You know Paris Hilton. How could you not? The hotel heiress has been part of our cultural zeitgeist for the better part of two decades, having stepped out of the shadow of her family name to become an “It Girl,” author, reality TV personality, producer, actor, tabloid fodder, pop star, activist, entrepreneur, model, convicted probation violator, DJ, and an early influencer in the fledgling days of social media. “Famous for being famous,” Hilton’s life has seemingly played out on TV screens, paparazzi cameras, and Instagram, so what could a documentary tell us that we don’t already know? As she states in the trailer for This Is Paris, “I feel like the whole world thinks they know me—no one really knows who I am.”
Touted as the first genuine, unfiltered look at Paris Hilton’s life, the YouTube Originals documentary wants to show who the star really is behind the “character” she’s been playing since she first uttered, “That’s hot!” on The Simple Life. Produced by Aaron Saidman—who worked on Leah Remini’s Scientology And The Aftermath series—and directed by Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story’s Alexandra Dean, This Is Paris digs deep into the psyche of someone who’s constantly in the spotlight, and details Hilton’s abuse allegations against the boarding school she attended as a teen. Back in January, at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour, The A.V. Club was given an early peek at the doc, and a chance to sit down Hilton, Dean, and Saidman to discuss her lasting mark on pop culture, and to help us delineate between “Paris Hilton, the character” and “Paris Hilton, the person.” With This Is Paris’ September 14 premiere just around the corner, you can watch some highlights from our conversation above, and read our full conversation below.
The A.V. Club: What brought the three of you together, and how did that lead to This Is Paris?
Aaron Saidman: I had come across an old article about Paris Hilton and a lot of the trends that she started—some of which he had intentionally started, some of she had unwittingly started. Everything I read further intrigued me about who she really is. I realized we’ve all been talking sort of incessantly and relentlessly about the Hiltons and about Paris for the last 20 some years., but we haven’t really heard directly from Paris about how she feels about all of these things: who she’s become, her sort of icon status. And so I called her agents and asked for a meeting and Paris politely declined [Laughs], and I kept calling and calling. Finally, we got into a room together and started talking about doing something truly authentic that could reveal the deeper essence of who Paris really is—in a way that the public hadn’t really seen before, but also in a way that Paris herself hadn’t really come to terms with and hadn’t explored herself.
That all seemed easier said than done, but that was a really exciting prospect. But, from there, it was about finding the right brilliant voice and director to implement that vision and forge that relationship with Paris. And that’s when we met Alexandra Dean.
AVC: So Paris, were you suspicious? Did it feel odd that someone was wanting to tell your story?
Paris Hilton: When I got the calls from my agent that [Saidman] wanted to meet with me, I was like, “No, I’m not ready for something like this. This is not something I’m interested in.” I’d been focusing on my business, my brand, but they kept talking about it more and more. When I finally had a meeting with Aaron and his team, I immediately just felt comfortable and ready to do it. And then when we were looking for directors and we found [Alexandra Dean]—I fell in love with her movie, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, and I said, “this is the perfect person for this!”
AVC: Alexandra, it was definitely interesting to see that your last feature documentary subject was Hedy Lamarr, but now we’ve moved on to someone more contemporary. Do you see similarities between who Lamarr was and Paris Hilton?
Alexandra Dean: Beautiful, brilliant, misunderstood women. You know, it’s obvious! When I was doing the Bombshell [press tour] two years ago, sitting here, people were asking me, “Could this happen today?” Could somebody as beautiful and brilliant as Hedy Lamarr be walking among us, and we write them off for some reason? Maybe for some scandal they’ve had, like how Hedy had the first orgasm on screen? And I kept going, “Yes, yes, of course it could happen today!” And people would say things like, “Thank god we moved on from that era.” But, no, I think it could still happen today. So when this came to me, I started talking to Paris, and I began to feel like, “Yes, this is the story I’ve wanted to tell since I began the press tour for Bombshell!”
AVC: How did the two of you build that trust? Does that just take time?
PH: As soon as we met, I felt this instant connection. As we were filming, it became like this like sisterly bond where I felt like I could tell her anything— things that I’ve never discussed before with anyone, not even my family, not my friends. She really had asked me questions that no one has ever asked before and was very… not hard on me, but she was just asking me things and really pushing me to my limits. She was like, “For this film, you know, nothing’s off limits. We have to talk about everything.” Sometimes I would be crying and I would get very emotional because I was talking about things that I have never discussed before. I think, with my life, it’s always been so busy, and it’s constant 24/7, traveling 250 days a year, nonstop. So I never really had time to even think about it myself.
So, in this process, I really discovered so much about myself—exploring who I really was, because I never really thought about it before. I was always playing this character, and I was never really myself, but she just dug into everything and pulled so much out of me. It was almost like this like therapeutic experience. I really feel like I found myself during this film, which is weird to say, but this is actually the first real thing that I’ve ever done in my life. Because everything else has just been, you know, the character. I finally felt like I took the mask off of the character, and I was Paris. That’s why the film is titled This Is Paris because this is me.
AVC: You said the word “therapeutic,” and it really does sound like working on this was therapy for you.
AD: We started a new genre [Laughs].
AVC: Therapy docs?
AD: Yeah, right!
AVC: If the Paris we see in this documentary is the real you, then what’s the difference between you and the Paris we’ve seen in the media all these years?
PH: There’s a huge difference. With The Simple Life, it was the first of its kind—there was never a reality show like that. When I started, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, so I basically created this character and I didn’t realize what a huge success The Simple Life would be, and that I would have to continue doing this character for five years of the show. And people just thought that’s who I was. But deep inside, every time I would go home at night was, I knew that’s just not who I was. Even now, I feel like I finally discovered who I truly am. And I think, when people watch this film, they’re going to see that there’s so much more to me than what I’ve portrayed in the media for so long.
AVC: On that note, a lot of people see you as someone that helped kicked off our current “influencer culture,” for better or worse. Largely young people that are online all the time, sharing everything about themselves, whether that’s really who they really are or not. What’s your take on that? Do you feel like maybe you’re the godmother of this whole generation?
PH: It makes me feel very proud. A lot of my friends are in this industry—whether they’re influencers, or YouTubers, or building brands—and they say, “Paris, you’re the one who inspired me; watching The Simple Life, growing up with you—you’re the reason I do what I do.” And it makes me feel proud to have basically created a whole new genre celebrity where people could make a brand and make a living off being themselves, or being a character. You know, when I started out, there was no social media—there was none of that—so I think it’s amazing, with all these platforms, that people could build a life off of it. To be the one who paved the way, and to be a pioneer, and always ahead of my time… I think because I’m an Aquarius [Laughs]. I don’t know what it is, but it’s very flattering to hear that.
AVC: And you’re still making content in that space that people talk about. Earlier this year you had the “Cooking With Paris” video, which was a big hit.
PH: I had no idea that it would have such an effect on people, but everyone was talking about it, and they want me to cook more things. I’ve had friends and different celebrities contacting me saying they want to come to my kitchen and cook with me, so I’m actually going to be doing more of those. I love cooking and lasagna has always been like my favorite thing to cook, so I had a lot of fun doing that and I’m excited to do more of those.
AVC: Alexandra and Aaron, what’s something you were surprised to learn about Paris while working on the documentary?
AD: Paris never goes to the gym. It’s true! She doesn’t. What the hell, man? She likes lasagna and she doesn’t go to the gym? There is no god!
AS: That’s an honest answer. That’s not my answer, but that’s an honest answer.
You know, you have intentions for a project and you just don’t know what’s going to happen in documentary because of the nature of the medium. So, I knew that [Alexandra] would excavate and try to get to that deeper truth of Paris, but I didn’t expect Paris to be going through this experience herself. I didn’t anticipate her being so vulnerable. It’s a little bit of lightening in a bottle. You can make a biopic on a celebrity, but if you catch them at the right time in their lives—when maybe it’s a pivot point for them where they’re sort of thinking existentially about who they are—that’s magical, and you can’t necessarily plan for that. So there’s something about Paris—this willingness to be vulnerable—and her relationship with Alex as the director that was… You know, again, you have high hopes for any project, but I didn’t expect that sort of journey to necessarily unfold in front of our cameras just when we happen to be filming. And yet that’s what happened! And that was a good surprise.
AD: To be serious about it now because Aaron was: I did not expect at all to have this sister relationship formed with Paris. It’s true that it was kind of instantaneous, but it developed. And Paris literally strongly reminds me of my sister; I have an older sister who is very similar, and who had a trauma in her childhood—which was not the same—but I think I recognized what she’d been through because I had been through it in close proximity in my childhood. And I recognized, when I met Nicki [Hilton, Paris’ sister], her role with Paris. So I think we were able to kind of take those roles with each other, right? I’ve been in Nicki’s shoes. So I think we had that dynamic right away, and you can’t predict that—you don’t know that that’s going to come of it. And I think that is why there was magic on the set for this film from day one.
Image credit: Graphic: Natalie Peeples, Photo: David Crotty, Contributor/Getty Images