Rich to Rural: Reality series shakes up Arkansas town

When Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie arrived in Arkansas’ wine country to tape their chic-to-sheep reality TV series, it was the biggest thing since German and Swiss immigrants planted vineyards in the 1880s.

Now the folks of Altus, population 817, are setting VCRs and shuffling schedules to see how they’ll come across to the rest of America on the Fox TV show, “The Simple Life” that premieres Tuesday.”We’re cautiously excited, yet remaining optimistic,” Mayor Veronica Post said.

The town is under a media onslaught, no thanks to Hilton’s latest scandal the surfacing of a homemade sex video that has produced headlines making the mayor cringe.

“The sex tape has nothing to do with Altus, has nothing to do with us,” Post said. “I’m not going to judge people by their past achievements or faults. Always when they were with me they were friendly.”

Billed with the tag line “From filthy rich to just plain filthy,” the show follows Hilton, heiress to the hotel fortune, and Richie, daughter of singer Lionel Richie, as they lived for a few weeks on a hardworking family farm. Promos show them cleaning chicken coops and examining cows.

“You take somebody like that. They’ve never been told no, they’ve never wanted for anything,” said “Buffalo” Bill Leding, who owns the Lakeside Food Mart, where he taught the blond beauties to dip for minnows and box bait.

“There was a little resentment at first but then they got to hanging out here.”

Leding keeps snapshots of the glamorous pair taped to the cigarette rack next to the cash register. In one picture, the burly, camouflage-wearing man stands with an arm around each of the girls. Mounted deer heads hang in the background.

Other shots of the girls, which Leding clipped from fashion magazines, are taped nearby.

The girls came to Leding to buy camouflage gear to wear while doing their farm chores. He let them work at his store for one day to pay the debt. They pumped gas and used a handheld fishing net to catch minnows.

“I figure they would look at you and say, ‘Yuck, I’m not doing that,’. But they did,” Leding said. “They’re sincere and sweet girls, but everybody’s got a bad side. I’ve got one, too.”

Shannon Burns, a waitress at the Cajun restaurant Alligator Ray’s, said word traveled quickly that the two were in town and dozens of students from the nearby University of the Ozarks would stop in.

“The first time I met them, I could tell they did not want to be here,” Burns said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh man, you can tell they’re right off the streets of L.A.’ Their dress was real stand-out-ish.”

The mayor said that she noticed their clothing, too.

“They dressed differently, but you have to understand they dressed the way they were accustomed to dressing,” Post said. “If that’s in miniskirts and high-heel boots, then you’re going to dress that way. Obviously they like to attract attention to themselves.

Ralph Eckle, who cooks 24-ounce steaks and serves them with one-pound baked potatoes at the Model Cafe, said he’s confident more visitors will come to Altus after the show airs.

“It’s going to help this area whether it’s good or bad because people will still stop in when they drive by,” Eckle said. “I want to see it to see how they’ll make fun of us. I just hope it’s not derogatory. I’ve seen some clips as a combination between being funny and borderline not truthful.”

Eckle said he’s rearranged Christmas party plans for Tuesday night to accommodate the town’s appetite for the show.

“That night I doubt there’ll be a car on the road,” Eckle said. “They want to eat and get home so they won’t miss it. Everybody knows everybody here. Everybody’s going to have somebody in it and Wednesday morning at all the restaurants, everybody will be talking about it.”

Posted: December 1st, 2003
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