We could hardly have expected Mary Poppins. Paulina Gretzky was raised, after all, by a former Hollywood starlet with a keen grasp of the male gaze. Janet Jones’s most memorable contribution to American cinema is a swimsuit scene in The Flamingo Kid, where her gym-toned gams emerge seductively from a hotel pool. And Paulina’s father? Well, let’s just say No. 99 was an underrated force in the nightclubs during his bachelor days with the Oilers. Edmontonians of a certain vintage still crack wise about his “scoring” prowess.
So the response last week to photos of Paulina Gretzky getting raunchy in Las Vegas was a trifle overheated. The snapshots—posted by the 23-year-old to her Instagram social media feed—show her bikini-clad and apparently well-refreshed. In one, she sprawls spread-eagled atop male and female pals. In others, she’s seen in suggestive embraces with shirtless men, with a fair bit of mutual groping. Gossip sites pounced, and mainstream media clucked in dismay, even as they peddled the images. None of the pictures involved nudity. Yet the Vancouver Sun described them as “shocking” and “dirty,” warning its readers to “take a look—if you dare.”
That a twentysomething with time and money might indulge in a bout of self-exposure is hardly a surprise—google “spring break pics” to behold the current zeitgeist. More intriguing is the idea that she might do so repeatedly, on purpose. Last week’s mini-scandal came, it’s worth noting, six months after Gretzky created a stir with similar photos posted to her Twitter account, which showed her posed seductively in undergarments and swimsuits, the camera positioned to make the most of her cleavage. A few days later she announced she was taking a break from Twitter, following what she described as “a nice sit down dinner with my dad about social media.”
Then, in early April, she turned up at a popular Hollywood nightspot wearing what might be described as a lingerie-inspired outfit, featuring stockings, exposed garters and a backless top. The gossip site TMZ got wind of her presence, and captured her departure. Paparazzi were alerted, and by morning Gretzky was once again a social media sensation. Evidently that sit-down chat with Wayne didn’t sink in.
Suffice to say, not everyone is impressed with the wild-child routine. “While her dad is famous for playing 90 per cent from the neck up,” wrote Soraya Roberts on North Stars, a blog on Yahoo that follows Canadian celebrities, “it looks like Paulina Gretzky is intent on making her name from the neck down.” But others note that Paulina has tried with limited success to forge a show business career while protecting the vaunted Gretzky brand. Now, they say, she appears to be following the high-heeled steps of Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, children of privilege who gained celebrity through little more than public misbehaviour. “Are the racy pictures going to help her land a job as a financial adviser?” asks Adam Wenger, the associate editor of Zimbio, a pop culture and entertainment website. “Probably not. But they could help her land a modelling gig. Or maybe a job working as a sports analyst on TV.”
There are more tasteful means of gaining fame, of course. But they’ve gotten Paulina only so far. Her father pulled strings to get her an appearance at the 2003 Heritage Classic outdoor hockey game in Edmonton, where at 14 she sang the Sarah McLachlan hit I Will Remember You as pre-game entertainment. Three years later, the family name won her the title of Queen Azalea for the annual festival in Norfolk, Va., celebrating naval co-operation between the United States and its NATO allies. At the time, Paulina shrugged off suggestions that the gig might lead to modelling opportunities. “I want to be a singer, so I wasn’t really thinking of it in that way,” she told Maclean’s. “I just wanted to help out.”
There were cover appearances on Flare and Chatelaine, the Canadian fashion and lifestyle magazines, and she recorded a song that wound up on the soundtrack of MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. Two years ago, she landed a minor role in Guns, Girls and Gambling, an unheralded movie starring Gary Oldman and Christian Slater. Yet a pattern had taken hold. Interest in Gretzky remained tied to curiosity about her family—much of it in Canada—and she lacked the kind of runaway talent required to make a name on her own.
That leaves the Kardashian-Hilton formula of celebrity-through-bad-behaviour, which social critics lament has become a powerful draw for young women, especially those in the leisure class. “Daughters of celebrities, young women like them, they’re often looking for attention,” says Dana Edell, executive director of SPARK Movement, a U.S.-based group that fights the hyper-sexualization of girls and young women in the media. “They know that this is what people want to see—for them to create something very sexy and revealing, with more and more flesh being shown.”
Such fame became possible with the advent of real-time, 24-hour gossip media typified by TMZ, says Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a cultural economist at the University of Southern California, and author of the 2010 book Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity. More vital still was the rise of social media, which people of Paulina’s generation treat as both a means of communication and a stage. “This changed the conversation around celebrity,” says Currid-Halkett. “It’s no longer about icons of perfection. It’s about the banality of our stars’ lives and, in fact, we’re far more interested in the minute-by-minute updates than in them looking glamorous.”
About the only required element is the sense of a rarified life, which is easy for Gretzky to fulfill. She is attractive; she moves in a circle of scions and party kids (on Twitter, she identifies Hannah Selleck, daughter of Magnum P.I. star Tom Selleck, as a best friend). Yet even celebrity in its emptiest form has a hierarchy, raising the question of how far she is willing to go. As any paparazzo will attest, the club nights and champagne brunches attended by the tabloid stars obscure the serious effort they put into raising their profiles: Paris Hilton was known in the early 2000s for making three public outings a day, changing her clothes every time. “If you’re going to be famous for being famous,” says Currid-Halkett, “you have to work at it.”
And while Hilton and Kim Kardashian blazed a trail for the would-be “celebutantes,” they also represent the depths one must plumb to win attention in an increasingly crowded marketplace. Both, for instance, appeared in homemade sex videos that found their way to the Internet, upping the public’s fascination with them several times over, even though neither intended for the tapes to go public. An interview request sent to an agent for the Gretzky family went unanswered. But if a few shots of his daughter in naughty underwear nettled the Great One, it’s safe to assume a porn tape would send him over the brink.
For now, Paulina stands well short of such notoriety, confining her phone-casts to cheesecake shots, party scenes and pictures of her canoodling with anonymous guys. Her Twitter feed, which has been dormant since April 27, is peppered with photos harking back to her more wholesome past: munching burgers with her brother Ty; rifling through vinyl ABBA records. The day after the Instagram frenzy took hold, she replaced the most revealing shots with one of her with her father, at Michael Jordan’s celebrity golf tournament in Las Vegas.
She’s lurching, in short, from daddy’s girl to girl gone wild—not exactly an advertisement for feminine empowerment. Yet Wenger, of Zimbio, rejects suggestions that Paulina has damaged the Gretzky name. “It all depends on what you make of the attention,” says the Canadian editor from his home near San Francisco. “She could easily get a job or career where they’re not looking for her insight so much as her face.” Whether Gretzky is driven thus remains to be seen. But for better or worse, she’s passed an important milestone on the road to celebrity status: when she gets a yen for the public gaze, she no longer needs to have her parents place a call.