Paris Hilton was the original influencer. Now a new documentary lets viewers see past the facade
Before there were influencers, there was Paris Hilton. The original reality television star was one of the first to build a public persona in the way so many people do online today.
In a new documentary, Hilton expresses some regret about “being stuck with a character.” “It would be an expensive divorce,” she says onscreen of the risks of abandoning the “rich, dumb blonde” act that made her famous.
The Hilton Hotels heiress, who defined early reality TV on The Simple Life and even, some say, invented the current iteration of the selfie, tells a deeper version of her life story in This Is Paris, a YouTube Originals documentary airing later this month. While Hilton now disavows some of the more negative comments she made to the film’s director Alexandra Dean—”I was at a different point in my life. I wasn’t really happy,” she tells Fortune of her earlier skepticism of her legacy. “Now I’m in a completely different place. I’m excited for the next phase in my brand.”—the movie’s message as a whole is one she is determined to spread far and wide.
The film chronicles Hilton’s life, including darker chapters that she hasn’t yet discussed during her two decades in the public eye. When she was a teenager, Hilton says, she spent 11 months at Provo Canyon School, a “behavior modification school,” where she says she suffered emotional and physical abuse. Hilton has joined other women who attended the school and similar establishments as teenagers in the #BreakingCodeSilence movement, an effort to reveal abuses at the institutions that make up what they call the “troubled teen industry.”
“My ultimate goal is to shut these places down,” Hilton says, adding that she believes it’s an aim that’s within reach. Provo Canyon School didn’t respond to a request for comment from Fortune, but has added a statement at the top of its website: “We are aware of a new documentary referencing Provo Canyon School. Please note that PCS was sold by its previous ownership in August 2000. We therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time. We are committed to providing high-quality care to youth with special, and often complex, emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs.”
This period in Hilton’s life continues to shape who she is today; in the documentary, she frequently mentions how her ultimate goal is to earn $1 billion—a fixation she says is influenced by a need for control she developed after attending the institution as a teenager.
To reach that goal, Hilton is continuing her flagship ventures in the beauty and travel industries, launching her 27th fragrance in 17 years, creating her first makeup line, expanding her audience through TikTok—she “definitely [doesn’t] want it to be banned”—and adapting to a COVID-era lifestyle in which she no longer travels 250 days a year.
Hilton says that she’s been successful in these industries (even her own hotel properties abroad are doing well enough through the pandemic, serving as residential housing rather than destinations for short-term stays, she says) thanks to “having that relationship” with her fan base. “I’ve seen a lot of people come and go,” she says of celebrity forays into fragrance, the industry in which she’s seen the most success. “It’s a difficult business to sustain.
“You’re selling the dream, the lifestyle; that’s what it’s really about,” Hilton says of her own fragrance empire. With This Is Paris, the perfection of that dream may crack a little—but not entirely.
To other entrepreneurs, Hilton offers this advice: Build your brand—one you could be “stuck with” as she said onscreen—around something that matters to you. “It’s important to know everything you’re building online is going to be out there forever. It’s important that you delve into exactly what you’re passionate about.”