Alexandra Dean’s documentary This Is Paris is the latest attempt to revise the legend of Paris Hilton, this time from a particularly sobering angle. Much of the coverage of the movie, which debuted last week on YouTube, has focused on the abuse and subsequent trauma suffered by its socialite/businesswoman subject Paris Hilton at the Provo Canyon boarding school in Utah during her teens. This is previously undisclosed information that the documentary teases out over much of its 105-minute running time. At various points, she describes being pulled out of her bed and recounts being fed pills without knowing their exact medicinal contents. And then during the movie’s last moments, we see her contribution to an anti-abuse campaign: a snapshot of her holding a poster detailing her trauma and claiming she was verbally, emotionally, and physically abused.
Hilton’s allegations are serious and credible, and the documentary gives space to other survivors of Provo Canyon’s misdoing. The allegations, though, can be both true and not the whole story, both revelatory and handled imperfectly by the filmmaker. This Is Paris’s new information—Hilton’s abuse and subsequent trauma—is treated more as a framing device than a display of catharsis. It is a way of shading in its subject’s biography and of earning its keep. It insists there is more to Hilton than the vapid, entitled blonde character she says she devised for The Simple Life, the reality show that helped shoot the heiress to fame and ceased airing 13 years ago. In the ensuing time, Hilton has had innumerable opportunities to course-correct—including other reality series—but she insists in This Is Paris, in footage shot in 2019, “No one really knows who I am.”
This is Paris: Someone who has suffered, despite what you may have been led to believe, even if it was by its very subject. Dean told Refinery 29 that she believed that Hilton’s initial reasons for participating in the doc were—you guessed it—for her image (“She felt her reputation was kind of lagging behind this reality, which is that she’s a really successful businesswoman and also the number one female DJ in the world”), but that in the process of revealing came to believe that she could help other survivors of boarding-school abuse and, by doing so, stop the nightmares that were plaguing her.
Hilton has claimed altruistic intentions in the doc’s press cycle, and also the image-enhancing potential at hand: “I think it’s just shows that there’s so much more to me. So many people are used to seeing the glitter and the unicorns and the sparkles and the Barbie of it all,” she told Variety. “But when it comes down to it, there’s so much more to that than the girl you see on the red carpets or behind the DJ booth. There’s actually a real human.”
If, after spending two decades as a public figure whose job has often consisted of showing up and existing, Paris Hilton is still misunderstood and dismissed for being a caricature, much of the confusion is her own misleading. Dean, though, seems uninterested in confronting Hilton with the bed she’s made, and instead focuses on the discomfort of lying in it.
The m.o. of This Is Paris is reappraisal—“She let me do this film as a way of kind of answer[ing] the question, ‘Could we so misunderstand a woman today the way we did with Hedy Lamarr?,’” Dean told The Wrap, referring to the Hollywood royalty who was the subject of her previous documentary.
The revisionist goal is especially apparent in the discussion of Hilton’s so-called “sex tape,” which was released in 2004 without her consent. Hilton says the experience was “like being electronically raped,” and recounts the humiliation she felt when the media made her a punchline in response, effectively blaming her for her sex life. “If it were today, that wouldn’t be the story at all, but they made me the bad person, like I did something bad,” she says. Indeed, if it were today, plenty of people would be calling that footage what it actually was: revenge porn.
But the nearly two-hour-long process of reassessing Hilton’s legacy, made me think about how another leaked tape of Hilton’s would be received if it were leaked today. This one, I think, would be judged more harshly and instead of inviting sympathy would almost certainly provoke mass disdain or “cancellation” as the ultra-concerned call it. It depicts Hilton saying the n-word—hard-R, derogatory cultural associations and all. It circulated widely when it leaked in 2007, was discussed in mainstream venues like The View and CNN, and its existence did absolutely nothing to impede Hilton’s career. It seems to be less than an afterthought today.
What makes revisiting this footage difficult is that was also published without Hilton’s consent, as part of a massive batch of archival material (including prescriptions, phone numbers, her fake ID, and nude pics and videos) that was secured from a storage locker whose payment Hilton let lapse. Two and a half years after the June 2004 release of 1 Night in Paris, the “sex tape” featuring Hilton and her ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon, the storage locker haul was posted on a subscription site called ParisExposed.com. For a brief period of time and $39.99 a month, anyone could have access to Hilton’s private world. Hilton sued and the site went down, only to resurface. She eventually settled the case with one of the defendants and withdrew her complaint as it pertained to the remaining defendants.
Scraps of the Paris Exposed footage linger on the internet. Interestingly, or maybe not at all, it’s easier to dig up the site’s sexually explicit material (its revenge porn) than the racist stuff. In the exhaustive write-up of the Exposed leak on the Tumblr site Pop Culture Died in 2009 (link warning: the site contains NSFW pictures of Hilton from the locker), many of the videos that have since been removed from the third-party platforms on which they were posted are those containing the purported racist material. The scrubbing of Hilton’s expressed racism, it seems, began virtually immediately: On February 2, 2007, TMZ ran a post with the headline “Paris the Bigot? Hilton Drop the N-Bomb, F-Bomb.” By February 4, 2007, the date of the earliest available archive of the TMZ page that contained the post, its contents had been removed. Nonetheless, a sweep of the remnants of the remaining 2007-era internet supports many of the claims in the Pop Culture Died in 2009 post.
The video that does still reside on the internet features Hilton and her younger sister Nicky Hilton dancing together, captured in night vision at a house party. As the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” plays, they move with sweeping exaggerated movements. At one point, Hilton approaches the camera and exclaims, “We’re like two niggers!” She resumes dancing with her sister.
Later in the clip, she rants about an apparent fellow party attendee, whom she refers to as a “fuckin’ hoodlum broke, poor bitch from, like, Compton. Public school bitch!” She then immediately refers to a male friend she dances with as a “faggot.”
The Paris Exposed haul also featured footage of what many blogs said was her singing a parody of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” According to multiple blogs, published in February 2007, the lyrics were reportedly along the lines of:
I am a fat ugly Jewish bitch … I’m a little jap-y Jew … I am a little Black whore, I get fucked in the butt for coke … I’m a nigger and I’ll (unintelligible) … I’m black and I steal shit, Yo I’m black and I steal…
The only existing footage of this clip that I could find was of Hilton saying, “I’m a little Black whore, I get fucked in the butt for coke.” (The Smoking Gun reported the “fat ugly Jewish bitch” line, and MollyGood printed the “I’m a nigger...I steal” bit.)
The Talk section of Hilton’s Wikipedia, an ONTD comment, and Pop Culture Died in 2009 all report another clip of Hilton describing something as appearing to have been “fucked by 10 niggers” (“He looks like my ball sack after I fucked like 10 niggers,” says the Wikipedia, though the Tumblr says Hilton is “saying someone looks like her after she’s been ‘fucked by ten niggers.’”) Pop Culture Died in 2009, as well as a post on the Digital Spy forum, also allege that Hilton described an incident with security at a club: “Security grabs me. This black guy and I’m like, ‘Get off me, nigger,’ and he’s like pulling me and I’m screaming...”
In response to the most widely circulated and still-active video, Hilton’s then publicist Elliot Mintz told Page Six, “I’m not going to make any attempt to spin this. It happened. I’m not going to deny it happened. Each of us has used words we have regretted later. This was six years ago. She was 20 at the time. It was New Year’s Eve. She had been obviously drinking. She sincerely regrets using those words. She is not a racist or an anti-Semite.” One could argue that framing racism as not racism is the ultimate spin, but then it also seems as though Mintz wasn’t even trying.
When previously accused of racism, Hilton had all out denied it. In 2004, The New York Daily News’s George Rush and Joanna Molloy in their Rush & Molloy column reported that The Daily Mail’s Carole Aye Maung claimed to have seen a video of Hilton using the n-word in an archive of 12 hours of video that had been making the rounds (this footage is, it seems, different from that which was obtained through her storage unit). The story went:
In a recently surfaced 12-hour videotape, Hilton is shown in a rather disturbing scene with two African-American men who ask her if she would model their fashion line.
Hilton, standing with pal Brandon Davis, is polite to the men, but calls them “dumb niggers” after they leave, according to British reporter Carole Aye Maung, who reviewed the tape.
“Two ... guys begin talking to her,” Maung told us. “She’s being very, very sweet to them. [But] she definitely uses the N-word. It’s so cruel, because they were so lovely, and she was being so lovely to them.”
Hilton’s reps refused to comment when asked about this specific incident on the tape, first uncovered by Star magazine.
This story was repeated, with slightly different details (“Dirty niggers”) in Mark Ebner’s 2009 book, Six Degrees of Paris Hilton. As far as I can tell, that footage never made its way onto the internet. About a week later after the initial report, Hilton responded to the allegation via her flack: “I am deeply hurt by recent reports. Anyone who knows me knows that this is not me. I love everybody and am not a person who discriminates against anyone - ever.” Rush and Molloy pointed out that “Hilton still won’t say whether she used the racist epithet.”
Days later, the National Enquirer reported that Davis, by then her former friend, refuted Hilton’s denial. According to the New York Post, Davis told the Enquirer, “She was forever using the n-word. I told her not to use it. It was offensive. But she just laughed. She is a racist, plus an idiot. Every black person she referred to was a nigger...She uses the word all the time, and I’ve known her all of her life. It’s ‘nigger this’ and ‘nigger that.’ She’s a disgrace. She is a racist!
He continued: “She puts down Jews and other minorities, too. And I’m Jewish. I found it depressing . . . I finally had enough of her attitude six months ago, and I finished with her. I don’t want anything to do with her. I don’t need anything from her. She is no longer my friend. She’s just not a nice person.”
Hilton also denied a 2011 report of a conversation veteran celebrity profiler Neil Strauss alleged he’d had with her in 1999. Strauss, from what my research could tell (he didn’t respond to a request for clarification), never published a profile of Hilton and frames the conversation in his book of interview fragments, Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead, as having occurred when “I ended up in a room with someone I’d never heard of before [Hilton].” It is unclear as to whether Strauss was recording Hilton at the time, and whether the conversation was understood as on the record. The ensuing dialogue, according to Strauss, went in part like this:
Hilton: I went out with that guy last night.
Strauss: Which guy?
Hilton (points to an actor in Saving Private Ryan): We were making out, but then we went somewhere where it was bright and I saw that he was black and made an excuse and left. I can’t stand black guys. I would never touch one. It’s gross. (pauses) Does that guy look black to you?
Strauss: How black does a guy have to be?
Hilton: One percent is enough for me.
Hilton’s spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times in response: “These allegations are absolutely untrue and ridiculous. We have sent these claims to Miss Hilton’s lawyers to respond further. It’s another example of someone making false claims for financial gain.” In a Los Angeles Times profile later that year, Hilton told the paper, “I have never said anything like that in my life. But that’s the hardest thing. People want to make a name for themselves, so they will make up stories and use me in a negative way.” She claimed she had never met Strauss.
It hardly seems “ridiculous” that Hilton would say such a thing, given the hard proof that exists. And then there were the surreptitious recordings of Hilton made in 2012 saying, “Gay guys are the horniest people in the world. They’re disgusting. Dude, most of them probably have AIDS.” Her rep sure spun that one: “Paris Hilton’s comments were to express that it is dangerous for anyone to have unprotected sex that could lead to a life threatening disease.” Additionally, in 2006, a party promoter named Brian Quintana was granted a restraining order against Hilton, alleging that she had referred to him as a “dirty Mexican.”
Hilton also appeared in blackface on a season 4 episode of The Simple Life, at actor Sally Kirkland’s urging and with her then-best friend’s approval (Hilton’s Simple Life co-star, Nicole Richie, is Black).
I’m far from the first person to notice the pass Hilton has received in spite of the irrefutable proof of language that is not merely racist but bespeaks an ingrained white supremacy. It seems that beyond some statements from her publicist, Hilton has never even really contended with this. The New York Times, Vanity Fair, CBS’s Sunday Morning, People, and Variety have all run credulous, softball profiles of the heiress pegged to her documentary, effectively examining the material that Hilton has already highlighted for them. (She and Dean have discussed Hilton’s lack of creative control on This Is Paris, but aside from one justifiable freak out at her ex-boyfriend, it’s a flattering portrait that functions as propaganda as much as it does documentary.) Last week, Hilton’s name trended on Twitter because of a recent video that portrays her dropping her “baby voice” and presenting her “real voice”—this is information she has been sharing since at least 2007 and yet 13 years later, many were receiving it as new. People seem to want to believe there is a “real Paris Hilton” that some external forces have deprived them of, and yet telling video footage of her that’s been in the ether for over a decade has gone ignored.
This Is Paris is a way of saying, “Look here, not there.” And it’s worked. I’ll give her this: The utter audacity of releasing something so invested in reexamining Paris Hilton’s legacy in 2020 is utterly astonishing.
Update: After publishing this post, a reader sent in a video featuring Paris Exposed clips referenced here that have seemingly been scrubbed from the internet. The footage corroborates the following quotes of Hitlon’s: “I’m a fat ugly Jewish bitch...I’m a little JAP-y Jew,” “nutsac on a bad day, after being fucked by 10 niggers,” and “I’m black and I steal.” It also includes a long shot of man that the person presumably holding the camera, whose voice sounds like Hilton’s, calls “the chink.”
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)