The Surprisingly Complicated Pleasures of Cooking With Paris

6 minute read

You know Paris Hilton is an icon because even other stars can’t resist basking in the glow of her Swarovski-encrusted, Barbie-pink aura. In the first episode of her new Netflix show, Cooking With Paris, one Kim Kardashian—Hilton’s friend and onetime assistant—marvels that “no one has partied as hard as you and looks the way you do.” Comedian and FBoy Island host Nikki Glaser gushes: “You’re, like, not someone who was ever scared of getting in trouble, right?” Later, during a dinner party, Whitney Cummings mentions that her podcast co-host wrote a high-school paper on Paris. “Did everyone do that?” Glaser exclaims. “Because I did that, too.”

Here’s the thing about Paris Hilton in 2021: the heiress and entertainer has lived rent-free in the brains of millions, but especially 30-something women, for two decades. Rocketed from socialite notoriety to mainstream fame in the early aughts via modeling, a sex tape that is now rightly understood to be revenge porn and rich-girls-doing-normal-things reality romp The Simple Life, she’s since gone from the pinnacle of cool to passé and back. Recent years have seen her ascend from ironic fave to reclaimed heroine, propelled by Paris-indebted influencer culture and the same Y2K nostalgia that has driven reconsiderations of Britney Spears and Limp Bizkit. Sympathetic docs The American Meme and This Is Paris—in which Hilton reflected on abuse she allegedly suffered at a series of residential reform schools—have added dimensions to her image, rescuing her from the realm of pop-culture caricatures. Which explains why the alternately charming and inane Cooking With Paris makes for such an uncanny viewing experience.

Paris Hilton, left, and Nikki Glaser in 'Cooking With Paris'KIT KARZEN/NETFLIX

Spun off from a prescient viral video from pre-pandemic 2020 in which she semi-competently demonstrates how to make lasagna, the show sends Hilton back to the kitchen to keep refining her skills. Each of six episodes, which clock in at under half an hour apiece, opens with Paris shopping at some kind of specialty grocery store; she mangles the word cotija at the tortilleria and screams “ew” at a whole prosciutto in Eataly. (Truly, Paris Hilton walked so Alexis “Ew, David” Rose of Schitt’s Creek could run.) Then she whips up a kitschy themed dinner with guests ranging from Kardashian and Glaser to YouTuber Lele Pons and rapper Saweetie. Finally, they consume the meal while making pleasant small talk in front of an Instagram-y backdrop meant to evoke Tulum, or a retro diner, or, more abstractly, Lucky Charms cereal.

Hilton talks a lot, in This Is Paris, about what she calls her character or her persona: the daffy, girlish, shopaholic heiress who talks in catchphrases (remember “that’s hot”?) and has never heard of Walmart. That is the Paris who hosts Cooking, gliding through the pristine kitchen in sparkly cocktail dresses, attaching Chanel logos to filet mignon with toothpicks and professing not to know the words tong or whisk. At 40, she’s better than ever at playing this naive role. (It helps that she looks as though she stopped aging at 23.) While her banter with guests is only really interesting for how credulously they react to her performance of Paris, her comic instincts when alone with the camera are spot-on. “Cute top,” she drawls offhandedly to one of her tiny dogs when he crosses her path in a leopard sweater. It’s a total throwaway, but I cracked up.

There have been a few renovations to the persona over the years. Perhaps in deference to changing attitudes toward the super-rich, Paris has become more of a populist; she rhapsodizes over Taco Bell tacos and McDonald’s fries, a vegan version of which she serves to Glaser and friends in pink, doll-sized toy sports cars. Then again, she also mixes batter in bejeweled gloves and feeds her dogs spoonfuls of caviar from tiny jars that probably cost more than the average viewer’s monthly rent. But the absurdity is the point. Just as she influenced the influencers, Hilton seems to have, in turn, internalized their TikTok-native taste for over-the-top aesthetics. While original-recipe Paris showed a lot of super-tanned skin, Paris 2.0 has a style so aggressively hyper-femme it’s like an in-joke between the star and her largely female fan base. This is among the most endearing aspects of the character: she is a girls’ girl, as the absence of male guests on the show underlines. (When Demi Lovato, who identifies as nonbinary, visits, Hilton has no trouble getting their pronouns right.) One episode finds our host in a poofy, heart-print frock that epitomizes what the kids call lovecore. Could Hiltoncore be far behind?

Paris Hilton in 'Cooking With Paris'KIT KARZEN/NETFLIX

What’s awkward is that, if you’ve kept up with her story, it’s impossible not to feel how heavily Cooking is freighted with the baggage of the real woman. Because it turns out that the Paris whose glittery presence outshines all rivals, and who was the object of so much adoration and analysis by women of my generation, doesn’t actually exist off-screen. In This Is Paris, Hilton confesses that she’s always been driven to earn money out of a compulsion toward independence; her self-made fortune is essentially a bulwark against any further attempts to strip her of her freedom. The irony is that she’s become a prisoner of the hot-pink brand she constructed around herself. “Can you and the brand have a divorce now?” asks director Alexandra Dean near the end of the doc. “No,” Hilton replies, chuckling darkly. “That would be an expensive divorce.”

Indeed, it seems easier for her to retreat back into a familiar character than to make permanent space in public life for the woman we meet in This Is Paris. Along with being less bankable—no one likes an introspective influencer—a permanent embrace of authenticity might spark a renewed reckoning, not just with Hilton’s credible allegations of abuse, but with the reports of vile bigotry that have cast the real pre-fame heiress as an aggressor as well as a victim. All of this makes it tough to enjoy the fluffy confection that is Cooking With Paris; I couldn’t help but add mental asterisks to the spectacle of Paris bonding with Saweetie over her love of the Philippines and, in the finale, chatting with mom Kathy and sister Nicky as though they were the world’s happiest family. What might have been a perfect comforting, low-stakes bedtime show under less complicated circumstances often ends up feeling, instead, like a waking nightmare.

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