It’s 4am on a Monday morning in Los Angeles-the majority of the city has long been asleep… a restless few are already turning over in bed to the sound of alarms, harkening the beginning of a new week. And in Burbank, Nicole Richie is heading West on the eastbound side of the 134 freeway, chatting away with one of her socialite friends on her cellphone, traces of pot and Vicodin working their way through her bloodstream.

Granted, I’m sure all of us know a gay or two who partied a few too many hours past closing and wound up in the slammer for a DUI, but when even Nicole Richie can’t seem to find someone to guide her home in the wee hours of the morning, Hollywood, I fear, is in crisis.

Not all of Hollywood, mind you. Not the Reese Witherspoon’s and the Hilary Swank’s, who keep homes in Hollywood but spend the majority of their time away or on location. Not the Nicole Kidman’s or the Cate Blanchett’s or the Kate Winslet’s, who tend to appear in the headlines only when batting off raves from the critics. And young playboys like Jake Gyllenhaal and Channing Tatum tend to pop up at the appropriate amount of parties without being carried to the curb by a bouncer or a bodyguard.

We’re talking about the party girls, most of whom are known more for where they pop up and who they throw down with while waiting for the valet than any lofty career achievements. Sure, Lindsay Lohan made a huge splash in Freaky Friday and Mean Girls and basically stamped her name all over the Hollywood’s new ‘It Girl’ crown. And she scored solid if not spectacular reviews for her work in A Prairie Home Companion and Bobby.

But it’s very rare you see Lindsay on the cover of Vanity Fair because her work in a string of films is a revelation-she only pops up in the news when she slams her car into some unsuspecting working class joe or passes out at some trendy L.A. hotel.

Ditto for Britney Spears, who has never been known for her overwhelming talent. Sure, she can crank out a catchy dance hit and make a boa constrictor look sexy, but since her marriage and eventual separation from the suddenly dapper Kevin Federline, the only time the press pays attention to her is when she forgets to strap her baby into a carseat or leaves him at home with a nanny for days on end while she stumbles from one bar to the next-FYI, she didn’t start acting like this with Kevin. She’s been a mess for a long time.

The only difference these days is she takes her drunken and messy behaviour to the streets, her only visible means of support a towering and almost mothering Paris Hilton.

Who herself, just five months ago, found herself behind bars for having too much to drink at a party and swerving recklessly as she made her way down the coast. Her defence? She hadn’t eaten enough and was searching desperately for an In Out Burger. Yeah-because Paris Hilton totally looks like the type to roll up into an LA burger joint in the middle of the night and wait out her sobriety.

Photos of Britney Spears flushed and swaying, trying to start her Porsche Boxter as photogs tap on her window to see if maybe she shouldn’t call for a car-Perez Hilton leaked those.

The National Enquirer broke the story about Lindsay passed out at the Chateau Marmont, even though, according to her latest statement to the press (she’s fond of writing them herself these days, you know), she’s been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for a year. Yeah, note to Lindsay… as the son of a recovering alcoholic, those meetings are intended to make you stop drinking, not pack two weeks worth into one wild night.

Practically all of these girls have shown us their pantiless goods-public exposure started with the Mother Hen of all displays of public intoxication, Tara Reid, who has either cleaned up her act or is so low on the Hollywood totem pole, nobody wants her at their parties anymore.

And on several occasions we’ve seen these girls leaving a club or a party or an awards show so utterly hammered, they’re falling over, throwing up or, in the lowest of the low, they actually talk to the press, spewing out a string of insults directed at their friends (how many times have we seen Paris and Nicole or Paris and Lindsay publicly on the outs-if you laughed when your friend told America my crotch smelled like diarrhoea, I’d be pissed too).

It’s appalling, and the worst part of it is, we eat it up. I’m one of the worst offenders, admittedly, because I not only talk about it, I write about it (though, admittedly, I’m typically not encouraging it like some gossip columnists who seem to think Paris telling anyone who’ll listen who exactly she hates this week is a battle cry worthy of praise).

Sure, excessive alcohol and drug use in Hollywood is nothing new. We’ve all seen old footage of Bette Davis knocking back a few. We know pills were the end of Judy Garland, and Robert Downey Jr sat before a judge more times than I can even remember before finally sobering up.

And it’s not as if Lindsay, Nicole, Paris, Britney and a slew of other up-and-comers we’ll surely see on the covers of Us Weekly and Star soon enough are doing anything my friends and I haven’t done in our youth.

The difference is, we don’t have cameras following us around. We don’t have a billion dollar industry repeatedly hiring us for film and studio work, then acting surprised when we can’t make it to the set on time or we don’t show up in Florida for a scheduled recording session. We don’t have the same people who pay us to appear at their parties then turning around and leaking our drunken videos, photos and text messages to the press.

It’s a wicked circle, this world of Hollywood. Just as Louis B. Mayer and friends pumped Judy full of drugs to pep her up, then pumped her full of more drugs to put her down, only to be shocked when she became dependant, Hollywood is the ultimate pusher for thousands of young stars, they’re just going about it in a different way. The system sends the message that if you bitterly divorce your husband or stumble out of a party at 2am-if you fight with your best friend on a reality show or go for a joyride through Malibu with your baby in your lap, that’s worth more press than any ten film openings or appearances on Regis Kelly. Controversy sells. The rest is just icing.

Certainly, some stars escape the pressure. They’re either older and wiser, popping up in the tabloids for divorces and affairs rather than binge drinking and sudden bouts of unconsciousness, or they get the hell out of Los Angeles and, therefore, escape the tabloids.

I’m not sure what it’s going to take for these starlets to wake up-a couple more flops and Miss Lindsay might just find out. Britney could never put out an album again and, provided Kevin doesn’t make off with her cash and her kids, she’d be fine. Nicole’s always got Lionel to run home to and Paris, well… when your trust fund inheritance is $150 million and counting, you’d have to do a lot of damage to wind up on skid row.

It’s a scary beast to navigate, Hollywood-that’s for sure. And so long as tabloids and money hungry studio heads run the city, it’s not likely to get any better. I just long for a time when the work and the effort really counted for something, and the screwups and the attention whores wound up exactly where they belong-at the back of the class.

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