In the wake of the documentary Framing Britney Spears, there was a brief flurry of performative public apologies to Spears from those claiming that, at the time, they did not understand that publicly mocking her breakdown and subsequent conservatorship was wrong. And the recent re-examination of the ways in which the media nearly broke and delighted in the breaking of Spears in the early aughts has had a ripple effect, spurring a spate of new conversation around what apologies might be owed other tabloid fixtures of the time, like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
“I was just shocked when I read [her apology] at first and pleasantly surprised…She was so genuine and so sweet and it really moved me,” Hilton declared on a March 5 podcast in light of Sarah Silverman’s apology for a 2007 joke she made about Hilton’s impending jail time, stemming from a parole violation following her 2006 DUI arrest. The bars of Hilton’s jail cell, Silverman joked, would be painted to “look like penises” in order to make the then-26-year-old feel more comfortable. Later that day, Kardashian issued her own thoughts on her treatment by the press in an Instagram story that contained two sentences about her newfound “empathy” for Spears followed by three long paragraphs congratulating herself for using her own mistreatment by the tabloids as motivation to “get me where I am today.”
But Hilton and Kardashian are foundationally nothing like Spears, a working-class child performer turned teenage pop star for whom the media acted as both a pump and a drain, simultaneously sexualizing her and then blaming her for that sexiness. For a melee of early-2000s California rich kids like Hilton and Kardashian, the press was a ladder to fame in the form of reality television, granting affluent 20-somethings rebellious notoriety simply for being rich and useless, personas they embraced wholeheartedly. Apologizing to those same rich kids two decades later is tantamount to apologizing for buying the product they were, at the time, selling.
An early Guardian profile of 19-year-old Hilton, who had just signed with Donald Trump’s modeling agency, takes place at Hilton’s home, the Waldorf Astoria hotel. “She’s such a bitch,” Hilton tells the interviewer of her 17-year-old sister Nicky, who pops in to retrieve a borrowed necklace. From there, she launches into stories about possibly cheating on her then-boyfriend Edward Furlong with Oscar de la Hoya while Furlong was in rehab and takes subtle jabs at the body sizes of models at recent shoots.
Much of the interview seems like a prototype not only for what would become the bratty public persona that would dominate the tabloids in the coming years but also for the Keeping Up With the Kardashians marketing machine: the sibling rivalry, “momager” Kathy Hilton yelling at Paris to get ready for a fashion show where they have front-row seats, the idea of attending a fashion show as “work.”
Two years after that interview, Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim, the masterminds behind MTV’s early reality television juggernaut The Real World, would give us Paris Hilton and “best friend” Nicole Richie in The Simple Life, which put the famous-for-growing-up-fame-adjacent pair in rural Arkansas, where they acted like assholes to working-class people while underperforming at minimum wage jobs and giggling about how much better it is to be rich than poor.
While the series floundered to find an audience, first on Fox and later on E!, Hilton’s career as a tabloid fixture took off. Simply standing near Hilton at nightclubs like Hyde launched the tabloid careers of other Hollywood rich kids like Brandon Davis, grandson of billionaire Marvin Davis, who is perhaps most famous for TMZ footage of Hilton giggling as Davis called Lindsay Lohan “fire crotch” for paparazzi cameras and made racist comments about Lohan’s then-boyfriend Wilmer Valderrama.
As Hilton and her inner circle became celebrities known mostly for looking at their phones outside nightclubs, reality television shows like Laguna Beach and The Hills focused primarily on the drama of being rich, bored teenagers, and family ensemble reality television like The Osbornes and Gene Simmons Family Jewels focused on the drama of being rich, bored families. These two archetypes became cornerstone programming for networks like MTV and E!, which aired reruns of these and similar series nearly 24 hours a day in the early aughts. Premiering at the tail-end of the popularity of these series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians capitalized on both trends. On one hand, the show focused on Hollywood rich kids: the children of O.J. Simpson lawyer Robert Kardashian (one of whom known for being a friend of Paris Hilton) and Olympic medalist Caitlyn Jenner (one of whom known for appearing on The Hills). On the other, the show focused on the zany day-to-day lives of a whole family of rich people.
The original blueprint for Keeping Up With the Kardashians was The Simple Life and Hilton’s TMZ antics—hating rich people for their shallowness while simultaneously consuming it. And scandals that would have, for better or worse, wrecked careers in which the subjects were famous for more than being wealthy and living in a town full of paparazzi were launchpads for this reality television cohort, and Keeping Up With the Kardashians, while a late addition to the genre, was no different. Just as the unfortunate release of Hilton’s sex tape provided free, if unwanted, publicity for the premiere of The Simple Life, an unauthorized release of a sex tape featuring Hilton pal Kardashian and ’90s superstar Brandy’s less-well-known-but-still-famous brother Ray J, along with a $5 million settlement Kardashian won over that release, provided a perfect springboard for the launch of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Just ahead of the show’s premiere, a little-known Kardashian told Chicago Magazine (from atop a throne beneath a banner that read “Princess Kim”) that “Cleaning up her image was one of the reasons Kim agreed to the reality show when producer Ryan Seacrest approached her. ‘I want people to see what I’m really like.’”
At the time the New York Times pointed out that the newest addition to the genre Hilton built actually seemed to be more like a through-the-looking-glass picture of a family clawing to get famous for being famous: “But the Kardashian show is not about an eccentric family living conventionally; it is purely about some desperate women climbing to the margins of fame, and that feels a lot creepier.”
The creepiest, and most genius, aspect of the series was the family’s knack for embroiling themselves in whatever scandals were getting other celebutantes tabloid coverage, providing just enough attention to earn the family incremental bits of fame by referencing previous, bigger scandals, generally involving Hilton. Kim’s own sex tape called to mind to Hilton’s One Night in Paris scandal, right down to the timing of its release, while younger sister Khloe’s whispered comments to the interviewer about Kim in the Chicago Magazine interview—“Kim is sooo boring”—read like a watered-down version of Hilton’s “She’s such a bitch” from six years earlier.
And when Hilton, Lohan, and Richie all made US Weekly headlines with oddly well-lit, glamorous celebrity mugshots stemming from DUI arrests between 2006-07, Khole’s own DUI mugshot graced the pages of People Magazine in 2008. About a year after Lynwood jail housed Hilton for violating her DUI probation by driving 70 mph in a 35 mph zone, Khloe served three hours of a 30-day sentence for her own DUI parole violation, failing to perform court-ordered roadside cleanup or enroll in a mandated alcohol education course.
“I just was trying to be strong and sit there as the whole audience was laughing,” Hilton said of the ultimately very harmless joke Silverman made about her, a multi-millionaire famous for her bad behavior sitting in the audience of an awards show just a few hours before a brief jail sentence that ultimately had no impact on her career whatsoever except to win her more press coverage. “It was so painful, especially with what I was going through in my life, to then have people be so mean about it.”
Kardashian’s own call for mea culpa in the wake of Hilton getting tabloid attention for the apology came a few hours later, just like old times. “I’m sharing this just to say I really hope everyone involved in the business of shaming and bullying someone to the point of breaking them down might reconsider and instead try to show some understanding and compassion,” Kardashian wrote after pivoting from her empathy to Spears to a much lengthier explanation of feeling insecure as a result of the media feeding frenzy surrounding her pregnancy and weight gain in 2013, six years into her tenure as a reality television star.
While Kardashian was right in pointing out that tabloid coverage of her pregnancy was cruel and unwarranted, attempting to compare her situation as a person whose career was launched by and depends on that tabloid coverage to Britney Spears—a person whose right to vote or drive a car has been stripped permanently by the court system, largely due to unwanted paparazzi documentation of her early-aughts mental breakdown—smacks of the same of old “What About Me-ism” that the Kardashian family has relied on to keep themselves relevant since before they were relevant. The early 2000s rich-kid path to fame was always parasitic, but it was symbiotic parasitism, with both the spoiled children depending on tabloids to get famous and the tabloids depending on the shitty behavior of the spoiled children to peddle content. While the system was deeply, as the Times called it, creepy, it seems pointless for everyone who profited to start apologizing, or demanding apologies, now.