Paris Hilton, though. Sheesh. Who was she? How had she come to be a person that a “People” column in an actual newspaper in another country was expected to write about? There had been a sex tape, sure, but the sex tape was famous because of her, not the other way around. She didn’t sing like Britney Spears, she didn’t act like Cameron Diaz, and she sure as hell wasn’t in Gordon Brown’s Government of All the Talents. She should have been nowhere, yet she was everywhere. And you just knew, even then, that she was a harbinger of worse things to come.
Paris: The Memoir does not grapple with these questions. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating, moving and at times shocking portrait of a person who, at 42, has now been famous for being famous for most of her life. This reflects very well on the person who wrote it, who clearly wasn’t her. That’s not just me being mean and presumptuous. Hilton thanks the ghostwriter Joni Rodgers, who “helped me find my voice”, in the acknowledgments.
I’m not always certain, though, that she quite found the right one. Are we really to believe that Hilton would describe her mother sending her a takeaway on a private jet as “a vivid demonstration of both the love of privilege and the privilege of love”? Or, and I think this is my favorite (on her remarkably upsetting time at one of a series of horrendous boarding schools): “Wasserman was a disciple of Charles E Dederich, founder of Synanon, a violent cult that had been driven underground but never fully eradicated by the FBI.” Really? This is Paris Hilton speaking, is it?
The thing is, we have heard this woman talk. Quite a lot, in fact. I remember seeing her in her fish-out-of-water reality show, The Simple Life (2003-07), when she asked: “What is Walmart? Do, like, they sell wall stuff?” which may be the line for which she is most famous and which has — shockingly — no place in this 330-page opus. I also saw the banal cooking show she did with Kim Kardashian a couple of years ago, in which she wore fingerless lace gloves and didn’t know what a dishwasher was.
Really? This is Paris Hilton speaking, is it?
There’s a sense that Hilton’s ghostwriter might be sending her up. “Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012,” she writes, “and Twitter acquired Vine. I launched a line of eyewear in Shanghai and toured with my 15th fragrance, Dazzle.” Or consider where she writes about remastering her sole pop hit, Stars Are Blind (a genuine beachy banger, to be fair, although something she didn’t write either), because she had been “inspired by Taylor Swift taking control of her backlist”. Or, and you’ll think I’m making this one up, but I swear I’m not: “In 1989, I was eight years old and Nicky was six. The Berlin Wall came down.” Time and again, we see her assuming herself to be the cultural equal of the biggest pop stars, actors and even historical events of her era, and it’s never clear that she’s in on the joke.
And yet; and yet. At the heart of this book there is a truly disturbing tale about a horrible childhood. A lot of this involves the horrendous, quasi-military boot camps she was shipped off to in her late teens — we read about strip-searches and abuse, physical and sexual. It begins with a genuine abduction when two men from an “emotional growth boarding school” barged into her bedroom. “Clawing, kicking, screaming, I tried to break free. One man had my upper body, the other had my legs.”
This was sanctioned by her parents, the hotel scion Richard Hilton (the grandson of the founder of the Hilton chain) and his socialite wife, Kathy. None of this is new — it featured in a documentary a couple of years ago called This Is Paris and she gave evidence to the Utah State Legislature as it belatedly cracked down on what became known as “the troubled teen industry”. If that sits oddly in this book, and it does, then it’s not her fault because it sits horribly oddly in her life too.
Periodically, she would escape these schools only for her parents to call the goons to abduct her once again. You can feel the hurt of this through the prose, whoever wrote it, but the horrendous betrayal it represents is never quite addressed. Certainly, she seems to have been a nightmare teenager beforehand, escaping her homes in various hotels to go clubbing from an early age, to the extent that her grandmother, for a period, slept outside her door. Much of this is farcical — she tried to get a smaller cousin into a club by getting her to sit on somebody’s shoulders in a trench coat — yet she kept getting away with it.
Time and again, we see Paris assuming herself to be the cultural equal of the biggest pop stars, actors and even historical events of her era, and it’s never clear that she’s in on the joke.
The horrendous parenting she received gets an easy ride. There is one devastating anecdote, quite underplayed, about when she overheard her mother reading out her stolen diary — “Nicole says I should just go up to him and tell him I think he’s hot” — in a parody of Paris’s baby voice to amuse her aunts. “In the realm of bad things that happen to kids, this is not a big deal,” she writes. You think? She was 12 at the time.
As a character study, you obviously cannot divorce these experiences from the figure she has become, wildly sexualized while simultaneously having a deeply troubled relationship with sex. As a teenager she was drugged and raped by a man she met at a shopping mall. She was also groomed by a pedophile teacher. Later, there was the infamous sex tape, leaked in 2003, which she still insists, not unconvincingly, was circulated by means that had nothing to do with her. To her parents’ horror, she posed topless for Vanity Fair in her grandmother’s living room. Throughout the Noughties — the time I, then a diarist and features writer, was indignantly refusing to put her in the Times of London— the media was uniformly ghastly to her.
A fan of the cartoon series South Park, she met its creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone at a party and felt she had got on with them quite well. Not long afterwards, she was parodied in a episode called Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset. Asked about it on a red carpet, she affected not to mind. “That shows how f***ed up she is,” Stone said afterwards.
The triumph of Paris Hilton is that despite all of this hate, or perhaps because of it, she succeeded in becoming the Marilyn Monroe-style icon she always wanted to be. Never mind the billions she has made, largely through her perfume line. There would also be no Kim Kardashian without her (and indeed, Kardashian was once best known as a Hilton sidekick) nor all those other influencers in that vein. Even now, every Instagrammer with ironed hair you see is, to some extent, in her image. Don’t underestimate this. As her grandfather Barron Hilton put it: “Most of my life I was known as Conrad Hilton’s son. Now I’m Paris Hilton’s grandfather.”
Her tragedy, though, is how little she truly seems to understand any of it. There’s an eternal guilelessness there, an absolute failure to grasp that she is not the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom, but perhaps its nadir. Indeed, she doesn’t even seem to understand the difference between the two, at one point moving directly from tales of her parents partying with Andy Warhol to herself meeting New Kids on the Block.
And for all the savagery, cruelty and undeniable sexism of the jealous hate to which she has been subjected, maybe that’s the nub of it. Because what does it say about the entertainment industry, which supposedly prides itself on creativity and talent, that she managed to rise to the top of it despite never once seeming to care, or apparently even notice, that she herself had neither?
Hugo Rifkind is a columnist for The Times of London. He hosts a roundup of the week’s news and culture on Times Radio every Saturday