Today, September 14 2020, is a special day. A day when Paris Hilton’s much anticipated documentary This Is Paris premieres on YouTube. The trailer teases that while “we thought we knew Paris Hilton” in fact, “we were wrong” and promises to deliver the untold, unfiltered story behind the icon.
In many ways, Paris is a relic of a different time. A time when there was arguably less overt class warfare, less billionaire hating, and we as a society were open to at least partially embracing a “famous for being famous” heiress who rose to fame play acting manual labor on The Simple Life, said things like “I’m the closest thing to American royalty there is”, and allegedly once wore a t-shirt emblazoned with STOP BEING POOR (some say it was a doctored photo). Does the world still have a place for Paris Hilton? Do I still have space in my heart for Paris Hilton? The answer is yes, a million times yes! In preparation for the release of This Is Paris, I took a trip down the memory lane of her existing oeuvre to better understand Paris’ preternatural capacity for self-mythologizing, and how her personal brand of yore differs from the “untold, unfiltered” projection of today.
I have a fondness for Ms. Hilton that began when I was a teenager and would pore over photos of her, Lindsay Lohan, and the Olsen twins, caught somewhere between wanting to be them and wanting to reach out and touch their shiny hair and bony, bird like chests. I enthusiastically purchased her 2004 book, Confessions of an Heiress, which promised to teach its predominantly teen readership to “channel your own inner heiress, create your own image, and project an extreme sense of confidence”, because being an heiress is a state of mind! The main takeaways that have stuck with me over the years are 1) No one with a truly great body wears black and, 2) Never stay out after two am, nothing good happens after then!
I revisited the book via Kindle preview after roughly 16 years and found it to be aesthetically stunning and funnier than I remember, or understood, as a tween. Advice ranges from the pragmatic (Be born into the right family, or if you’re not, reinvent yourself, like half of Park Avenue), to the hilarious/bizarre (Never drink diet soda. It shows you have no nerve) to the strangely sad and melancholic (The way I keep people wondering about me is to smile all the time and say as little as possible). While the part photo diary, part how-to guide sees Paris lean hard into a caricature of an entitled, jet-setting rich girl, she lets us know she’s in on the joke: While the stuff printed about me is amusing and makes me laugh, I’ve finally decided to let the world know: Okay, I get it. Everyone can have fun with my image because I like to have fun with it too. My friends know that while I like my lifestyle, I don’t take it – or my media image – too seriously.
Paris, Not France is a 2008 MTV documentary chronicling the “success and struggles” of a then 27-ish year old Paris. I watched the only grainy, low quality stream of it I could find for free online, so you don’t have to! Apart from its name, borrowed from a claim by a suited executive that to an entire generation “Paris” is now more synonymous with the person than the place, the film is sadly, not very good. However, it does offer heavy handed brand building, aspirational 2000s aesthetics, and some noteworthy cameos.
We learn that Paris’ grandmother cast a hypersigil by nicknaming her Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe and telling her from a young age that she was going to be THE BIGGEST STAR IN THE WORLD. We learn that like all the last great American dynasties, the Hiltons believe in hard work and teaching their children the value of a dollar, not labor exploitation and tax evasion. Paris’ father, Rick Hilton, the grandson of Hilton Hotels founder Conrad Hilton, spent his summers working as a bellboy, and Nicky, Paris’ less famous sister, was allegedly forced to get a job in the Hamptons age 13 instead of yacht-hopping with her fabulous friends. Cut to Paris in a boardroom surrounded by a crowd of grey haired men, using her genetically inherited business skills to create a flow chart of the characteristics that best define her personal brand: innocent, sexy, childlike, icon!
Rick and Paris’ mom, Kathy, share that while their friend Donald Trump begged for years to let Paris come and model for Trump Model Management, they stuck to their devout Catholic values and denied him “until she was 18”. Cut to Donald, clearly a stan, proselytizing about how, “Paris truly understands the meaning and value of celebrity.” Later, as the documentary explores the aftermath of the leak of Paris’ sex tape by her former boyfriend Rick Salomon, we hear from Donald once again: “I couldn’t believe they didn’t sue him. It shows what nice people they are. I really disagreed with them, I told them to go out and sue his ass off!”
We hear from Paris’ long suffering publicist Elliot Mintz, who once worked with John Lennon and Yoko Ono but during his tenure with Paris was reduced to following her and her rich kid friends around on night outs and cleaning up various messes, such as drunken vitriol about Lindsay Lohan being a “fire crotch”. Feminist academic and social critic Camille Paglia weighs in, comparing Paris to Princess Diana for her ability to yield incredible power through her still image alone. Paris’ aunt, Kyle Richards of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills fame, posits that Paris, aware of what the people want, deftly cosplays a beautiful idiot character. Paris confirms this narrative, code switching from her media friendly breathy, baby voice to a much deeper real voice, and philosophizing that the person she sees on the screen is not really her. It’s funny to me that people think I don’t know what’s going on, but I always know what’s going on.
So, while the trailer for This Is Paris teases a never before seen look behind the curtain, for nearly as long as she has been famous, Paris Hilton has been telling us in plain English that the dumb heiress is a fantasy co-created by her teenage self and the media. Yet, in 2020, it is more urgent than ever that Paris distance herself from this out of touch stereotype and step into something more mature and evolved. Today, we like our celebrities to be “woke” with “good politics”, to use their platforms to urge us to vote, or like Paris’ former assistant Kim Kardashian, to even go as far as spending their spare time freeing unfairly incarcerated people from prison and studying to become lawyers. To keep up in this brave new world, Paris must shed her “let them eat cake” skin, tap into her trauma, and find her cause. More on this next time…
Xoxo Slurp Slurp!