You have to hand it to Paris Hilton.
Or anyone, for that matter, who made it out of the mid-'00s Hollywood club scene with her head held high. But the pink-wearing, chihuahua-toting star of The Simple Life who unwittingly paved the way for a whole new type of celebrity was uniquely way too focused on building an empire to ever get bogged down by any misstep, backlash or haters who just couldn't deal.
Heiress, heirhead, socialite, scenester, celebutante, club kid, rich bitch, hot mess: All terms that have been used over the past 20 years to describe the great-granddaughter of the founder of the Hilton Hotels empire, who is celebrating her 40th birthday on Feb. 17, 21 years after a Vanity Fair spread heralded the arrival of Paris and sister Nicky as ones to watch because...
Well, because they were everywhere, so you may as well watch them.
And despite all the reasons she could have to pretend the '00s never happened, for the most part Paris remains—touchingly, reassuringly, refreshingly—the same determined, optimistic person she was back when "that's hot" was the loftiest of praise.
Of course, the founder of Paris Hilton Entertainment has changed in some significant ways since her "crazy 20s," when she was dancing on tables, speeding down Sunset Boulevard in her Bentley and keeping a spare key under her doormat.
On the precipice of turning 30, she had already seen it all (including the inside of a jail cell), overcome a sex tape scandal, been briefly engaged to a Greek shipping heir also named Paris, been burgled by a group of hapless but aspirational thieves, released an indelible dance single, died in a horror movie and made enough of her own money to retire from the Paris Hilton business and never look back.
With her unbridled joie de vivre intact, she told E! News in February 2011 that she was ready to take all that she had learned and funnel it into her next decade.
"I feel like I've really lived life and I've learned so much," Paris said. "Everything happens for a reason. I've had so many life lessons, it's made me the person I am today and I'm very strong."
She said that she was most proud of the brand she had built, her name on or affiliated with 17 product lines at the time. "I'm just excited for my 30s," she added. "Everyone says those are the best years of your life...I just wish for continued happiness, and love, and success and excitement in life."
While hardly uneventful, her 30s were exponentially quieter than her 20s, not least because there was only so much oxygen left for Paris in the attention bubble. Rather, while she was busy becoming one of the highest-paid DJs in the world as the 2010s got underway, a parade of inspired hopeful somebodies clambered onto the trail she had already blazed with her savvy, image-sculpting ways.
Consider them influenced.
Paris may have been a little less talked-about, but the influencer emeritus remained secure in the knowledge that she started it all, long before an Instagram account became an essential building block in the self-promotion business.
"I love that I was so ahead of my time and created this entire new genre and way of living life and making a living," she told Cosmopolitan UK a year ago. "Anyone with a phone can make their own brand. Whatever talents they have, they can use that platform to build a business. I feel very proud. Imitation is the highest form of flattery."
Though, it can never be quite as it was, back when Paris—famous family and ample seed money aside—was making a name for herself before the era of social media.
Younger sis Nicky Hilton Rothschild told the Los Angeles Times in 2019, recalling the wilds of the '00s, "Back then, it was so authentic and organic. There were no agents. There were no managers. There was certainly no glam team or stylist. Today everything is so manufactured. Young girls are now running around getting styled head-to-toe to pick up Starbucks."
Though Paris was hardly one to get photographed somewhere not looking pulled together, she didn't employ a stylist and her affinity for pink Juicy tracksuits, oversized sunglasses and flirty, slinky party dresses were all her own.
"She was pretty much the first celebrity to get paid to go to an event," Nicky added. "Once she saw that that trend was fading out and all of the venues were putting their budgets into DJs, then she became the DJ. It's pretty smart if you ask me."
At the same time, as the Paris headlines swirled and paparazzi snapped away, there was only so much she could do with her trusty Motorola Razr. Because there was no social media that everybody was using (she didn't even get on Twitter until 2009), there was no way to set the record straight or otherwise combat any particularly salacious tabloid narratives in one fell swoop.
Of course, once it did become a thing, Paris immediately grasped its potential.
"When social media first began, I recognized the power we all had to create our own stories and take control of our images and narratives in a way that hadn't been possible," she told Ad Week in October ahead of her virtual appearances at the 2020 IAB Brand Disruption Summit and Adweek Women Trailblazers Summit. "In my documentary, This Is Paris, I mentioned I realized I was a walking billboard 24/7. Back then all we had to worry about was the paparazzi."
She has said that the pouty-voiced party girl persona she adopted for The Simple Life truly was just a character, albeit one that helped sell a lifestyle and, being "naturally shy" herself, was quite easy and convenient to hide behind. But in actual reality, over the last 10 pre-pandemic years, she's been a jet-setting homebody—rarely at her Beverly Hills mansion but, when she was, she preferred nights in watching TV with her dogs.
Her family's motto being akin to the British royals' "never complain, never explain," Paris just kept going, seizing business opportunities and otherwise unabashedly living her life, which included remaining determined in her guileless quest to find lasting love and have a family of her own.
Even when it was really hard.
"I never stuck up for myself or said anything because my parents said, 'You're just going to draw more attention to something. Even if it's a lie, just don't pay attention to it. Your family and your friends know the real you,'" Paris told the LA Times.
Which sounds very moral-of-this-story, but the truth is that Paris has at times leaned on her social media followers—a.k.a. strangers—for support when her so-called friends let her down.
"I feel closer with them than I do with most people I know," she said of her fans in the 2018 documentary The American Meme, which was directed by her friend Bert Marcus. "They're really like my family." Some of them even became friends who got invites to Paris' house.
"I'm constantly traveling...so it gets really lonely sometimes," she explained. "I've been through so much in life, and I don't really trust people. I've just grown accustomed to being f--ked over. But with my fans, I don't feel like that at all. Not a day goes by when I'm not texting, FaceTiming or emailing with my Little Hiltons."
Also in the film, about the highs and lows of influencer culture—the highs being fame and fortune (and, in Paris' case, a built-in support system), the lows being the trolls and inevitable influx of negativity (or worse) that comes from sharing one's life with cameras—she admitted that being the butt of all those sex tape jokes starting in 2003 was a soul-crushing experience.
"Back then, people were acting like I was the bad person or the villain," Paris told the L.A. Times in 2019. "Today, if that happened, whoever did that to the person would be [vilified]."
"As a little girl, I always looked up to Princess Diana and women like that who I respected so much," she recalled. "And I felt that when that man [her ex Rick Salomon] put out that tape, it basically took that away from me because, for the rest of my life, people are going to judge me and think of me in a certain way just because of a private moment with someone that [I] trusted and loved."
But while she understandably feared that she would be forever judged by that one bad decision, she didn't let it define her—nor did she let her pop culture infamy go to waste.
"I'm writing a new book, and I have 19 different product lines," she told Forbes in January 2020. "Everything from clothing, handbags, shoes, jewelry, contact lenses, makeup, dog clothes, home wear. Basically every product you can think of, I make. I'm also involved in real estate. I have two properties and now we're branching out and doing boutique hotels and spas and nightclubs. And I'm getting really involved in the tech business. I have my two apps—Roxi and the Glam app—and I'm going to be releasing more apps, and also going into the virtual reality world. I basically don't stop. I don't sleep. Success drives me."
And that was without being the talk of every town for a decade.
But after using her 30s to take stock of her life ("I just lived in this bubble," she said of her 20s in The American Meme. "The reality show world—that whole industry—you don't really grow up"), Paris is embarking on her 40s with a renewed sense of purpose.
She started by opening up about the most painful experiences of her youth (stuff she admits she never shared before so as not to put a damper on her glittery brand) in the aforementioned 2020 YouTube Originals documentary This Is Paris. Her new podcast of the same name—which, going by her sneak peek introduction, is going to feature the sage entrepreneur talking to everyone she finds interesting about everything, ever, and then some—is scheduled to debut Feb. 22.
In the film, she acknowledged that, while being referred to often as the "original influencer" is flattering, "sometimes I feel like I helped create a monster." She spent so many years giving the public what she felt it wanted, "and now I see the little girls…they're trying to get the perfect selfie, they're putting the filters on, they can't even look at themselves in the phone without putting a filter. I can't even imagine a 13-year-old girl today."
That's partly why she wanted to do the documentary in the first place, so that she could, as she told the LA Times in 2019, "inspire people in the right way, and I think that certain things that have happened in my life...I just want people to know the real me."
Which is also part of the total package.
"I have tried to be more authentic over the years and evolve my brand by sharing my journey," she explained to Ad Week in October. "What you have seen from me in the last decade will be different than the next decade. It is important for me to use my platform to create positive change in the world. I believe it is possible for a brand to be fun and playful and also purposeful about making lasting positive change in the world. For example, I have been blown away by the response from my documentary This Is Paris. It has resulted in the movement around Breaking Code Silence."
After alleging in the film that she witnessed and personally suffered traumatic abuse when she was a resident at Provo Canyon School in Utah in the 1990s, Paris' team created a website for survivors of mistreatment at facilities for troubled teens to share their stories, and she has thrown herself into the public drive for reforms (a school spokesperson told E! News last year that Provo Canyon has come under entirely different ownership since Paris' time there and they could not speak to her accusations).
"There's a lot more work to do," she told USA Today in December. "I'm not going to stop until it's done."
Her determination actually sounds reminiscent of 2007 when, upon her release from jail after after 17 days, having violated her probation on a 2006 DUI, she said she planned to never take freedom for granted again. The following year she donated to the building of the cancer wing of Children's Hospital of Los Angeles, where she also visited with patients, and she's been a regular volunteer at a homeless shelter in downtown L.A. In 2017 she visited survivors of an earthquake in the San Gregorio area of Mexico City and donated supplies and $350,000 in aid.
Appearing on Larry King Live for her first post-jail interview, Paris shared an entry from the journal she kept behind bars: "They say when you reach a crossroad or a turning point in life, it really doesn't matter how we got there, but it's what we do next after we got there. Usually you arrive there by adversity, and then it is then and only then that we find out who we truly are and what we're truly made of. It's a process, a gift and a journey, and if we can travel it alone, although the road may be rough at the beginning, you find an ability to walk it. A way to start fresh again. It's neither a downfall nor a failure, but a new beginning."
Earlier this month she flew to Utah to speak at a hearing in support of a bill that would require stricter government oversight of such private, for-profit facilities like Provo Canyon. "We want to take this to a federal level and bring it to all 50 states," she told the Salt Lake Tribune afterward. "Because this should not happen anywhere on this planet."
She is also shoring up her brand for the decade ahead, from the 19 product lines bearing her name to the investments she's making in businesses she believes in.
"I'm building an integrated media and product company," she explained to Ad Week. "On the product side, I'm focusing on health and wellness, longevity and beauty. I share my boyfriend's passion for consumer tech investing and will keep investing in the next generation of great entrepreneurs like Rachel [Drori] at Daily Harvest, where I'm an investor."
As unflinchingly pragmatic as she's always been when it comes to making money, she continued, "I've been able to build my businesses using those instincts and thinking two steps ahead of others. Being true to myself has helped me evolve as a person and as a business leader, and I'm excited to keep growing. I'm using those same instincts to invest in the next generation of great founders as I love the idea of paying it forward and supporting them."
She also recently revealed that she has started the IVF process with brand-new fiancé Carter Reum, having for years talked about the prospect of becoming a mom with a certain inevitability. It's always been "when," not "if."
That she and Reum, her partner for the past 15 months, would be spending the rest of their lives together was a certainty well before he proposed with a jaw-dropping diamond during her tropical birthday getaway.
"I feel like a grown-up finally, and I'm so excited for the next phase of my life: to have a family and just grow up," she told USA Today. "My priorities have completely changed. I no longer care about going out or being the party girl that I was before. I'm more excited about being an activist and really using my voice and my platform to help make change and make a difference in the world."