I’m in a conference room in Midtown, Manhattan. It’s late afternoon, and the people nestled in the cubicles outside are starting to yawn, stretch, and launch into their end-of-day routines.
Sitting in the swivel chair across from me is Paris Hilton. And she is not tired.
“My schedule is insane,” Paris Hilton says. She’s wearing a black suit jacket, and scratching the head of a dog so small it could be a chocolate-covered Twinkie. A Bond villain with fake eyelashes.
“I’m constantly traveling. I have 19 product lines. I just released my 24th fragrance. I’m working on a new show, and producing films. A second album and a third book … ”
She trails off.
“Like, I don’t stop.”
We’re at the New York headquarters of Paris Hilton’s perfume dynasty, and that’s no hyperbole: At two dozen fragrances deep, she’s got one of the most successful celebrity fragrance lines of all time, reportedly falling only behind Elizabeth Taylor in sales. There’s an ever-so-slight rasp in her voice — she’s been doing promotional overtime for the just-released “Platinum Rush,” squeezing it in between publicity for The American Meme, a new Netflix documentary she stars in and executive produces, a new nail polish collection, and a new “virtual reality experience” that lets anyone with a VR headset travel, party, and shop like a member of her entourage.
Paris Hilton is really good at assimilating to the people around her — fans, paparazzi, reporters who buy everything secondhand and don’t own a single bottle of perfume (I mistakenly call Chanel No. 5, probably the most famous fragrance ever, “Chanel No. 9,” and she doesn’t even correct me). But when I ask her why she needs 24 different perfumes with her name on the bottle (“Why not have just, like, one signature scent?”) it takes a moment for the question to register. Then a wave of comprehension washes over Paris Hilton’s face, and she throws her head back and laughs a deep, true, guttural laugh.
“I couldn’t just have one,” she says. “The fans want more, so we have to meet their demands. I might have 100 one day.”
It’s easy to roll your eyes at Paris Hilton’s take on Serious Business Woman.™ This is, after all, a woman who was born into unconscionable wealth, and rocketed to fame after her reality show, The Simple Life, made her maybe the most saturated tabloid star in history. A woman who famously installed a stripper pole in her own home. Who’s been photographed in literally every highlighter-bright tracksuit that Juicy Couture makes.
And yet, she’s also managed to create one of the savviest global brands around, and a career that defies everything reality TV stars are “supposed” to be once we forget about them.
Since launching in 2004, Paris Hilton’s perfumes have sold more than $2 billion, according to an industry source. That’s just a fraction of her business endeavors — a purview that touches nearly every retail sector, a burgeoning real estate portfolio, and a bizarrely successful DJ side hustle (she reportedly earns up to $1 million a set, making her one of the best-paid DJs in the world).
Unlike most powerful people in the business world, Paris Hilton isn’t at the mercy of shareholders, or market fluctuations. She’s beholden to her own celebrity, and whatever happens to be on-trend at any given moment.
But luckily, Paris Hilton is malleable.
Growing up, Paris spent a lot of time in the same sort of mundane office setting I met her in.
Her dad, the real estate broker Richard Hilton (grandson of the famous hotelier Conrad Hilton) brought Paris and her younger sister, Nicky, into his office regularly. It wasn’t a chore, or a punishment. Paris says she loved watching her dad lead meetings, and negotiate brand partnerships. It’s how she learned to run her own multinational business — through hours of observation; the same way other kids learn how to fix cars, or make homemade pasta.
“As a little girl, I was fascinated,” Paris says. “I knew I wanted to be a successful business woman. I always paid attention.”
Now, at 37, Paris has a crop of job titles — most of which didn’t exist in her dad’s heyday. You could say she’s a little bit content creator, trend whisperer, social media maven, brand ambassador, advertising eye candy, and self-confidence guru all rolled up in one.
She’s also the CEO of Paris Hilton Entertainment, a company she founded in 2006 to manage her brand licenses. Paris has put out a hodgepodge of products over the years: perfume, prosecco, shoes, apparel, sunglasses, handbags, cosmetics. Everything she sells falls under the umbrella of “affordable luxury,” which is something like “yacht club-meets-Urban Outfitters,” and ebbs and flows with retail trends.
Right now, it’s skincare. This summer, Paris launched a line of gels, creams, and serums, riding the wave of an $18 billion industry made freshly relevant by brands like Glossier and Drunk Elephant, and evangelized by thousands of beauty bloggers.
She put out a tropical print-heavy clothing line for the online retailer BooHoo around the same time. And there’s that in-the-works VR experience she’s hyping to Kanye-level proportions.
“It’s going to be the future of social media,” she tells me.
The line of work Paris is in—the kind that relies on people knowing your name, and caring about the brands you care about—isn’t terribly uncommon anymore.
We call these people “influencers,” a catch-all label thrown on everything from pet sponsorships to conventionally attractive couples who make six figures Instagramming their vacations.
Paris may as well have invented the term. Lest we forget, she trademarked the phrase, “that’s hot,” in the early 2000s, and then successfully sued Hallmark for using it on a greeting card. She took selfies before anyone called them that. At just 20 years old, she got paid to show up to the opening of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas in a dress made out of poker chips.
This makes her an easy target; patient zero for some of the most universally despised cultural juggernauts (see: selfies/hot travel couples). Using your “influence” to bag endorsement deals is kind of what everyone with a tight bod and an impressionable set of business values does these days. But for as long as Paris Hilton as been Paris Hilton,™ critics have chided her for it.
Remember The Simple Life?
When you think of Paris, that’s probably the image you can most readily conjure: Standing next to Nicole Richie, her longtime, on-and-off-again BFF, as they break from the privileges of inherited wealth to traverse Real America.
Today, Paris says the person viewers saw on that show, a blonde airhead who thought Walmart only sold “wall stuff,” was just a character she played for a paycheck.
But the image stuck, and has been stamped into the public consciousness ever since. A mega-popular sex tape, which leaked shortly before the show’s 2003 premiere, and a series of traffic violations, which led to a stint in jail, seemed to settle the matter. In the court of public opinion, Paris was “famous for being famous” at best; deliriously out of touch at worst.
Paris should have faded away after that. Her fame was predicated on the reality TV boom of the early 2000s; a precarious cultural moment that probably destroyed more careers than it created (see: Kevin Federline, Anna Nicole Smith, poor, clueless Jon Gosselin). But as soon as The Simple Life ended its run in 2007, Hilton pulled away from her image as a tabloid queen, and quietly re-oriented herself as “Paris Hilton, Business Mogul.” She added brand licenses at lightning speed — starting with perfume, and moving to footwear, swimwear, eyewear et al. In 2011, Daily Variety, a now-defunct offshoot of Variety Magazine, used a photo of her sitting on a throne as its cover image. The headline: “Billion Dollar Entrepreneur.”
Today, Paris says she’s on a plane at least 250 days a year; flying from charity events in Los Angeles to product launch parties in Miami, publicity tours in Mexico City, DJ residencies in Dubai (She hates flying, but the down time gives her an opportunity to read, and do some duty free shopping. Her last book? The airport hit, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.)
Miraculously, in a retail environment that incentivizes aligning with only the most relevant faces—a world of Timothee Chalamets, Emma Stones, Michael B. Jordans, Ezra Millers, Tom Hardys and Zoe Kravitzs—she’s still considered a “get.”
As of this writing, Paris has about 35 million followers across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and unlike many media personalities, she runs those accounts herself. It’s an engaged audience: People “like” and comment on the three to five selfies she posts a day (her favorite hashtags vacillate between her party girl—#QueenofTheNight—and pantsuit—#GirlBoss—personas). They retweet her quippy musings, which read like bridge and tunnel meditation mantras (August 29: “Mermaids don’t lose sleep over the opinion of shrimp.” July 26: “I think it’s important for everyone to be confident. Believe in yourself and everybody’s hot.”)
Her most devoted fans call themselves “Little Hiltons,” adding the date she follows them on social media to their own Twitter and Instagram bios, laboriously documenting her appearances at airports and red carpet events.
Paris loves how much they love her, and frequently shares videos of the crowds that follow her to product launches, DJ spots, and book signings. In The American Meme, the new Netflix documentary that charts the rise of social media celebrities like Paris and her modern contemporaries—Hailey Baldwin, Brittany Furlan, Josh Ostrovsky (“The Fat Jew”)—she beams as she talks about her followers.
“A lot of the Little Hiltons were comparing me to Jesus,” she says in one scene. “It’s a huge compliment.”
Paris has an unusual relationship with her fans. She’s good to them, and not in a “the cameras are rolling, so here’s a shot of me hugging a crying pre-teen” kind of way. She treats her fans like friends—real friends—hanging around them for hours after an event ends, private messaging them on social media, and WhatsApp.
“I feel like I’m their big sister,” she tells me. “I have amazing advice.”
In return, they keep her relevant. And they buy her stuff.
“I always try to support her,” says Ramona Hecklau, who goes by “Ramona Hilton” on Twitter. “As soon as [her products] come out, the first day, I’m buying it.”
Hecklau admires Hilton’s drive, and how she works constantly, even though she doesn’t have to work at all. She says she first met Hilton by chance while working at an airport bar in Frankfurt, Germany. Later, when Hecklau moved to the U.S., Hilton invited her to hang out in a hotel she was staying at. And when Hecklau happened to be in Las Vegas during one of Hilton’s product launch parties, she invited her to sit at a private table with Hilton’s family and friends.
“I’ve met so many celebs working in Miami in a restaurant,” Hecklau says. “No one compares to her.”
People are obsessed with Hilton in a way they weren’t in the early aughts. Her fans don’t care about her sex tape, or party girl escapades. They see her as a career role model; a living lesson on the subtle art of not giving a f*ck. Their tabloid-level fervor hasn’t dissipated, but it isn’t fed by voyeurism anymore. It’s respect.
“Paris doesn’t let things in her past get in her way, and I admire that,” says Courtney Meunier, a fan based in Maine who runs an Instagram account called “The Daily Hilton.” “[Critics] label her as a dumb blonde … she’s really a force to be reckoned with. I think she’s the Marilyn Monroe of our time.”
Paris tells me a story about riding the New York City subway with her sister last summer. They had an afternoon of appointments scheduled, and were running late. It was the middle of the day, and probably close to 90 degrees, but taking a taxi would have stranded them in traffic. So they crammed into the middle of a sweaty, packed train — and a sea of iPhones.
“I took a lot of selfies,” she says. “But I don’t mind. I’m like, so chill about things like that. The Simple Life really prepared me for anything.”
This—using one subway ride, a reality millions of New Yorkers face multiple times a day, as proof she’s equipped “for anything”—is 2018 Paris Hilton. Is she oblivious? Is she earnest? The MTA might be foreign to her, but it’s not beneath her. She loves people. She loves taking pictures with people, and being crammed alongside them — even if it’s on a dirty subway.
Paris Hilton will probably always be one of the most famous people in the world (Her team has literally looked into this — even in some countries where there’s no television, people know her name, she says). But being universally known isn’t the same as being universally liked.
In an interview with Marie Claire shortly after Donald Trump was elected, a reporter asked her about the allegations of sexual misconduct lodged against the new president (she signed with T Management, Trump’s modeling agency, at 19.) She told the magazine that Trump has “always been so nice, so respectful and sweet,” to her personally, and that his accusers were “just trying to get attention and fame.”
When the story ran—about nine months later—it caused a small social media uproar. People called her a hypocrite, and a fake feminist. And when she Tweeted support for Hollywood’s “Times Up” movement, they reminded her that you can’t claim to support women if you don’t actually believe what they say.
When I ask her about that interview, she tells me it was taken “a bit out of context,” since it was held for several months (to be fair, it also took place about a year before sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein pushed #MeToo into our cultural lexicon).
“I think what all these women are doing is amazing,” she says, when I ask what she thinks about Times Up and #MeToo now. “Everyone’s coming together, almost like a sisterhood, and sticking up for each other. People who were too scared to say anything are now using their voice, and it’s changed the whole landscape of Hollywood.”
Perhaps the political climate has empowered Paris Hilton to use her inherited privilege, and 35 million social media followers, for social political good. In a video posted on TMZ in June, she can be seen telling a row of paparazzi she’s “disgusted” by the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. A few months later, when news broke that a federal agency wants to tighten the legal definition of gender, a move that will likely roll back protections of transgender people across the nation, she posted a picture of an LGBT flag on Twitter (Hashtag: #TransRightsAreHumanRights).
Or maybe she just knows how to read a room. Because who is Paris Hilton, when she’s alone? When she’s not “on?” She’s so rarely either of those things — the heiress surrounds herself with family, fans, and friends nearly 24/7.
Paris says she’s a “tomboy and daredevil,” who likes to fish, surf, and ski. She was on the ice hockey team in high school. She’s been to Burning Man for the last three years in a row, and has been skydiving six times.
“I love jumping off planes,” she says.
In September, she called her then-fiance Chris Zylka her “soulmate,” and told me that the bottle for Platinum Rush, her new perfume, was inspired by the 20 carat diamond engagement ring he gave her. Two months later, she dumped him.
“I wish him the best,” she said on the daytime CBS show, The Talk. “Right now I’m just focused on myself and my work.”
Paris Hilton’s fame and flexibility are like two ends of a Chinese finger trap — break apart, and that’ll be the end of everything. But she’s prepared to monetize them both in perpetuity.
That is her superpower. It’s how she can fit in at Burning Man as easily as New York Fashion Week. Align herself with Donald Trump in one interview, and say something markedly feminist in another.
It’s why she’s not just still around, but omnipresent. She’s both everything and nothing. She’s a role model, and a villain. She’s ridiculous, and rational. She’s authentic. She’s a caricature. She doesn’t give a f*ck. She cares so so so so much.
“What would you say your ‘brand’ is?’” I ask her the day we meet.“What’s the ‘Paris Hilton’ elevator pitch?”
“Timeless,” Paris Hilton replies. “Fun. Um, inspiring, sexy, and what else? Competence. And luxury.”
“I like your earrings,” she adds, pointing to my latest Salvation Army find as I walk out of the conference room.