Welcome to Refinery29’s weeklong exploration of women and greed in an era of enormous wealth inequality. Where does need end and greed begin? Read on.
Last month, Paris Hilton found herself in a familiar position, standing in front of a crowd of goading paparazzi decked out in bejeweled sunglasses and a shiny silver mini dress. But the conversation they were having was certainly not familiar to those who may think they know the heiress: “President Trump is going to sign the executive order to help the immigrants,” a voice yells out to her amidst the incessant pop of camera flashes. “Do you think that’s going to help?”
Hilton, who’s been the subject of paparazzi lust for almost two decades, is quick with an outspoken opinion: “He better help them, because this is not right what they’re doing to these children and their families … No one should be separated from their family. I’m disgusted,” she replies, turning her head to the side, revealing the weighty gold Gucci logo emblazoned on the arms of her glasses. She doesn’t stop signing autographs, but then looks directly into the camera and tells the world (or perhaps it’s her former family friend, Donald Trump, for whom she voted and to whom she is primarily speaking): “People come to America for the American Dream.”
This is TMZ’s contribution to the national debate over Trump’s family separation policy, and it feels both like a throwback to the tabloid-fueled chintziness of aughts-era Hollywood and a moment that could only occur in 2018. It is a surreal exchange for a litany of reasons, not least because of our collective understanding of who the woman in the sunglasses talking about immigration is: Paris Hilton is an icon not just of the 2000s, but of a certain widely held image of what inherited wealth, undeserved fame, and American excess looks like. There was her reality show The Simple Life, which followed Hilton and then-BFF Nicole Richie as they abandoned their lives of leisure to go live and work alongside “regular” Americans. Then there was also the numerous film and TV appearances, the singing career, the product lines, and the constant coverage by tabloids and early blogs. Through all this she crafted a persona — and, according to our conversation with her, that’s exactly what it was — of a spoiled, air-headed, platinum blonde princess, complete with the fake baby voice and sugary pseudo-sexuality that implies.
“I just got stuck with that character because people don’t know me in real life or haven’t spoken to me,” Hilton tells Refinery29. “They assume it’s just the baby voice and you know, ‘what’s Walmart?’ and silly things. I would say that’s not really how I am, but I was just trying to be entertaining for television.”
At 37, she’s been in and out of the spotlight for nearly two decades, and seems to be emerging now with a concerted effort to shake the image of the prodigal rich girl. How much it’s actually worked is in the eye of the beholder. “I think now I’ve really proven myself,” she argues. “With the success of my fragrances, then all my other 19 product lines, and all the big deals I’m doing, and real estate. I’m finally being taken seriously as a businesswoman and empire.”
While her grandfather donated 97 percent of his fortune to charity when he died in 2007, Paris currently has an estimated net worth of around $300 million. Her perfume empire alone is worth an estimated $1.5 billion. That it’s taken this long for Hilton to feel that she’s earned it says as much about the magnitude of her ambitions as it does about our fascination with money and how those who have it behave. Hilton was arguably the first person to turn her mere privileged existence into a lucrative career, a model copied today by many, but most famously mastered by Kim Kardashian (Paris’ old right hand) and her sisters. This year alone, Hilton released her 24th fragrance, launched a skincare line, and premiered a show on Viceland — of all places — where she examines the lives of young people attempting to “make it” in Hollywood. She also still DJs for nightly fees that, in 2014, were reported to be as high as $1 million per night, and dropped a new single titled “I Need You” earlier this year, though unfortunately it failed to live up to the success of her 2006 cult hit “Stars Are Blind.”
Yes, I came from Hilton hotels, but I’ve parlayed it into such a huge business that even my grandfather said to me, ‘I used to be known as Barron Hilton. Now I’m known as Paris Hilton’s grandfather.’
For all of today’s conversations about the spectrum of privilege and where certain people get placed on it, America either loves, or loves to hate, rich people. (Bonus points if they’re beautiful women with recognizable last names.) In thinking about Hilton, it’s hard not to call to mind another very privileged, very ambitious young woman: Ivanka Trump. In addition to being friends since childhood, both have monetized their moneyed backgrounds and our hunger for a piece of their world to sell a watered-down, mass-produced version of luxury. Paris’s numerous fragrances, like Ivanka’s now-defunct clothing line, are much less valuable because of the products themselves as they are because of the names behind them.
Hilton herself seems to understand this, saying of her new scent: “I really, I really want it to represent me and have my fans have a piece of me.” Nevermind that it smells like one of 2018’s least popular scents (roses), and has aggressively ignored the minimalist, millennial-friendly packaging her celebrity peers have adopted — Hilton’s confidence in her product reflects a confidence that rich-bitch wealth will always be relevant.
Indeed, even as her own star power has waxed and waned, the enormity of her legacy has come into focus: She is there in the fashion influencers filling your feed with their spon con. She is there among the stars of various reality television franchises, as they fling insults and beverages about on national TV. She is there among the socialite-turned-DJs-turned-fashion-designers that populate the most rarefied corners of the world, like Harley Viera-Newton and Alexa Chung.
“Ever since I was a teenager, I wanted to be independent. I didn’t want to have to ask my family for anything,” Hilton explains of her attitude toward money and privilege. “Yes, I came from Hilton hotels, but I’ve parlayed it into such a huge business that even my grandfather said to me, ‘I used to be known as Barron Hilton. Now I’m known as Paris Hilton’s grandfather.’”
When asked about the recent controversy surrounding Forbes magazine’s designation of Kylie Jenner, whom Hilton has known since birth, as “self-made,” she was adamant that she agrees with that characterization — and feels it applies to herself as well. “I think of myself and anyone who does business as being self-made. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done on my own, and yes, I do come from a last name, but there also are many children I know that come from families who, you know, take the choice of not doing anything with their lives.”
“I think of myself and anyone who does business as being self-made.
“I work harder and travel more than any CEO I’m friends with,” she continued. “The same with Kylie. I think any woman who is going to get into business and be an entrepreneur and make a big name and brand for themselves, they are self-made.”
Indeed, Hilton and Jenner probably do work harder and travel more than any CEO. Because while a traditional CEO is responsible for a particular product, what Hilton and Jenner are selling is more ephemeral and all-encompassing. The CEO of L’Oreal or MAC doesn’t have to prove that their entire existence is consistent with and can be distilled into a $30 lip kit or a $20 perfume. Perhaps the fact that this is a real career path is a small part of the reason why the American Dream to which Hilton refers in the video increasingly feels like just that — a hallucination from another plane of consciousness. If the American Dream, a flawed premise in and of itself, is about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, what Hilton and Jenner have done is more like standing for a long period of time in Louboutins. It’s impressive, but you had to have the $1,000 down payment to get there.
Paris Hilton is not self-made, of course. But it’s not hard to imagine how people like Hilton, Jenner, and Kardashian — who recently echoed a sentiment similar in an interview with Refinery29 — are able to conceive of themselves as such. They are indeed a different breed from those born into immense privilege who make no attempt to move forward on the opportunities afforded to them. Hilton’s hustle is impressive, but it doesn’t make her self-made in the way that someone like Cardi B or Rihanna is. You can be hard-working and break barriers without being able to define yourself as self-made.
Hilton’s legacy is a complicated one predicated not just on a cultural obsession with rich girls, but on a sexist desire to tear apart and vilify them in a way that rarely occurs with men of similar means. Why are we so obsessed with the Kardashian sisters and not the Brant brothers?
When we spoke to Hilton over the phone, she sounded cool and self-assured. She has, in case you were weren’t aware, dropped the infamous little girl voice. Surprisingly though, like many who came of age in an era before smartphones and social media and celebrities with teams of people meticulously crafting every inch of their facades, she also holds a degree of nostalgia for that more freewheeling time. “I can’t imagine if I had social media back then,” she confesses, imagining how much more difficult her fame would have been to cultivate.
“I didn’t have all these tools. I didn’t have an agent, no publicist, no manager. I’m going out in public and just being myself and everyone used to say like, ‘Oh my God, famous for being famous’ and like it was almost a bad thing, but now I feel like it’s a whole new formula that has really inspired this whole new generation.”
Despite this, Hilton boasts 9.3 million followers on Instagram, and 17.2 million on Twitter. There are fan accounts out there dedicated not just to her, but to her pets. She’s not Kim Kardashian, who has 114 million Instagram followers, nor is she of the mold of Chrissy Teigen and Busy Phillips, two celebrities beloved for their highly relatable social media content. But people don’t follow Paris Hilton for the great content she’s going to post. They follow her because she’s Paris Hilton.
Critics have said that The Simple Life, the premise of which was dreamed up by Fox execs, functioned to mock the denizens of the small towns it featured, but one could just as easily argue that Hilton and Richie were the butt of the joke. It also flattened Hilton into the one-dimensional character that it appears the “real” her has spent the past decade struggling to emerge from. It is unavailable for streaming on any of the major sites, but exists in perpetuity on YouTube. What is supremely ironic about Hilton and her attempt to return to the spotlight is that the thing that initially beamed her into our living rooms was that she was such an effective agent in showcasing the great American class divide, a massive crater which has only widened in the decade following.
Indeed, Paris Hilton is truly not self-made. But more than her family’s wealth or her well-known last name, we made her.
While Twitter didn’t exist back then, tabloids and early blogs did, and as Hilton’s star rose, so too did the level of scrutiny placed on her. In 2004, just as Hilton was about to become a household name, her ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon released a pornographic video of her. Today, the video would be understood as revenge porn, but back then, it was somehow understood as attention-seeking on Hilton’s part. In The American Meme, a 2018 documentary she appeared in, she compared the ordeal to being raped and said she “literally wanted to die.” While illicit celebrity tapes still exist and get leaked, it’s thankfully no longer socially acceptable (in most places, at least) to slut-shame the women victimized by them. If anything, thanks to the ability of the internet to magnify a more diverse range of voices, people are quick to call out such injustices with hackers serving jail time.
“It’s incredible what is happening right now with this movement,” Hilton says of contemporary feminism. “I think women can take over the world. Even though there’s been so many awful things that have happened and scary things, it’s really just changed the whole climate, and what people know women are capable of.”
But there’s a big caveat: We know the capabilities of some women, the ones who have been provided with the advantages necessary to show us what they can do. Which is maybe why Hilton’s rebranding as a serious business woman feels complicated at best. What’s surprising, though, is that even now, her understanding of a concept like being self-made still seems so limited.
Nevertheless, critics would do well to remember that Hilton wouldn’t have become famous if we hadn’t wanted her to be. Indeed, Paris Hilton is truly not self-made. But more than her family’s wealth or her well-known last name, we made her.
And to hear her tell it, she’s grateful: “I feel so proud of my fanbase and how loyal they are. The relationship I have with my fans, they’re like my family. They call themselves the Little Hiltons, it’s such a loyal fanbase. They really can relate with me.”
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