Our Lady of Reality

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

This is Paris

LIKE it or not, Paris Hilton was the face of the early 2000s. Not Laura Bush, not Michelle Obama. Paris Hilton’s zeitgeist told the 2000s that it was okay to be — or want to be — rich, famous, and beautiful.

Ms. Hilton wasn’t the first blonde to be followed around by the media and the world. Her fellows in the early reality world, Jessica Simpson and Anna Nicole Smith, also had unwarranted and sometimes unwanted media attention, but then, Ms. Simpson had been a pop star, and Ms. Smith had been tabloid fodder for her marriage to a geriatric billionaire. We could go higher and compare her wattage to Diana, Princess of Wales, but then, she was going to be the mother of a future king. Ms. Hilton didn’t sing, dance, marry, or bear important children. Asked by TV host Matt Lauer in 2004 why people were so fascinated with her, she said, “People always ask me that, and I don’t know. I’m just living my life.”

There was a war raging in the 2000s, but new money was to be made and spent on the internet and as a celebrity. The world groped around in the dark trying to find out what it wanted to be in the new millennium, and a hotel heiress with a reality series and a sex tape was the light. The Simple Life, a reality series that followed heiresses Paris and Nicole (Richie; musician Lionel Richie’s daughter) around, and the media buzz around it (and their wild off-camera lifestyle, which has landed both of them in jail on separate occasions) created a pattern for audiences to want that life, no matter what the price.

Of course, the world has changed since then. The young people who watched The Simple Life from 2003-2007 had to grow up and get jobs during the Great Recession, and then endure everything else that would come after. With millions losing jobs and homes, the worship of Ms. Hilton’s world suddenly seemed odious. Even she had to get a job: Ms. Hilton has several lines of perfume and beauty products, along with a job as one of the world’s highest-paid DJs and product endorsers. Still, her imprimatur remains today. See those girls on Tiktok and YouTube? They’re all there because Kim Kardashian and her sisters taught them that the way (or the price) for fame and fortune was to show everyone everything — no matter how inane or insane. And who was Kim Kardashian’s former boss? That’s right: Paris Hilton.

“Everyone says I’m the original influencer. But sometimes, I feel like I helped create a monster,” said Paris Hilton herself in a documentary called This is Paris, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, and as a Youtube Original on the website two weeks ago.

It seems trite to say that it shows the real Paris Hilton when all the woman ever did was to sell a manufactured reality of herself, but that’s exactly what it tries to do. Peeling back the layers of glitter she plastered onto herself, the documentary shows us a woman we thought we knew, and a woman who doesn’t even know herself. “This is Paris Hilton,” she says while recording. She says this in several ways; in several tones, moods, and colors. “How many voices do I have?”

The documentary, directed and written by Alexandra Dean, starts off with a sequence of Ms. Hilton getting ready in the morning, to the tune of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey.” It’s a somber 1980s track one might mistake as something from The Cure, with the curious line: “Listen to the girl/As she takes on half the world.” The song sets the stage for the first act of the documentary, a familiar crossover between Poor Little Rich Girl pieces and reality shows. It transports us back to her childhood and early teens, telling us about the pressures of growing up rich (“My mom just wanted me to be a Hilton. I just wanted to be Paris.”). In footage shot last year, she shows us her busy jetset lifestyle, no longer for leisure, but for work. One can say that Ms. Hilton is simply a relic of the 2000s, but it would be correct to write her off that way. On a trip to Korea, she’s greeted by hundreds of fans; in a gig at a Belgian music festival, she’s watched by thousands. (Her set, and the rest of the film’s soundtrack, is on fire).

To show another side of this life, they show her restless, unable to sleep; muttering about nightmares and insomnia. Her well-dressed sister Nicky Hilton-Rothschild berates her for her insatiable drive. “I will not stop until I make a billion dollars. And then I think I can relax,” declared Ms. Hilton to her sister. Asked by her sister if she’s happy, she answers, “Sometimes.” She is still, however, surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful things. I somehow find myself sorry for this girl, who has everything anyone could want but never anything she needs. It’s the same blonde — whatever that means — but with a deeper, more authoritative voice; insisting throughout the documentary that the girlish California purr we knew was for a character she created for herself. Here she casts herself as a convert: a businesswoman with an East Coast lockjaw, who just so happens to be funny and well-dressed. It’s easy to dismiss this as another one of her media manipulations, a new image for the more discerning 2020s, until we get to the second and third act. ‘When I look around my life, it’s like a cartoon,” she sobs in her glamorous closet during an emotional moment in the third act.

For you see, the second and third act of the documentary talks about the abuse she suffered while within several reform schools — rebranded as “emotional growth schools” when the Hilton family placed their wayward, partying daughter there. There, she said, she was beaten up and verbally abused. In one school, the Provo Canyon School in Utah, not only was she subjected to a staged abduction (an event also remembered by her sister); but also beatings, unauthorized medication, and a turn in solitary confinement. These experiences, according to her, cause her recurring nightmares. It almost seems like everything that came after — the partying, the spending, the reckless sex and relationships — could be traced back to those years. “They made me not trust anyone; not even my own family,” she said. “That started, just from this place.” It’s curious that when she says those things, she reverts back to that girlish whine, no longer annoying when one realizes she uses it when she’s vulnerable, or isn’t quite herself (when she’s Paris as “Paris”). Her testimony is validated by three of her former classmates who were also abused to differing degrees; most of them also suffering from some form of trauma from their experiences. The four join a campaign that seeks to expose the abuse in reform schools. This then sets it apart from other Poor Little Rich Girl films that end with some nebulous, easily forgotten statement. This becomes a call to action for the reform school system, and a message of empathy for adults carrying trauma. “I don’t know if my nightmares will ever go away. I do know there are probably hundreds of thousands of kids who are going through the same thing right now. Maybe if I can help stop their nightmares, it will help me stop mine.”

We can choose to be uncharitable, and clock this up as another one of her constructed realities. That would defeat the film’s premise, which showed that the world had once been uncharitable to her, because the world thought she was, and had, too much. The filmmaker asks her if she could finally leave behind the character she made for herself: “I’ll be like this, forever.” We know what we paid for Paris Hilton. Does Paris Hilton know what price she paid?

The film appropriately ends with a restrained rendition of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.”

One can watch This Is Paris on https://youtu.be/wOg0TY1jG3w, with an extended cut available for subscribers of YouTube Premium.

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