Ryan Pfluger. Dress, Ermanno Scervino.
The name Paris Hilton is a pop culture Rorschach test. For some, it conjures images of a smokey-eyed 21-year-old in a glittering chainmail minidress — the epitome of youth and wealth and early 2000s revelry. For others, it’s a Juicy Couture-clad blonde struggling to adapt to rural living, questioning the function of Walmart, and declaring even the most mundane of notions “hot.” Perhaps less common is the skilled businesswoman, perfectly coiffed and sitting on a multi-billion dollar empire that has nothing to do with that video you may have seen or that show you used to watch.
Then there’s the Paris Hilton you haven’t thought about. The Paris Hilton you don’t know about. The Paris Hilton that even the multi-hyphenate herself never thought you’d see. Now, it’s finally all on the table: The real Paris, vulnerable and brave, ready to tell her story in her own words.
In her new YouTube documentary, This Is Paris, Hilton delves into the trauma she suffered at the Provo Canyon School when she was 17. She alleges that she was subjected to verbal, physical, and emotional abuses, and recounts being drugged, beaten, strangled, and left naked in solitary confinement for 20 hours, an experience she describes in the film as akin to “something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” (In a statement to CBS, Provo Canyon School says they cannot comment on the allegations, as the school changed ownership in 2000.)
“It was something that was so traumatic and so terrible that I just didn’t even want to believe it was real, so I tried to act like it didn’t happen,” Hilton tells me over Zoom, opening up about the harrowing 11 months she spent at the Utah-based “emotional growth” school, a category of boarding schools that claims to specialize in the treatment of “troubled” teens.
Her parents, Kathy and Richard “Rick” Hilton, were strict and conservative. Before moving to New York with her family at 15, Hilton lived what she called a “sheltered” life. “I wasn’t allowed to go on dates, couldn’t go to a school dance, couldn’t wear makeup,” she tells me of growing up in L.A.
Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
But when the Hiltons left L.A., Paris, with the aid of a “really good fake ID” and a Betsey Johnson-inspired wardrobe (“pink hair, glitter, the shortest little skirts”), immersed herself in the New York nightlife. “I felt like the queen of the night,” she says in the film. “That’s where I really became Paris.” While Paris was coming into her own, Kathy and Richard were scrambling. They began sending her to emotional growth schools. She ran away, again and again. The last school Hilton attended was the worst by far. She was taken from her bed at home in the middle of the night and brought to Provo Canyon. “I thought I was being kidnapped,” she recalls in the film. “I started screaming for my mom and dad, and no one came.” That experience alone was so traumatic that it caused her to have a recurring nightmare for more than two decades.
The iterations of “Paris Hilton” that followed, and came to define her in the public eye, were works of fiction — a “character” she developed on screen and nurtured through the decades as a means of self-preservation. “It was a mask,” she says, “I was protecting my heart, I was protecting myself.”
Ryan Pfluger. Dress, Brock Collection.
Hilton and her boyfriend of 1-year, entrepreneur Carter Reum, 39, have been rewatching The Simple Life in quarantine (in her “quarantine uniform” of Juicy Couture velour tracksuits, I’ll assume), an experience she finds entertaining, if not strangely meta.
“That was exactly what the producers wanted,” she says of her oft-mischievous but well-meaning onscreen alter ego (“Clueless meets Legally Blonde meets Green Acres”), the baby-voiced accomplice to best friend and co-star Nicole Richie. “I had no idea that I would have to continue doing that for five seasons straight,” she says, her voice stripped of the lilting register she popularized during the show’s run from 2003 to 2007. “You kind of get lost in that character when you have to continually be doing it all the time.”
And while Hilton did curate parts of that persona herself, there were some less than savory moments she says were foisted on her by producers — such as the season 5 episode in which Sally Kirkland asks her and Richie to embody “two beautiful Black women” for an acting exercise. Hilton takes to the makeup chair, emerging with her skin several shades darker.
The intention was never to offend, but she does regret it. “That was the producers,” she tells me, “and looking back now, I’m like, ‘That’s beyond.’ But it was what they were telling us to do on the show.”
Sitting before me in virtual space wearing a black-and-white patterned blouse, her hair blown out in Little Mermaid-style perfection (a manifestation of the “business chic girl boss” look she tells me she’s favored of late), she is focused and to the point. I don’t need her to tell me that she always knew what Walmart is, but she does anyway. “People actually thought I was serious, so it kind of makes me laugh,” she says. “That’s why there are a lot of misconceptions about me. People assume that I was really that airhead that I was playing on TV.”
People don’t know the real story, which is I haven’t received anything from my family since I was 17 years old.
In fact, she was reluctant to sign on for the Fox reality series at all. “I didn’t want to do it, my family didn’t want me to do it,” she says. The original pitch involved her and her sister Nicky Hilton Rothschild, but the younger Hilton sister was even less eager to get involved. “Nicky said, ‘There’s no way, I’m not doing a reality show, that’s beyond,’” Hilton tells me. When Richie was brought to the table, Hilton came around. “She got me excited about it because she’s just so funny, and so much fun to be around, and so entertaining, and I was like, ‘I get to go get paid to live with my best friend, we’re going to be on Fox on this huge TV show, let’s just do it.’”
But, of course, Hilton’s intention went deeper than getting paid to scandalize country folk alongside her best friend. She knew she could leverage her exposure into a personal brand, make a name for herself that wasn’t synonymous with the family business. “I was just so sick of being called the ‘Hilton Hotel granddaughter.’”
It’s almost cliche to say that Hilton’s success was the product of nepotism — that she had unlimited money and resources at her disposal, that she was primed for any sort of life in the public eye she so desired. There’s some truth in that, of course. Would Paris Smith from Louisiana or Paris Johnson from New Jersey have been presented with opportunities conducive to growing her own multi-billion dollar empire? It’s unlikely. But Hilton says she hasn’t capitalized on her family’s fortune. The last name that outwardly appeared to be propelling her forward was, in a lot of ways, she implies, holding her back.
Ryan Pfluger. Dress, Brock Collection.
“I didn’t want to be known as Paris Hilton,” she says. “I just wanted to be known as Paris and to do my own thing and to make my family proud, and to not be controlled, and to not ever have to ask for anything.”
And she didn’t.
“People don’t know the real story,” she says, “which is I haven’t received anything from my family since I was 17 years old.”
And while she thinks she was “always meant to do something special,” she is cognizant of how her last name and the entrepreneurial influence of her family has affected her trajectory. “I think otherwise, I probably would have been a nursery school teacher or a veterinarian or something.”
Based on what Hilton has said in This Is Paris, in the 2018 look at social media culture, The American Meme, and even to me, the word “misconception” lacks the gravity to describe the falsehoods that have comprised her media narrative, but she’s happy to shut out all the lies — or have her team do so, at least.
“I used to always pay attention to all of that,” she says of the constant online chatter (pick any topic, add “Paris Hilton,” and you’ll see results). “I’d read comment sections and it’s so toxic that now I have my team go on there, and before I even look at it, if anyone is being mean or negative, it’s erased and they’re blocked.”
This swift excision of negativity from her life has manifested in other ways as well, such as her relationship with former family friend Donald Trump.
Hilton signed to Trump Model Management as a teenager in the late ‘90s. When she left because she wanted to move to a “better agency,” Trump bristled. “I know that caused some drama,” she remembers. “He was not happy, and that was the last time we ever spoke.”
Ryan Pfluger. Earrings, Paris’s own.
She made headlines in 2017 after appearing to defend the president against accusations of sexual assault, though she later clarified that her quotes were taken out of context and given nearly a year before the interview was published.
She didn’t vote in the 2016 election, but she says she’s planning to vote this year, and there’s no ambiguity about where she currently stands.
“I had known him since I was a little girl, so I didn’t know him as a president,” she says of Trump. “What I’ve seen is just really disappointing, just someone in the biggest position of power who can speak the way he does, and act the way he does, that’s not presidential in any way whatsoever.” Hilton notes “compassion” and “respect” as key presidential traits Trump is lacking. “He’s just not representing what our country needs.”
As for her own political aspirations, underscored by a noir-esque graphic of herself wearing a blazer and matching garter belt and promising to “Make America Hot Again,” nothing’s off the table.
“I think I would definitely make a better choice than the choices we have now, so I would love to get into politics one day,” she says. “Paris for President.”
Part of me expects Hilton to casually mention her product lines in conversation, remind me of the number of fragrances she produces (27, for the record), convince me that she’s a legitimate DJ, pepper her responses with her latest catchphrase (“sliving” — slaying whilst simultaneously living one’s best life). She doesn’t. The era in which every Paris Hilton profile began with a list of her career achievements and some vague sentiment about how her business acumen is somehow “surprising,” is over. In fact, the era of Hilton promoting her personal brand with the superhuman intensity of Wonder Woman hawking patriotic onesies may also have come to an end.
Quarantine has changed Hilton, who typically spends 250 days a year traveling for work. “I’m never going to go back to that schedule,” she tells me. “I feel like I was just focused on my business and all of that, [and] I really didn’t focus on my personal life at all, and now I’m realizing what’s most important. For me, that’s building my future, my relationship, focusing on my love, and just moving on to the next phase in my life.”
Hilton gives an interview the exact way you’d expect someone who’s been in the public eye for 20 years and has had every soundbite parsed for hidden meaning would. She is open, but never exuberant. Her tone is cool, but not disinterested. She knows what to say in response to every question, without hesitation. But there is a palpable brightening when I mention her plans to have children, which she recently discussed with The Sunday Times.
“I can’t wait for that day,” she says, promising she will put her “family first” when it comes to the brand she’s built. “I don’t want my children being raised by nannies and not having their mother around.”
Ryan Pfluger. Dress, Ermanno Scervino.
She refers to her future daughter as “little baby London,” describing her parenting ethos in terms that seem to run opposite to how she herself was parented. “I think that the most important thing is to not be too strict, because then your kids are going to rebel. I would just tell them that I will always be there for you no matter what, and you can tell me anything and everything and I’m never going to get upset … I’ve been through it all, so I’m going to know exactly what to do.”
Her boyfriend, Reum, isn’t featured in This Is Paris, but Hilton wishes he was so that fans could see how happy she is now. The man she was with at the time of filming, Aleks Novakovic, makes a memorable cameo — one Hilton says Reum finds “hilarious.” Fed up by his neediness minutes before she’s set to perform at Belgian EDM festival Tomorrowland, Hilton has Novakovic’s wristbands cut off; the relationship severed with a single collision of scissor blades.
“I hardly even knew that person,” she assures me. “But it felt good to finally stick up for myself because I’ve been through a lot. I’ve been through very abusive relationships, and I never stood up for myself.” In the documentary, Hilton says she’s been in five different abusive relationships, but no names are revealed.
Standing up for herself (and others) is something Hilton has been doing a lot lately as she speaks out about the abuse she suffered at the Provo Canyon School.
That said, it wasn’t a topic she’d ever planned to broach — publicly or privately. This Is Paris was originally meant to focus on her business ventures and the truth about who she really is, beneath the veneer of marketable catchphrases and dogs small enough to double as accessories. But the real Hilton is intrinsically linked to her trauma, and through filming her documentary, the truth naturally came out.
Ryan Pfluger. Set, Staud. Top and pants: Staud
“I had just been through so much and I didn’t want anyone to know because they made me feel ashamed and I almost thought it was my fault,” she tells me, explaining why she didn’t think she’d ever take her story public. “But now, looking back, they should be ashamed. It wasn’t me, it was them.”
Hilton’s own parents learned about her traumatic experience as a teenager while This Is Paris was filming — Kathy did so on screen, reaching a hand up to cover her eyes as the weight of her daughter’s confession settles in.
Letting her family in on what happened to her was emotional on both sides, but Hilton has tried to put herself in her parents’ shoes. “When you’re sending your child somewhere where you think they’re going to be safe and taken care of, and they’re being abused … I just can’t even imagine if that would’ve happened to my child,” Hilton says pensively. “That’s a big reason I wanted to talk about this,” she clarifies, “because if I don’t talk about it and I don’t speak up, this is going to continue to happen to other children.”
Paris knows there will be viewers who will use her trauma “against me in a way, or judge me.” Mostly, though, she’s looking at the positive. “I know that by me using my voice and being brave, other people are now able to come forward and be believed,” she says. She’s involved with the Breaking Code Silence movement to spread awareness and provoke change in the troubled teen industry, and says she’s dedicating her life to ending the cycle of abuse in these schools.
The catharsis of sharing her story, and perhaps the comfort of an excellent cuddling companion, has put an end to the nightmares.
“I have the most incredible boyfriend,” she gushes. “I just feel so safe and like I’m at home, and like I could finally open up my heart to someone and really give my everything.” After a beat, she adds, “This is the first time.”
Though certain critics might disagree, it’s not easy being Paris Hilton. I ask her if she ever gets tired of being, well, her.
“Sometimes,” she says, punctuated by a laugh that seems to taper into a sigh.“It’s a lot, for so long, to always be on and having to give my life away to the public all the time. It gets to be overwhelming sometimes.”
The former nightlife maven, who famously celebrated her 21st birthday with five different parties, is turning 40 in February. Though she already knows she and Reum (“both Aquarians”) will be having a joint party — if the world is “back open by then,” that is — the activity she was best known for during the early aughts is hardly on her mind much these days. “I’ve had so much fun,” she tells me. “I’ve [gone] to a billion parties, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve lived basically 50 lifetimes. So, I don’t know, that stuff doesn’t excite me anymore.”
“The most exciting thing would be to have a family,” she adds. “I just can’t wait for that day. And it’ll be soon.”
Photographs by Ryan Pfluger, assisted by Nicol Biesek. Hair by Eduardo Ponce. Makeup by Etienne Ortega. Styling by Alyssa Hardy. Production by Kelly Chiello.