Paris Hilton and us

My tolerance and, indeed, indulgence of, what I deem to be, divine trash has its roots in the halcyon days of 2009. Drunk on a popular culture concoction of Gossip Girl and Look Magazine, and living with the unshakable desire to replicate Sienna Miller’s boho aesthetic (it never went well), I was taken in by perhaps the worst possible trash television. In January of that year, I promptly started watching and became hooked onto a show called Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend.

The premise was simple and utterly laughable: contestants lived in a fancy house and all competed to become socialite and heiress Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend. The show was a hot mess. The contestants all wore necklaces bearing Paris’s name, one contestant’s eligibility came into question because he was too young to get wasted in Las Vegas, and challenges included buying Paris presents, designing her a dress and enduring a twenty four hour clubbing crawl through Chelsea.

Paris Hilton was everywhere at the time. As one of the original reality TV stars, thanks to her show ‘The Simple Life’ which first aired in 2003, she was constantly photographed and gossiped about, and effectively paved the way for a new generation of people who became famous for being famous. I had five channels until about 2008, and so was unable to watch any American shows that were prevalent at the time. I read about all of Paris’s antics in trashy magazines and, even though I didn’t particularly care about her or her life, I felt like for some reason it was imperative that I had an opinion about it. I remember having in-depth knowledge, as did many people at the time, of extraordinarily specific details about her life: from her catchphrases, the names of her dogs and what her house looked like, to how much she weighed. I also remember absorbing hideously toxic stories of her relationships, break-ups, the sex tape her ex-boyfriend released without her consent and her friendship issues. Looking back, it is mad to think how much of her life was served up on a platter for public consumption, partially as part of her own doing, but also because the tabloid press were obsessed with her. Some of the specifics may have been fabricated or completely blown out of proportion; regardless, I had huge opinions about who she was and what she was like, even though I had never seen her in a television show until 2009.

In spite of all the candy-soaked ridiculousness and extravagance of the silly TV show Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend, something started to stand out to me about Paris herself. When on her own or with a small number of other people, her voice completely changed. Instead of the high-pitched baby voice for which she was famous, used to deliver her litany of catchphrases and vacant platitudes, her voice would become low, becoming a quintessentially deep Californian drawl. I recognised, even back then when I was still trying to navigate my own personae of public and private selves, that Paris Hilton had created an enormous Barbie façade. She knew the effect she had on people, she knew how to play a character and that underneath it all, possibly, was something else.

Since 2009 until today, I hadn’t given much thought or attention to Paris Hilton. Whilst still working successfully as a businesswoman and building her brand, her light was somewhat dimmed during the ascension of the Kardashians who went on to embrace the reality television medium and almost completely redefined it in their own image. Instagram came into my life in 2013 and, like many others, I began to walk in the footsteps of Paris et al. as I built and shared my own public narrative of my life. With the release of Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring in 2013, I reflected on the role of figures like Paris Hilton, the obsession they inspire and, ultimately, suffer from. The film is such a captivating sojourn through the pitfalls and pandemonium of celebrity culture, at once capturing the perverse sublimity of materialism whilst also observing, with withering distance, the ugliness of ruthless greed. Hilton famously appeared in the film and allowed Coppola to film in her house, which had been burgled by the real ‘Bling Ring’ gang between 2008 and 2009.    

A couple of weeks ago, I watched the YouTube documentary ‘This Is Paris’. Fatigued by my job, by Covid-19, by 2020 in general, I geared myself up to watch some divine trash. It turned out to be anything but. Everything I had recognised about Hilton in 2009 came rushing back: the voice, the façade, the platitudes. What was interesting about the documentary, however, was that it became the means through which Paris reckoned with this construction of herself. She has evidently been aware of this character her entire life, but this seemed to be the first time she was confronting this part, this projection of herself, that we have all become so familiar with.

Significantly, the modulations of her tone of voice became increasingly stark. We see her squealing and cooing her way through the first half an hour of the documentary, posing for cameras, taking selfies and slinking around her house. This changes during a business trip to South Korea, where she divulges her long-term suffering with acute insomnia and nightmares. Immediately, this brings around her deeper, richer vocality that lasts for most of the rest of the film. Her mother, Kathy Hilton, pinpoints the adoption of ‘the voice’ forty five minutes in, as she describes her daughter as a ‘Disney child’, constantly decked out in rhinestones, faux-fur, glitter and pink and adopting a high-pitched voice to match. Kathy’s implication here is that Paris is dawdling through her adult life, very rich and successful of course, but clinging to childish totems and self-presentation whilst nearing forty years old. This isn’t necessarily a criticism, but an observable and critical fact.

What unfolds next is a deeply existential and moving piece of self-inquiry. This is a woman who appears to be trapped within a prolonged state of adolescence, who is afraid of taking steps into womanhood. Paris admits herself at around an hour in that ‘when you get married, you have to grow up’, before reflecting on her relationships and how they have never culminated in a marriage or children. Of course, the key to a happy, healthy life is not necessarily getting married or having children: this seems like an antique and regressive expectation for women, and it is perfectly fine if she doesn’t want those things. Indeed, an interesting part of the film comes when she discusses family and relationships with sister Nicky Hilton-Rothschild, who dissects whether or not Paris is living under a societal expectation or under her own volition when she ventures that she would like a family. This had echoes of Tinsley Mortimer, another famous blonde, curiously childish socialite, who had the exact same inner tussle whilst starring in the Real Housewives of New York City. Both Hilton and Mortimer have had their eggs frozen, and both are unsure as to whether their dreams of getting married and having children are ones that they inherently feel or are compulsions of patriarchy. Mortimer summed it up well when she drunkenly quipped, ‘maybe I’m just happy with chihuahuas?’ Confusion abounds for them both, especially as both have built brands and images that revolve around their own archetypal adolescence.

This adolescence is expressed, and in none more clearly than in Paris Hilton, through the voice. Jungian analytic psychologist Marion Woodman writes that the voice is deeply connected to the depths of womanhood, conveying a radical acceptance of the Feminine, the yin, that exists in all humans and not related to societal constructions of gender. The voice of the adolescent is girlish and high-pitched, whereas the woman’s voice is deep, slow and resonant. The voice of archetypal womanhood reflects an earthly connection to the body, that physical bridge between the material and the divine, honouring and loving its rhythms, needs and functions. The voice is the harbinger of someone who is present, receptive, in love with life, who embraces process over product and glories in connection, be it with friends, family, the glory of the dawn, poetry or  just really, really good food. The body, in particular the female body, has been repeatedly controlled, judged, denied and shamed throughout history, and is the main battleground of patriarchy; has been viewed and gazed upon through the eyes of denigration, sin and doom, when it should be hailed and revered in awe.

In the adoption of a high-pitched voice, therefore, Paris shows that she clings to the familiar simplicity and rootlessness of the adolescent. She travels constantly, never allows herself to take a break and longs for the day when she has finally made a billion dollars. And yet, something tells her she cannot go on like this. She is perennially exhausted, cannot sleep and feels increasingly dissociated and detached from her life and her sense of self. She admits that, yes, the high-pitched happy vision of ‘perfection’ is a character, that she knows few people who aren’t disingenuous, has huge trust issues and repeatedly finds herself in relationships were her boyfriends attempt to control her. The adolescent has run its course: it’s clear in this documentary that the part of her that wants to transition into womanhood and an authentic, connected life, leaving behind the dregs and frivolities of the adolescent, is trying to come to life.

However, transformation is rarely free from pain. Crucially, Woodman suggests, the body holds and records trauma, and needs to be consciously met with compassion and healing. We see this unfold in the last part of the documentary, where Paris reveals that as a teenager, she attended Provo Canyon School, a pseudo-correctional facility for wayward children masking as a school in Utah. She was forcibly taken there, mentally and physically abused, kept in solitary confinement and repeatedly threatened and shamed. Her insomnia and nightmares are rooted in her experience at the school, and her whole career is built upon her desire to escape from and not process her trauma. As a result, her trauma has lived on in her symptoms which now, through this documentary, have been brought out into the daylight. The teenager who suffered so much erected walls, hid behind a façade, pursued material wealth and notoriety and became the Paris Hilton character that we know today. It’s almost as though the hurt and pained teenager is still trapped in the body, revealing itself through a makeshift high-pitched voice, unable to transition to adulthood. Until, perhaps, now.

After speaking with a group of fellow survivors from the school, Paris is captured in her enormous walk-in wardrobe, surrounded by lines and legions of handbags, shoes and jewellery. She looks uncomfortable and openly questions why she has so much stuff that she never wears and never uses. It is a classic moment of a crystal castle shattering around the heroine, the one she built to protect herself from her pain and her trauma. It is eerie how these markers of success, affluence and perfection almost visibly turn into empty voids around her. It’s a tale as old as time: capitalism sells us a story that accumulating wealth and lots of expensive things is the key to our salvation and the happiness we yearn for in our lives, when in fact our endless ‘stuff’ serves to barricade us within ourselves, preventing us from any semblance of connection.

Paris Hilton was one of a number of architects that used capitalism, materialism and white privilege as a bedrock to elevate themselves financially and socially and literally influence the way in which Western society conceives of itself and presents itself. Even if we don’t care about Paris Hilton, we have to acknowledge that the way in which entertainment and social media work has everything to do with the impact she has had. It’s like when people say they don’t care about fashion and I almost instinctively now rattle off Miranda Priestly’s monologue about the blue belts in The Devil Wears Prada, a scene that remarkably and deftly captures the entwining of capitalism, fashion and supposed ‘free choice’. It is because of this that I think Hilton’s documentary is important: yes, she represents and models a dysfunctional relationship with work, materialism and privacy; however, she is also a blueprint for how as a society we all live with traumas, and that our traumas manifest in how we present ourselves, what we buy and how we live our lives. No one is free from their own personal reckoning, that day where we wake up, or are forced to wake up, and realise that we cannot carry on the way we have been living. Of course, the extent to which Paris Hilton barricaded herself from her own trauma is truly epic, but we all have our symptoms, we all have our addictions that make us crave more and more, preventing us from meeting ourselves exactly where we are meant to be (more often than not with our pain). If a more embodied, grounded and authentic version of Paris Hilton is left in its wake, which I am sure she will be, then this documentary and its subject, are wonderful teachers.