Bearing her brand
AS Paris Hilton sees it, her main problem is that people don’t understand how hard she works. “People are going to judge me: ‘Paris Hilton, she uses money to get what she wants.’ Whatever,” she said. “I haven’t accepted money from my parents since I was 18. I’ve worked my ass off. I have things no heiress has. I’ve done it all on my own, like a hustler.”
It was a recent sweltering morning, and the socialite, 25, was speaking at her three-story compound up a winding hill in West Hollywood, within valet parking range of some of the city’s hottest nightlife. Fresh from a hair and makeup session that a publicist said cost $10,000, she had descended her marble staircase, passed under the gaze of several poster-sized vanity portraits of herself, breezed by the chrome stripper pole she uses as an exercise prop (“It’s great for parties,” she said) and settled herself into a white sofa beneath a black Baccarat chandelier.
The professional celebutante and heir to the Hilton hotel fortune will release her debut album, “Paris,” on Warner Bros. Records next week (she makes an in-store appearance at a West L.A. Best Buy tonight at 7). After that, Hilton will disseminate what she calls “the brand of Paris Hilton” even more widely, and more lucratively. She has signed off on signature lines of lingerie, shoes, bathing suits, makeup, wigs, purses, an energy drink, a video game and champagne in a can -- all meant to land not on the shelves of, say, Kitson but at the average Middle American mall. She also intends to open several restaurants and has begun developing properties for what she calls a “boutique hotel chain,” to be called Paris, that will remain unaffiliated with her parents’ worldwide franchise.
But first, she wanted to straighten out a few misconceptions. Chief among them: “The whole ‘party girl heiress’ thing, I’m over it,” Hilton said. “I’m really serious as an artist. I’m a businesswoman.”
A hustler, if you will.
Hilton’s reggae-tinged lead single, “Stars Are Blind,” is already a hit. It became the most requested single at radio stations in New York and Los Angeles upon its release in June and one of the most downloaded songs on iTunes, her latest unexpected success after her bestselling book and hot-selling perfume line.
“I do everything step by step in a certain order,” Hilton said. “The book, the perfume, the show, the album. I wanted to do the album last because I wanted to do it like no one else has ever done it before. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone like me that’s lasted. And I’m going to keep on lasting.”
Which may surprise fans of “The Simple Life” who are more familiar with the blond of few words -- chief among them her catch phrase, “That’s hot!” -- who, on the reality TV show, keeps her sentences short and her mini-skirts shorter. When Hilton makes such grandiloquent declarations of purpose, however, she speaks in long paragraphs, her breathy voice seeming to drop an octave. Then she pauses for effect afterward, to be sure that what she said has sunk in. She comes across as not so much calculating as self-servingly provocative.
The image factor
As Hilton pauses to survey the world from the precipice of a frightening new level of ubiquity, all is not completely copacetic. The limitations of her plan may be hard to escape -- not least because her “brand” depends foremost on her image, and there is only so much of her image that she is able to control. As Eric Hirshberg, president and chief creative officer of the advertising agency Deutsch Inc. put it, “With Paris, there’s so much debauchery and valuelessness to her brand, she’ll have to figure out a way to get past that. There needs to be some humanity.”
Case in point: The entertainment website TMZ.com has posted several paparazzo video clips of the heiress. In the most notorious one, in May, Brandon Davis, the bad-boy grandson of the late local billionaire Marvin Davis, is seen drunkenly disparaging certain parts of Lindsay Lohan’s anatomy while Hilton giggles and apparently goads him to make even more outrageous remarks.
According to TMZ managing editor Harvey Levin, the incident (and its follow-up last weekend, in which TMZ cameras captured hip-hop hit maker Scott Storch dissing Lohan while Paris laughed) betrayed a lack of self-awareness that is somewhat at odds with the new image Hilton is trying to project.
“Publicly, Paris is a poseur -- she’s this camera-ready wax figure with very little obvious soul,” Levin said. “That image is part of a carefully managed marketing plan. On the other hand, I don’t think she necessarily understands why some of the things she does are offensive to people. No one in celebritydom triggers the kind of animus that Paris Hilton does. She’s a lightning rod for what a lot of people think is wrong with Hollywood.”
On the new album, Hilton’s efforts at portraying herself in a new “she works hard for the money” light are evident in her musical choices. She is self-consciously trying to align herself with hip-hop’s bootstrap ethos. Most of the songs were produced by Storch, and the song “Fighting Over Me” features cameos from New York hard-core rappers Fat Joe and Jadakiss.
Hilton said hip-hop -- and in particular, gangsta rap -- shaped her worldview and partially inspired her ambition to become “an icon like Madonna or Marilyn Monroe.”
“I love hip-hop. I grew up listening to Dr. Dre,” she said. “With the hip-hop world, they came from nothing, from the streets. I respect their turning into these huge stars with huge mansions, all on their own.”
She seems oblivious to the advantage her family name and connections have given her. Instead, she sees an obvious overlap between her own self-described dues-paying period and the career arc of many successful rappers, who generally start out with only hustlers’ ambition.
“When I moved to L.A., I swear on my life I didn’t have anything,” Hilton said glibly. “I was living in a crappy model apartment. I told my mom I didn’t want any money. And I’ve done it all on my own. All this, I bought for myself: my cars, my house. Who can say that at my age who’s an heiress?”
The way to judge her, she feels, isn’t to measure her up against fellow tabloid mainstays such as Lohan, Hilton’s “Simple Life” costar Nicole Richie or even fellow branded empire builders the Olsen twins. Instead, Hilton compares her accomplishments with those of other children of extreme wealth and privilege.
“I see so many of my friends from wealthy families,” she said. “They still live at home; they’ll never be happy. The girls will have to marry a rich guy. I don’t ever want to depend on a man.”
A target demographic
Despite her determination to downplay the benefits her wealth gives her -- hard to do when she owns a Ferrari Spider, Bentley coupe, Range Rover and Mercedes-Benz MacLaren SLR -- Hilton’s aura of moneyed entitlement is one of her defining characteristics. “Parts of Paris’ brand are automatically appealing,” Hirshberg said. “Her job is to party. She seems to answer to no one.... And there’s a bit of anarchy there -- she’s like the princess running around the palace knocking over vases.”
He added: “The part that I don’t understand: Paris has this meanness that’s in her persona. And it’s embraced. Girls from the kind of places she makes fun of on ‘The Simple Life’ want to wear her perfume.”
Indeed, contrary to her Benzes and bling image, the target demographic for her branded products is not the socialite-heiress set. Hilton’s name and image are licensed mostly to goods that are priced to be affordable, such as “pleather” handbags for $65.
“Her consumers adore her,” said Seth M. Siegel, who is working on deals for Hilton’s lines of fake fur, jewelry, shoes, pantyhose, lingerie and sportswear. “Maybe not the opinion elite. But the ordinary person -- that’s who’s buying her products.”
But in order to create a brand consciousness such as a Donald Trump, Hirshberg said, she will have to alter the common perception that she is an empty, narcissistic party girl. “If you look at Angelina Jolie’s philanthropy as a branding device, it gave her a way out of being this bad-girl husband stealer. The narrative has changed to ‘champion of Africa,’ ‘champion of adoption.’ ” At the moment, Hirshberg said, Paris is “a fascinating train wreck. That’s leverageable. But for her to be an Oprah or a Martha Stewart, there’s got to be more vitamins in the recipe than, ‘Look, I’ve made a ton of money.’ ”
Party girl? You’re kidding
Asked about the constant images of her partying, Hilton was all denials. She may have topped Star magazine’s “Hollywood’s Hardest Partiers” list earlier this month (and is shown in a photograph accompanying the article guzzling from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s), but she insisted that her party-hearty reputation is all artifice.
“I can’t go out drinking every night. I have to get up the next morning for a photo shoot,” she said. “I don’t like the taste of alcohol. It grosses me out.”
How does she find the wherewithal to just say no to that third glass of Cristal champagne? “People love taking shots of tequila, so I say, ‘Just pour me water,’ ” Hilton said. “I’ll pretend to do one. If you see me at an event, I’m either getting paid for it or I’m there for business.”
According to executives who have worked with Hilton on her product lines, her banquette-dancing demeanor belies a responsible nature and an in-grown commitment to growing her businesses.
Siegel, co-founder and chairman of Beanstalk Group, the largest trademark licensing agency in the world (its other clients include Harley Davidson motorcycles, AT&T; and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen), explained that Hilton participates actively in quality control. “Most celebrities say, ‘Do whatever you want to do and send me the check.’ She has a strong point of view.”
Kathleen Galvin, vice president of marketing for Parlux Fragrances Inc., said that Paris Hilton’s perfumes have done more than $100 million in sales since being launched in 2004. In the fall, the company will put out a line of Hilton handbags and in the coming year a line of cosmetics. The plan is for it all to work together, for each Paris product to stoke the desire for a different kind of Paris product. “For her CD, we’re putting ads in for her fragrances, watches and handbags,” Galvin said.
Still, whatever her aspirations to be a captain of industry, Hilton’s identity as a poor little rich girl gone haywire may be hard to shake. Last week, her spokesman Elliot Mintz revealed that the heiress had been bitten on the arm by her pet kinkajou, Baby Luv, and had received a tetanus shot. Hilton’s West Hollywood compound houses a menagerie of miniature beasts, including four teacup Chihuahuas (Tinkerbell, Bambi, Harajuku and Tokyo), five ferrets and two Munchkin cats. But the news opened Hilton up again to ridicule -- the flip side to her Warholian fame for a decade. “Even animals hate Paris Hilton,” blared the headline on one blog.
As sister Nicky Hilton sees it, such vitriol is central to the sisters’ existence in the public eye, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“People love to hate and hate to love us,” Nicky Hilton said.
But as Paris the brand prepares for her entrance into the Great Mall of America, she is all about the love, determined to align herself with the common folk she hopes will buy her CD and drink her canned champagne while dancing at her club. Maybe class things up with a flowing blond Paris wig.
“I’ve always been a humble person,” Hilton said, wiping a long brown cat hair from her lip gloss. “The stupid blond stereotype -- it was cute for a while. But I’m over that now.”