Paris Hilton Is (Almost) Ready to Get Real
By Alex Morris,2023-03-14
The cerulean sky over Beverly Hills is silvering its way toward nightfall when I find myself trapped at Paris Hilton’s. The photographer and crew have packed up and left with their sundry equipment. The stylists have packed up and left with countless lumpy bags and a large box they’d struggled to fit in their car. The landscapers have packed up and left in a white truck laden with an alarming amount of foliage. Even the helicopters overhead have stopped their mosquito whine. A hush has fallen over Hilton’s stately driveway (where her pink Bentley sits with a flat tire) and over her Italianate mansion (where a neon-pink glow emanates from one entire wing). And here I am, shaking the curlicues of an elaborate wrought-iron gate that had been wide open earlier and wondering how the hell to get out of this gilded paradise.
It is, admittedly, not a bad place to be stuck , I think to myself as I wander the grounds looking for an alternate means of egress. There are palm trees of biblical proportions and a multitiered fountain. There are potted plants and cherubic statues. There is an entrance as imposing as the Vatican’s, save for a neon-rainbow welcome mat and a grand, columned foyer in which stands a life-size, stuffed alpaca (a gift from the Kardashians, as it turns out). Down a soaring hallway, there is a well-appointed family room of sorts, if family rooms typically boasted neon signs of the Chanel logo and studded Versace pillows and a smudge stick resting on an ashtray emblazoned with the words “You’re Fucking Awesome.” And in that very room, just moments ago, there was Hilton herself, nestled into a corner of the creamy couch, cozy in a hot-pink tracksuit and rainbow socks, and talking about her newish husband and her new baby and her even newer book, Paris: The Memoir, which, she later tells me, she wrote because she “suppressed so much” and found that “opening up was just so healing.” And because she knows what you might think when you hear the words “Paris Hilton,” and, truth be told, she was “so over that narrative.”
Plus, the narrative doesn’t even track. Now she’s a wife. Now she’s a mom. Now, on this day in late February, she has a one-month-old baby boy, Phoenix Barron Hilton-Reum, who is not just named for a city, like his mother, but also for a mythical creature that rises from the ashes. Now, she and her husband, venture capitalist Carter Reum, have successfully pulled off one of the most impressive moves in the history of celebrity by keeping their baby’s entire existence a secret until a full week after he was born. The Hiltons didn’t even know. The Reums didn’t even know. The only people who knew were the medical team and the surrogate, who watched episodes of The Simple Life while pregnant so that the fetus would get used to the sound of his mother’s voice. Hilton had thrown on a brunette wig when they got the news that Phoenix was arriving a week and a half early, and the couple rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital, where they cried as they witnessed their baby being born. He’d been so healthy, they’d taken him home that very night, dispensing with staff (save for a baby nurse) and hunkering down in their mansion in awe at what they’d accomplished. “It was just like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m a mom,’” says Hilton. “My life has just been so public, my whole life has been, just, invaded; I felt like, for my baby, I just wanted him to come into the world and just be here and not have all this weird…” she trails off, not even sure how to articulate what “this” is, or the extent of its weirdness.
“I had just been so abused that I didn’t even know who I was anymore,” she tells me. “I just was like, ‘Who am I? And what is life?’ ”
Then the moment gets meta: One of the most photographed women in the world — who in fact had just come from a photo shoot that was itself documented by a film crew for the second season of her reality show Paris in Love — begins scrolling through her phone for a picture of her own literal creation. She lands on the image, holding out the device to proudly show the tiny little features of a tiny little human under a tiny little hat. “This is when he was three hours old,” she says. “He was so freaking cute. He came out camera-ready.” She says this and then laughs at the ridiculousness of the statement, the Paris Hilton–ness of it. But then also: Look at him. He really did!
Reum, a boyish and buoyant Midwesterner in navy sweats, lopes into the room to check on his wife. “Oh, you got the preview!” he says to me excitedly when he sees the picture of Phoenix. Hardly anyone has yet seen the actual baby, though a few days ago at Hilton’s birthday party — a small gathering that included Sia, Rebel Wilson, and Hilton’s sister, Nicky — some friends had crept upstairs to take a peek.
“He’s very intuitive,” says Hilton of her baby.
“Very attentive,” says Reum, beaming.
“So chill. Does not cry.”
“The doctor said all this stuff. He’s like, ‘Your baby is very smart.’ ” Reum raises an eyebrow. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if you can tell that.’ ”
“But I really think he is!”
“I believe he might be as well.”
“Just the way he’s always focusing,” Hilton says. “His eyes are just always focused on me.”
THERE WAS A point in time, of course, when the same could be said for basically the entire world, when the great-granddaughter of the guy who founded the Hilton hotel chain was so hounded by paparazzi that she heard the clicks of cameras when they weren’t even there. In both 2006 and 2008, she was the most Googled person on the planet, a slinky celebutante who’d grown up between Bel Air and New York’s Waldorf Astoria, who’d been kicked out of multiple tony private schools, and whose bicoastal command of the party scene was front-page news.
Even back then, though, Paris Hilton was telling us that she was not “Paris Hilton.” The high-low look, the knock-kneed pose, the baby voice — it was clear she was playing into a cartoon fantasy. But somehow, the idea of Hilton as more than a ditzy Day-Glo Barbie never quite took, even as she built a multibillion-dollar beauty-and-fashion empire, became the earliest of adopters to any potentially fortune-making development in tech (crypto, NFTs, AI, the metaverse), and transitioned from being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to show up at a party to being the person who brought the party as a DJ commanding upward of a million dollars per show.
It wasn’t until the release of her 2020 documentary, This Is Paris, that a revisionist version of Hilton began to emerge, coinciding with a moment in which most people with vaginas and many without were experiencing a collective reckoning of the supremely dickish way Y2K society had treated young, female celebrities (see also: Spears, Britney; Lohan, Lindsay). For the first time, publicly or privately, Hilton spoke out about spending almost two years at a series of troubled-teen “treatment centers” and about how the experience had left her traumatized and hollowed. “I had just been so abused that I didn’t even know who I was anymore,” she tells me. “I just was like, ‘Who am I? And what is life?’ ” Under those circumstances, why not take on whatever persona that particular era had wanted to project on her?
The revelations in This Is Paris transformed “Paris Hilton” (object) into Paris Hilton (subject). And like any good innovator, Hilton has spent the past few years iterating on these developments. She’s repeatedly shown up in Washington, D.C., to advocate for laws regulating the interventions that can be used at behavioral-therapy “schools.” She’s admitted, as she does to me, that “before, my life was this superficial thing that I really wasn’t inside.” She’s explained that speaking her truth changed that and primed her to find a relationship built on full disclosure. And she’s broadcast all this in Paris in Love, a Peacock series that followed Hilton down the aisle in Season One and that she maintains is almost entirely unscripted. In other words, she has used her burgeoning authenticity to expand her brand and also, somehow, her actual life and family.
Paris: The Memoir digs further into the details, outlining the abuse Hilton suffered between the ages of 16 and 18 at four for-profit “children’s torture camps,” as she calls them, where parents sent their supposedly wayward offspring (at 16, Hilton was already making the most of Manhattan nightlife). There, she tells me, staff would “get off on being able to abuse children” and “break us down” in ways so damaging that “no one believes the kids because it sounds insane when you say it out loud.” She writes of being strangled, beaten, and starved; being stripped and put into solitary confinement; being awakened in the night and taken to a room where she was strapped down and given a “gynecological exam” as heckling staff looked on; being forced to take mystery pills that made her loopy; being kept inside one building for 11 months straight; being told that she was unloved and unlovable; and being aware that one means of escape would be to die. “I didn’t try,” she says, alluding to suicide. “I was just, in my mind, like, ‘I would rather be dead than be here.’ It was that brutal.”
The memoir also reveals how Hilton was groomed by an eighth-grade teacher and roofied and raped by a guy she met at the mall at age 15 (“He clamped down on my face and whispered: ‘It’s a dream. It’s a dream. You’re dreaming’ ”). It shares how she locked herself in a bathroom stall to escape the advances of Harvey Weinstein at 19. It sketches out the details of the abortion she had at 22. It discusses how she considered herself asexual during a time when she may have been the most sexualized woman on the planet (“I feared sex. I hated the idea of sex. I avoided sex until it was absolutely unavoidable”), how she equated abuse with love (“For a long time, I thought that if someone got so jealous they threw a phone at your head or grabbed you and shook you till your neck bones rattled — well, that must mean they reeeeeeally loved you, right?”), and how she coped with all of this by drinking herself silly and keeping herself so busy that there was never any time to think. Naturally, mistakes were made during this time. It’s no secret that she said some racist and classist and homophobic and bratty things, that she landed herself in jail and sometimes seemed to be simply imploding. She has couched that behavior, in retrospect and in past interviews, as a response to trauma. Today, as we discuss those days, she points out, “Back then no one was talking about mental health. Except for people [being] like, ‘Oh, you’re mental.’ ”
The backstory is so much to take in that by the time we’re sitting in Hilton’s living room, one is inclined to grant her the fairy-tale ending she seems to have been able to conjure, and that is even announced by the words on the neon sign in one corner: “Happily Ever After.” The bubble is only slightly burst when someone enters the room to remind Hilton that she has some Today show something-or-other call to make. “Everyone just tells me what I’m doing every day,” Hilton says, shrugging.
As Reum walks me out, he urges me to pet the stuffed alpaca, which he calls a “stress animal.” “Give it a proper hug,” he advises. So I do. I don’t know if it’s real or not, but it doesn’t matter. It feels amazing.
THE NEXT DAY, I meet Hilton in a cork-wrapped room at the studio where she is recording the audio version of Paris: The Memoir. The book is explicitly structured to mimic Hilton’s ADHD, allowing anecdotes about skydiving or camping out in Ibiza or partying with her famous friends to pop up and provide comic or other relief. Still, reading it out loud day after day has been … a lot, even for the engineers recording it. “I was like, ‘Sorry guys. It’s kind of a crazy story,’ ” she says, laughing. “And they’re like, ‘Yeah, when we heard we were doing a Paris Hilton book, this is definitely not what we were expecting.’ ”
In a lot of ways, Hilton is not quite what one would expect either, especially not today, in a black tracksuit and baseball cap, with an unmade face and her hair stuffed haphazardly through a rubber band at the nape of her long neck. Again, she’s in sock feet, which she draws up under her on a small sofa in one corner of the darkened studio (“I feel like a smurf,” she says of the moody blue lighting). Most striking is the lack of any sort of overt performance of femininity; she projects a physical stillness that makes me aware of my own performance of gender — the way I move my hands, how my voice rises when I laugh. In the book, she writes about coming to the realization that she is a performance artist, and that her body is her medium. For years, there was a safety to the performance, she tells me: “It was like, ‘I’m acting, and they can talk and make fun of that character or do whatever. It’s not me. It’s me, playing something else.’ I think it didn’t hurt me as much,” she says of society’s approbation. “Because I was like, ‘Honey, I’m laughing all the way to the bank. Come on.’ ”
The first time Hilton told anyone — and this includes her family — about what had happened to her at the youth treatment centers, she was on camera for This Is Paris, bleary-eyed with jet lag, unable to sleep, and surprised with the words that were coming out of her mouth as director Alexandra Dean sat on her hotel bed with a handheld camera. She immediately told Dean that what she’d said could not be in the film. “But the next day she came to me with all this research showing me that hundreds of thousands of kids are being sent to these places every year. And my mind was blown. I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is still happening two decades later.’ ” She realized that speaking up could possibly stop it from happening in the future.
And it has. Hilton’s advocacy has since changed the laws in eight states. Plus, she says, as counterintuitive as it may be, there are personal advantages to working out one’s trauma in public, with a camera rolling. “They were just such hard subjects to talk about in the beginning that it kind of made it more comfortable that other people were there, maybe,” she says. Speaking with her family about what she’d been through, as she does throughout Paris in Love, she’d been able to frame the conversations as a choice by producers. “It’s kind of like, ‘They told me to ask you — it’s not me,’ ” she says of raising the topics. She pulls her hair out of the rubber band and then hastily ties it back again. “The only therapy that I’ve had,” she says, “is literally this book and the movie.”
But here’s the thing: It’s worked. As bad as things were in the past, she wants me to understand that so many parts of her life are so beautiful now in the present. Tonight she’ll go home and lie with Phoenix on her chest and just look at him looking at her. She’ll have a bubble bath with Reum. In the morning, perhaps they’ll walk their dogs around their beautiful grounds and ride their electric bikes around their beautiful gated community. She can still go out and about with a little subterfuge (“I like going to the Melrose Flea Market in disguise and buying all these random things”). Just a few nights ago, she had dinner with Nicole Richie (“like, a double date, which is fun; we live two minutes away”). And — imagine! — she recently skipped out on DJ’ing for President Biden and other heads of state to attend Britney Spears’ wedding (“she’s already been through so much, so I only like to talk about happy things with her, fun things, clothes and music and puppies”). She’s working on her deepfake and on her virtual reality Paris World with the goal, she tells me, of extending her likeness into the metaverse “so I can be at home and a mom but still do [things].” (She just completed the first-ever fragrance signing in the metaverse; a million people attended.) She’s releasing her 30th perfume and working on a new album, combing through the 200 songs that have been sent to her from friends like Miley Cyrus and Meghan Trainor. After hearing Justin Bieber’s “Lonely,” she DM’d Benny Blanco to say how much she related to it and what a dream it would be to make music with him, so now — guess what? — she is. This, in other words, is the life of a real person, having a real and amazing human experience that’s only gotten more real and amazing the more she’s packaged its reality for us.
Take, for instance, how she introduced her mom to Phoenix, inviting Kathy Hilton over as if it were any regular day, then presenting her with both a blue Chanel bag — “I was like, if I give her Chanel first, maybe she won’t be so upset that I didn’t tell her about this” — and with the grandson who, until that moment, Kathy had no idea existed. “I was holding the baby on my shoulder with a blanket over him, and then I just sat down. She’s like, ‘What is that?’ And I was like, ‘A baby … meet your grandson.’ She’s like, ‘Is this yours?’ And she starts crying. She’s like, ‘Let me hold him. He’s the most beautiful baby I’ve ever seen in my life. Oh, he’s so beautiful.’ She was just in tears.”
It was such a real moment, full of real emotion. And, amazingly, all this realness — in a twist that would feel surreal to 99.999999 percent of people on Earth — was captured by the cameras of Paris in Love.
Before I leave the studio, I tell Hilton about getting trapped on her grounds — wandering around her estate like some wayward member of the Bling Ring until an assistant helped me find the button to push that would let me out. I tell her that it made me wonder if she also sometimes felt trapped, pinned between a person and a persona, between a public life and a private one, constantly teasing out where an experience should be filed. But she wants me to know that it’s not like that, not exactly, not anymore. She feels vindicated now; she feels purpose. She finally has control over her own narrative, and she means that literally. “I’m the producer of the show,” she says. “We have editing approval.” If she lives in a construct — and who doesn’t? — it’s now one of her own making. To think of her as trapped would be to filter her life through my reality, not hers, and to rob Paris Hilton of her agency. “Now people finally are understanding me, and I just have this respect in a way that I’ve never felt before,” she says. This is real to her. And it feels amazing.
Hair by Eduardo Ponce . Makeup by Steven Tabimba . Styling by Sammy K for the Only Agency . Photographic assistance
by Byron Nickleberry and Dom Ellis . Styling assistance by Marissa Pelly , Kiona Vickroy , and Rebecca Mikelstein .