Paris Hilton planned it all: How she tried to become the 21st century Marilyn Monroe at our expense

The businesswoman, model and great-granddaughter of hotel magnate Conrad Hilton rewrites her life in ‘Paris: The Memoir’, an ‘autobiography’ in which novelist Joni Rodgers give the heiress’s story a narrative, meaning and purpose

Paris Hilton signing her memoir
Paris Hilton signs copies of her autobiography 'Paris: The Memoir' in London last March.Dave Benett/Getty Images
Miquel Echarri

Paris Hilton’s memoir begins with a midair epiphany. The heiress had just turned 21 and was celebrating by skydiving in the Nevada desert. Of course, she had a vicious hangover; she had spent over 48 hours partying hard at one of the world’s most exclusive nightclubs.

Still feeling the effects of all that Moët & Chandon bubbly and shaken by the wind, she rushed into the void. At that moment, Paris felt “fragile” and fleetingly thought to herself that she had just enjoyed the wildest birthday party “since Marie Antoinette.” At that moment, it occurred to her that perhaps it was a good time to die, for the speck of galactic dust the world knows as Paris Hilton to disintegrate and dissolve forever. Then her parachute opened. She found herself floating in the icy dawn air “like a diamond hanging from a delicate silver chain.” It was one of those moments of supreme joy that, it turns out, money can buy.

The memory is Hilton’s own. In all likelihood, the metaphor can be attributed to the novelist Joni Rodgers, who ghost-wrote the memoir or, as Peter Conrad says in The Guardian, acted as the star’s “ventriloquist.” At the outset, one must note that Rodgers has done impressive work. Beyond turns of phrase, she has managed to give Hilton’s life story a narrative, meaning and purpose.

A (very) subtle plan

Thanks to Rodgers’ efforts to distill and rework the substance of Hilton’s life story, Paris: The Memoir is a book worth reading. That’s not because the book contains major revelations; in the promotional interviews that are going to make the book a bestseller, Hilton herself has already spoken about everything substantial, from the sexual and psychological abuse she experienced in her childhood to the traumatic disappearance of her chihuahua, Diamond Baby.

Paris Hilton on a lawnmower
Apart from skydiving, Paris Hilton has also cultivated hobbies such as driving a lawn mower.Sébastien Valiela

The Memoir’s principal value is in how it tells Hilton’s story: over 20 years ago, she invited us into her life to laugh at her because she had her own plan to laugh at us. And that plan was subtler than it sounds.

Paris was already rich and famous. She could have aspired to a calm life like her sister Nicky, marrying a Rothschild at 27, designing handbags, opening hotels and chairing a charitable foundation. But that wasn’t enough for Paris; she thirsted for more. As British journalist Hugo Rifkind puts it, she wanted to become “the 21st century Marilyn Monroe.”

Rifkind admits that he resisted Hurricane Hilton for nearly two decades: “My policy while writing gossip columns was to systematically ignore chefs, hat designers and Paris Hilton.” But he has finally given in. Paris cannot be ignored; her legacy cannot be disregarded. Since her late teens, she has been turning everything she touches into media gold.

This girl’s life

Let’s review her accomplishments. She “invented” the selfie. Her stolen sex video popularized homemade pornography. She transformed reality TV into a weapon of mass destruction. Well before Trump, at the dawn of the Obama era, she made billionaire populism fashionable. She got a whole generation of women to start flat ironing their hair again. She patented the contemporary idea of “new” fame by usurping Sarah Bernhardt’s brilliant insight that one can be famous just for being famous. She kicked down the doors for a new model of stardom: if it weren’t for Paris Hilton, we wouldn’t even know who Kim Kardashian is.

Paris Hilton
Paris Hilton last February at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California. Neilson Barnard (Getty Images for The Recording A)

Hilton has accomplished this countercultural alchemy with only shamelessness (a lot) and money (much more) at her disposal. She lacks Marilyn Monroe’s talent, charisma and image, but had enough to leave Britney Spears, Cameron Diaz and so many other “friends” in the dust as she scaled the heights of supreme fame. But as Christopher Nolan has said, a magician’s work doesn’t end until the last trick is performed. In Hilton’s case, that’s acquiring prestige, and she has been working on just that since her documentary This is Paris premiered at the height of the Covid pandemic. That was her first step in a fascinating process of deconstructing her own character, which is now culminating with her memoirs.

The truth will set you free

What the heiress to the Hilton hotel empire is not telling us right now is the extent to which she laughed at us and how hard. She never wanted our money — she had plenty of her own — but she did want our attention. Her strategy for grabbing it was deliberately exaggerating the characteristics we found fascinating about her: her (presumed) ignorance, her assumed vulgarity, her disconnection from reality, her childish ostentatiousness, her otherworldly arrogance.

As Peter Conrad points out in The Guardian, at this point it doesn’t even matter whether Paris Hilton is (or was) really like that but rather the fact that she chose to portray herself that way, regardless of the consequences. She sportingly accepted the embarrassment inherent in the character she created. She acted like a distorting mirror of the real private Paris (if there even is or was such a thing) to bemuse and fascinate us, so that we’d resign ourselves to her permanent ubiquitousness in every last corner of the pop culture galaxy with complicit irony.

There are many examples, both in the book and outside it. Hugo Rifkind explains one of the more significant episodes: Hilton’s encounter with Trey Parker and Matt Stone. She is “a big South Park fan” and had the opportunity to meet the show’s creators at a private party. They chatted for a while and the heiress believed that they “hit it off beautifully.” A few weeks later, Parker and Stone “cruelly parodied her in an episode titled ‘Stupid Spoiled Whore Video Playset’.” When asked how it felt to be publicly mocked on the TV show she loved by people who pretended to enjoy her company, Hilton put on her most serene face and reiterated how much she admired the two comedians who had just pilloried her. All she needed to do was thank them. For Stone, it was just “one more symptom of how messed up she is in the head.”

The price pioneers pay

Juana Summers, an editor at NPR, considers Paris Hilton to be the first influencer, the first to “turn her own life into a reality show” and the first to not only accept paparazzi harassment but “actively court it” 24 hours a day. Undoubtedly, that “Paris Hilton attitude” explains why the granddaughter of a billionaire hotelier “went from being famous for getting drunk at parties to having her own show on Fox and launching a career as an actress, singer and model” before she was 20 years old.

Paris Hilton in House of wax
A scene from Paris Hilton's performance in Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra's 'House of Wax.' photo: MPTV.net (Vince Valitutti)

It is almost beside the point to note that Paris failed in film, music and modeling. House of Wax (2005) was panned largely because of her “disastrous” performance, as Brian Eggert put it. Her musical career, propelled by Heiress Records, the label she self-financed and managed, produced abominations — as another critic, Rich Juzwiak, called them — like the album Paris (2006) and the single “Stars Are Blind.” Her forays on the catwalk are usually regarded with a mixture of condescension and derision, as was the case with her appearance in a vintage wedding dress at the Versace show during Milan’s last Fashion Week. But the multi-format diva remains indestructible. When the critics come down on her, Hilton simply packs up camp and “moves upriver.” She reinvents herself as a resident DJ at Amnesia. Or launches a perfume line. Or designs platform shoes and stilettos. Or makes jewelry. Or poses nude, covered in gold paint, to promote sparkling wine.

A thorn in her side

The controversy surrounding her infamous sex tape merits its own discussion. Filmed in 2001, it was leaked two years later, just a week before Hilton’s reality show The Simple Life premiered. In the series, Paris proceeded to reveal herself as more disconnected from reality than ever before alongside her close childhood friend, Nicole Ritchie. The video leak is attributed to Nick Salomon, a professional poker player and recreational unscrupulous character. An X-rated film production company eventually marketed the porn tape, claiming that it had Hilton’s consent to do so. But the heiress sued Salomon and won a $400,000 settlement.

Between 2003 and 2007, as the video continued to circulate and made the rounds in court and the media, Hilton — as is her wont — acted as if she did not care about the matter at all. At the same time, the reality show in which Ritchie and Hilton peered into the simple lives of suburban farmers and housewives became an extraordinary global hit. In it, Paris consciously cultivated her persona by presenting herself as a dumb blonde. She behaved as if she were unaware that washing machines existed. She pretended that she had never heard of Walmart, where nine out of ten Americans shop. She exaggerated her posh accent — a cross between New York’s Upper East Side and Beverly Hills — to the extreme. And, as she tells it now, she tried to express herself “as poorly and ridiculously as possible” to better fit the world’s stereotypical image of her.

In a 2006 GQ interview, when she was already a star, Hilton finally revealed the pain she experienced when the video of her youthful tryst with Salomon was leaked: “I didn’t get paid a penny for it. It’s dirty money. Alex should be ashamed of himself and donate it to charity.” Fifteen years later, she said she found the attack on her privacy “humiliating… I am mortified to think that I will always be judged for a private moment that no one should have ever seen.”

In her new memoir, Hilton also discusses surrogacy and lost Chihuahuas. But, above all, she tries to rewrite the past by using her “personal voice,” which she says she found with Joni Rodgers’ help. Part of that revision consists of confessing to us that she was never as ridiculous as she pretended to be. She always had a plan (to be the new Marilyn, remember?). That’s why she cordially invited us to laugh at her. So that she, in turn, could laugh at us.

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