Paris Hilton Isn’t Dumb—She Knows How to Write What Her Fans Want to Read

Paris: A Memoir is an abysmal mix of telling and not showing, bad sentences, and open image cultivation from a self-proclaimed "performance artist."

Paris Hilton Isn’t Dumb—She Knows How to Write What Her Fans Want to Read

Paris Hilton is an animal—or at least, that is often how she views herself retrospectively in her new book, Paris: The Memoir. Hungover the morning after her 21st birthday and en route to skydiving, she “trembled like a little wet dog.” She gets quiet when she’s scared, “like a little rabbit going purely on instinct.” She meeps “like a baby bird,” has the attention span of a gnat, and her signature walk is deemed a “unicorn trot.” In footage shot at the Christmas she spent at Provo Canyon, the “emotional growth” boarding school where she says she was sexually abused, she looks “like a goldfish out of its bowl: beaten down, emaciated, and shy, with dishwater brown hair and a forced fake smile.”

Hilton’s affinity for four-legged friendships—her menagerie has included dogs, cats, rabbits, bird, snakes, chinchillas, gerbils, a baby goat, and “even a little monkey”—is well-documented and continues to be one of Hilton’s most endearing traits, partly because of how telling kindness to animals can be (Gandhi’s “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and all that), but also because it seems pure. The often open obfuscation that has defined Hilton’s ever-shifting public image is nowhere to be found in her love of animals.

Identity and its elasticity are key themes in Paris (out now). The book begins with a discussion of ADHD, which Hilton refers to as her superpower. “I wish the A stood for ass-kicking. I wish the Ds stood for dope and drive. I wish the H suggested hell yes,” she writes. Her discussion of her diagnosis—which occurred in her 20s but wasn’t taken seriously by her until later—works, at least initially, as a framing device. “I’m probably going to jump around a lot while I tell the story,” she writes. This includes jumping out of the story about jumping out of an airplane to discuss attending a party with Pia Zadora when Hilton was a child, and going on a tangent about the show Euphoria after mentioning euphoria (the condition). Hilton’s ADHD discussion allows her to be voicey (“Intrusive thoughts are my nemesis”) and performative—at one point after getting off topic, she asks for effect, “Wait. Where was I?”

Paris Hilton was the guest on “The View” on Tuesday, March 14, 2023 to talk about her memoir. Photo:Lou Rocco/ABC (Getty Images)

Hilton’s performance is conscious and telegraphed. She is, by her own estimation, a “spin-sorceress” and a “people pleaser” with a “pathological fear of embarrassment.” Recounting her time in the public eye, which began in her teens as a New York party girl/Page Six staple, she admits making decisions that prioritized the safety of her brand. This is why she didn’t speak up and share her experiences at Provo Canyon and the similarly oppressive CEDU school when she saw people sharing their stories of abuse in the early ‘10s: “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. Anything off brand—no. Circle with a slash. Can’t have that.”

Hilton didn’t speak publicly about her abuse until 2020, in the YouTube documentary This Is Paris. This was years after MeToo wove coming out about abuse into the pop cultural fabric. Hilton owes the public nothing in terms of the abuse she suffered, but coming forward as a victim in a climate in which such telling has commanded a lot of attention did nothing to damage Hilton’s brand. It has, in fact, helped define her current era. If it was a risk, it was a calculated one.

‘Fuck fitting in,’ says the skinny, blonde, rich white heiress whose career has been one big appeal to mainstream culture.

Paris: The Memoir contains other revelations—a “pedophile” teacher kissed her when she snuck out of her house in eighth grade to meet him, harassment from Harvey Weinstein, many more details beyond what was included in This Is Paris regarding her boarding-school abuse—but no revelations that, in 2023, would threaten Hilton’s beloved brand. This is most apparent when she brushes her extensively documented racism under the rug by blaming it on other people:

The Rap [group sessions at CEDU] was all about destroying people for who they are. People went for the most obvious target in the ugliest possible language. The N-word. The C-word. The F-word. (Not that F-word, the worse one.) I look back on some of the things I said in the years after I left Provo, in the throes of PTSD, and I’m mortified. Horrified. I’m grossed out, because that means those creepy people got inside my head. I never really left them behind.

In other passages, Hilton tries to make cute when discussing regrets. “Look, I’ve done and said some things I’m not proud of. I used to wear those horrific Von Dutch caps,” she writes before acknowledging a “Sexy Pocahontas” Halloween costume, a “totally inappropriate” rendition of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” at a party (“and yes, I knew aaaallll the lyrics”), and lying about voting for Trump in 2016. “The truth is even worse: I didn’t vote at all,” she writes. Is it? And though Hilton does display forgiveness for P!nk mocking Hilton’s 2003 sex tape in a music video (a tape Hilton has always claimed was released without her consent), and she does preach goodwill (“I believe kindness and decency will win eventually because it’s good business”), nastiness peeks through the clouds from time to time, like when she gloats over an adversary’s suicide:

The situation went on and on for a couple of years until late one night, [publicist Elliot Mintz] had a long come-to-Jesus conversation with this guy who’d made his living marketing sleaze and blackmailing celebrities, including me, Tom Cruise, and several others. Elliot felt he’d made some headway and arranged to meet with the guy, who seemed exhausted by his creepy life’s work and genuinely interested in finding some form of redemption. Before the meeting could take place, the scandalmonger hanged himself in the shower.
Karma’s a bitch.

None of this is to express cynicism regarding what Hilton has endured (though, let’s not forget that she told Marie Claire in 2017 that women who accused Trump of sexual assault were “just trying to get attention and get fame”). It’s to express some skepticism regarding Hilton’s overall pivot to benevolence. She is, after all, a self-proclaimed performance artist: “It took me years to understand that I’m a performance artist, and my body is my medium—like a blank canvas or an empty stage—and I’ll never create anything meaningful if I come to the work from a place of shame and cowardice,” she writes. It is easy to perform and call it art; it’s more difficult to issue an accompanying artist’s statement, and in the 331 pages of Paris: The Memoir, Hilton fails to do just that. There are half-hearted attempts, maybe—in the book’s afterword, Hilton writes: “Ultimately, I hope my story made you laugh and think and prompted you to love yourself a little more than you did at the start.” In the prologue, she claims:

There are so many young women who need to hear this story. I don’t want them to learn from my mistakes; I want them to stop hating themselves for mistakes of their own. I want them to laugh and see that they do have a voice and their own brand of intelligence and, girl, fuck fitting in.

“Fuck fitting in,” says the skinny, blonde, rich white heiress whose career has been one big appeal to mainstream culture. “If you need to hear someone say it and the people in your life just can’t—I’ve got you: Go. Do your thing. I trust you,” says Hilton, conjuring a fantasy in which the parasocial relationship her fans have with her is somehow mutual. Too frequently, her words smack of gentle tyranny, a kind of because-I-said-so prose that feels no obligation to supporting sentences. It reads like the product of someone who has commanded attention with whatever she has said, thus has no use for intellectual rigor.

But while vagueness can be a strength in appealing to the public, it is a weakness in writing and one of the biggest issues in Paris—a truly dismal entry in the celebrity memoir subgenre that I love—is its lack of specificity. It isn’t raw, consistently vivid, or ridiculous as the best of its ilk can be. Regarding the filming of Repo! The Genetic Opera, Hilton writes: “We had so much fun on the set. Lots of fun memories.” On the period she spent living with her sister Nicky, Hilton recalls “we did a lot of traveling, promoting our product lines all over the world, and having a lot of fun.” Hilton describes her mid-aughts reign as a pop-culture queen like this: “Runways, parties, appearances, skiing, skydiving, cuddly pets, beautiful people, iconic photo shoots, sisterhood, business, fragrances, family, fans, nightclubs, lashes, bags, redefining femininity, creating music, placing beauty in the eye of the beholder, making art an experience and experiencing art as a way of life.” She assures her fans that, “We transformed what it means to be famous, the Little Hiltons and me. More important, we transformed what it means to be yourself.” Whatever those two sentences mean! She doesn’t stick around to explain them—they conclude one chapter.

Image:Dey Street Books

Bad storytelling is made worse with bad sentences and Paris is a minefield of try-hard metaphors (“The endless school day felt like being waterboarded with a vanilla milkshake”; “Time slipped out of joint, like a dislocated shoulder”; “People broke into that house like it was a Cadbury Crème Egg”) and redundancy (“My mom’s defining character trait is joie de vivre. She’s joyful—like, full of joy—so it scared me to see her so sad”). Her catchphrases, which are rarely actually hers—“beyond,” “yaaassssss,” “iconic,” “sliving”—and informal prose (“We’d been up since stupid o’clock that morning”) alternately suggest the writing of a talking bobblehead Paris Hilton doll or a bad Heathers knock-off. Hilton is, though, a master of hagiography. Paris Hilton, according to Paris Hilton, is “a warrior woman and an activist and a creator tycoon,” who doesn’t take herself too seriously, and whose public character is “part Lucy, part Marilyn.” Part Lucy??? Clearly, when you are famous, you can just say whatever. That’s the de facto thesis here.

There are gestures toward privilege acknowledgment, but never a real reckoning with the way that the toxic aspects of Hilton’s public image fit the profile of someone who believes she’s preternaturally superior to others. In one of her book’s biggest stretches, she attempts to convince us that her role as an influencer has been a form of charity:

I’m willing to own the “OG influencer” thing, and I’m not saying everything about it is awesome, but it has been democratizing in both artistic and economic spaces. It’s liberating for a lot of people who couldn’t get past the old-style gatekeepers. Disruption is scary for people who lack imagination, and terrifying for people who hold on to the old-school power structure. They don’t like the idea that the future belongs to those of us who happen to be a little bit mad.

I guess the ravaging Instagram has done to girls’ self-image is one of those not-awesome things Hilton hinted at?

Ultimately, Paris: The Memoir is a missed opportunity. Here, someone who has cultivated a persona openly could have really taken us into how the sausage is made in a postmodern excavation of her image. Instead, we get some signaling—“I was trapped inside that Simple Life caricature, this me-but-not-really person who was out in the world living my life”—intermingling with further image cultivation (not to mention multiple references to her laughable involvement with NFTs, the subject of a recent class action lawsuit). But see, even when Hilton performs the disrobing of one image, it’s only to slip on another: “Now I was working hard to shed my skin and leave behind the character with the baby voice. I wanted to be the woman Marilyn never had a chance to evolve into: It Girl gone Influencer.” Paris: The Memoir lets you see the curtain, but not peek behind it. We’re left wondering how much time she’s spent back there herself.

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