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Happiness is a whoring sea donkey! "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" and "Denise Richards: It's Complicated" usher in the summer of the sensitive slut.

Published June 15, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

America loves a whore. We're a nation of whores, after all -- just try holding down a job in this great land of ours without compromising your values and shortchanging your best ideas. We grow up hearing "Be yourself!" and "Follow your dreams!" but the marketplace tramples all over such fanciful rainbows-and-unicorns notions of identity and self-respect with its big, dirty, hobnailed boots. Thus are plucky, original human beings transformed into polite, agreeable team players, anxious to waste a lifetime kowtowing to the lowest common denominator.

Once you sell a big part of your soul for a hot slice of the American dream (something about grassy lawns, enormous mortgages and life insurance policies you can't afford), you've set the stage for a lifetime of doing stupid, demeaning shit just to make your nut. When you recognize that your "success" in life has cemented you on a path of unending compromise, getting paid to get screwed up the ass by a stranger really doesn't seem like that much of a stretch.

So sure, we'll tsk-tsk over Eliot Spitzer's ambitious harlot or Heidi Fleiss' slut brigade, but underneath it all, we know they're kindred spirits, throwing a little leg to get a leg up in a world gone mad.

Hollywood loves a happy hooker
Don't believe all that hair tearing and eye rolling over women of ill repute for a minute. No matter what we Americans might say when the microphone is on, ethical lapses for the sake of filthy lucre only outrage us temporarily, because we're guilty (or could easily be guilty) of the same moral slippage. We've been compromising our ideals since way back in the days when we still had ideals to compromise.

While we accept the practicality of whoring, "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" (premieres 10 p.m. EDT on Showtime), the new U.K. comedy import based on a nonfiction book written by a real-life hooker, expects us to believe that showing up to a hotel room to slobber on the turgid knob of a total stranger constitutes a damn good time. Maybe this song and dance plays in the valiant and proper U.K., but here in the land of whoring whores and whoremongerers, we know better.

Billie Piper, the plucky sidekick from "Doctor Who" who has apparently had her rainbows and unicorns stomped to bits in the intervening years, brings a certain awkward, pensive quality to her quantum leap into the land of professional ladies of the night. Nonetheless, she makes it crystal clear that Hannah Baxter, a 27-year-old college graduate who leads a double life as a high-priced London prostitute, passionately loves her line of work, whether it involves saddling up a large naked man with enormous mutton chops or straddling a "sweet" married guy whose wife has cruelly refused to sleep with him for five years running. (Do call girls really swallow their johns' tall tales so unquestioningly?) Yes, Hannah (aka Belle de Jour) loves getting wrinkled fingers from shower after shower and loves putting on pretty underthings and loves painting her nails, and although we don't see her laundering her sheets and douching and gargling mouthwash and staying up late at night worrying about STDs, we can only assume that these are mere technicalities for her, like missing your train to the city or restarting a crashed computer.

Certainly the first few encounters Hannah has with customers are beyond pleasant: There's the hot guy who ends up making out with Hannah on her couch and then telling her his life story while giving her a back rub (who knew prostitution could be so romantic?). There's the sophisticated man who takes Hannah to an adult party, where she meets and gets down with her favorite author (handsome, smart, smooth, respectful -- you know, the typical sort of man you meet at an orgy). Later, there's the American producer who gets Hannah her own luxury apartment, encourages her to follow her dreams, and spends most of his time going down on her or bathing her (of course we know he'll get all petulant and self-involved soon enough). Aside from one vaguely menacing encounter, which ends quickly when Hannah merely raises her voice and demands that the guy leave, Hannah's experiences make the life of the high-priced hooker look like an upbeat, sexy fairy tale.

But then the sad music plays while Hannah rolls around in bed in skintight sleepwear, smoking and pouting her enormous lips and blinking her saucer eyes and mulling over her ... loneliness? Regrets? Guilt? Hopes and dreams? It's tough to say, really, though it's clear enough that these scenes are one part character development, three parts soft porn.

We do learn more about Hannah when she confides in her best friend and former boyfriend Ben (Iddo Goldberg), yet another hot guy with a fiancée in the wings (who, although we don't see her face, obviously must pale in comparison to the luminous and triumphantly slutty Hannah). But does Hannah love Ben? Does Ben love Hannah? We can only guess that for the first season of the show (eight episodes in all, which have already aired to a mix of praise and controversy in the U.K.), the two will marinate in sexual tension until we viewers at home are forced to turn to each other and say, "Hey, why don't those two attractive humans, who are best mates after all, just get married and have some kids and trade in literal whoring for the sort of figurative whoring that the rest of us do -- you know, the respectable kind of whoring where you grab ankle and take it from The Man on a daily basis?"

But that will never happen, of course, since this is a show about a literal whore -- it's in the title and everything. Plus, we're meant to understand that spreading her legs for strange men is Hannah's true calling in life. She's strong and confident and unconventional, a real role model for future high-priced whores the world over.

Now, while I realize my entire description makes the show sound hopelessly shallow and unrealistic (which it is), it's also smart and well acted and at times, funny. Each episode pulls you in with a perky little story, then progresses at a sprightly clip and sprinkles in enough mooning and melancholy that you don't want to choke the life out of Hannah with your bare hands before it's all through. Indeed, the relationships between Hannah and Ben, Hannah and her boss, Hannah and her johns, feel genuine and almost touching, even as the scenarios sometimes border on the fantastic.

I'll just come out and admit it: Like most clever, sleazy things, "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" is addictive. When Hannah consults a seasoned dominatrix for advice on how to please a client who wants to be treated like the bad, bad boy that he is or when Hannah is forced to cooperate with another prostitute to please a client, the story takes unexpectedly light and likable turns along the way. You may find yourself rolling your eyes and scoffing at the sugarcoated, loving, lighthearted encounters with paying customers and the repeated assertions by Hannah that her job is just one big lucrative blast, but you'll still want to catch the next episode -- good acting and writing can have that effect, no matter how debased or unreal or foolish the premise may be.

And look, maybe there are some deliriously happy whores in the world. Just because we don't enjoy getting sodomized by The Man, that doesn't mean that a bunch of unflappable sexpots out there don't genuinely love it.

Slut, interrupted
Speaking of unflappable sexpots, it seems that tabloid regular and star of "Wild Things" Denise Richards has her very own reality show on E! and -- brace yourself -- it's actually pretty good, as far as these sorts of shows go.

Now granted, the competition includes some of the worst shows in history: "Being Bobby Brown" (which confirmed that Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston were out of their minds), "Britney & Kevin: Chaotic" (which confirmed that Spears was both crazy and utterly vapid), "The Anna Nicole Show" (which confirmed that Smith was nuts and heavily sedated), and "Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica" (which confirmed that Nick and Jessica were a match made in hell). But "Denise Richards: It's Complicated" (10 p.m. EDT Sundays on E!) is pretty damn entertaining, largely due to the unself-conscious, foul-mouthed banter of Denise herself.

Now let's be honest: Like most of the known world, I've always suspected Denise Richards was a complete idiot. She's not exactly the greatest actress in the world, she has the empty eyes of a dumb animal, and last but not least, she married Charlie Sheen. Suspicions confirmed.

But as it turns out, Richards isn't so much dumb as she is guileless. She just doesn't think things through that much. When her agent tells her that Playboy wants her to do another cover, for example, Richards is pleased, has no qualms, and doesn't see the decision in terms of her career trajectory at all. "I've learned to just embrace it and be who I am," she tells him. "I've made a lot of money with my boobs! " Later she says, "People have already seen me naked, so ... what the hell?"

Even though those might sound like the words of your standard-issue slut, there's something in Denise's delivery that's likable, maybe because she doesn't seem to take her image or what she does for a living all that seriously. She's thinking practically here: For some reason, people have given me a couple million to take my clothes off. Shouldn't I do it again, and get more money?

This is the simple math of a natural-born whore. In fact, while Hannah of "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" is clearly a romanticized, melodramatic version of her real-life counterpart, Denise Richards' clear-cut pragmatism probably comes closer to the thinking of the real Belle de Jour. You want to see my tits? Sure, why not? Charlie Sheen wants to marry me? What the hell, maybe he's turning over a new leaf.

Naturally Denise's friends (who seem reasonably smart, another shock) spend most of their time steering her away from the rocks: Don't pose for Playboy again, dummy! Stop dating spoiled actors and rock stars and find someone nice! Don't go to your meeting with Joel Silver dressed like a big slut! ("My sister doesn't recognize me, I feel uncomfortable, and my dad loves it," Denise says of the conservative clothing she eventually wears to the meeting, "so I've got the perfect outfit!")

For all the times her friends and family are "up her ass" (Denise's words, not mine), she seems to take it all in stride. "Here's Denise [on YouTube], making out with another woman," one friend says, to which Denise merely murmurs casually, "She has nice lips. We had a good time." And her relationship with her ultra-normal father, Irv, who's lived with her since her mother passed away from cancer not long ago, seems warm and genuine, even healthy. Somehow he manages not to get all that rattled about her career as a hoochie mama, telling her he wishes she wouldn't pose for Playboy but finally saying, with a laugh, "Now I'm gonna have to cancel my subscription again!"

In short, you'd think that a reality show about Denise Richards would be a totally depraved three-ring circus of press-hungry idiocy, image-conscious strategizing, slutty foolishness and self-involvement, but after watching three episodes in a row, I felt like I'd been hanging out with a somewhat unconventional Midwestern family with a good sense of humor.

There's a shared assumption that these sorts of celebreality shows are pure drivel, that they're part of the celebrity-obsession of our culture, that they feed our pathetic fixation on stars. And while it doesn't exactly qualify as high art, in many ways, "Denise Richards: It's Complicated" is an antidote to celebrity culture, simply because Richards doesn't seem all that invested in appearing better or more glamorous than she actually is. She's an ordinary person with a thick Midwestern accent and a dirty mouth, and that startling revelation underscores just how little we learn about stars when we see them in the press, either in sanctioned publicity stills, chatting about their interior decorators or their favorite hair products, or in merciless attack pieces or nasty "look at her cellulite!" shots. Obviously both Denise and her ex-husband have made some bad decisions along the way, and it's unclear to me why court documents in divorce cases don't remain private so that both parties don't end up having their dirty laundry aired in public. Even so, it's a testament to the ugliness of celebrity reporting that Denise Richards' vague resemblance to an ordinary human being should come as such a shock.

By the end of the episode, Denise decides against doing another Playboy cover. Spelling so her kids can't tell what she's saying, she tells her dad, "I decided to do the cover of Shape instead of P-L-A-Y-B-O-Y and that way I can still be S-E-X-Y without being too S-L-U-T-T-Y, and people won't think I'm a W-H-O-R-E."

We'll probably still think you're a whore, Denise. But that just makes you one of us.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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