‘This Is Paris’ Reveals the Trauma Behind the Socialite’s Infamous Persona

This essay was edited by culture writer Sydney Urbanek, who has a newsletter dedicated to pop divas.

Paris Hilton photographed by Bernardo Doral for Cosmopolitan Spain (December 2019)

I’ll always remember how The Simple Life introduced Paris Hilton: “Model. Jet setter. Target of the tabloids. And heir to the 360 million dollar Hilton fortune.” While Paris was already enjoying some paparazzi attention in 2003, the reality series, which aired in December of that year, launched her into stardom, alongside best friend and co-star Nicole Richie. Alexandra Dean’s new documentary, This Is Paris, opens with a montage conveying the public perception that has followed Paris throughout her life: that she’s nothing more than a dumb, blond party girl who cheated her way into fame with a sex tape.

However, Paris tells us in the film that no one knows who she really is. “I’m so used to playing a character that it’s hard for me to be normal,” she says as she adjusts to being filmed constantly for Dean’s documentary. In a 2011 interview with ABC, Paris explained that she developed her infamous persona specifically for The Simple Life: “They wanted someone who is an airhead and kind of had the baby voice, so that’s the character I had to do and continue to do for five seasons.” She added that when she’s on camera, she’ll often revert back to it because she’s “so used to it.”

Paris used this persona to her advantage and made it marketable. In 2004, while promoting her book Confessions of an Heiress: A Tongue-in-Chic Peek Behind the Pose on Conan, she and the titular late-night host discussed some of the “rules” that Paris lays out in the book, which include never wearing the same outfit twice, being born into the right family, and having a great name (she suggests changing it if necessary). A review of the book on Amazon says that Paris is “totally shallow, disrespectful, rude, and lives in a fantasy world with no clue about reality.” But the truth was in its title all along — the book is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. In the Conan interview, Paris says, “I’m not serious. The whole book is like a joke, it’s a spoof on my life and it’s funny. I’m joking around, I know a lot of people can’t follow these rules.” She’s never fully hidden her real personality or her intelligence — it’s always been there for those who’ve been willing to see it.

Paris has struggled with her identity her whole life. As a child, her mother Kathy made her attend etiquette classes where she was taught how to be a debutante. “It’s very proper and prim, almost like a Stepford wife,” she recalls in This Is Paris. “It just didn’t feel real or natural to me.” Paris goes on to explain that her upbringing was very strict — no makeup, no boys, no dates, no school dances, early curfew, etc. “My mum just wanted me to be a Hilton, and I just wanted to be Paris.” Kathy taught Paris the three Ps: to be “proper, private, and to always portray that everything’s fine.” Eventually, Paris couldn’t handle being confined this way. At 18, she got a fake ID, and was pulled into the nightlife where she felt accepted for the first time. “I just felt like the queen of the night,” she says. “And that’s where I really became Paris.”

Paris, aged 19, at the Las Palmas Club in Los Angeles (December 2000)

Being chased by the paparazzi as a teenager was a dream for Paris, but things became more hectic when she reached her early 20s. Around the time that The Simple Life launched her into stardom, Paris’s then-boyfriend Rick Salomon, who was 13 years her senior, leaked their sex tape without her permission, turning Paris into an even bigger star. Her dumb blonde character collided with the unwelcome opinions that people had formed about Paris based on the tape. Speaking to Piers Morgan in 2011, Paris said she felt betrayed by Salomon: “Now when people look at me, they think I’m someone I’m not just because of one incident, one night, with someone who I was in love with. People assume ‘Oh, she’s a slut’ just because of one thing that happened to me.”

In This Is Paris, Paris expands on these feelings: “If [the sex tape] had happened today, it would not be the same at all. They made me the bad person, like I did something bad.” She also reveals that Salomon pressured her into making the tape by saying things like, “You’re so boring, do I have to call someone else? No one will see it.” She just wanted to make him happy and thought this is what love was. While the sex tape became a blueprint for quick fame, Paris never wanted or needed any of it. Her grandmother used to compare her to Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, women she always admired and wanted to emulate, but the tape took this choice away from her. “It was like being electronically raped.”

In a 2004 interview, Matt Lauer asked Paris why people are so fascinated with her, and her response was iconic: “People always ask me this, and I don’t know. I’m just living my life.” In This Is Paris, American entrepreneur Sheeraz Hasan says he “built the foundation of one of the biggest paparazzi companies [Fame by Sheeraz] in the world on the back of Paris Hilton.” He says that he would have hundreds of guys in Los Angeles, all of them making a living off of Paris: “For a photograph, at that time, it could range between 50 thousand dollars up to a million dollars. If you know you can make a million dollars in a day — what does it look like? It’s war.” The documentary cuts to footage of paparazzi fighting and shouting over Paris in chaotic and frightening scenes which show Paris at the height of her celebrity. She says that she adored the media attention at this time because she “felt that was love.”

Kim Kardashian says in the film that “Paris really started the movement of having the paparazzi follow your every move.” In 2015, Claudia Rosenbaum wrote that when the paparazzi dominated the 2000s, stars like Paris would “inadvertently” leak their plans to the paparazzi as “part of the wink-wink symbiotic relationship that fuelled their tabloid fame.” Rosenbaum’s article goes on to explain that “what once took an army of clamouring paparazzi can now be tweeted, Instagrammed” as stars control and break their own big news.

Since social media as we know it took off, Paris hasn’t missed a beat. She’s always used it to engage with her fans, who call themselves Little Hiltons, and she utilises its features to market her brands. Today, she has over 11,000 posts and 13 million followers on Instagram. In a 2017 interview with W Magazine, Paris says that she and Britney Spears invented selfies in November of 2006, but two years prior to that, Paris’s cameo in The O.C. saw her grab a camera phone and use it to take a selfie. Sheeraz says that as early as 2004, Paris was turning the lens on herself. “I didn’t even know what a selfie was,” he recalls.

Paris is often rightfully cited as the “original influencer,” but she says that “sometimes I feel like I helped create a monster.” There’s something to be said about how she paved the way for celebrities like the Kardashian-Jenners, but as pointed out by Nick C. Levine in 2018, Paris doesn’t have to resort to #spon posts or promote “fitness teas,” as the Kardashian-Jenners have been criticised for: “Maybe Hilton just isn’t appealing to brands in 2018 — or maybe she’s honed her own so much that she simply doesn’t need to collaborate with the crap ones.” It’s definitely the latter, which is what makes Paris stand out from the rest. If people were dead set on making Paris ‘famous for nothing,’ then she was dead set on using it to her advantage and building a million-dollar brand. She created a new phenomenon when celebrity culture was changing drastically, and she’s kept up with it, proving that she’s the smart, hard-working businesswoman she says she is.

There came a time when Paris decided she wanted to be in control of more than simply her image. She has 19 successful product lines, including skin care, makeup, sunglasses, handbags — any product you can think of, Paris has a line for. In This In Paris, Paris says that her fragrances alone are responsible for “almost 3 billion dollars in sales.” Brands always send her clothes because they want her to post about them. She switches outfits every few hours, which she brushes off as just “part of being an influencer.” She also confirms that she’s still “never been photographed in the same thing twice.”

Paris’s glam, dumb blonde image and lifestyle are ways to take control and keep a distance between her public and private lives, but it becomes lonely when your public persona is so far removed from who you really are. Paris has been in the limelight since she was a child and she’s now 39 — certainly not the person we were introduced to in The Simple Life. While it seems like she’s always surrounded by people, Paris’s biggest issue is trust because she’s been betrayed so many times — especially by people getting close to her just for her fame and fortune. She’s had to resort to putting cameras up in her house when she has new boyfriends because she wants to know what they’re doing when she’s not there. This might sound extreme, but it’s understandable when you consider our culture of celebrity obsession. Paris, for her part, has had her fair share of stalkers, and was a victim of the bling ring burglaries in 2008–2009.

In This Is Paris, Paris reveals her childhood trauma for the first time. Paris’s parents, Kathy and Richard, were so worried about her behaviour — going to nightclubs, ditching class, etc. — that Kathy says she “locked her in [her] room. I was afraid she would run into a predator, get kidnapped.” Eventually, they sent her to multiple “emotional growth schools” because they didn’t want the stories about her in Page Six to ruin their reputation. They treated Paris and her actions as an extension of themselves, rather than seeing her as her own person. “I felt like I was just sent away to be hidden,” Paris said. She describes the schools as boot camps where they’d do manual labour all day long, and says the worst was Provo Canyon School, where she suffered verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. Paris explained that she was dragged out of her bedroom at home in the middle of the night to go, and wasn’t warned beforehand. She thought she was being kidnapped while her parents watched on in tears. Kathy was terrified that Paris would be kidnapped, and yet she’d organised for Paris to be kidnapped.

Paris was at Provo for 11 months and, while there, was strangled, put into solitary confinement, medicated, and more. She was so angry and upset that she hated her parents: “The only thing that saved my sanity was thinking about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to become when I got out of there. I was going to do everything in my power to be so successful that my parents could never control me again.” A big misconception about Paris is that she lives off of her family’s fortune, but she doesn’t. She obviously had an excellent head start, but Paris has very smartly crafted her own fortune, which she began doing at a young age. “I think all my anger just went into my drive for success,” she says. “It made me strong, but when I think about it, it gives me anxiety. It was really fucking hard.”

Paris’s parents acted with good intentions when they sent her to these schools, but they didn’t know about the abuse until filming This Is Paris. In a recent interview with Jenny McCarthy on Sirius XM, Paris revealed how her mother reacted off-camera: “My mum was just in shock and being on camera, she just shut down. So after the cameras were gone, we had a real discussion about it and she was saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t believe you went through that, I had no idea.’ She just felt guilty because she didn’t know, but I’ll never blame her because she had no idea.”

Over the past 20 years, Paris’s sister, Nicky Hilton Rothschild, has opted out of being in the public eye — which isn’t surprising considering that she turned down the chance to star in The Simple Life. However, Nicky makes a special appearance in This Is Paris to add to the authenticity of the documentary; she knows Paris more than anyone. “She has this persona that she’s this sexy bombshell, but she really is a [tom]boy at heart.” Nicky says as footage cuts to Paris wearing a long white t-shirt and her dad’s shorts in 1991. “Her brand is a lot more glamorous than she is — she’s a chick who likes to scrapbook at home with her dogs, eat leftovers. She sounds like Homer Simpson. She’s very normal.” Nicky also said that Paris is addicted to drama, but she goes on to describe simple things, like Paris rushing around and forgetting things like her phone and sunglasses before heading out.

Paris and Nicky at Paris’s New York apartment during fall 2018 NYFW

Things turn more serious when Nicky challenges Paris’s attitude towards work: “I speak to you, you say you’re going to bed, then I wake up and I’ll see you posting an Instagram at 6am and I know you haven’t slept.” In response, Paris says she can’t sleep because her mind won’t stop moving. When Nicky suggests a phone-free vacation, Paris explains that her schedule is too busy for that and that she hasn’t had a proper vacation since she was a teenager. Nicky jokes that she’s greedy and Paris says, “I’m not greedy, I just love making money.”

However, Paris reveals the real reason why she can’t sleep: “I have horrible insomnia. I’m scared to go to bed at night. I always have this recurring nightmare no matter what I do. I’m in bed and these two people come into my room and say, ‘Do you want this to happen the easy way or the hard way?’ I try and just run.” While Paris and Nicky blocked out a lot of this time from their youth, Paris learned the one life-changing thing that every trauma victim does eventually: the body remembers what the mind tries to forget. Paris puts on a façade of a happy and perfect life and that’s part of her brand, but this safety net must feel very limiting at times.

Something missing from This Is Paris is what Paris does in her downtime. As Nicky mentions, Paris loves to unwind by sitting with her dogs and scrapbooking, but Paris has other hobbies too — cooking, creating artwork, and looking after her large collection of pets. Filming her documentary and healing from her own trauma is enough work, so it’s safe to assume that she wanted to keep her more private moments for herself. Luckily, Paris posted a YouTube video in April showing off some of the activities that she’s been doing at home during quarantine, which gave more insight into who she really is. She revealed that she’s a fan of Rick and Morty, BoJack Horseman, and Westworld — things that surprised me, as I’m used to her giving the answers that you’d expect. For example, her favourite films include Breakfast at Tiffany’s and There’s Something About Mary.

Paris has weirder hobbies, too. When speaking to the Sun in 2013, she explained, “I love frog hunting. I go at my ranches. I have one near Oakland, California, and another in Nevada, and I own an island. So I catch frogs and put them in a bucket and then let them go.” There are also rumours that Paris might be a hardcore old radio enthusiast, but it’s never been confirmed. It’s clear that Paris still keeps a barrier up between her persona and the real her, but she’s striving for a healthier balance between the two, and engaging in activities that are just for her.

Paris says that her fans from all around the world make her feel less alone. You can tell that Paris genuinely loves her fans and Dean’s documentary wasn’t needed to prove it, as it shows in how she interacts with them on social media. Paris always gives her fans so much love and attention back, and supports them and their dreams as much as they do hers. She even cites longtime fans Alex and Polina as meaning a lot to her, and giving her meaningful advice and support, adding that they say things that even her closest friends wouldn’t. Paris revealed to New! Magazine pre-pandemic that she sometimes lets fans stay with her: “I’ve actually had some of them come and stay. Anywhere I go around the world, I make sure they’re there because it gets a little lonely just travelling and being by myself.”

Paris DJing on France’s Réunion Island in 2016

In This Is Paris, Paris says that she feels alive when DJing, which likely takes her back to when she felt her truest self as a young adult enjoying the nightlife. “When I’m playing, that’s my time, my fun. There’s nothing like it,” she says, but she explains one incident where a photo was taken as a man adjusted the volume; headlines used it to say that she wasn’t DJing herself. Even after all this time, Paris says that she has to really prove herself, especially in a male-dominated industry. It’s during this portion of the documentary where Paris gets angry at her ex-fiancé Chris Zylka’s controlling behaviour — a way in which we’ve never seen her act, and honestly, it’s refreshing to see Paris unleash her true emotions.

While spending time with Nicky and niece Lily-Grace, Paris reveals that she’s had her eggs frozen. “Every time I’m with you and I’m with [my niece], it makes me so depressed,” she says. Due to her past dating experiences, Paris says that she’s freaked out by people, but especially by men (though she currently has a boyfriend, Carter Reum). When Nicky tells her that she needs to date an equal so neither of them can be controlled by the other, Paris says, “I don’t like that… because I’m scared.” Speaking of her relationship with Zylka, she says she felt trapped: “When you get married, you’re forced to grow up. I am afraid to grow up. I know I am a grown up, but I think after being at those schools you lose your childhood.”

Paris still dreams of settling down and having kids, but in addition to the aforementioned issues, she doesn’t know when she’ll have time: “I will not stop until I make a billion dollars and then I think I can relax. I know that sounds crazy. I don’t know, I just don’t want to have to worry.” As explored in Ayo Osobamiro’s review of This Is Paris, the high standards that Kathy inherited from her own parents are the same high standards she held her own kids to. It pushed Paris to create her “dangerously unhealthy perfect persona” and keeps her “instilled in childhood.” It seems like Paris feels like she has something to prove so people know the real her — the person who is raw, honest, emotional, smart, and caring. Paris has always been torn between multiple identities — the debutante daughter, the persona she created, the persona the media amplified, and the real Paris. She kept everything inside her for so long that, with the help of Dean’s documentary, it was finally time for her to reveal her truth to the world, to give herself a form of release that will hopefully lead to some peace.

Paris joins fellow Provo Canyon School students in #BreakingCodeSilence campaign

This Is Paris looks at the real Paris Hilton and the trauma that shaped her entire life. She’s no longer playing a character and it’s easy to see how vulnerable this documentary made her feel — especially when working through her trauma. In a raw and heartwarming reunion, Paris meets up with some of the girls she knew at Provo, and they all bond over the horrific things they endured, which left a huge impact on their lives. Speaking to Allure’s Rosemary Donahue, Paris said: “It does something to you, especially being a teenager where you don’t even have an identity yet. They try to strip it away and try to break you down as much as possible. I didn’t realise that so many things about myself stemmed from there.”

Paris is still running her million-dollar empire, but now she’s using her celebrity to shut down schools like Provo and bring comfort to other survivors. She has joined the #BreakingCodeSilence campaign, which aims to raise awareness for the problems within the troubled teen industry and call for reform, and is donating the proceeds from her new single ‘I Blame You’ to the cause. Although Paris never intended to open up about her time at Provo in the documentary, Dean encouraged her to share it and Paris is happy that she listened. She told Donahue, “I just wanted the public to know that this is bigger than me. This is all about the survivors and anyone who wants to share their truth.”

So who is the real Paris Hilton? She’s a survivor.

A freelance film and tv writer from England, who enjoys horror films, cats and middle-aged actresses.

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