If you, like me, compulsively watch Paris Hilton’s documentaries out of a grudgingly respectful fascination, it’s not new information that Paris Hilton is actually a genius.
She turned a new genre, reality tv, into a bankable brand based on a character entirely of her own creation. Years ago, in Paris, Not France she revealed that she puts on a baby voice and acts like an idiot to fuel the press obsession around being a heiress/socialite.
Like the Kardashian empire she spawned, the only reason we don’t take her seriously as a businesswoman is because she trades on the shallowest forms of female empowerment and the somewhat regressive notions of womanhood. The “Paris Hilton Brand” is a cloud of pink perfection bouncing around exotic locations and DJ-ing for worldwide raves. She is undeniably a pioneer in personal branding and leveraging fame into a viable business.
So when This is Paris came out, promising to be “real”, I half expected a documentary that focused on her business pursuits.
The movie does catalog her long hours and demanding travel schedule and it’s the first time we get to see the ambition that drives her brand. More importantly, it sheds light on why someone would sacrifice themselves to constantly play a character for a living. She reveals that she wears her ditzy party girl persona as armor, a way to mask the trauma under the surface. For the first time, we hear revelations of the abuse she experienced at reform schools that she was sent to like Provo Canyon and the deep mistrust that her parents’ actions fostered.
Her Serena Vander Woodsen-esque plight is described in the backdrop of lavish apartments, underscoring the privileged upbringing that tends to dry up our sympathy. But frankly, it’s on us as the audience to overcome our envy and look at the real person.
The doc touches on how we as a society have been complicit in her trauma with the things we did know about. It’s hard not to feel bad that it became a national obsession to ridicule a young teenager as Paris points out how disturbing that sex tape we make fun of actually is.
Today, if we found out a creepy older boyfriend released a sex tape without his 19-year-old girlfriend’s consent, we would insist the sleazeball was jailed, not shaming his teenage victim. In many ways, her persona plays because of the defaults in our society, where women are objects of consumption. Since we don’t judge them with any nuance or compassion, it makes sense that she chose to offer up a shallow character so we didn’t feed on her true self.
The documentary also draws an interestingly subtle line behind the frozen perfection of her mom and Paris’ cultivated brand. The Hilton pressure for perfection is palpable on-screen and we get a glimpse of how each member of the family participates.
Her father’s outright refusal to be filmed and her sister Nicky Hilton’s obvious discomfort with being interviewed reveal a family reluctance to openly deal with the imperfections in their home life.
The clear dominating force behind this pressure is her mother. Any fan of the RHOBH knows that Kathy Hilton inherited this perfection-oriented notion of womanhood from her mother. Paris admits her mom still treats her like she’s 12 and there are many moments where Paris refers to her mom’s old school quest for perfection in her childhood. She’s clearly the kind of person who brushes the messy bits under the rug to project perfection.
It doesn’t feel new for “proper ladies” to present a shallow, likable facade to the rest of the world and pretend to be happy. Paris even mentions that her grandmother would refer to her as Grace Kelly, the archetype of remote perfection.
In many ways, the Instagram filter women feel pressured to put on their lives is just a reinvention of society’s sexist demands for perfection that ignores difficulties in lives. We are just starting to come to a place where famous women peel away facades and actually discuss their mental health, trauma, and ugliness in their lives.
The Paris we see in the documentary falls just short of being relatable as it becomes clear she has not yet managed to overcome the frozen perfection instilled in childhood. We spend so much time with Paris in intimate spaces — in the hotel rooms where she gets ready, at home — without reaching real intimacy. Many times it feels like she’s making deep observations about someone else, rather than confessing to the camera.
While surveying her closet, she admits, “when I look around it’s a f**king cartoon” and that all of her clothes are no more than “stuff for a character I made.”
But she says this in the most detached way and it epitomizes that she’s clearly still working on public vulnerability. It’s a deep confession, but I strained to feel how that realization was affecting Paris. She cries, but she quickly brushes away the tear and I get the sense that she pulls herself back. The only time she lets the frozen exterior fully drop is when her asshole boyfriend ruins the biggest moment of her DJ-ing career.
This final layer of control helps underscore how damaging the public gaze really is. It makes me think that if we were a better audience, Paris would feel free to allow more of herself to seep into her brand. Perhaps this documentary is an attempt to push the faux reality she created towards a healthier place for its stars to be their full selves.
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Ayo is a writer and producer based in Brooklyn, but proudly from the Midwest. When she’s not agonizng over applying to grad school, she is working on her first podcast, I Think I Read This Somewhere