Paris Hilton. Image Credit: AFP

Lounging cross-legged on her bed at home in Beverly Hills, California, and wearing a turquoise hoodie, Paris Hilton appeared at ease. There were none of the affectations that have defined her public image for two decades: the flat baby voice, the tiny, shimmering outfits, the faux ditziness, the stance that everything cool was “hot.”

“I built this kind of shield around me and kind of this persona, almost to hide behind, because I’ve been through so much where I just didn’t even want to think about it anymore,” Hilton, 39, said over Zoom. Behind her stood a towering mirror illuminated by a sea of LEDs that refracted off her platinum hair like diamonds.

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Paris Hilton in Los Angeles on September 1, 2020. “I built this kind of shield around me and kind of this persona, almost to hide behind,” Hilton said.

Before there were influencers, there was Hilton: a beautiful blank slate of a person onto whom all kinds of ideas and brand sponsorships could be projected. She was the celebrity burnished, if not created, by a sex tape. She was the face of the Sidekick (and the victim of a Sidekick hack that brought more of her personal life into the public eye). She was a reality star, trying her hand at manual labour as a rich person. She recorded music, modelled, appeared at parties, made TV cameos, wrote an advice book. And she was mercilessly criticised, written off as “famous for being famous.”

Regardless of whether that characterisation was fair at the time, it seems hard to defend now. She spends more than 250 days a year travelling the world as a DJ, raking in a reported $1 million per gig. She oversees more than 19 product lines, including fragrances, clothing and accessories. And so many people are now famous for being famous, she might now seem more venerable pioneer than contemptible fly-by-night.

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A scene from 'This is Paris'.

Now, moreover, she’s ready to talk about the past. On September 14, the documentary ‘This is Paris’ released on YouTube. It aims to crack the facade she created in the aughts, focusing instead on the decade that preceded her fame.

Hilton said she gave the director, Alexandra Dean, full creative control over the film. “It was really difficult for me because I’m so used to having so much control,” she said. “And with this, I had just to let go of all that control and let them use everything.”

There are moments of opulence in the film — jetting around the world, racks of gowns and stilettos and closets stacked with jewellery she’s never worn — and she’s quick to remind that she’s “never been photographed in the same thing twice.”

But at the heart of the documentary is trauma, stemming from Hilton’s years spent in boarding schools for troubled teenagers. The last one she attended was Provo Canyon School, a psychiatric residential treatment centre in Utah, where she would spend 11 months.

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Hilton said she gave the director, Alexandra Dean, full creative control over the film.

“They just assumed it was like a normal boarding school because that’s the way that they portray it to parents and people who are putting their children in these places,” Hilton said of her parents, Kathy and Rick Hilton. Before the making of the film, Hilton had never told her family about what happened to her.

The night she arrived at Provo, Hilton recalls in the documentary, she was taken from her bed as if she were being kidnapped. She said she and her peers were routinely given mystery pills, and when Hilton refused to take them, she would be sent to solitary confinement for sometimes 20 hours at a time without clothing. She also claims emotional, verbal and physical abuse from teachers and administrators. “It was just like living in hell,” Hilton said.

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Paris Hilton and sister Nicky Hilton attend Paris Hilton's New Single ‘Come Alive’ release party on July 10, 2014 in West Hollywood, California. Image Credit: AFP

The school has noted on its website that it changed ownership in 2000, after Hilton was a student. A representative from Provo said the school did “not condone or promote any form of abuse.” They added that “any and all alleged/suspected abuse is reported to our state regulatory authorities, law enforcement and Child Protective Services immediately as required.”

In the years since, Hilton has grappled with nightmares and avoided therapy, which played a big part in her residential treatment programmes. “From being at Provo and those types of schools, just the therapists in there I felt were just not good people,” she said. “I just have never, trusted them.”

The experience broke other forms of trust, too, she said. In the documentary, she can be seen installing spyware in her house before her boyfriend stays there while she’s out of town. “That definitely affected me in my relationships because I just didn’t know what real love was, and from being abused, you just get kind of used to it almost where you think it’s normal,” she said.

Later events reinforced that belief. When a sex tape of her and her ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon was leaked online without her consent in 2003, the footage received widespread attention, and she was ridiculed.

“To have that come out, such a private moment, and for the whole world to be watching it and laughing like it’s some sort of entertainment, was just traumatising,” she said.

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Paris Hilton in Los Angeles on September 1, 2020. Hilton said that as a teenager she learned to to mask her emotions, a coping mechanism she carried into adulthood. “I didn’t want anyone to know because I didn’t want my brand to be affected,” she said.

Still, in some ways, the exposure turbocharged her career as something other than an heiress, leading to reality show gigs and other deals; her friend and former assistant, Kim Kardashian West, followed the same path to fame.

“I could not be more proud of everything she has accomplished,” Hilton said.

Originally scheduled to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, ‘This is Paris’ is one of a handful of celebrity documentaries and docu-series to be released by streaming giants in recent years. Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, Justin Bieber and the Jonas Brothers have all joined Hilton in giving an “inside look” at their lives.

Of course, depending how involved celebrities are with their documentaries, a compelling narrative can be a way to build up or defend their public image.

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Paris Hilton at the launch of her fragrance Platinum Rush at Brands4U at Dubai Festival City on November 20, 2018. Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/Gulf News

Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original content, said she didn’t see these documentaries as a “defence.” “They know that their image is complex, and at some point, they’re ready to share all the complexities of why they’ve made the choices they have,” she said of the celebrities. “To a certain extent it can be considered brave.”

Now, Hilton hopes to use her brand for good. She wants to expose institutions that administer cruel psychiatric treatment to minors, working with former students who said they had similar experiences to do so. “I’m really going to dedicate a lot of my life to helping make this happen and shutting these places down,” she said.

She’s no longer interested in playing a character, she said: “I’m happy for people to know that I am not a dumb blonde. I’m just very good at pretending to be one.”