Ten years ago, Paris Hilton sat in a backyard in Beverly Hills with Nicole Richie. As a cow grazed on grass, Paris spoke to a reporter from Access Hollywood about her new reality show, The Simple Life, which Paris described as “like Green Acres, but reality… and real.” The reporter asked why her best friend Nicole starred on the show instead of Paris’s sister, Nicky. “Nicky lives a private life,” Paris explained. “I thought [starring on the show would] be fun, so I wanted to do it.” Then Paris paused, looked at the camera with a devilish grin, and raised her voice to a baby’s pitch to say, “I didn’t care what anyone said [about me doing the show].”
This moment defines why Paris is my favorite celebrity of all time. I’m not saying that to prepare you for 1,500 words worth of ironic Paris jokes. I’m saying this because Paris is genuinely my favorite celebrity of all time. Growing up as a gay kid, I had two types of role models to choose from: Boring Lance Bass dudes who were gay but might as well have had their balls chopped off because they only expressed as much gayness as heterosexuals could handle, and fabulous women. Paris fell into the latter category, but unlike Beyoncé or Britney, Paris never apologized for her femininity and sexuality. Where Britney humped the air on stage and then delivered press conferences about her virginity and Beyoncé kept even the most mundane details about her personal life under lock and key, Paris wore short dresses and partied all night, secreting absolutely zero fucks from her pores.
She did this while reinventing American culture as we knew it. In the dark age of the Kardashians, it’s easy to forget that Paris was the first person to use a reality show to create a successful brand that includes over 1.5 billion sold bottles of perfume, 45 clothing stores, and a classic pop album whose lead single, “Stars Are Blind,” is objectively one of the best pop songs ever of all time. And unlike Kim, whose television show is basically about her search for a husband, Paris never aspired to domesticity. Paris was going to be feminine, sexy, powerful, and independent, and there was nothing America could fucking do about it. As a gay tween, I saw this as proof that I could be a flamer and rule the world. But as I’ve grown older, I started to wonder if Paris was as independent as she seemed. Working as a journalist in New York means I get to meet many of my childhood icons, and more often than not, subsequently, discover they’re typically either hypocrites or frauds whose every move is determined by a team of publicists, managers, stylists, swagger coaches, bodyguards, assistants, and whose public image is focus-grouped to fuck and back. Two summers ago, I attended a Miranda July reading at the Apple store. After Miranda gave a speech about the importance of teenager feminism, she refused to give several teenage girls autographs because she was “going to dinner” in SoHo. This would be like a straight edge punk going to interview Ian Mackaye over lunch, watching him order a glass of wine, and having your soul crushed like a soda can.
When I heard earlier this year that Paris had scored a DJ residency at the 5,000-capacity megaclub Amnesia in Ibiza and was now down with YMCMB, Lil Wayne and Birdman’s record label who in their early years put out records titled I Need a Bag of Dope, Still Pimpin’, and Straight Out the Gutta, I wondered how this fit into Paris’s vision of her seemingly perfect personal brand. On the album’s Lil Wayne-featuring lead single, “Good Time,” Paris’ lyrics (“if you’re not here to party/you can get out of my way”) seems like something a now relatively-neutered Weezy would say. But were Paris’s people trying to give her brand street cred, or was Paris the one brilliantly expanding her brand?
I decided to contact Paris’s publicist to see if I could speak to her and figure out if her brand and music were a staged reality, or for real. I doubted I could score an in-person interview—those are nearly impossible to land—and prayed for a phoner. Her publicist was nice enough to agree to a 20 minute phone interview, but then, at the last minute said Paris had changed her mind. She wanted me to do what celebrities never want reporters to do: she wanted me to meet her in person at her mansion in Beverly Hills.
To reach Paris’s mansion, I rode up Mulholland Drive, through the hills Lauren Conrad made famous. Smog hovered over the million dollar homes, making the scene look less like The Hills and more like a scene out of a National Geographic documentary about air pollution in China, and I struggled to see out the car window. From the outside, Paris’s mansion looked like a haunted house—it was October, and Paris had gone out for Halloween. Cobwebs covered the bushes, an SUV and several sports cars lined the driveway, and when I reached the front porch, a plastic corpse with a walker jumped out at me and screamed. I jumped back, forgetting where I was, and then saw the name above the doorbell: Princess Paris.
I rang the bell. A housekeeper in a T-shirt answered. “Hi. I’m here to see Paris.” She said Paris was expecting me, and led me into the house. I asked her if I could use the bathroom and she pointed to a door against the wall. I opened the door and found myself confronted by floor to ceiling mirrors. While washing my hands, I spotted a tray of Paris’s perfumes next to the sink and noticed a chandelier hung above my head. Like the Playboy Mansion, Paris’ house seemed branded to the point of affectation.
The rest of the house confirmed this suspicion. An Air-Wick was plugged into every electrical outlet, Paris’s dogs lived in a life-size dog house bigger than my bedroom in my first apartment, and in the stairwell, I found a painted portrait of Paris that looked like something out of an Edith Wharton novel.
As I waited, the housekeeper tended to me in Paris’s dining room. I sat at a long table across from from a model of the castle at Disneyland and in front of a huge painting that depicted Paris, Darth Vader, Andy Warhol, Lady Gaga, and other American icons covered in blood at a last supper. The housekeeper returned and asked me if I’d like anything to drink. Like a queen visiting an heiress in a Henry James novel, I asked for hot tea. She asked me if a certain kind of tea would be okay; I didn’t hear what she said but didn’t want to be rude, so I said, “That’d be great.” She returned with a mug of tea on a black plate. The tea’s tag said “Dream.” Does Paris Hilton drink dream flavored tea? I wondered. I sipped the tea. Apparently, dreams taste like chamomile.
I looked up from my tea. A pretty blonde woman stood above me. She introduced herself as Paris’s publicist and asked me if I’d like to interview Paris downstairs or “in the nightclub.” Having covered The Bling Ring for VICE, I knew Paris had a nightclub in her house and allowed Sofia Coppola to film the club for the movie. “We’re here to talk about music,” I said. “Lets go to the nightclub.”
If you’ve seen The Bling Ring, you know Paris’s nightclub room is an all-black room stocked with bottles of Grey Goose, a giant stripper pole, a throne, several leather couches, and couches with Paris’s face on them. What you don’t know is that the black design on the wall is similar to the black plates Paris serves her guests tea on, and Paris’s obsession with electronic dance music has taken over the room. Last year at her birthday party, Lil Wayne stood on the couch her parents sat on. “My parents love Wayne,” Paris later told me. “They hang out with Snoop at my parties. They’re so cool.”
As I settled onto one of these leather couches across from Paris’s publicist, I spotted 13 scattered pairs of headsets and two Traktor S4 DJ spinners. Paris learned how to DJ on vinyls over ten years ago from her friend, the late DJ A.M., but in the past two years, she’s been working with DJ trainers who one of those DJ schools that advertise in magazines. She learned on Record Box with those DJs, but prefers Traktor S4. “I like Traktor much better,” Paris said. “I love the software. I love the new one they came out with two months ago.” Before Paris entered the nightclub room, her publicist explained that Paris spends a lot of time spinning and creating music; Paris built a studio in her house a few years ago and has decorated the room in portraits David LaChapelle shot of her.
I braced myself to confront Paris about whether or not she had masterminded her new DJ career, but I forgot my questions the moment I heard a dog scuttle down the hall followed by a baby-voice I had heard on The Simple Life a million times.
“Hi,” she said. “I’m Paris.” She introduced me to her dog, Dollar, sat down next to me, and plopped the puppy in her lap. I didn’t know what to say. Paris wore a bright blue dress and her beautiful, dyed dirty blonde hair resting on her shoulders. It was a look a million Beverly Hills girls probably have, but on Paris it became polarizing—I’ve met Keith Richards, attended a Mike Tyson book reading, and seen Madonna in concert three times, but Paris is the only person I have ever met who exhibited the mythical x-factor.
“Um,” I said. “Let’s get started?”
I pulled out my iPhone, turned on my recorder, and plopped it on the couch. Paris picked up the recorder and brought it close to her. She smiled. The gesture felt like a power move; letting me know while this might be my interview, she was in control. Nervous, I asked Paris a series of stupid questions about what her first album was about, and she wisely pointed out that “Stars Are Blind” is fun but about absolutely nothing. Slowly, the interview became a conversation, and I felt comfortable asking Paris what I had come here to ask: Was she behind her music brand?
“Do you have a formula for creating a DJ set?” I asked.
“Every show, I come up with a different set,” she said. “I choose all my favorite songs and put them in an order, so it’s an experience or journey they go through. You can’t have all fast music—sometimes, I slow it down a little to give people time to rest. After I put it all together, I like to practice it and do it several times before I go on stage. In Ibiza, I practiced at my house. Here, I just do it in the club [in my house], but mostly I practice in hotels because I’m traveling so much.”
“Did the career DJs you know get upset that you scored a huge residency at Amnesia, one of the most popular clubs in Ibiza?”
“Everyone was really surprised when they heard I had a residency in Ibiza—it’s the most legendary place in the world. During the summer, at that nightclub, Avicii and Tiesto and everybody were playing. They were all really surprised. In the beginning they told the owner, ‘I can’t believe you’re having Paris in here to DJ.’ But once they came to see me play, they called the owner the next morning, and they said, ‘Now we know why you made this decision—she was fantastic. She blew me away.’ It made me really happy to prove people wrong.”
Looking at her DJ equipment scattered around the room, I believed what Paris was telling me, but I didn’t understand how that led to her record deal with YMCMB. Paris said she didn’t go out seeking a deal—Birdman came to her. She’s been friends with Lil Wayne and Birdman for years and agreed to star in their “Tap Out” video. On set, Birdman said, “I heard you’re recording a new album. I want to hear the music.” The next day, Paris went to his hotel and played him the songs she has recorded over the past three years since she built a studio in her house. Birdman loved the songs.
“I want to sign you to my label,” he said. Paris immediately said yes.
“I love Cash Money,” she told me. “They have so many great artists who support me.”
“But they’re self-made,” I said to Paris. “They came from troubled backgrounds. Do you fit in with this crew of self-made men?”
“Birdman and Slim literally came from nothing, and they’ve built a huge music empire,” Paris said. “Obviously, I came from money, but I easily could have been another trust fund kid. I chose not to. I chose to be independent. I wanted to do something on my own. I am self-made.” She gestured at her house (the pillows, stripper pole, and DJ equipment) which was an extension of her brand. “I did this all by myself.”
She’s got a point. In New York, there’s dozens of rich kids with CEO’s and movie stars for parents who eat lunch on Tuesdays. None of them have built a business empire, let alone find any employment whatsoever. Paris believes this is why her fans love her. “I think a lot of girls look up to me because I created a big brand,” Paris said. Occasionally, Paris meets these young girls on Twitter and then becomes friends with them—she claims she regularly texts with 20 of them on BBM.
Paris believes this vision of her brand fits in with her music career. “I don’t say, ‘I’m a DJ,’” Paris says. “I’m a business woman, but I’m also an artist, so I sing and DJ as well. This is just part of my brand. I think personal brands are the future. It’s cool when a person can actually be a brand.” I had my answer. I turned off my record and thanked Paris for her time, but Paris wasn’t done yet. She dropped her voice to her lower register and started asking me questions. She wanted to know when Noisey would publish the article, how we could maximize traffic, and what time she should tweet the article.
This is why Paris has the x-factor: she’s the empowered, feminine business genius I had seen on TV as a gay kid, and that presence is scary, because it’s rare that a celebrity retains their agency. Because Paris got real with me, I decided to get real with Paris. I told her how we’d publish the article and then said, “You know, VICE never would have written about you. If anything, we would have made fun of you, but now that we’re living in the age of personal brands and you’re on Lil Wayne’s record label, you’re interesting. You say something about America. You can be on VICE now.”
Paris leaned back, flashed me the smile she gave Access Hollywood years ago, pet Dollar, and then returned to her baby voice: “Loves it.”
Download Paris’s “Good Time (featuring Lil Wayne)” on iTunes.
Mitchell is VICE’s Weekend Editor and loves Paris Hilton more than you do. He’s on Twitter - @mitchsunderland.