Paris Hilton on Tribeca Doc 'The American Meme' and Social Media: "I Created That Genre of Celebrity"

Paris Hilton attends the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival THE AMERICAN MEME Premiere-Getty-H 2018
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

The pop culture icon talks to The Hollywood Reporter about her role in Bert Marcus' new documentary and ponders her impact on today's Internet celebrities.

Paris Hilton is many things: hotel heiress, perfume mogul, DJ, recording artist, model, actress, fashion designer, former reality TV star, philanthropist and, most recently, fiancee to actor Chris Zylka. But above all, she is a pioneer — and, arguably, the original "influencer."

Hilton is the cynosure of director Bert Marcus' new documentary The American Meme, debuting at New York's Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. The film explores society's complex relationship with social media, with Hilton playing the role of den mother to today's crop of Internet celebrities, including "Queen of Vine" Brittany Furlan, Kirill Bichutsky (@slutwhisperer) and Josh Ostrovsky (@thefatjewish), who also appear as subjects.

According to Marcus, Hilton — who practically invented the art of being "famous for being famous" long before the advent of Instagram, Snapchat and the like — was the perfect centerpiece for his project, which he hopes sparks "one of the most important conversations we can have right now, especially with our youth," about the pros and cons of social media.

"Paris paved the way for creating a brand and a celebrity out of being herself and she turned it into a phenomenon. She's a businesswoman like no other," the filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter. "That's another thing that a lot of people don't realize: her business and how she's been able to turn this into a business that has endless longevity, as opposed to a quick 15 minutes of fame or just being a known celebrity."

He adds: "Social media can bring you fame, it can make you rich. But it can also be lonely and isolating, especially if you are on a chase for likes and end up having nothing to show for all that hard work. Paris has flawlessly figured out how to parlay her fame into something that's tangible. She created the blueprint."

Indeed, Hilton has reinvented herself in the 15 years that have passed since the premiere of The Simple Life, the Fox reality series that launched her and childhood best friend Nicole Richie into mainstream stardom. However, the show — which lasted nearly four years, ending its five-season run on E! in 2007 — left viewers believing that Hilton was just, as she says, "a spoiled, ditzy blonde." 

Eleven years and two more reality shows later, Hilton has transformed into being a formidable entrepreneur, overseeing an empire that includes 19 product lines, 50 brick-and-mortar retail stores across the globe and 23 different fragrances — which have reportedly exceeded $2.5 billion in sales.  (She's about to release her 24th.) Not to mention, she's cemented herself as a certified social media maven, with more than 50 million followers across all of her platforms. 

"I've always been really inspired by my family and they really instilled so much work ethic in me and have everything to do with my desire to be a businesswoman and a brand," she tells THR, unintentionally acknowledging the main disparity between herself and attention-hungry social media personalities. "That was my plan the entire time, from The Simple Life. I knew I wanted to have a huge empire."

Now, with The American Meme, Hilton is hoping to show the world her business-savvy side, while also offering a rare glimpse into the darker moments that may have impacted the trajectory of her career.

"I was never really showing the real me when I was on reality TV. I was playing a character, so I think anyone who doesn't know me would assume, 'Oh my God, that's how she is.' I really wanted to be completely honest in this film and tell the truth and clarify a lot of things that have been said about me and a lot of things that have happened in my life," Hilton says, adding that she held nothing back during interviews for the film. "I really just talk about everything."

In one scene, Hilton tearfully describes the emotional turmoil she suffered following her nonconsenting role in the 2004 release of a personal sex tape she made with ex-boyfriend Rick Saloman. After clips of the video, later titled 1 Night in Paris and distributed by Red Light District, were screened on broadcast news programs and made fun of in countless late-night TV monologues, Hilton felt broken, equating the experience to rape.

"It was like being raped. It felt like I've lost part of my soul and been talked about in such cruel and mean ways. I literally wanted to die at some points. I was like, 'I just don't want to live,'" she recounts in The American Meme. "Because I thought everything was taken away from me. I didn't want to be known as that. …I would never be who I could have been."

Hilton's honesty is the cornerstone of the documentary, Marcus says, making it the ultimate cautionary tale for those seeking eminence in the digital age when every questionable move or off-color remark is documented and preserved online.

"She didn't shy away from anything. Paris was brave enough to tell her truth. In the first conversation we had about the film, she told me, 'I don't give a shit anymore. I want to do something that is real, that has impact,'" he says. "Young people live in the now and you want to be relevant and have your name out there. People don't really think about the long-term repercussions, which is why Paris is sharing moments from her earlier life, where she made mistakes or trusted people she shouldn't have that took advantage of her. There is so much to be learned from Paris Hilton."

Below, Hilton opens up to THR about influencing influencers, fearlessly inviting Instagram followers into her home and taking social media "to the next level" with her latest business venture.

How would you compare what you were doing at the beginning of your career and what social media stars are doing right now?

I do feel like the OG of a lot of this, and I was definitely very before my time. When I first came in this industry as a teenager in New York City, there was no social media whatsoever. I was just being myself and creating a brand on my own without any of these tools. I created that genre of celebrity. Now kids can be in their bedroom with an iPhone and build a brand and persona and I think that's awesome. It's a whole new world and I love it. It feels good to be a part of something so huge. 

Do you ever wish you had social media during your days as a teen socialite in NYC?

No, I feel like kids nowadays don't know what real fun it was. When I was a teenager in New York, it was so much fun going out. No one was on their phone. No one was taking pictures or doing any of that. We were just there to literally have a good time. So I don't think it would have been as fun because people would have been on their phones the whole time.

When social media finally came around, were you relieved to take control of your own narrative rather than be at the mercy of the press?

Definitely. Being a teenager and being in Page Six every day with all these crazy rumors and stories, I never could actually tell the truth of what was really happening. But now, with social media, I can actually say the truth and have a voice that goes around the world and I can dispel any lies or evil things that people like to make up. I love being able to show the real me and invite the fans into my life and just see how it really is.

You communicate heavily with your fans via social media, often handing out your phone number, email address or even inviting them into your home. Why cultivate such an intimate relationship with your "Little Hiltons"?

Because I love my fans so much. My one fan Raul, his Instagram name is @parisslaysurfav. I'm obsessed with him. I saw he had commented on someone else's post, which said, "I need to come to Ibiza [for Hilton's DJ residency at club Amnesia], but I can't find a hotel." And he commented back, "I just worked five jobs. I saved up enough money for a ticket. I can't afford a hotel, so I'm just gonna stay on the bench at the airport." And when I read that, I just started bawling and told my fiance, "I'm just going to invite him to stay with us for the weekend." So I wrote him and he came and stayed with us. We had the best time. 

You say you trust your fans more than most of your lifelong acquaintances. Why is that? 

Growing up in Hollywood, it's really hard to find real friends that you can truly trust and that don't have bad intentions. A lot of people in my life have used me and back-stabbed me; and with my fans, they love me for me. There are no bad intentions. They truly just love me because they get me and they can see that my heart is true and genuine. So I really feel like they're my little brothers and sisters.

Your fans often compare you to Jesus, Mother Teresa and other religious figures in memes. Does that add pressure to your relationship with them?

It's so insane, but it's also so flattering. It's really fun to see these pictures and memes. It's a crazy feeling just to have somebody even think of me in a way like that. I always looked up to icons like Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana and Madonna and all these incredible women. So to be compared to people like that is just the most flattering compliment in the world.

You've suggested that fame can be an isolating experience. How do you feel less lonely?

Traveling around the world and being in a different country every week, it does get lonely. So it's amazing to talk to my fans all around the world on a daily basis. And it takes away that loneliness because you're actually interacting with people that you love. And when I meet them in person, it's incredible to see the smile on their face and the sparkle in their eye. It's the best feeling.

How has social media played a part in your reinvention?

I've always had that work acumen and I've always wanted to be a successful businesswoman. Now with social media, it's amazing how you can be your own network, your own magazine, your own television station. It's incredible the reach we have nowadays. It has definitely helped. 

In the film, you warn influencers that they might be haunted by the things they post. Are you careful about what you make public, so that nothing ever haunts you again?

Kids should be careful because I've seen people pouring vodka in their eyeballs and doing these crazy challenges that will be online forever, when they're older and they want to get a nice job and be respected. But at this point in my life, I'm an adult. I've been through it all and everything I'm doing now is basically about my business, my family, the love of my life [Zylka], friends and fun. I have nothing to hide, so I don't have to be too careful. But other people should watch out because you never know what's going to happen one day. 

Josh "The Fat Jew" Ostrovsky credits you for inventing the way the world thinks about influence, and implied that you opened the door for his success on social media. 

I was so touched when I heard that. Just spending time with him and hearing all the things he was saying to me about how I inspired him and calling me the OG meant so much because I'm a fan of his. I think he's a genius. He's so hilarious. I'm so proud of what he's done with his branding and with his White Girl Rosé. He's killing it, so it feels amazing to be able to inspire someone and for someone like him to give me that credit.

Which social media stars inspire you?

There are so many. Gigi Gorgeous, I'm really inspired by her. I just love everything about her. From her makeup to the way she dresses, she really lives up to her name. She's just gorgeous inside and out.

What is the hardest part about maintaining your online presence?

It is a ton of work. Thank God I have an amazing team capturing all the moments. It's a job in itself, but I actually do all my social media myself. That's the hardest part. I know a lot of celebrities I talk to, they tell me they don't even go on it. I'm old-school.

Are you ever tempted to walk away from social media altogether?

No. I'm an empire. I love what I do. I love staying in contact with my fans. I love keeping everyone updated. I love sharing my life. I can't wait to have a baby one day and put them in cute little Snapchat filters. It is tiring because I'm always traveling and doing all this on my own, but I'm never going to stop.

Who is Paris on social media versus Paris at home, totally unplugged?

On social media, I'm just fun and bubbly Barbie. Lots of glitter and sparkles. And then when I'm at home, I'm just chillin' in a ponytail and a Juicy Couture tracksuit and socks. No makeup, cooking, hanging out with my pets at home. That's my favorite place to be.

What's next?

I'm a huge tech geek. I'm obsessed with video games, with VR. And when I went on a trip to China a few years ago, I met with some incredible people who showed me these virtual reality worlds and they were like nothing I'd ever seen. And since then, I've become obsessed with it. I'm working with a company right now and we're about to launch a Paris Hilton virtual reality world, which is basically going to be the next social media universe where people from all around the world can come meet, can come hang out. You can be yourself or an avatar, whatever you want to be. I'm taking it to the next level. I've always been ahead of my time and now that I think about it, I've always loved being a pioneer.

Following Friday night's premiere of The American Meme, director Marcus, Hilton and the rest of the cast will participate in a Q&A panel, which will be live-streamed on the Tribeca Film Festival's Facebook page around 9:30 p.m. ET.