Trigger warning: This newsletter contains mentions of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
I know exactly what moment changed my mind about This Is Paris, a new documentary about Paris Hilton that premiered on Monday. It’s near the end of the movie, and Hilton is in her living room with Katherine McNamara, Raina Lincicum, Elizabeth Abeysekera and Jessica Pike, her former classmates at Provo Canyon School (PCS), a Utah boarding school for troubled teens that they’d all attended two decades before. They’re talking about the Hilton they saw on The Simple Life and how drastically different she was from the person they knew as teenagers.
“When I saw The Simple Life, I cracked up,” Abeysekera says. “I’m like, ‘That’s—that’s not real.’”
McNamara agrees: “That was some straight up bullshit, especially when she was like, ‘I don’t know how to use a mop!’”
Lincicum jumps in, telling Hilton, “after all we went through, like, how we were forced to clean… you know how to use a sponge.”
There’s only about 20 minutes left in the documentary at this point, but it’s the first time I actually buy into its thesis: that the vapid, superficial socialite Hilton portrayed on The Simple Life—and parlayed into a business empire that includes 19 product lines and a very successful career as a DJ—was an act.
The revelation that Hilton had experienced some kind of abuse as a teenager underpins the entire documentary and was the focus of much of its pre-release marketing. But until this point in the film, the argument that her public persona was fake felt like just another attempt to craft a narrative that wasn’t really supported by facts. I didn’t doubt that she’d been abused, but I also didn’t really believe that the “Paris Hilton” who played a huge role in creating our current influencer economy was a front, the same way I didn’t really believe her sister Nicky when she said Hilton is not the glamorous person she appears to be, and is instead very “normal.” Or her mom, Kathy, who implied the family wasn’t really wealthy, because she and her husband, Rick, always had to work, since they didn’t inherit the same wealth that Rick’s older siblings did. That one was especially difficult to swallow because Kathy went on to reference Hilton letting a snake loose at “the Waldorf” (as in, the Waldorf Astoria, the luxury hotel where the family lived), and later, Nicky laughingly revealed that her sister had once hidden a pet goat in her grandfather’s tennis court. (Which… how?)
But as Hilton and her former classmates revealed what they went through at PCS, it recast much of what the documentary had already revealed about the socialite. At one point, Hilton says she “felt like a lot of the people who worked there got off on torturing children and seeing them naked.” All five women say school employees constantly yelled at students, and often hit them. Staff members watched them shower. They remember being forced to take pills that made them feel “tired and numb”—and if they refused or only pretended to take them, they’d be punished. For Hilton, that meant having to spend almost an entire day in a freezing cold solitary confinement cell, wearing only her underwear. And she couldn’t even tell her parents what was going on, because her phone calls were monitored. Though they attended the school more than 20 years ago, the women say they are all still experiencing the aftereffects of their trauma.
Suddenly, Hilton’s previous revelations made a lot of sense. She has terrible, chronic insomnia and near-nightly nightmares, likely because of undiagnosed PTSD. She is obsessed with making money because she doesn’t want to be under anyone’s control—but the amount of money that would actually make her feel safe is a constantly moving goal post. She doesn’t trust easily and has a hard time letting people in—and when she finally does, she misses the warning signs of abuse. In a quietly horrifying moment, she ticks off the number of abusive relationships she has been in on her fingers: one, two, three, four, five. Pike, who was Hilton’s best friend at PCS, says she also ended up in an abusive relationship after she left the school. “I think maybe being in places where they’re abusive to you… make[s] you think that that’s a normal way to be,” she says.
When I realized I had misjudged the documentary and its subject, I felt guilty that I hadn’t taken Hilton’s claims seriously. But I also felt a little dumb, because I really should have known better.
If you spent any time thinking about pop culture at all, you know “reality TV” is a misnomer. Lots of shows, from the Bachelor to Drag Race, have been criticized for their “villain edits,” where an editor slices and dices footage to create storylines that portray particular cast members (often BIPOC and plus-size folks) as mean or conniving. The Kardashians are infamous for faking storylines, or at least fudging timelines. Years after appearing on The Hills, Spencer Pratt admitted that he and his then-girlfriend Heidi Montag faked their v. dramatic fights to get more screentime. Gordon Ramsay isn’t even that shouty!
And this has been happening for the entire modern era of reality television—cast members of The Real World signed a very detailed 30-page contract that gave producers the right to their life stories, “which producers [then had] limitless freedom to portray in perpetuity in all ‘forms of exploitation… either accurately or with such liberties and modifications as [the] producer determines necessary or desirable,’ including those that may humiliate [them], portray [them] in ‘a false light,’ or serve to produce a ‘humorous or satirical effect,’” according to the AV Club. (To be fair, this version of the contract is from 2011, so it’s possible earlier seasons of the show, which premiered in 1992, had a less far-reaching contract. Unlikely! But possible.)
As Writer’s Guild of America member J. Ryan Stradal put it in 2004, “unscripted does not mean unwritten… If you’ve ever been pulled into watching a reality series, it’s for the same reasons you get invested in scripted TV: sympathetic characters, interesting settings and a sequence of events that provokes, edifies, and/or entertains. Unscripted storytelling is often about working backwards from the ending in the most interesting way possible, crafting an inevitable occurrence into an emotional, humorous or provocative journey.”
If you were to rank TV shows in order of prestige, reality shows fall somewhere near the bottom, which I think allows us to afford their cast members a proportionate level of contempt. We seem to believe that these people are complicit in their own exploitation, and that this disqualifies them from compassion, or at least nuance. But people’s lives don’t actually follow satisfying narrative arcs, and if there is motivation for their behaviour, sometimes it’s something they’re embarrassed, ashamed or scared to divulge publicly—like experiencing 11 months of serious, unabated abuse when you were a teenager, for example. So, while I don’t actually understand why it’s so difficult for us to remember that reality TV show is as produced as scripted shows, I appreciate the reminder.
I will say, I did get one thing right in my initial assessment: this is totally a re-brand for Hilton. But it’s one that seems to be in service of more than fame, fortune or more IG followers. She has been using the publicity around the documentary to draw attention to Breaking Code Silence, an awareness campaign about the troubled teen industry that’s calling for federal legislation to regulates these institutions.
That’s not to say that the documentary, or her past experiences, absolve her of the part she played in ushering in our current influencer-driven fame economy, which can be exploitative and superficial. But knowing that her actions were part of how she dealt with trauma at least contextualizes them and complicates the narrative around her. And I think that’s a good thing.
Let’s Hang Out!
Friday Things is starting a new conversation series about books, movies and other media, and our first free virtual event is happening later this month! For our first Friday Picks on Sept. 28, we’ll be discussing Eternity Martis’ bestselling memoir, They Said This Would Be Fun. Get more info at fridaythings.com/fridaypicks and grab your (free) ticket on Eventbrite.
And Did You Hear About…
Emily Ratajkowski’s powerful essay on being exploited—and, trigger warning, assaulted—as a young model.
Drew Barrymore’s truly cringe snake egg joke.
This Refinery29 article on the death of the “dream job.”
Kat Dennings’ excellent tweet about Chris Evan’s nude photo situation. (TL;DR: sexism!)
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