Paris Hilton Has a Lesson for Everybody

The Paris Hilton with whom I am familiar is not the real Paris Hilton, Paris Hilton tells me. The Paris Hilton she describes in her best-selling new memoir is. “I just put it all out there. It was like writing in a diary, speaking about things that I’ve never said out loud to anyone in my life, not my closest friends or family members. So I would say it was definitely me,” she tells me over Zoom. “Yeah, it’s me.”

I do not believe this claim for a minute, nor do I believe that she believes it either. Paris: The Memoir is a glimpse into the lifestyles of the rich and famous; a dishy gift for her devoted fans, the Little Hiltons; and a horrifying recounting of a life filled with exploitation and abuse. It is also a manual on how to construct a self for public consumption, a skill at which Hilton is an immortal genius and a practice she has helped mainstream into American culture, curving it into a ouroboros of ceaseless posting, commenting, buying, selling.

Who is Paris Hilton? A wife and mom. A sweet weirdo. A sincerely enthusiastic partier. An advocate who just got a piece of legislation to protect kids introduced in Congress. A DJ and model, at the helm of a media-and-merch empire. A progenitor of and contributor to so many cultural phenomena: “nepo babies,” the phrase That’s hot, reality television, the Kardashian Cinematic Universe (Kim got her break organizing Hilton’s closet on TV), influencing as a career.

Most of all, she is a performance artist. That’s the term she uses for herself, and an apt one. “We’re putting on a mask when we’re going out into public and playing a character or just being what people want us to be or what they project onto us, in the way that some of my friends are playing a character on their TV show,” she says. “People’s voices are different. They’re completely different.” (Incidentally, Hilton is talking to me in her normal speaking voice, which is dusky and languid and roughed-up with vocal fry, nothing like the babyish one I associate with her public persona.)

The major revelation of her book is just how good she is at doing all this—creating a character, playing the character, selling the character. She performed one Paris Hilton for 20 years; she is now performing a more balanced, more mature version. She is never letting us in on the real one. As social media turns us all into mini Hiltons, posing and posting and performing the minutiae of our lives, mining them for content, that is a practice I hope we all can emulate.

Star, as her dad calls her, was born in New York City in the winter of 1981. She grew up a beneficiary of the Hilton Hotels fortune, a lover of tiny animals (rats, ferrets, chihuahuas), a nightmare at school (she has ADHD and does not care for academics), and a tomboy. She came alive in the bass-pounding, lights-flashing environment of the nightclub, which she began visiting at the age of 12.

Stupid Girl, as Hilton calls herself in her darker moments, was born in New York when she was a teenager. Her parents were afraid she would end up dead if she kept on sneaking out and partying. By her account, they had her kidnapped from her own bed in the middle of the night and transported to a residential “reform” school in California when she was 16. She recalls remaining at abusive institutions like it for the next 17 months or so, being beaten, degraded, strip-searched, starved, and sexually abused.

She escaped a few times. At one point, her parents tracked her down and trapped her in a diner, eight states away from where she was meant to be. “I breathed in the smell of [my father’s] dry-cleaned suit, and I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him how much I missed him and Mom,” she writes. “More than I’d ever wanted anything, I just wanted my dad to put his arms around me and take me home. ‘Let’s go, Paris.’ He said it quietly, not wanting to make a scene. My throat felt hot and tight. I said, ‘My name is Amber. You must have me confused with someone else.’” (Her mother, the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills star Kathy Hilton, has publicly backed up Paris’s account and expressed her regret for what her daughter went through.)

This was not the only time in her early life that she suffered abuse. She recalls being groomed and sexually assaulted by a teacher in middle school. “I framed this episode in my mind as ‘my first kiss,’” she writes. She was drugged and sexually assaulted again as a teenager. An old boyfriend released an intimate video of her without her consent when she was in her early 20s, and the story became a tabloid fixture for months. (One particularly offensive detail among many: The video was branded as a tribute to the 9/11 victims.)

She endured. She compartmentalized. She moved on, aided by a bit from an Adam Sandler movie, of all things. In Big Daddy, the comic consoles a frightened 5-year-old boy, handing him a pair of “magic” sunglasses that will make him invisible. Hilton put on her own pair and began wearing them day and night. “That little magic-sunglasses coping mechanism made it possible for me to stand up and start my real life,” she writes.

Her surreal life, really: Paris, glam mononym, was born at the turn of the millennium. She lied about where she had been—London, “boarding school.” And she proceeded to do whatever she wanted, making out with cute boys, wearing Von Dutch and Dolce & Gabbana, pretending to be her own publicist. The journalist Nancy Jo Sales wrote a Vanity Fair feature about her and her younger sister, Nicky, in which an unidentified person describes the two as “partners in bitch crime.” Accompanying the article were David LaChapelle photographs featuring the siblings. In one shot, taken in her grandparents’s posh home, Paris is wearing a pair of aviators and flipping off the camera.

The mononym has thrived and survived, her career an exploration of consumerism and consumption, a media-studies class clad in pink, photographed stumbling out of Les Deux at 4 a.m. Are the media exploiting her? (Yes.) Is Hilton exploiting herself? (Yes.) Is the media’s treatment of her sexist? (Yes.) Is she in on the joke? (Yes.)

Her memoir demonstrates just how in on it she is. She creates an image of herself and promulgates it. She works hard at this job—which is lucrative, if often miserable. She’s aware of the postmodern quality of her labor. “Think about that famous René Magritte painting that shows a pipe with the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” she writes. “Magritte wasn’t asking us to pretend that the painting is a real pipe; he was daring us to accept the smoking-hot realness of art.” Indeed!

Over time, the advent of social media has given celebrities like her more control over their own images. She feels much safer now, she tells me, as the ubiquity of Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok has shrunk the market for tabloid photos. It has also given her more opportunities for self-monetization. She seizes them. She’s never not hustling. “Anybody with an iPhone and a talent or something that they love to do has the opportunity to build a real business and build a brand through using these technologies,” she tells me in our Zoom call, as she cuddles up under a Keith Haring–print blanket. “People are allowed to be almost their own media company.” To make their own media. To be their own media.

And they are. Nowadays, hundreds of teenagers and young adults are famous for being famous, in the way Hilton is. Every moment is Instagrammable and Instagrammed, TikTokable and TikToked. Regular-old moms, farmers who happen to be great dancers, big personalities trapped in small jobs—everyone is just a few posts away from fame.

The Paris Hilton of the book was born three years ago, when Hilton decided to talk about her history of trauma. She is not really sure why she did it. She was tired of walling it all off, maybe. “The effort left me lean and detached, strong enough to survive head-spinning success, soul-crushing betrayals, and staggering amounts of my own bullshit,” she writes. “But sooner or later, everyone leaves Ibiza.”

The #MeToo movement played some part as well, she says. (Hilton recounts her own unpleasant run-in with Harvey Weinstein in the book.) It had felt good to watch media outlets reassess how they had treated human beings such as herself, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears back in the early aughts—the sneering, the sexism, the grotesque upskirt and nip-slip photos. It gave her a bit of confidence in reassessing herself. So she talked. She complicated the Paris Hilton that people knew. She opened herself up.

In doing so, she became a fierce advocate for children victimized by “troubled teen” programs, spurring several state legislatures to place restrictions on them. Last month, a bipartisan coalition of senators and representatives introduced the Stop Institutional Child Abuse Act, a product of Hilton’s lobbying. And she became a more mature, more prismatic public figure, hardworking as ever. “I just want to be at home with my husband and my baby,” she tells me, before ticking off her current roster of work: launching a new fragrance, recording an album, filming her reality-television show, posting on social media, and on and on.

Today’s version of Paris Hilton seems wiser, happier. But this is not the Paris Hilton, not really. The book reveals how her traumatic experiences gave her practice in compartmentalization and shaping a character—common enough among actors and celebrities that it is a trope all its own. Her book is an exercise in discernment, omitting as much as she admits. She obliquely describes herself as being asexual for years. She briefly mentions going through in vitro fertilization. She never really talks about her body or its upkeep. She tells me that she is not wearing makeup. I am confident that no adult’s skin and eyelashes just look like that.

I ask her what advice she would give herself as a child. She tells me that the main thing was “not to be so trusting of people.” I ask her if she has gone to trauma therapy. “Never, because of those places,” she says, referring to her reform schools. “After experiencing that, it just made me not trust anybody. Especially therapists.” I ask her if she would want her infant son to become a celebrity, like her. “It’s not something that I would really want for my children,” she tells me. “I just want him just to be happy and not have to think about this type of stuff.” I ask her if all celebrities are performance artists, and she says yes.

Having read her book, spoken with her at length, and watched hours and hours of television footage of her, I feel like I can tell you a lot about Hilton and nothing about Hilton. I can tell you where she has lived, whom she has dated. I can tell you how much fun she had doing The Simple Life, and how hurt she was by her early treatment in the press. I can tell you I do not understand how she survived those troubled-teen programs. I can tell you about her astonishing empathy for and forgiveness of her parents.

There are cameras everywhere in her life, recording and transmitting every little moment—something so many of us do today. Yet somewhere, there’s the real Paris, the private Paris, playing with her kid, laughing with her friends, maybe restoring old radios. No amount of time spent with her media persona brought me closer to that. In the end, I found this fundamental unknowability exhilarating. I found it moving. I thought: That’s hot.

By Paris Hilton

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