Can Paris Hilton Get Serious?

Paris Hilton needs a new face. That's not an esthetic judgment. It is, at the moment, an occupational necessity. Hilton is in Toronto shooting a film called "Repo! The Genetic Opera!" which is every bit as strange as it sounds. Hilton plays an heiress (what range!) with an addiction to plastic surgery who in this scene is lip-synching a song about having sex with her brother. Perhaps in an attempt to distance herself from her character, Hilton plays the role in a black wig and prosthetic, Nicole Kidman-like nose. "You should have seen me yesterday," she says. "I had a melted face all cut up with scars. I looked horrible. It was so embarrassing." Poor thing. Though you do have to wonder: when you hire Paris Hilton for a movie, isn't the point to use her notoriety to the fullest, including her all-too-familiar pouty puss? Au contraire, as they say in another Paris. "I don't want her to look like Paris Hilton," says the director, Darren Lynn Bousman, "because I want people to know she got this role because she can act." We said this was a strange film.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new face of Paris Hilton. Serious actress. Serious philanthropist—next month she's going on a charity mission to Rwanda. Just plain serious. Seriously? As you may remember from the incessant news coverage, Hilton spent 23 days this summer in jail for violating her probation on a DUI charge. Like so many ex-cons before her, she says that she emerged a changed woman. She's cut her hair and moved into a paparazzi-proof gated community. She's cut back on the clubbing and even—ohmygod—changed her phone number. "There are a lot of bad people in L.A.," she says. "Before, my life was about having fun, going to parties—it was a fantasy. But when I had time to reflect, I felt empty inside. I want to leave a mark on the world." It's easy to scoff, especially when Paris says things like "After being where I was for almost a month, I don't complain about anything" when you've been listening to her complain about her itchy prosthetic nose. But give her credit.?Paris built a multimillion-dollar business on the perfumed aura of a party-crazy heir-head. If she ditches that persona, she'll be slaughtering her own cash cow. Of course, that's a big "if."

First, she'll have to survive Africa. She'll be in Rwanda for five days, visiting schools and health-care clinics and bunking in decidedly un-Hilton-like accommodations. "I'm scared, yeah. I've heard it's really dangerous," she says. "I've never been on a trip like this before." She says she'll resort to eating candy bars if that's what it takes to get her through any foreign-cuisine issues. She'll be traveling with a little-known children's charity called Playing for Good. "She's using her celebrity and the cameras that follow her for the good of humanity," says Scott Lazerson, the organization's founder. Let's not forget the good of Lazerson, and Hilton. Turns out that he's filming the trip in hopes of selling it as a reality show called "The Philanthropist," featuring various selfless celebrities who rescue the world's poor. Hilton says she doesn't think this sideshow undercuts her sincerity a bit. A camera already follows her everywhere, by her own arrangement. Hilton wants to use that footage to make a film about herself. "I love having everything documented," she says. "It shows people what everyday life is like for me, how hard I work. There are a lot of misconceptions about me."

The biggest misconception is that she's dumb. Paris admits she's fostered that impression, both on "The Simple Life" and in her everyday life. But she says that the breathy baby-doll?thing is just part of?the act. Hilton does have a kind of schizophrenic voice. When she meets someone, she puts on that familiar slow whisper, almost as if she's checking you out before she lets her guard down. When she does, she's sweet and chatty, like a high-school girl hoping to win your vote for homecoming queen. "I think she only uses her real voice with people who are close to her," says her sister, Nicky. "It's a rather weird concept, if you think about it." But to borrow a phrase from Fitzgerald, her voice is full of money. Paris has used it, and the rest of the package, to turn herself into an industry—jeans, shampoo, dog clothes—that's projected to make $250 million in the next three years. Her licensing agent, by the way, is the same one that turned Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen into gazillionaires. How dumb is that?

Besides, this is a good time to get out of the bimbo business. There was a notorious picture published on the front page of a New York tabloid last year of Britney, Lindsay and Paris sitting in a car. The headline read BIMBO SUMMIT. Of the three, Paris is the only one still standing, and her 15 minutes is down to its last seconds. She's certainly not wasting any time. When she wasn't crying, Paris spent her time in jail studying the "Repo!" script, which her manager slipped her. "I was auditioning and practicing in my cell," she says. "I had nothing else to do." She'd also like to dispel the notion that she's dated every hot guy in Los Angeles. "I've been linked to so many guys, but there's nothing romantic going on at all," she says. "I get along better with guys than girls. I trust them more. They don't get all girly and mean. Girls have drama." She's had enough of her own, thank you very much. Yet unlike Britney and Lindsay, Paris (and her handlers) have been geniuses at reinventing her as she's frolicked from scandal to scandal. "People have seen me go through a lot, and they can relate to that," she says. "I'm a strong person." Either that, or she's a really good actress.