Less than a year before Framing Britney Spears there was This Is Paris, a sobering YouTube documentary about the past and present life of socialite-turned-DJ Paris Hilton, including allegations that she was abused while attending the notorious Provo Canyon School in her teens.
The 2020 film is framed as a cathartic endeavor for Hilton as she addresses her trauma for the first time with family members and raises awareness about child abuse within the boarding facility. Simultaneously, it reevaluates Hilton’s reputation in the ‘90s and mid-2000s as a vapid party girl and highlights her contributions to our current social-media landscape.
This Is Paris has since been criticized for omitting Hilton’s frequent use of racial and homophobic slurs and support of Donald Trump. The documentary also ignores another glaring fact about Hilton, which is that her popularity declined significantly in the 2010s as other reality stars and social-media influencers—notably the Kardashians, who appear in the film—rose to megastardom. Furthermore, director Alexandra Dean and This Is Paris’ talking heads paint an inexact portrait of Hilton in 2019 (when the film was shot) as an unrivaled A-lister, although her presence in the zeitgeist over the past decade can be boiled down to a few memes and her eponymous (admittedly, amazing) fragrance that I can still smell on a woman every time I go out in public.
In the year 2022, though, Hilton is everywhere. Whether she’s documenting her recent nuptials on Peacock, attending Britney Spears’ star-studded wedding (which she will proudly tell you she stood up our boring president for) or parodying herself in a new ad campaign for her family’s hotel chain—something that didn’t seem fathomable during her scandalous heyday—the 40-year-old heiress has seemingly found her place again in our modern celebrity ecosystem.
And yet, the question that enters my brain every time I see a photo of The Simple Life star at some major Hollywood event or socializing with celebrities that I actually like is, how can we undo this?
I understand what led to this Hilton renaissance from a pop-culture perspective. You could argue that the seismic impact of Framing Britney Spears, the 2021 New York Times documentary that depicted the media’s harassment of Spears in the early aughts and her resulting conservatorship, did more for Hilton’s reputation than her own film. The tragic portrayal of Spears as a victim of ruthless paparazzi and ableist laws ignited conversations online about women who were wronged by the press in the ‘90s and 2000s, including celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Jessica Simpson, and Megan Fox. Hilton, an infamous participant in the so-called “Bimbo Summit” and a victim of tabloid mockery, represents a similar tale of injustice to a number of people and, therefore, is someone worthy of redemption or at the very least sympathy.
“Hilton, an infamous participant in the so-called “Bimbo Summit” and a victim of tabloid mockery, represents a similar tale of injustice to a number of people and, therefore, is someone worthy of redemption or at the very least sympathy.”
On a less serious note, Hilton is clearly benefiting from the Y2K nostalgia wave, specifically Gen Z’s affection for “bimbos”—a recently reclaimed term and post-feminist meme on the internet—and the tangentially related Barbiecore aesthetic. It came as no surprise to see 19-year-old superstar Olivia Rodrigo, a student of the ‘90s and 2000s, belt out the lyrics to Hilton’s 2006 hit “Stars Are Blind” while she was DJing at a Grammys afterparty earlier this year. The tune also experienced a viral moment when it appeared in the Oscar-winning 2020 film Promising Young Woman.
It makes sense that the confluence of these factors would allow for a Paris Hilton comeback. Not to mention, her mother Kathy Hilton’s successful tenure on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has reignited an interest in the Hilton family name—something she seems to be aware of as they’ve done a mother-daughter press circuit over the past year. (The kooky Hilton matriarch was also a big draw on Hilton’s Peacock reality show Paris in Love, which also aired on E! this year).
But unlike an out-of-work actor returning to showbiz or a musician coming out of retirement, Hilton notably has nothing to offer the public—aside from whatever useless NFTs she’s willing to gift audience members at The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. This was evident on her 2021 Netflix show Cooking With Paris, which was canceled after one season, where her ditzy persona proved quite stale, or literally anytime she sits down for a televised interview where she has the charisma of a robot.
If Hilton gave us slightly more entertaining content in this phase of her career—Kathy is at least doing her part—I could maybe temporarily distract myself from her history of using the N-word and making other anti-Black remarks. As stated in Rick Juzwiak’s Jezebel piece on Hilton’s hateful past, some of these recordings, from the now-defunct site Paris Hilton Exposed, are still available online, while others—which reportedly include anti-Semitic comments—were scrubbed off the internet, as they were originally posted without Hilton’s consent.
There’s also the Hilton family’s decades-long association and support of the Trump family, which could possibly be a plotline on this season of RHOBH, if Lisa Rinna is good for anything. It could also be helpful if Hilton simply apologized for her wrongdoings while she’s busy re-examining her early-aughts career.
I know I shouldn’t expect celebrities to go out of their way to correct their misdeeds without pressure from the public or the threat of something being taken away from them. Maybe it’s a sign that the public’s affection for Hilton doesn’t actually run that deep if she isn’t constantly being held accountable for her past by the internet—the ultimate sign that people, whether they love or hate you, at least care. If a more prominent celebrity had her record of offenses, they certainly wouldn’t be allowed to forget about it.
It seems as though Hilton’s main function in the current pop-culture landscape is giving people a nice glimpse into the past and Kendall Jenner fashion inspiration. Still, if that’s all this NFT-shilling Trumper is good for, can we please send her back to 2004?
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