly informs the booted contestants on her show, "One of you will not be on the list."

Not exactly the catchiest of catchphrases, but that's not what Hilton was aiming for. "I really feel like all these people were winners because they all left with something and a wealth of knowledge they will take with them forever," Hilton says.

In the eight-episode series, the wide-eyed rubes are flown to Manhattan where they stay at the historic Melrose Hotel. They compete in weekly challenges involving table manners, the dos and don'ts of haute couture and how to make an impromptu toast at a fancy dinner party.

All the while, they dine on caviar, fly to Southampton and attend fancy-schmancy cocktail parties at stately restaurants.

Of course, I Want to Be a Hilton boasts the usual suspects of reality show characters. The gay guy. The bossy black woman. The hick. The diva. The hot girl. The token black guy.

So far the standouts are Ann, a former Miss Tampa who loves singing everything she has to say; Yvette, the leggy Las Vegas dancer and shameless kiss-up; and Latricia, the sassy motor vehicles clerk who called one party "off the hook."

As expected, most of the fish-out-of-water candidates vying for a palatial Manhattan apartment, a wardrobe and a $200,000 trust fund have a lot to learn about gliding into high society.

They attack free buffets like NFL linemen on lunch break. One kind-hearted Texan lives in a mobile home that costs less than a pair of Hilton's shoes. One guy can't even pronounce the word etiquette. One lady thinks The 21 Club, a legendary New York City restaurant, is a "gambling place."

It all makes for a harmless -- and mostly fun -- hour of television as Hilton, who calls herself a "cheerleader" and "den mother," takes it all in stride. She genuinely appears interested in imparting life lessons that have nothing to do with money. Hilton says she's often surprised at how many rich people could use a crash course in Etiquette 101.

"I've been at very elegant dinner parties where you're in somebody's beautiful apartment or their home and they have gorgeous art on the wall and someone doesn't even know which fork to use," she says. "Money doesn't buy class."

It does, however, buy a spot as mistress of ceremonies for I Want to Be a Hilton, a good-natured hoot.

I Want To Be a Hilton

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WBAL (Channel 11)

In brief: Surprise! Reality TV with grace, heart and humor.

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