When The Simple Life debuted in 2003, I described it as a new low in reality TV with "bubble-headed party girls who wouldn't know which end of the champagne bottle to chug from if their bodyguards weren't there to help".
Turns out the joke might have been on me.
This Is Paris, a new documentary by director Alexandra Dean, makes the case that hotel heiress Paris Hilton is actually a genius. The film insists that the spoiled brat who claimed in The Simple Life pilot to have never heard of Walmart was actually just a Jean Harlow impersonator in a comedy routine, one she would continue to perform for more than a decade.
"Like, obviously, I know what Walmart is. It was all about entertainment," Hilton told TV critics earlier this year. "Anything that I was doing, I was always planning, in a way. I wanted to entertain the audience."
The dumb-blonde act paid off. Hilton, 39, gets six-figure paychecks for public appearances and has launched 19 product lines.
She also forged a trail for all future reality stars. At least five Kardashians owe her a Mercedes. It's fitting that the film is debuting on YouTube, a platform for young influencers who shouldn't even get access to the America's Got Talent parking lot.
"Starting off as a teenager, I basically created this kind of brand, and now it's kind of become like a formula where it's created a new genre of celebrity," Hilton said. "I feel proud of it in that way."
Dean was initially reluctant to take on the project but after meeting the socialite, she realised the film could be a perfect follow-up to her 2017 documentary, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, a profile of the screen siren whose talents as an inventor were largely overlooked.
"The question everybody was asking me after Bombshell was: Could it happen in America today?" said Dean. "Could we feel this way about a similarly gorgeous woman that we think we know? And could she be that misunderstood? And the answer is absolutely, unequivocally yes."
This Is Paris doesn't just want you to be impressed. It also asks you to be sympathetic.
Early in the film, Hilton reveals that she has recurring nightmares stemming from the period in which her parents, unable to cope with her "party girl" habits, sent her to several boarding schools, which she paints as strict boot camps.
Hilton claims she was physically and mentally abused by staff members during those years, allegations that are backed up by former classmates who join her for "survivor" sessions near the end of the film.
Hilton said the trauma from that period led to bad decisions – the sex tape seen 'round the world tops the list – and control issues.
In one of the documentary's few unflattering scenes, she overreacts during an argument with a boyfriend, ordering her posse to forcibly remove him from one of her DJ gigs.
But the film is mostly committed to shining a positive light on a long-maligned persona.
Hilton may not really be an underappreciated genius, but she's smart enough to know that Americans love a comeback story.
"I wanted the world to see that there are a lot of misconceptions, that I've been judged based on a character that I created in the beginning of my career," she said. "And now I feel like it's finally time that people see who the real Paris is." – Star Tribune (Minneapolis)/Tribune News Service
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