You could easily label this the decade of the influencer, those YouTube and Instagram stars who make money by selling FaceTuned versions of themselves while hawking face creams, fashion collaborations, protein powder and how-to-improve-your-life seminars. Through their social media posts, they convince thousands or millions of fans and admirers to like what they like and want what they want.
But is all that glitters on the ‘Gram and elsewhere really gold? For answers, I turn to the woman who will likely go down in history for putting the “i” in influencer, and that would be Paris Hilton, the eldest daughter of real estate broker-developer Richard Hilton, and his socialite wife, Kathy.
I visit Hilton at her Beverly Hills home on a quiet, unassuming street last month. Despite having been robbed by the Bling Ring thieves and enduring years of public scrutiny, Hilton, I notice, has left the modern home’s bronze wrought-iron gate wide open, welcoming a revolving door of guests that include a photographer, publicist and large film crew.
Although she was born into the wealthy family behind the Hilton Hotel empire, the 38-year-old became a household name about 15 years ago thanks to her role on one of TV’s first reality shows, “The Simple Life.”
Seated on a metallic couch in her home theater, Hilton is wearing her signature look — one fans have come to know well: a pink velour Juicy Couture jumpsuit with Nike sneakers. Inside the room, there’s a decorative pillow with the words “In Fashion We Trust” and another one that has cherubs covered in sunglasses and tattoos.
Otherwise, the space is barren. It has an emptiness to it. Perhaps that’s because Hilton only spends a handful of days per year in Los Angeles. Or maybe she’s more likely to entertain in her two-story home’s living room, which feels like the lobby of an upscale hotel complete with an image of Marilyn Monroe blowing a bubble by artist Michael Moebius; a Louis Vuitton steamer trunk; large-scale photographs of Hilton; a neon sign that reads: “Life is Beautiful”; and a lineup of colorful gnomes sticking up their middle fingers.
When she’s in town — “which is hardly ever,” she tells me — Hilton mostly stays indoors watching television with her five dogs and two cats. She cooks, paints and creates music in her home recording studio. “Being an Aquarius, I’m creative,” says Hilton, who became known in the 2000s for her sparkly, innately girly fashion — the result of retail therapy, not an image architect.
“I was my own stylist,” she says, explaining she was in the spotlight before the rise of the celebrity stylist and “The Rachel Zoe Project,” which debuted in 2008.
Although Hilton says her “favorite and most iconic pieces” were stolen by the Bling Ring, as depicted in director Sofia Coppola’s 2013 film, she keeps the remainder of her designer goods locked away in storage. “I save a lot of pieces for when I have daughters one day,” she says. “I know that they’ll love them. So I have this whole area for my daughters — where all of that is waiting.”
During our chat, her teacup Chihuahua, Diamond Baby, is perched on her lap. This pint-sized pup fills the void left after Hilton’s beloved dog, Tinkerbell, died in 2015. Tinkerbell was often seen with Hilton and appeared on “The Simple Life.” That show, which arrived long before “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” or any of “The Real Housewives” series, is how millions of viewers got to know Hilton — well, the version of herself that she says she created for the cameras.
Petting her fur baby, Hilton says, “I finally know who I am, and I’ve never been in a better place. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about me.” And now Hollywood’s original influencer wants to clear the air about a few things.
Hilton was an influencer before the occupation had a name. “All my friends who are YouTubers always say, ‘You were the reason why I do this. I learned so much from you,’ ” Hilton says. “Things like that make me feel happy.”
A provocative Vanity Fair article and pictorial by David LaChapelle announced the arrival of Hilton and her then-16-year-old sister, Nicky, in 2000.
“We were teenagers, completely clueless,” Nicky Hilton Rothschild, now 36, later tells me on the phone between appointments for her new capsule shoe collection with French Sole. “Back then, it was so authentic and organic. There were no agents. There were no managers. There was certainly no glam team or stylist. Today everything is so manufactured. Young girls are now running around getting styled head-to-toe to pick up Starbucks.”
At the time, there was also no social media and no opportunity for Hilton to tell her story on her own terms. She was dependent on more traditional means of making a name for herself — print, broadcast and gossip websites. Her reign was long before the #MeToo movement, and it was a time when the slightest misstep — or major blunder — created a headline that wasn’t easy to clear up. It was also an era that provided a blueprint for every aspiring modern-day influencer.
I later reach out to Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies female entrepreneurship in the social-media age. Duffy calls Hilton a “paragon of self-branding.” “There’s a quote from the ’60s. Daniel Boorstin wrote a famous person is ‘known for his [or her] well-knowness,’ and that was Paris Hilton,” says Duffy, author of 2017’s “(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love” (Yale University Press).
“We weren’t quite sure what her celebrity hinged upon, but it hinged upon her self-brand,” she says. “She was engaging in a model of strategic self-promotion before self-branding became something that everyone did. Now we take this for granted. ... She was doing this a decade before the rest of us.”
After Hilton escaped the tabloid spotlight, it was her longtime friend Kim Kardashian West who filled the void as her family members became household names by opening up their lives to the world on TV and online. “Paris, in my eyes, has done a lot for me in my career,” Kardashian West tells me during a media day last month for her new Skims shapewear line. “A lot of people became aware of who I was through my friendship with her.”
Kardashian West says she and Hilton “lost contact for a little bit” after she began filming “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” but that they “would run into each other and reconnect.”
“She was always really supportive and really sweet about it,” Kardashian West says.
Earlier this year, Hilton released new music including the electronic-dance song “Best Friend’s Ass.” The music video for the song featured a cameo by Kardashian West. (Of course, the moment recently appeared on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”)
“When she asked me to be in her video, I was super honored,” Kardashian West says. “I would do anything for her.”
Although “The Simple Life” was billed as reality television when it debuted in 2003, Hilton says she was playing the part of a spoiled New York socialite sent to live on a farm with costar Nicole Richie. It’s her party-girl persona that viewers and fans know well from the gossip pages and blogs.
During the series’ run, Hilton gave the public what she says she thought it wanted, including her catchphrases, “That’s hot” and “Loves it.” When she first signed on, she says she didn’t realize the show would be on the air for five seasons. For years, Hilton says she has felt trapped behind that TV persona.
“I’m a naturally shy person, so it made it easier to be that character because I could hide behind it,” Hilton says in a raspy voice, deeper than the one fans might expect. “I was stuck playing that character and talking in that baby voice and being that image.”
Hilton says there’s much more to her. “I want to inspire people in the right way and I think that certain things that have happened in my life …” Hilton trails off.
“I just want people to know the real me,” she says.
She’s all business
In an effort to be understood, Hilton participated in Netflix’s 2018 documentary “The American Meme,” which was directed by her longtime childhood friend Bert Marcus. The social-media-focused film, which Hilton helped produce, addresses her infamous 2003 sex tape, which an ex-boyfriend released, without her consent, when she was in her 20s.
“It’s not something that I would ever want to be known for,” she tells me.
A shaming public narrative followed, something that wouldn’t likely fly in today’s #MeToo era. “Thank God,” Hilton says. “Back then, people were acting like I was the bad person or the villain … Today, if that happened, whoever did that to the person would be [vilified].”
In the documentary, Hilton says the scandal led her to contemplate suicide and fear leaving her house. However, one of the most-striking moments is when she says, “I would never be who I could have been.”
I ask her about her words. “As a little girl, I always looked up to Princess Diana and women like that who I respected so much,” Hilton says. “And I felt that when that man put out that tape, it basically took that away from me because, for the rest of my life, people are going to judge me and think of me in a certain way just because of a private moment with someone that [I] trusted and loved.”
Since completing “The American Meme,” Hilton has been filming her own untitled documentary, which will be released in early 2020 on YouTube as part of its new original-series slate.
“I now feel comfortable enough with myself to tell my story. I wasn’t really before,” says Hilton, adding that she tried taking the high road when it came to public narratives about her. “My mom and my dad always told me, ‘Never dignify something with a response.’ Back then, there was no social media. So I couldn’t just go on there [and set the record straight] … I never stuck up for myself or said anything because my parents said, ‘You’re just going to draw more attention to something. Even if it’s a lie, just don’t pay attention to it. Your family and your friends know the real you.’ ”
Although it appeared that she retreated from the public eye after “The Simple Life,” Hilton was focused on building her own brand and doing charity work. In addition to donating to the construction of the cancer wing at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles in 2008, Hilton has also spent time volunteering at the hospital and with the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. According to Vanity Fair, she donated $350,000 and merchandise and visited the victims of the 2017 earthquake in the San Gregorio section of Xochimilco, Mexico City. Also, Hilton says, she donates her time and resources to a homeless shelter on skid row in downtown L.A.
“During Christmas, I’ll wear a Santa outfit and bring toys and spend time with the kids,” she says. “One of the reasons that God sent me here is to make people smile and make people happy.”
While promoting her latest fragrance, Electrify, in October, Hilton visited terminally ill children at the Dr. Sonrisas Foundation in Mexico City. “There’s no feeling like the feeling of seeing someone light up,” she says. “Their parents will say, ‘She’s literally not gotten out of bed or not smiled this long. My kid is actually standing up and walking. You are an angel.’ To hear that and see that and have that effect on someone? It’s a magical feeling. You can’t buy that feeling.”
But she isn’t Mother Teresa. Hilton is as complicated as the rest of us. Although she grew up doing charity fashion shows with her mother, Hilton became more involved with nonprofit work as an adult after running into trouble with the law in her mid-20s. (Hilton notoriously did a quick stint in jail in 2007 after violating her probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving incident.)
Hilton insists she’s evolved, but one thing that’s remained is her sense of optimism. According to her sister, Hilton Rothschild, “Paris is like a big kid … We always joked about how I’m the older sister because I was always the voice of reason and protective of her. We still have that relationship.”
When it comes to her brand, Hilton has been designing a fashion and beauty empire abroad during the last 20 years. She has 45 branded stores in the Middle East and Asia. Also, Hilton was among the first to sign a licensing deal with global agency Beanstalk. It began with one fragrance, Paris Hilton for Women. The perfume collection has swelled to 25 and is said to have grossed $2.5 billion, according to Hilton.
Hilton also has 19 product lines including clothing, handbags, shoes, sunglasses, lingerie, swimwear and watches. And she has a skin-care line, ProD.N.A., with eye creams, cleansing gels and serums (ranging from $29 to $208) at prodnaskincare.com.
“I didn’t want to just be known as the Hilton Hotel granddaughter,” says Hilton, who also calls herself “a huge tech geek.” She’s an investor in Roxi, an app that can be used in lieu of a party planner. She discovered the company while planning her birthday party last year. She’s also an investor in the Glam App, which she calls “the Uber of beauty services.”
Hilton is also planning to open a slew of new boutiques hotels and clubs around the world. She licensed her name and is credited with the interior design of the Paris Beach Club at the Azure, a community of luxury-resort residences in the Philippines. She attended the official opening in 2014.
“I love following in my family’s footsteps in my own way,” Hilton says. “I’ve always looked up to my grandfather and my father as businessmen.”
Her grandfather, hotelier Barron Hilton, died of natural causes at 91 in September. “When I was with him, like two days before he passed,” she says, “I was talking with him about what an inspiration he’s been to me and that I wouldn’t be the businesswoman I am today if it hadn’t been for them instilling that work ethic in me.”
In addition to her fashion and tech ventures, Hilton is also a music artist and one of the highest-paid female DJs in the world. “I’ve parlayed my party image into a huge, lucrative business,” says Hilton, who commands upwards of $500,000 to $1,000,000 for a four-hour gig. (In 2014, she landed a five-year summer residency as a DJ at Amnesia in Ibiza.)
“She was pretty much the first celebrity to get paid to go to an event,” Hilton Rothschild says. “Once she saw that that trend was fading out and all of the venues were putting their budgets into DJs, then she became the DJ. It’s pretty smart if you ask me.”
Finding her groove
In the future, Hilton hopes to travel less. “It’s a lot,” she says, adding that she has spent the last 20 years flying around the world 250 days a year. Hilton laments the fact that she’s never had time to explore because her schedule is so packed. “I mostly just see hotel rooms,” she says. “Any time I’m somewhere it’s because I’m working.”
Hilton Rothschild says her sister is “allergic to relaxing,” but Hilton says she is taking time off to spend Christmas in Los Angeles. Then the whole Hilton family will meet in West Palm Beach, Fla. “I guess because everyone’s, like, grown up now,” Hilton says. “Nicky has her two daughters, and my brother’s wife is six months pregnant. So we’re going somewhere chill.”
After calling off an engagement to “The Leftovers” actor Chris Zylka last year, Hilton is single. “I’ve been spending time with my girlfriends,” she says. “I’ve never been single in my life. I’ve always been with my boyfriend and didn’t get to have girl time.”
She’s also spent the last year soul searching. “I’m getting to know myself better and am becoming more confident,” she tells me. “I’ve always been such a people pleaser — always saying ‘Yes’ to everything and I’ve [recently] learned the power of ‘No.’ When you let people in and you’re nice, you’re going to attract certain people who don’t have the right intentions or just want to use you. So I’ve learned to make my circle of people I trust smaller instead of trusting and letting everybody in. I just don’t let that type of negative energy around me anymore. It’s toxic. I only want good people around me who have big hearts who love me for me.”