Note: Since this column was written, Paris Hilton has been returned to jail, where she is expected to serve out the remainder of her sentence.

WASHINGTON — Warning: This is a column about Paris Hilton. Those who are trying to ignore the travails of the famous-for-being-famous hotel heiress might want to avert their eyes. The rest of you, join me in honorable surrender. We have no choice but to pay attention.

That’s the genius of this ostensibly empty-headed young woman, the ability to make the world watch her every move, even if the world doesn’t particularly want to. People who say that she’s nothing but a professional nightclubber, partygoer and red-carpet poseur are missing the point. Paris Hilton’s great talent is for celebrity. In the art of being famous, she combines the gifts of Mozart with the strategic insight of Sun Tzu.

Any old bold-faced name could manage to be sentenced to spend a few weeks in jail. But to get released after only four nights, to have the sheriff cite a mysterious “medical condition” that he refuses to specify, to have news agencies issuing breathless bulletins and reporters from around the world demanding to know whether you are being given “special treatment,” as if it were conceivable that you would not be given special treatment — all this could only be achieved by a true uber-celebrity.

Paris wins. We’re all watching.

To get to the point where your life is chronicled not only by the supermarket tabloids, but also by cable networks and respectable newspapers — which seem a bit embarrassed about the whole thing, but still don’t look away — you have to be in tune with your times. It’s useful to recall that not many people outside of New York society circles knew the name Paris Hilton until 2003, when a homemade video surfaced of her having sex with her then-boyfriend, Rick Salomon.

In an earlier era, the result would have been a lifetime of shame. But despite what she described as embarrassment and humiliation, Paris seemed to recognize immediately that, depending on where you’re trying to go, pornography can end up being a good career move.

It certainly got more people to watch her “reality” television show, “The Simple Life,” which debuted just a few weeks after the sex tape hit the Internet. The show allowed her to sharpen her blond-ambition persona, reinforce the idea that she comes from an impossibly glamorous world that the rest of us can only imagine, and establish her giggle-based friendship with sidekick Nicole Richie as a continuing plotline.

After the show’s success, the rest followed inexorably — a music album titled “Paris” (she can’t sing), minor roles in various movies and television shows (she can’t act), a ghostwritten book about her life (with lots of glossy pictures). She has lent, or sold, her name to a chain of restaurants, a line of perfumes and other products, and reportedly charges enormous fees for public appearances.

What, you thought she went to all those parties for free? Forbes magazine estimated that in 2005-06, the party girl made $7 million from all her entrepreneurial ventures.

Her all-too-brief jailbird episode proves that Paris has reached the rarified zone of self-perpetuating celebrity — she doesn’t even have to try to draw attention to herself anymore, because others will do it for her. If her name had been Paris Jones, I doubt she would have been sentenced to jail in the first place for what are basically traffic-related offenses. And I know that Paris Jones wouldn’t have been “reassigned” to home detention after just a few days, no matter how upset she was or how much she cried.

Why do I know all of this? I don’t go out of my way to follow the latest twists and turns in Paris Hilton’s life. I don’t feel as if I know her, or even want to know her. I can’t work up much outrage about the favoritism officials showed in releasing her from jail, because I think it was a kind of anti-favoritism that got her locked up in the first place. But why do I even have an opinion?

I think it’s because the woman manages to be an intriguingly mysterious exhibitionist. She puts her life on display, but it’s all surface — all blond hair and lip gloss. There’s never a hint of what her inner life is like, assuming she has one. I can’t help but wonder what she’s thinking — if, indeed, she is in the habit of thinking.

We watch her because we’re curious about what might be behind the mask. Even in her mug shot, the hair and makeup were impeccable — and, as always, she wore an enigmatic little half-smile that suggests she knows something the rest of us don’t.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at symbol)

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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