It's been exactly a decade since 2008 reality TV show Paris Hilton’s My New BFF was first aired. Like Jesus Christ or Kanye West's newest album, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF is great, but frequently misunderstood. Its producers contrived it as a postmodern satire on the absurd contrivances of late-stage reality TV, but no-one—not the contestants, some of whom approach Paris Hilton’s My New BFF with the intensity of Simone Biles nailing a dismount, nor audiences at the time—were in on the joke. But more on that later.
Paris Hilton’s My New BFF, its sequel Paris Hilton’s My New BFF 2 (things didn’t work out with series one victor Brittany Flickinger, but they’re still cool), and its spin-off franchises, Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend and Paris Hilton’s Dubai BFF, all have the same premise. Contestants compete in challenges in order to win the friendship of Hilton Hotel scion, businessperson, and originator of the phrase “that’s hot”, Paris Whitney Hilton.
The late 2000s were a weird time for reality TV. A lot of content was being made, and not much of it was good, including the downright sexist Beauty and the Geek or the transphobic There’s Something About Miriam. Properly understood, however, Paris Hilton’s My New BFF is more than a period piece of terrible 2000s fashion. It’s a Warhol-esque reflection on reality TV culture and the fraught expectations of being a celebrity hanger-on. The contestants aren’t just participating for a chance to be Hilton’s friend. They’re competing for proximity to celebrity itself, and all the advantages that proximity to celebrity entails—money, cachet, becoming a celebrity yourself. After all, Kim Kardashian was a mere member of Paris Hilton’s entourage once upon a time.
Creator Jed Elinoff and his partner Scott Thomas came up with the concept for Paris Hilton's My New BFF whilst working at VH1 in 2006. “At the time, it felt like reality TV shows had reached their peak, and [our show] felt like a parody of a reality TV show at the time," he tells Broadly. Elinoff says that they weren’t trying to mock the contestants, but rather satirize the absurd excesses of mid-2000s reality TV. “We just thought, what else can we possibly compete for on a reality TV show? How stupid can it get?”
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They thought that audiences and contestants would get the premise. “We thought, this is so funny! Everyone will be in on the joke. You can’t compete to be somebody’s best friend.” When Elinoff watched the show he realized, to his horror, that he was wrong: “You can do that. You can compete for anything.”
Watching the show, it’s clear that some contestants were uncomfortable with the prospect of actually competing for Hilton’s friendship, which included tasks like delivering speeches about their undying devotion to Hilton. “You’re beautiful, you’re inspiration, you’re so inspiring,” one contestant improvises awkwardly.
One contestant—Nelson Chung a.k.a. “Onch”—really and truly wanted to be Paris’ BFF. In one scene, he vomits into an amusement park trash can after overcoming his paralyzing fear of rollercoasters to impress Paris. “I just want to be her friend,” he sobs as he’s strapped into the ride. “I don’t want to be tortured.”
Chung is by far the most entertaining contestant in the show, and he even returned to co-host season two of the show. “It was never like, ‘I’m Paris Hilton, you’re Onch,’” Chung evangelizes of his time on the show. “It was always like, ‘hey Onch, you’re my buddy, let’s hang out!’”
I ask Chung whether he thinks eventual victor Brittany Flickinger was deserving of Hilton’s friendship. “I think we all worked very hard to win Paris’s heart and whoever won was deserving.” That’s a political answer, I observe. Chung laughs. “We were taught by Paris how to deal with the media in an immaculate way! We learned from the best.”
He says he remains good friends with Hilton. “I actually created a genuine friendship with her, which is so surprising,” he says. Two weeks ago, he sent her a necklace to wear to Burning Man. The Taiwanese jewelry designer even credits Hilton with helping him secure a visa to stay in the US by writing immigration authorities a recommendation letter on his behalf. “Because of Paris, I’m able to stay in America to work.”
All the contestants I speak to enthuse about Hilton, even if they’re more candid about their motives for appearing on the show. “Would I be Paris’s friend in real life? Yes, she’s a doll," says contestant Natasha Lomis. "But I didn’t go on the show because of that. I went on the show because I was cast on the show.”
“I love Paris, she’s awesome,” agrees fellow candidate Kayley Gable. “I was definitely down to be her best friend, but I didn’t feel that I had to win a show to be anybody’s best friend. I thought that was kind of cheesy.”
Eventual victor Flickinger is also lukewarm about her friendship with Paris. “We were friends for a while after,” she tells me. “We talked and hung out. But we don’t really talk anymore.”
If they weren’t looking for friendship, what were the contestants looking for? Fame, mostly. “The concept of a celebutante was a big thing back then,” says Elinoff. “They were these girls who were wealthy, like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. They were famous for being famous.”
When shows were made about the likes of women like Hilton, product lines and merchandising deals followed, like Hilton’s fragrances for women, haircare and hair vitamin range, and footwear line. The aspiring actresses, models, and musicians who made up Paris Hilton’s My New BFF were willing to be edited and stage-managed by the show’s producers for a slice of the action. “People want to be on TV… and they understood that this is what you do," Elinoff says. "You go on these shows, and there’s someone who’s a jerk, and there’s a romance, and you play into those archetypes because you think, this is my chance to be famous.”
Flickinger adds: “When you’re an artist, you have this idea of fame—you’re really looking forward to it—and it’s so exciting at first. The lights and the cameras and the attention. But there are so many other things you’ll have to deal with that you don’t realize, until it’s happening to you.”
For some participants, the show led to bleaker consequences. “There’s a bit of a stain around them [reality TV contestants],” observes series producer Michael Hirschorn. None of the contestants I interview—Chung aside—would ever do reality TV again. “I would never do reality again, because I understand what it’s like. We all know reality TV isn’t reality to begin with. It’s entertainment,” Lomis observes.
Flickinger, who now works as a creative director, feels especially tainted by her association with the show. “As a creative in the creative industry, doing reality TV creates another layer on your character. You’re judged for it.” Having done the show, she “struggled to be taken seriously as a real person for a long, long time, because people saw me as this reality star person.”
“It’s not the best start to a creative career,” she concludes. “I wouldn’t go back and do it again.”
Producers on the show were also willing to orchestrate scenes in order to get an explosive confrontation. In episode four, the contestants are tasked with creating a commercial for a Paris Hilton product on a studio set as a male advertising executive judges them. It’s excruciating viewing. The executive tells one contestant that she’s too fat to model Hilton’s jeans: “You’re selling jeans? You don’t even fit into them! Maybe you should get a gym membership and do crunches."
Lomis is seen calling out his shitty behaviour and kicking over a chair in frustration. She tells me that she did confront the executive, but she didn’t kick over the chair until producers told her to. “They said, ‘Why don’t you take those chairs and throw them everywhere?’” In the edit, she is painted as the problem contestant with an attitude problem, and Hilton criticizes her conduct on set. Lomis feels she was portrayed unfairly at the time: “People say to me now, ‘thank god you stood up for everybody.' Ten years on, people get it.”
Gable agrees. “Natasha was pissed that day. But it’s because that guy was a freaking asshole! They were sexist. Looking back, I can't believe they allowed some of the shit they did to us.”
In those early days of reality TV, few protocols existed concerning how contestants should be treated. Gable makes an alarming claim. “A lot of the producers really, really condoned drinking. They wanted us to be drinking all day.” As Gable wasn’t typically a heavy drinker, she ended up being hospitalized for dehydration. “It was gnarly.”
Flickinger confirms that producers pressured contestants to drink. “One time in this sushi restaurant [in episode three, Hilton chooses three contestants to take to Tokyo with her] they kept giving us all shots.” As Flickinger didn’t like to drink heavily, “I had to pretend to drink and act drunk the whole time.” (Hirschorn denies this, saying that producers had an “explicit policy, for legal and ethical reasons, not to encourage excessive drinking,” but he emphasizes that the show took place a long time ago, and he wouldn’t want to deny what Flickinger and Gable are saying completely.)
Flickinger also believes that she was picked as the winner early on. “I kind of knew I was going to win, because I was cast different to other people. I was coached more," Flickinger explains. "They would tell me [I was going to win] without saying it.” “Brittany wasn't picked as a winner up front, or groomed,” Hirschorn responds, “though I know Paris immediately liked her.”
Hirschorn acknowledges the show’s flaws. “At the time, we thought this kind of programming was consequence free, but I don’t think that any more. It feels morally compromised now in a way it didn’t then.” He no longer produces reality TV, although he doesn’t disavow the show completely: “I view it as a huge victory to get a show like that made at all.”
Still, he’s glad that times have changed. “The line for what is completely unacceptable versus what is just inappropriate has moved considerably… I think there’s something about the idea of ‘let’s put a lot of humans in a terrarium and see what happens’ that I would be much more careful about today then I was back then.”
Like a Rorschach test, you can watch Paris Hilton’s My New BFF and see divergent and, at times, contradictory things. Maybe it’s a self-parodying pastiche of the worst conventions of reality TV. Maybe it’s an egregious example of how reality TV wrings conflict out of participants at their expense. Maybe it's a light entertainment product—easily consumed, then best forgot. Most probably, it's all of those things. Is it hot? Probably not.