In 2006, the paparazzi snapped an iconic picture of Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan sitting in a car. Hilton sits in the driver’s seat in a cream-colored blouse, her light blonde bangs fanning her face, and her hair pulled back with a plastic headband. She grins through the windshield, a subtle flash of pearly white on her rosy lips. Spears and Lohan are crushed in the passenger seat, fleeing from the party and the paps but making the most out of the moment.
“The next day, the iconic shot of Britney, Lindsay, and me ran on the cover of the New York Post with the words ‘bimbo summit’ in gigantic type under our faces,” Hilton writes in her new eponymous memoir, which came out on Tuesday. “That blizzard of flashing lights created a dozen or so versions of a classic photo, and those images have generated millions of dollars in licensing and royalties.”
A hotel heir, a reality TV star, a sex icon, and a fixture of the early aughts, Paris Hilton shot to fame with her starring role in The Simple Life, a reality TV show that followed Paris and her best friend Nicole Richie, the daughter of singer Lionel Richie, as they stepped into the homes of middle- and working-class Americans and attempted to live a “normal” life. The Simple Life provided an early blueprint for reality TV, poking fun at the rich and famous while allowing viewers a voyeuristic glimpse of their lives. What made The Simple Life so popular was the best-friendship of Hilton and Richie at its heart, and later their dramatic falling-out.
In Hilton’s heyday, the reality TV star was everywhere, dabbling in acting and singing, and she even published a coffee table book called Confessions of an Heiress. Her pop-reggae single “Stars Are Blind” debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard Top 100 in 2006, and she made cameos in the most popular TV shows of the time like The O.C., Veronica Mars, and George Lopez.
In spring 2007, Hilton spent 45 days in jail after forgetting to turn on her headlights (she had a previous misdemeanor charge for a DUI). The jail time spurred Hilton’s fall from grace, and she retreated to obscurity beyond the glare of the paparazzi. When Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered in fall of that same year, the curvy and brunette Kim Kardashian replaced Hilton as the starring queen of reality TV.
Since then, Paris Hilton has made a quiet comeback, riding on the wave of nostalgia for the early aughts that prevails among millennials and Gen Z. She’s walked in Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty fashion show, and she appeared in a velour tracksuit ad for Skims with fellow model–reality TV star–influencer Kim Kardashian. She has her own podcast, a cosmetics and skincare line, 8.3 million TikTok followers, and is among the highest-paid women DJs in the world. A memoir is the next logical item on her to-do list.
Paris: The Memoir starts with an unexpected revelation about its writer: “My ADHD makes me lose my phone, but it also makes me who I am, so if I’m going to love my life, I have to love my ADHD.” Hilton explains that her ADHD is the reason she loves em dashes and run-on sentences, and offers an early disclaimer for the tangents and random asides that follow in the book. “I’m probably going to jump around a lot while I tell the story,” she admits. The confession makes Hilton relatable and likable for the reader, as if a friend — albeit a very rich and influential friend — is telling you a long, roving story over martinis.
And yet, as someone who is both the product and creator of the influencer model of marketing and promotion, every word Hilton writes on the page is deliberate and calculated, vying to showcase her image to a complicit audience. Often, the prose reads like ad copy, as if Hilton is offering a sales pitch about her life, or, more appropriately, a 328-page book rendition of a social media caption. After all, Hilton isn’t just revisiting the past; she’s promoting her brand.
“My brand was more than my business; it was my identity, my strength, my self-respect, my independence, my whole life. I had to protect my brand,” she writes. “I wanted to be the woman Marilyn never had a chance to evolve into: It Girl gone Influencer.”
Hilton’s visceral attachment to her brand makes sense: It’s a form of revenge for the traumas she experienced as a teenager. Hilton says she often felt misunderstood by her family growing up. “I had to be cute, precocious, and shy,” she writes, so that she could escape being censured for her inability to sit still or conform to the upper-middle-class femininity and etiquette encouraged by her image-conscious parents. The “overcompensating … social butterfly-like behavior” included her breathy “baby” voice she used when she was nervous, and became the forerunner to the same ridiculous, high-pitched valley girl voice she’d wield when she was famous, playing ignorant on The Simple Life or talking to the paps.
Hilton retreats behind her patrician good looks at an early age, using it as a screen from which she can hide her vulnerabilities and impulses and allowing her to glide through life without addressing or even understanding her own pain and problems. (Hilton wouldn’t be diagnosed with ADHD until her early 20s.) She finds kindred spirits in Marilyn Monroe, Shannen Doherty, and, later, Britney Spears. “Given the choice between victim and influencer, Marilyn and I embraced our siren selves,” she writes, as it’s more appealing to think of oneself as an alluring femme fatale than a girl used and discarded for her inherent charm and beauty.
Hilton learns this firsthand when a teacher at her school in Sherman Oaks, whom she names “Mr. Abercrombie” in the memoir, grooms her. In the book, Hilton writes that when her parents spotted their middle school–aged daughter kissing a grown man in the front seat of his SUV, they sent her to live with her grandmother in Palm Springs at the end of her school year. The experience leaves its mark, as she ends up feeling abandoned and neglected by her own family at 14. “I didn’t know what my family wanted. Not me, apparently,” Hilton writes. Eventually, she moves to New York City, where her family is living in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and discovers her voracious desire for partying and the ecstatic and creative nightlife of the city.
The nightclubs Hilton frequented as a teenager in the ’90s provided an early education for the aesthetic and cultural blueprint she’d help form in the aughts. “The vogue dancers, drag queens, and Harajuku girls took me under their wings,” she writes. She starts to skip and fail her classes, stumbling home in the early hours of the morning, and appearing in Page Six, totally out of control. Hilton’s parents decide to enroll her in a reform school in the wilderness in Utah. As she sleeps in her bed at night, two men burst into her room and abduct her as her parents look on, hauling her to a therapeutic boarding school called CEDU. Hilton and other students allege that CEDU is short for Charles E. Dederich University, named for the founder of the controversial West Coast cult Syanon. CEDU was marketed as an emotional growth program for troubled kids, but its students reported being humiliated and abused. Hilton and other students say they faced degrading mob-like attacks preying on their weaknesses, which CEDU staff claimed would heal them, and allege facing or witnessing physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
CEDU and its associated schools received several lawsuits alleging abuse. After the company which owned the schools declared bankruptcy in 2005, Universal Health Services, a Fortune 500 company responsible for provision of healthcare services, bought and reopened three of the schools. Provo Canyon School, where Hilton claims she was force-fed drugs and confined in a solitary prison, never shut down and remains operational to this day. In 2020, Hilton discusses her experiences at these schools with the filmmaker Alexandra Dean in the documentary This Is Paris.
Hilton recollects her time in these abusive facilities with vivid clarity, including the fight-or-flight adrenaline rush of running away to survive. After the police catch her on a Greyhound bus, a slick wad of a couple hundred dollars she “swiped” from her mother rolled up in her bun, she reflects: “Money meant hope. Money meant freedom. Someday, I decided, I’m going to work so hard and make so much money. Like a million dollars. And then I’ll be safe and fuck trusting anyone ever again.”
And yet, the memoir skirts around questions to which this generation has perpetually craved answers.
Given this primal impulse for survival, it makes sense why Hilton views her business empire as a way to not ever be controlled or abused ever again. When Hilton’s parents finally pulled her out of the program, just a few months shy of her 18th birthday, she threw herself headlong into partying, modeling, and socializing with the same managers, talent scouts, photographers, and producers who would catapult her to fame.
In 2000, Hilton and her sister Nicky participated in a September Vanity Fair profile featuring an iconic photo taken by David LaChapelle, in which Hilton flips off the camera in her grandparents’ whitewashed living room, channeling all her rage, the snarl of “fuck you” forming on her lips. “I raised my middle finger and said what I wanted to say to the whole fucking dynasty,” Hilton recalls in her memoir. The story effectively inducted Paris Hilton into the hall of famous Y2K It girls like Gwyneth Paltrow, Carmen Kass, Gisele Bündchen, and more.
After the Vanity Fair photo shoot, Hilton channeled the unresolved anger and suffering of her past into a mysterious party-girl persona, a trashy hotel heir who’s gone off the rails, a silly blonde rich girl who has no idea of what’s going on in the world. It’s precisely this same persona Hilton now wants to disprove in the book, providing a corrective and styling herself as a survivor, an advocate, and a businessperson, without disowning the larger-than-life myth she embodies for millennial and Gen Z kids who grew up watching her and seeing her name splashed on headlines on TV and print alike.
And yet, the memoir skirts around questions to which this generation has perpetually craved answers. Why did Hilton act on the rich-mean-girl persona she created at the pinnacle of her stardom, encouraging girls to act “ditzy” and prizing skinniness and male attention above all? How much of it was trauma, and how much of it was Hilton? Why did she choose to embrace the role the media thrust on her, and live within the constrictions of this invented “character,” instead of choosing to do something else? Where did the persona end and the woman begin? As The Simple Life neared the twilight of its runtime, why did she and Nicole Richie fall out? After Kim Kardashian, Hilton’s mousy, half-Armenian assistant, replaced her as the queen of reality TV, finally displacing the reign of the skinny blondes and heralding a new era of pop culture, how did Hilton cope with this fall from relevance? What did she do in the meantime?
More importantly, why did Hilton continuously use the n-word, even going so far as to lob the racial slur against real people? Why did she call gay men the f-slur, saying they’re “disgusting” and “probably had AIDS”? In her memoir, Hilton demurs: “I said the worst things to and about the people I love most. I’m a genuinely nice person. I try to help people whenever I can. I love to lift up my friends and fellow creatives.” She recounts that PTSD from the reform schools, and the frightening pseudo therapeutic attack sessions — which often used degrading slurs — led to a severely “damaged” and broken filter. The explanation is plausible, but the reader can’t help but feel that Hilton should dig deeper into how her PTSD incurred not just her self-destructive drinking and partying, but the people she chose to hurt along the way.
Hilton doesn’t further probe these episodes or offer tangible answers to these questions. Maybe that’s the point: The memoir is about the horrors she suffered as a teenager, rather than the trailblazing party life she led in the middle “in the throes of PTSD.” Healing, too, is nonlinear, a constant process. Hilton only gives us just small, patchy glimpses of her time as a burgeoning It girl but then skirts around the drama she attracted or sometimes initiated, playfully changing the topic to avoid grasping at the truth of what really happened. It’s the same diversion tactic she used when she was a little girl, who didn’t know she had ADHD, to when she was a celebrity in her early 20s, clowning the public with her act of the ditzy bimbo. This time, she’s the positive-minded, savvy influencer, curating her memoir with the self-aware instinct of a businessperson. The reader finishes the book knowing exactly what Paris Hilton wants us to know about her, and nothing more than that. ●