BURSTING THE BUBBLE
Paris Hilton’s not-so-simple life
Portraits: Mary Rozzi
From the outside she was a flighty socialite living the easy life. But Paris Hilton was a troubled teen, sent away at 16 to traumatic ‘behaviour modification’ schools. She talks to Zoe Williams about childhood scars, sex tapes and having a baby by surrogate
“ALL OF THE THINGS THAT EVERY TEENAGE GIRL would go through: going to school, going to the prom, going to college, I missed out on so much of that,” Paris Hilton tells me. It would be natural to assume this was just the opportunity cost of her fame; the Shirley Temple of partying, she’s been red-carpeting so long that even if she’s younger than you – she’s 42 – it probably feels as if she’s lived longer. Of course she didn’t go to college: those sequins weren’t going to wear themselves to Coachella.
In the beginning, Paris Hilton was famous because her parents were, and they were famous because of her great-grandfather, hotel tycoon Conrad Hilton, and the whole family was famous because of its wealth. As she moved into her late teens, she became a name in her own right: a model and It girl, the “OG influencer”, as she describes it – the first person on record to seek and attain payment for turning up at parties. This, at the time, seemed to seal her in the public imagination as a bauble, one of life’s fripperies. Certainly, we didn’t spend a lot of time pondering that it takes quite a lot of entrepreneurial moxie to recognise the value of your stardust and monetise it, especially when you’re already minted.
Hilton’s gear change to global fame came in 2004, when a former boyfriend, Rick Salomon, released a sex tape filmed the year before that rapidly caught fire online. At this point, Hilton was already becoming known for the reality show The Simple Life, which she did with Nicole Richie: two fabulous, pampered socialites, slumming it in minimum-wage jobs, living with a regular family in Arkansas. It was strangely compelling and memorable: I can still get a pin-sharp visual on Hilton and Richie trying to make onion rings in a fast-food restaurant.
That show seemed to fix her reputation as the punchline of a joke she’d actually authored. The Simple Life marked the dawn of the age of a certain type of structured reality TV; the next nearest thing was Laguna Beach, which didn’t air until the following year. Hilton, obviously along with numerous TV execs, created what would become an endlessly replenishing genre, and yet managed to emerge from it the ditzy, clueless little rich girl.
With sidelines in perfume, boutiques, beach clubs and other product lines, she started DJing in the 2010s and, unarguably, by then had created more wealth and notoriety than had ever been bestowed on her by the accident of birth. Granted, none of this would have shaken out the same way without the privileged start, but she’s no Donald Trump character, sitting on piles of inherited gold and claiming to have made it. The late Barron Hilton probably put it most pithily when he said that he used to be known as Conrad Hilton’s son, until he was known as Paris Hilton’s grandfather.
But none of that is why she missed out on her teenage years, has no education to speak of, and spent years battling “so much trauma that I didn’t want to think”. She was “going out, travelling, doing all these things just to not have to think about what I had been through”. It sounds so improbable, impossible even, for anything that bad to have happened in a family so scrutinised, but her teenage years were horrific.
She’s speaking to me over Zoom from Los Angeles, and we’re talking about Paris: The Memoir – she looks on the screen much as she does on its cover: blond, glossy, flawless, features so strong and symmetrical that it makes her seem self-possessed and a bit remote, irrespective of what she’s actually saying. Her friend Kim Kardashian once said, while they were making frittata and french toast coated with Frosted Flakes, “I don’t know anyone who parties as hard as you do and looks as good as you do”, and that’s as true now as it was any other year.
In a story probably familiar to anyone with ADHD who grew up before it was common to get a diagnosis, Paris Hilton struggled at school, and the upsides of attention deficit disorder – “We’re so creative, we’re constantly thinking, our minds move as fast as a race car” – went unrecognised. “My childhood would have
been very different if I’d been diagnosed: I definitely wouldn’t have been sent away,” she says. When she was 14, she was groomed by a teacher at her school, and her parents came home to find her in a car on the drive, kissing a grown man. They were about to move from Bel Air to the Waldorf Astoria anyway, and “they were worried”, she says, “to have a young girl in New York City at that point, and thought I would be safer with my grandma. But they had no idea it was a teacher.” So the Hiltons, having asked no questions about the incident, sent their oldest daughter to live in Palm Springs and moved with their other three children, Nicky, Barron II and Conrad.
This isn’t the horrific bit, by the way: this is just predatory behaviour resulting in a period of exile from the family. When she talks about it, Hilton acknowledges that it had a long tail – “That was the beginning of me not being able to trust people, especially adults,” she says – but her language is quite neutral and, if anything, very forgiving, particularly towards her parents. “That generation, that’s just how it was. You just didn’t really talk about things.” Yet, straight after this, she manages to identify the flaw in her own argument: “My mom was so young when she had me, she was only 19. She was like a kid herself. She was at an age where you are learning the whole time.” It’s true: this code of silence can’t really be chalked up to generational differences; her mother, Kathy Hilton, born in 1959, isn’t even that old.
In Palm Springs, she was drugged and probably raped – her memories are fractured and fleeting – by a man she met in a shopping mall, when she was 15. She never mentioned it to her grandmother or anyone else. “Move past the easy assumption,” she writes in her memoir, “that men are pigs and models are dumb. That’s not fair or true or useful. Most men are basically decent, I think, and successful models travel all over the world.” I mean, sure: I think men are decent, I don’t think models are dumb, and I don’t think travelling and being dumb are mutually exclusive, but I’m still surprised, after these experiences – plus, a few years later, being chased into a toilet by Harvey Weinstein and only just managing to get the door locked in time – that she thinks that. “I just meant men are decent in general, in the world,” she says, laughing. Then, soberly: “Specifically in Hollywood, there’s a lot of bad guys out there. It’s the type of place where people try to take advantage of girls.”
SO THAT WAS THE BACKSTORY when she was finally brought back into the family fold in New York: she was in no mood for formal education, and went a bit wild. Still only 15, she snuck out of the apartment to go clubbing every night, slept all day, stopped going to school. That was when her parents took an extraordinary decision, to send her, aged 16, to what is euphemistically known as a “therapeutic boarding school”, for – another euphemism – a “behaviour modification programme”.
Today, with her husband, entrepreneur Carter Reum, she has a newborn son, Phoenix. He was carried by a surrogate: Hilton says she couldn’t get pregnant due to trauma, the legacy of abuse, which we’ll come to. I assume she means tokophobia, a fear of pregnancy and giving birth, but that’s not quite it. She would have loved to have been pregnant, was looking forward to “amazing maternity looks, Beyoncé-belly-among-the-roses photo shoot” (this makes me chuckle; only in Hollywood), but after two years of IVF, it didn’t happen for her. She concludes in her book that “my mind and body had never fully healed – and probably never will fully heal – from the trauma I went through as a teenager”.
Phoenix’s arrival has made her more understanding of her parents. “Even though he’s a baby, I’m already worrying about that one day when he’s a teenager and he’s gonna sneak out at night. So it definitely makes me understand even more why my parents were so protective and so strict. This is your little baby, you don’t want anything to happen to them. So I could understand why my family wanted me to stay home. They were just
worried.” She has her family carefully planned and ultimately wants two sons and a daughter. She will doubtless achieve this – there’s very little left to chance when you have all your eggs in a row – but it strikes me as ineffably sad that her idea of the perfect family is the one she was raised in, without her in it, as it was so often. She says of her plan: “I would love to have a girl next. I wanted her to have a big brother, because I feel like if I’d had a big brother, a lot of the things that happened to me wouldn’t have happened, because I would have had someone to protect me from people.” It’s a naive, almost arrested perspective, that parental care can be outsourced to a sibling if the birth order aligns.
Hilton’s boarding school experience started with two men dragging her from her bed in the middle of the night, handcuffing her, and putting her on a plane to a remote part of the San Bernardino mountains in California. I’d read about these places before, but never in such detail: kids are underfed, underslept, subjected to a barrage of impossible rules – no looking out of the window without permission, no going to the toilet without permission, no asking permission to look out of the window or go to the toilet – and baroque punishments. The list of proscribed conversations makes your eyes prick for these friendless teens, so far from home. “No talking about music, sports, television shows, movies, news events, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your clothes, your room, your school, or anything else about home. No mention of Marilyn Manson. No mention of candy, pizza, hotdogs, cheeseburgers, lasagne, McDonald’s, Burger King or Wendy’s. No talking about bikes, skateboards or inline skates.”
There were marathon sessions known as “raps”, when kids were enjoined to verbally abuse one another to a screaming crescendo, typically centred on their disgusting personalities and sexualities: after hours of this, everyone crying and dehydrated, there was a forced group cuddling session, a repugnant insistence on rituals of fake nurture in an environment of every kind of cruelty. It sounds very like a cult, and indeed, CEDU, the organisation that ran the schools, originated from Synanon, a drug rehab programme created in 1958 that disintegrated into a violent cult.
Hilton escaped three times: each time, she was caught and sent to a new institution that was worse. By the time she arrived at the final school, in Utah, it was routine for the kids to be given invasive and painful cervical exams as punishment; to be locked naked in solitary confinement for 24 or 48 hours; to be sedated on a whim, beaten on a pretext. She spent 11 months there and came out just shy of her 18th birthday. She had had no education during these two years: all the time they weren’t being screamed at, forcibly cuddled or punished, they had spent moving logs. It was known as “wilderness therapy”. CEDU ceased operations in 2005.
“What’s horrifying is the fact that it’s still happening today,” she tells me. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of kids being sent to those places every year. It’s heartbreaking to me that people could treat children like this. Now, hearing about so many things, the deaths that have happened, it’s just heartbreaking: so, even though it’s hard for me to talk about, I think it’s so important for people to understand what’s happening behind closed doors.” Again, she finds ways to justify what her parents did, both in sending her away in the first place, and all the times they sent her back, when her distress was so palpable. “They brainwash the kids and they also do that to the parents. They say ‘Your daughter is a liar, she’s just manipulating you.’” The Hiltons were also deceived, to an extent, by their own wealth; they assumed that the bad boarding schools were where foster kids were sent: because these schools were costing so much, they must be humane.
“The moment I got out of there, it was the happiest day in my life,” she tells me. “I was so grateful, and I just made a promise to myself that I was never going to talk about this. This is not part of my story. I would never mention this again. I would pretend it never happened and just bury it there, basically. I just promised myself I would work so hard and become so successful that no one would ever be able to control me again.” Only she and her parents knew where she had spent the previous two years: to everyone else, even her siblings, they held the line that she had been “away at boarding school in London”.
Back in the Waldorf, she had plenty going for her – modelling contacts from her earlier teenage years, tons of cash, a lot of business savvy. Awake, she was the girl who had everything, the embodiment of a dream, but she hated going to sleep, because she would wake up screaming from nightmares for the next 20 years. Her cultural standing was riven with very recognisable contradictions: on paper, people admired and were fascinated by her, but it was freighted with assumptions about her character – that she was trivial, airheaded, famous for being famous, narcissistic. Indeed, looking back, a lot of anxieties about the future, about the emptiness of branding, image and consumerism, a lot of social disgust around the concentration of wealth, were mediated directly through critique of Hilton: of which she says, levelly: “I’m a human being so things would be hurtful when people would just assume … but I always loved when people underestimated me, I loved proving people wrong.”
It was only when the sex tape was released on DVD that this gleeful schadenfreude found expression, in a riot of slut-shaming, cynicism and voyeurism. People said she had released it herself, for attention; that it was all part of her plan to stay edgy. “It was extremely painful,” she remembers. “I did not want to leave my house. I was just so depressed and so humiliated. That was just one night, with someone who I was in love with, who I trusted, that was never meant for anyone else to see. And just the way the media handled it was so cruel, people villainising me for doing something that everyone in a relationship does.” The irony, she says now, is that she became this icon of licentiousness when she wasn’t even promiscuous. “I was portraying this sex-symbol vibe, but inside I did not feel that way at all. And I did not trust anyone because I had such huge walls that I built around my heart. I didn’t want to let anyone in, and I didn’t want to be hurt, so I didn’t want to ever give myself to someone. I thought, if you only kiss them, that’s not a big deal. If something bad happens or they cheat on me, it won’t hurt as bad.”
It’s amazing to think of how much values have shifted; I don’t remember anyone back then talking about the morality of Rick Salomon, who sold the tape without Hilton’s knowledge or permission. Today, under UK law at least, he’d be in prison. Neither Hilton nor the internet launched the idea of a sex tape, obviously – that was Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee, in 1995, and it was literally a tape – but Hilton’s did provide a kind of blueprint for how to turn a malicious leak to your advantage. However violated she felt by it, in public she was blithe, cameoing in a sketch about it on Saturday Night Live. She emerged both more famous and more in control of her own sexual objectification, much as Kim Kardashian did with her own sex tape three years later.
Also, public shame has quite a short attention span, and as The Simple Life became a hit, Hilton enjoyed a pretty uncomplicated popularity. She was going out with Jason Shaw, an underwear model, but spending most of her time filming with Nicole Richie – “This fun adventure, with my best friend, I love her so much,” she says. It looked as if she was living her best life; it was more complicated than that. She’d got pregnant accidentally and had an abortion, which threw her into turmoil, “an intensely private agony”, she writes, “that’s impossible to explain”. The Hiltons are Catholic; so it’s quite a big deal to disclose it even now, 20 years later. She wrote about it keenly aware of the rolling back of Roe v Wade. “I think women should have control over their body and don’t think anyone should tell someone what they should do. So many women have experienced it and there’s so much shame put into it, I felt like I couldn’t leave something like that out, even though it was painful to write about.”
In the past, Hilton’s politics toggled between the toxic and the gnomic. She said she had voted for Trump in 2016, but says now that it was even worse: she didn’t vote at all (is that worse? Never mind that now). She also cast doubt on the women accusing Trump of sexual assault, telling Marie Claire, “I think that they are just trying to get attention and get fame”, which – apart from anything else – sounded a little bit rich. Now, she writes that she was intimidated by Trump. Probably most problematic is the cache of videos from a storage locker that emerged in 2007, with clips of her singing slurs in all the colours of the rainbow (racist, homophobic, some memorable antisemitism) in the 1990s. She explains that she was young and drunk at the time the slurs were recorded, and she has a later DUI conviction – with a short prison sentence – to back that up. Is she penitent enough to rebrand as a feminist, a progressive? I genuinely don’t know.
In 2020, when Hilton first spoke about her teenage experiences in public, it was a spontaneous response to Alexandra Dean, the director of the documentary This Is Paris. They’d set out to make something quite different, a puff piece, really. “That was not the original premise of the film,” she says. “I felt like I had been underestimated for so long, and I’ve created this huge business empire. I wanted to show all that I had accomplished.” Six months into filming, they were in Korea and Dean stumbled upon Hilton straight out of a night terror. “So I opened up to her about
‘I WAS PORTRAYING THIS SEX-SYMBOL VIBE, BUT INSIDE I DID NOT FEEL THAT WAY AT ALL’
it, and she just didn’t understand. She was saying, ‘Is this real life or a nightmare?’”
Since she started talking about her adolescence, Hilton has discovered a campaigning zeal, and “all I care about is changing the troubled teen industry, being able to use my voice and make an impact, go to DC, speak with legislators and senators. So it’s important for me to make it a bipartisan issue so that we can pass this bill [regulating ‘therapeutic’ schools].” Another, arguably less concrete action, in 2021, was to collaborate on a non-fungible token (NFT) built around the message “The truth will set you free”. She’s heavily invested in cryptocurrency and crypto art, owns more than 150 NFTs and is one of a slew of celebrities currently being sued, along with Adidas, for allegedly promoting one collection, Bored Ape Yacht Club, without disclosing that she was being paid to do so. There’s definitely a rum, advertorial vibe to the conversation she and Jimmy Fallon have about Bored Ape; whether her involvement is dicey or just idiosyncratic will be for some judge, or the future, to decide.
By the time Hilton moved into DJing, her wealth was pretty headspinning: $2.5bn in fragrance sales alone by 2017. Again, it all looked like a dream life, her success as a DJ – awards, a major residency in Ibiza, her $1m rate for a set – apparently effortless. Partly because of her frenetic mode of speaking and writing, partly because she takes a palpable delight in pretty things and pretty people, her caricature self, this gilded good-time girl, is insistently present. But “even though it looks like it’s so much fun going out”, she says, “it’s a lonely world. And it’s not a real life. It’s hard to be in a relationship when you’re never there. I was always just around the world, travelling so much. I never got the time to even get to know someone that well, because I was always gone.”
Then, just before Covid, she met Reum at a dinner. She remembers it in a sweet detail, the waiter asking whether there was something wrong with her untouched food, and her saying: “Nothing, I just don’t like to eat in front of cute guys.” It’s so on-brand, the flighty, socialite shtick, but it also happened to be true – she thought he was cute, and then they ended up married. “To have someone who doesn’t care about fame, doesn’t care about going out, just the total opposite of anyone I’ve ever been with. It was just eye-opening. Something I’ve never experienced before. It’s like a real, adult relationship.”
I’m impressed by her commitment to her own fairytale, with its obligatory happy-ever-after. I think, one way or another, whatever the privileges of her life, after all its sexual, intimate and institutional violence, I’d still be angry. “I am angry. I’m sad. I’m angry at those schools for what they did. They stole my childhood. There’s a lot of things I’m angry about, but I try to always be the sunshine.” That formulation is so totally Hilton – she doesn’t want to find the sunshine, or angle towards it, she wants to be it. It distills all the yin and yang between ego and resilience, the vast material advantage but undeniable emotional disadvantage of her upbringing and the bizarre life it created. “Poor little rich girl,” my hard-arse New York mother-in-law kept saying while I was reading the memoir. “Well, yes!” I replied. “She is a poor little rich girl.”