How well do you know Paris Hilton? You may have followed the world’s most famous “IT girl” through her various TV series. You may even have kept up with her antics through gossip magazines and celebrity sites – or delved into one of the many biographies. But as it turns out, you may not have known the real Paris Hilton at all. Because a fresh revelation about her threatens to turn everything we thought we knew on its head.
Yes, we’re talking about the same Paris Hilton. She being of the hotel-franchise dynasty. The wealthy heiress who was one of the original reality TV stars. The model, the occasional pop star and movie actor. But perhaps above all, Paris Hilton, that rather vacuous, fame-hungry faux-princess. The ditzy blonde who seemed, for all the world, to be further reinforcing that rather tired stereotype.
Because Hilton may be beautiful and glamorous, but her fame emanated as much from derision as it did from admiration. In her smash hit TV series The Simple Life she made audiences cringe with her apparent lack of general knowledge or empathy. She was the archetypal spoiled rich kid with more cash than brains. Or so we all thought. You see, it seems that we may have had Hilton pegged wrong from the very start.
But some things about Hilton are the bona fide truth. She was born in 1981 in New York City, arriving into considerable wealth. Her father, Richard Hilton, is a successful real-estate developer, while her mother, Kathy Richards Hilton, is a socialite. Hilton is, of course, a member of the famous Hilton dynasty – they of the hotel fame.
Hilton’s family is part of the American aristocracy. And the family’s wealth mostly emanates from Hilton’s great-grandfather Conrad who established the world-renowned hotel chain by purchasing his first hotel in Cisco, Texas way back in 1919. By 2016 the Hilton brand was operational in a century of countries and territories worldwide. In all of those places, and beyond, the Hilton brand is synonymous with luxury and decadence.
As well as wealth, Hilton has a legacy of stardom running through her family tree. Great-grandfather Conrad was briefly wed to actor Zsa Zsa Gabor, while her great uncle Conrad Nicholson Hilton Jr. was married for a short time to movie icon Elizabeth Taylor. We know, star-studded, right? Hilton has a certain star pedigree you could say.
And the acting profession ran even closer to home through Hilton’s maternal grandmother Kathy Dugan. Two of Hilton’s aunts – Kim and Kyle Richards – are also actors and veterans of reality TV, having starred in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Coming from such stock, it’s hardly surprising that Hilton seemed to openly court a career in the limelight.
Growing up, Hilton attended various schools including Marywood-Palm Valley School in California and the Dwight School in New York. It was a privileged background but there was rebellion too, almost inevitably. Yet great things were expected of Hilton, a fact that is perhaps best represented by the childhood nickname bestowed upon her by her maternal grandmother: “Star.”
As a member of the famous hotel clan, Hilton enjoyed luxurious holidays and plenty of social events befitting her status. Along with her sister Nicky, Hilton became somewhat of a stalwart of red-carpet events in her later teenage years and before long she also began securing modelling jobs. One of the agencies she signed up to, actually, was Donald Trump’s T Management.
And a spread in Vanity Fair, shot by celebrated lensman David LaChapelle, further enhanced Hilton’s growing reputation. The heiress could be seen in campaigns for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Christian Dior. Plus her constant presence at VIP parties and glamorous events only helped in honing her image. Here was a star in the making. Perhaps all that was missing was a vehicle for her growing fame.
The early 2000s saw Hilton become a mainstay in the gossip magazines. She was becoming arguably the most famous “IT girl” in the world. And this was only enhanced by flings with the likes of actor Leonardo DiCaprio and boxer Oscar de la Hoya. Plus Hilton continued to lead the most lavish of lifestyles, one that no doubt many dreamed of emulating.
A few minor film roles followed for Hilton. Yet the heiress’s breakout year – for good and for bad – was undoubtedly 2003. In the first of two major events to occur in that 12-month period, Hilton saw herself the apparent victim of an unauthorized sex tape. Taped by an ex-boyfriend – Rick Salomon – the footage showed Hilton taking part in sexual activity.
The video – which eventually became marketed as One Night in Paris – was quickly shared around the internet. So to counter that, Hilton fought to have the footage suppressed. It was only later that she reached an out-of-court settlement with Salomon. Yet any fears the young model had about the tape derailing her new career in the public eye were entirely unfounded.
For also in 2003, just a matter of weeks after the sensitive footage came to light, Hilton made a second, and rather more planned, appearance on screens. This particular starring role was in a reality TV series called The Simple Life. And it was the very vehicle the heiress had been waiting for.
The premise of The Simple Life was, well, simple. Two celebrity daughters – Hilton and her best friend Nicole Richie, daughter of singer Lionel Richie – undertook what could be termed “blue collar” tasks whilst being filmed. Although often cringeworthy, the results were also often hilarious. The show, produced by FOX, was a smash hit.
How could the success of The Simple Life be explained? Well, for a start these were still early days in the reality TV era. And so this kind of voyeuristic pleasure was still a relatively new concept. Plus you couldn’t help laugh, or was that squirm, at some of the completely ridiculous comments made by Hilton and Richie. To put it simply, they didn’t seem all that bright.
Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Michelle Kambasha summed up the appeal of The Simple Life and what it meant for Hilton. “They [Hilton and Richie) comically navigate the blue-collar world by doing manual jobs such as farm work. With quotes such as: ‘What does that mean, soup kitchen?’ and ‘Do they sell Marc Jacobs or Chanel at this grocery store?’, Hilton’s brand, as a seeringly rich snob, was created.”
Whatever it was that audiences really liked about The Simple Life, the formula worked. These were the peak years of Hilton’s fame, and she branched out into a number of other pursuits, including a music career and diverse business ventures. She also starred in more movies, including The Hillz, and Raising Helen. Plus Hilton released her first book, Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Cheek Peek behind the Pose.
The Simple Life ran for five seasons in total, and further reality TV followed including Paris Hilton’s My New BFF and The World According to Paris. Hilton also had a number of relationships, none of which lasted the course. And we can’t forget that the model got into trouble with the law several times. Yes, she served jail time after firstly being caught driving under the influence and then being found guilty of violating her probation terms.
There were more relationships for Hilton, but again nothing lasted. There was more notoriety too, some of it brought about by drug arrests. Still, she pursued other career avenues, including DJing and a fashion collection. And while Hilton may not have been a staple of the gossip mags the way that she once had been, everyone still knew who she was. You know – fame and all that goes a long way.
But as of the late 2010s Hilton’s star had definitely faded. She was still a successful and wealthy individual, of course. Yet there were other “IT girls” who had supplanted her in the public consciousness, none more so than one Kim Kardashian who had, in fact, once been Hilton’s personal assistant. Talk about the apprentice becoming the master. Hilton, meanwhile, was apparently living a somewhat quieter life.
And then came This is Paris. The documentary, released on Hilton’s own YouTube channel in 2020, threatens to shine a light on the “real” Paris Hilton. Because as it turns out, there were some pretty important details that the heiress had been holding back all these years. Or so we’re told. Also, they may come as a shock to many, even ardent Hilton fans.
To mark the release of the This is Paris documentary, Hilton gave interviews to both magazines and TV shows. And during those interviews, the former model made a number of revelations, including that she’d actually been playing a character for the last 20 years. Really? Is it possible that the Paris we saw so many times before was merely a fake?
Well, Hilton’s reveal was quite something. “This entire time, I have been playing a character, so the world has never really truly known who I am…The real me is actually someone who is brilliant. And I’m not a dumb blonde, I’m just really good at pretending to be one,” Hilton told Australian TV show Sunrise.
That wasn’t all Hilton said on Sunrise. “I just felt like it was time for the world to finally know who I was. I feel that I’ve been through so much and there’s so many misconceptions and just preconceived notions about me and also I just form my legacy and what I wanted to be remembered for,” Hilton said. “I don’t want to be remembered as some airhead. I want to be respected for the businesswoman I am.”
Hilton has echoed her comments elsewhere. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter she was equally as candid about the role she had seemingly been playing for so many years. “I think if people actually know me, or they get me, that they’ll understand that [it was an act],” the heiress said.
And yet Hilton understands that not everyone will believe that the character she has been portraying for so long is anything but her true self. “But then there’s other people that just want to be judgemental and have a lot of misconceptions and assume that’s who I am, so I like when people actually understand [that] obviously I know what I’m doing,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
No doubt playing a part helped shield Hilton from the criticism too, as she explained in an interview with Vogue. “When people said things that hurt my feelings, in my mind I’d say, ‘Paris, that’s you playing a character, that isn’t you. Don’t feel bad when people are saying things because people aren’t talking about you, they’re talking about what they think you are.’ That mindset protected me,” Hilton explained.
So who is the real Paris Hilton then? “I’m a very naturally shy person so I always get a little bit shy — especially actually being myself and not playing the character and speaking in my normal voice,” Hilton told The Hollywood Reporter. Wait. So that wasn’t her real voice all along? So she claims.
Act or not, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that it will take quite the turnaround for Hilton to be remembered by the public as anything but a slightly vacuous brat. That was how she came across, most notably in The Simple Life, and the countless images of her attending red-carpet events with her little dog in her handbag.
And unsurprisingly some cruel things have been written about Hilton over the years. Among the most scathing remarks aimed at the heiress can be found in the 2006 Jerry Oppenheimer book House of Hilton. Within, Oppenheimer can barely contain his disdain for Hilton and many other members of the dynasty, starting with her grandmother “Big Kathy” Dugan.
“Big Kathy was very ambitious and obsessed with accumulating money, diamonds, fancy cars, expensive homes – and husbands to pay for them all,” Oppenheimer wrote of Hilton’s maternal grandmother. “Marry money and have lots of babies, that was the philosophy she sought to instill in her daughters. Sex, she believed, was one way to a man’s heart,” Oppenheimer added.
It is this philosophy – “marry money and have lots of babies” – that Oppenheimer suggests led to Hilton’s mother snaring her wealthy husband, Rick Hilton. “Little” Kathy was married into the Hilton clan at the tender age of 20. Paris Hilton is the couple’s eldest child. And it is for this particular member of the Hilton clan that Oppenheimer has the most contempt.
“Paris…is the epitome of our shallow, celebrity-obsessed culture; an exhibitionist IT Girl, best known for starring in a home-made pornographic video but essentially famous only for being famous,” Oppenheimer writes in House of Hilton. He adds that Hilton starred in a “vacuous reality TV series” and had a “much-derided pop and film career.” He even commented that she was “especially adept at being photographed falling in and out of nightclubs.”
If Oppenheimer’s opinion of Hilton seems harsh, then he is hardly alone. And in the introduction to her interview on Sunrise, one of the show’s anchors states that “[Hilton’s] name has become synonymous with being blonde, ditzy and filthy rich.” It’s hardly a glowing tribute. “You don’t need to share Osama bin Laden’s view of America to see that Paris mirrors us at our contemporary worst,” wrote Kay S. Hymowitz for City Journal back in 2006.
The criticism of Hilton has been going on for the best part of two decades now. “Few celebrities have worked as hard at pure tabloid notoriety, or built reputations so unsullied by accomplishment or circumspection,” wrote John Leland for The New York Times back in 2003, the very year The Simple Life debuted. “Ms. Hilton has stood for the proposition that wealth comes with no obligations of tact, taste or civic responsibility,” the writer added.
So could it be that This is Paris is just Hilton’s attempt to readdress her legacy? She simply doesn’t want to be remembered as just the latest in a long line of supposed “dumb blondes”? As it stands, Hilton arguably finds herself as the heir to a mantle once held, rightly or wrongly, by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Pamela Anderson. But is it time to cut her some slack, nonetheless?
Because Hilton was explicit about her intentions for her documentary. She told Vogue, “I was only going to talk about the empire I created as a businesswoman because I was sick of the misconceptions people still had about me. I don’t want to be remembered as that dumb-blonde airhead from The Simple Life. That’s not who I am, and I wanted to show that, because I’m very proud of the woman I am and what I’ve created.”
But will the new documentary change the public perception of Hilton? As Michelle Kambasha, writing for The Guardian newspaper asks, “As she shows a vulnerability the world has never seen, will fans take note or turn away?” Yet as Kambasha asserts herself, “even when she talks about her trauma, visibly in pain, I notice that for the first time, to me, Paris Hilton seems real.”
So discovering the “real” Paris Hilton years after she’s done, well, an awful lot, could be somewhat difficult for fans. For some it may be a cause for celebration, for others it may be faintly depressing. But it’s really something for people to consider for themselves. After all, she wouldn’t be the first celebrity who’s reinvented herself. And maybe, to be fair, it’s for the best.