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Paris Hilton: From Tabloid Obsession to Titan of the Attention Economy

The hotel heiress’s stormy relationship with Lindsay Lohan was paparazzi catnip. She projected an image as the ultimate ditz, but she understood her worth better than anyone gave her credit for.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 5, we’re reflecting on how young women like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan were portrayed by the tabloids at their high and low points.

In 1996, Paris Hilton and her sister Nicky moved with their family from L.A. to New York and started hitting the nightlife scene. They were teens, but the New York press covered them as though they were adult socialites, mentioning how mature Nicky looked for her age and noting how freely they drank underage. By the time Paris was 18 and Nicky was 16, they got a photo feature in The New Yorker (which I find to be pretty hilarious).

Vanity Fair followed them around, getting very on-the-nose quotes from their mother, Kathy Hilton, like “I always raised them to be exposed, and to be a part of everything.”

Kathy, for her part, is now a star on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

The Hiltons were friends with people like Donald Trump, another rich person who was eager to be famous. Paris Hilton and Donald Trump’s paths actually cross quite a bit through the years.

Paris signed with Trump’s modeling agency right before she broke out into national and international stardom and he was someone who helped facilitate her early Page Six fame.

“The Hiltons and the Trumps go way back, for many generations,” former gossip columnist and TMZ alum Ben Widdicombe said. “And I really do see a synthesis between how the Hiltons and the Trumps built their profile, both of them from traditional, plutocratic backgrounds, both of them embrace fame, all the way to the White House.”

Paris’s big breakout was undoubtedly The Simple Life, a reality show on Fox that she starred in with her friend Nicole Richie in 2003. The premise was that the two rich kids would head to Arkansas to live and work with a normal family for a few weeks.

People loved it. Paris and Nicole were like Lucy and Ethel in Juicy Couture track suits. It was in the midst of the reality TV boom and the show’s ratings were through the roof.

But there was also a darker thing going on with all the attention Paris was getting. A couple of weeks before the show premiered, a sex tape featuring Paris and her former boyfriend was leaked onto the internet.

Here she is talking to Piers Morgan about that in 2011:

There would be a lot of talk over the next few years about sex tapes as an easy gateway to fame—the story of Kim Kardashian and Ray J’s is a tangled one. But the narrative around Paris’s tape has always seemed a little more clear-cut. Her ex actually sold viewings of a full-color version of the tape for $50 online. That’s what we now call revenge porn.

In an old paradigm of fame, the sex tape could have well been the end for Paris Hilton. But only a year or so later, her many businesses were booming.

“When her sex tape came out, people tried to shame her for it,” Widdicombe said. “And I admire her for not allowing herself to be shamed. She was a young woman, she was not only in command of her sexuality, but she was enjoying it. Which shocked people. How dare a young woman enjoy her sexuality? My feeling is that she was called shameless, but what she was actually doing was refusing to carry shame, which is a very different thing.”

Hilton’s former publicist Elliot Mintz compared Paris and her cohort to another famous group of partying friends.

“Many, many, many moons ago in Las Vegas, there was a group of comedians and singers called the Rat Pack,” he said. “Along comes Paris and some of her friends and they go out every night and they have a real good time. But this time the reaction is quite different. I observed hostility toward them for having a real good time. I saw an ageist, sexist response to the idea that women, 12 years ago, can do on a recreational level, as well as on a personal level, any damn thing they choose to do.”

Paris Hilton’s commercial appeal has always trafficked in her knowing how to play a part. Her old manager has said he wanted her brand to be about real-life Barbie. She was all sex and silliness. With the sex tape, she had had no say. With everything else, Paris realized that by playing a part—the dumb blond—she could make oodles of cash.

Here she is on Conan in 2004 promoting her book, Confessions of an Heiress:

OK, so the book was a spoof. And these days, Paris says, so was her whole persona. But it’s not clear how in on that joke the general public was. People wanted to see the ditz—that’s an easier way to view a wealthy, beautiful woman.

In that same interview, Conan jokes about how many businesses Paris was juggling at one time. She was a corporate entity with real selling power. She moved product—and not just her own.

Paris might have been a national joke, a terrible role model, and perhaps single-handedly prolonged the unfortunate low-rise jeans trend. But she also understood her place in the American pantheon of capital: She was a good product and she was there to profit off of what God, her mother, and Conrad Hilton had given her.