This Is Paris: Hilton documentary puts the reality in reality TV

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The first 30 seconds of the YouTube documentary This Is Paris will feel familiar to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the original social media influencer Paris Hilton. In it, Hilton – great-granddaughter of Conrad Hilton, the founder of Hilton Hotels – struts into a recording studio, perfectly poised with multiple pink bags and her tiny dog Diamond in tow. Staring down the microphone, she repeats “This is Paris” and her infamous phrase “That’s hot” until she gets that perfect mix of sex and California vocal fry that entices some and annoys others. She stands tall like a gazelle, possessing the confident demeanour of a pop star.

This act is so natural that it seems utterly unimaginable that Hilton could be anyone other than this. It’s an introduction that seems to indicate we are going to get an insight into how the sausage was made – how she effortlessly changed the landscape of TV, popular culture, digital voyeurism and celebrity. This Is Paris might just be another blindingly shiny PR exercise to get us to resent and be obsessed by her in very equal measure.

In fact, the documentary proves a reckoning for both subject and viewer, an indictment on reality v perception – what famous people choose to show and what ordinary people really want to see. Of the subject herself, we see her like we’ve seen her never before – her light seems dimmer despite the bleach blond hair, piercing eyes and bright, expensive clothes. Behind the obscene wealth she has been afforded, and the wealth she has subsequently created as a not-so-self-made-millionaire, there is an unhappiness to Hilton which she cannot hide. She admits she doesn’t know who she is, as she tearfully – yes, real and genuine tears – expresses how thepersona she has created is a facade. She speaks of childhood traumas previously kept hidden, and the worry, as she surveys internet culture in 2020, that she may have “created a monster”.

Initially, Hilton’s teens seem to be a story of rich teenage rebellion, as seen on shows such as The OC and Gossip Girl. As she drinks and parties, her parents send her to multiple reformatory schools. She runs away from most of them, but it is the last and worst, Provo Canyon school, in Utah, from which she struggles to escape, even today. Hilton alleges that she and other students there were subjected to verbal abuse and “torturing” from staff, and, most harrowing of all, 10-hour stretches in solitary confinement for hiding prescription medicines that the students were forced to take, and which rendered them comatose. There are many details that her mother, and matriarch of the family, Kathy Hilton, doesn’t know about, and it is clear there is a sense of resentment there. Her sister, Nicky Hilton, a private person married to a Rothschild with two children, has had less of a rebellious streak (aside from a 2.30am wedding at a Las Vegas chapel that was swiftly annulled in 2004) and remains Paris’s anchor.

Damage caused by her time at Provo Canyon could go some way to explaining some of Hilton’s behaviours. The need to both control and submit, for one, the latter especially with lovers. It manifests like this: having already established her brand as a socialite on the party scene, she lands one of two starring roles (along with her then best friend Nicole Ritchie, daughter of Lionel) in the game-changing reality TV show The Simple Life in 2003. They comically navigate the blue-collar world by doing manual jobs such as farm work. With quotes such as: “What does that mean, soup kitchen?” and “Do they sell Marc Jacobs or Chanel at this grocery store?”, Hilton’s brand, as a seeringly rich snob, was created. She was in control, spawning the blueprint later used by her former personal assistant, one Kim Kardashian.

But just weeks after the show’s launch, a sex tape with her then, much older boyfriend was leaked. A situation completely out of her control, and one that still visibly upsets her and her family, Hilton claims that she was so in love with this man that she would do anything to make him happy, and that she would not have made such decisions without the trauma she experienced at school.

While I am hooked on the obscene, quasi-glamourous nature of reality TV, the documentary makes incredibly unsettling viewing. While we are aware that structured reality shows only show a small morsel of people’s lives, we use these programmes as an escape from the mundanity of our own existences. But while such series can make us insecure, they also show us what we want to see. And what we don’t want to see is trauma – even if we must.

The message of This is Paris is atonement. Although Hilton states that the story of her abuse “was never part of the brand”, we see one of the most famous people in the world work through her trauma, in part to atone for the impact of the brand she created. If we turn away from her in this moment as a viewer– even if it makes us uncomfortable – are we not to blame for reality stars being seen as mindless? Even when she talks about her trauma, visibly in pain, I notice that for the first time, to me, Paris Hilton seems real. Her eyes don’t pierce or glaze; they seem soft and sad. The vocal fry is replaced with an emotive, deeper voice. This is the real Paris Hilton, and whether we like it or not, this is true reality television.