Paris Hilton has spent 20 years playing Paris Hilton, and we’re still captivated

Paris Hilton has spent 20 years playing Paris Hilton, and we’re still captivated
Over the course of her fame, the Hilton hotel heiress has been a reality star, mogul, a pop singer, an actor and now, courtesy of a new Netflix show, a TV chef. Most importantly, though, she has always been living performance art, writes Adam White

In the opening scene of Paris Hilton’s new Netflix cooking show, titled – because duh – Cooking with Paris, the heiress, icon and professional personality floats into an American supermarket in a pink ball gown and diamond-encrusted mask. Surrounded by average Joes pushing their trolleys in lounge-wear and crocs, Hilton looks like an escapee from the Met Gala – if its theme was Mattel toys.

The skit is replicated in every episode of the show, Hilton doing her shopping dressed as a cowgirl, as Audrey Hepburn, or as Patty Duke in Valley of the Dolls. The world is Hilton’s dressing-up box, the show seems to say, and she can be anything and everything that she wants to be. More than 20 years into her fame, however, and Hilton’s greatest character remains Paris Hilton.

Cooking with Paris confirms its star as the Jason Voorhees of pop culture. Just when you think she’s been knocked down, or doomed to a career as a talking-head in documentaries about the Noughties, she rises again, and is somehow more powerful than ever before. It also understands her appeal: Hilton is bright and shiny and larger-than-life, a living wink at the camera as she plays up her own luxe ignorance for comic effect.

The show’s simple premise – Hilton makes things in her kitchen with different celebrity guests – conceals the fact that Hilton seems hilariously perplexed by her surroundings. As she asks friend and episode-one kitchen buddy Kim Kardashian what a tong is, and struggles to identify chives, Hilton maintains the illusion of dim-bulb vapidity that has always made her such a pleasurable comic creation. In that sense, Cooking with Paris is a throwback to The Simple Life, the pioneering 2003 reality show that turned a 22-year-old Hilton and fellow rich-girl tabloid fixture Nicole Richie into household names. As the pair attempted to work real jobs – at fast food restaurants, farms and funeral homes – Hilton would ponder if Walmart exclusively sold actual walls, and try to explain what a laundrette is based on one she saw in a Josh Hartnett movie. Only now, though, do we know that she’s always played dumb for everyone watching her.

Last year, upon the release of a YouTube documentary series about her life and career, Hilton admitted that much of what we thought we knew about her was untrue. “I’m not a dumb blonde,” she told Vogue. “I’m just really good at pretending to be one … I felt like I was this kind of fantasy, Barbie-princess, fairy-mermaid unicorn.” She would always “play into” the character, she added. “But also I think the media would just use that and treat me like … a punching bag. A lot of people felt they could just be mean to me and say anything.”

What seemed to upset people the most is that Hilton constantly survived the experiences and career pivots that, based on pop-culture history, should have destroyed her. She was in a sex tape that was sold against her will, but The Simple Life piggy-backed onto the scandal and premiered, to enormous ratings, a month after its release. She is unbearably wooden in the 2005 slasher movie House of Wax – she played a doomed blonde who takes off her clothes and then gets a pole through the head – but Hilton circumvented the jokes by promoting it with merchandise reading “See Paris Die May 6!” Her pivots into perfumery, personalised retail spaces and DJing were all met with giggles – yet her fragrances have netted $2.5bn in sales, she has 45 official shops in the Middle East and Asia, and she’s reportedly the highest-paid woman DJ in the world, earning up to a $1m per set.

She also released one of the best pop albums of the Noughties despite not being able to sing a note. Hilton’s first and only record, titled Paris, is a further pastiche of the Paris Hilton character. Buried beneath reverb and an abundance of background vocalists frantically shuffled to the foreground, Hilton gestures towards her personal dramas (the Greek shipping heirs she always seemed to date, the high-profile friendships with Kardashian and Richie that seemed to come and go and then come again) and coos her catchphrases (“[Moan]… yah… that’s hot… yah,” she whispers in the opening seconds of “Turn It Up”). There are goofy throwbacks (the Grease-sampling “I Want You”), a strained cover of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” because why not, and at least one bona fide classic in the form of “Stars Are Blind”, the breezy single reappraised this year courtesy of a scene in Promising Young Woman.

Hilton’s move into music was, like so much of her career, mocked and undermined before it had even begun. One bizarre incident occurred in Bristol, where artist Banksy replaced hundreds of copies of Paris with doctored versions bearing airbrushed topless photos and notes reading “Race to the bottom of the pile!”, “What am I for?” and “Why am I famous?” Today, the doctored CDs are worth around £6,000 each, but the stunt also bears the stench of an old man yelling at a cloud. Hilton’s fame always did make sense. She was outrageous, funny and candid, while her tabloid-feeding dramas – unlike so many of her contemporaries – never seemed underpinned by the kind of darkness that made you feel guilty for looking.

Cooking with Paris trailer

Perhaps it’s the Paris Hilton “persona” that gets to the root of it. From the years she was endlessly photographed on the New York club scene as a young debutante living off the Hilton family buttresses, to the serene celebrity elder she embodies today, Hilton has morphed into a number of different guises: the party girl, the actor, the pop star, the mogul. Now, I guess, the TV chef. But her actual identity has always been kept at a distance. Despite the perception that we’ve seen and heard everything there is to know about Hilton, much of it has been curated for our consumption, or enhanced for the needs of entertainment.

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It’s not particularly strange, then, that Hilton’s glamorous Los Angeles mansion – in which Cooking with Paris is apparently filmed – is decorated with portraits of her own face. Because, truthfully, it’s not really her. There is Paris Hilton, and then there is “Paris Hilton”. The latter is a caricature and a cartoon, a figure of cheeky aspiration or somebody Jennifer Coolidge might play in a movie. The former just cashes the cheques. Sometimes she even slips out: note how that trademark Paris Hilton “voice”, with its sexy-baby vocal fry, occasionally shifts into a far huskier deadpan when she isn’t paying attention. It’s a bit like spotting a zebra on safari, or a magician getting a card trick wrong. There’s Hilton at work right there, giving her audience exactly what it wants.

You leave Cooking with Paris not knowing if Hilton can really cook, whether she has actual friends, or if she truly doesn’t know what a dishwasher is. It’s absolutely deliberate.

‘Cooking with Paris’ begins on 4 August on Netflix


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