If you want to understand modern celebrity and influencer culture, you have to look back to Paris Hilton—the original “famous for being famous” icon of our era. The kind of celebrity Paris established (and influencers who’ve built on her legacy) is still despised by many. Yet while disliking the values Paris represented was (and is) valid, she was also subject to a shocking level of misogynistic bullying by the 00s media. We can question some of the trends she signaled, admire her for her business cunning, and feel bad for her as a human being all at once. Here’s our Take on why the world blamed Paris, and how she helped usher in the surreal world of famesque pseudo-event driven omni-celebrity we’re living in today.
If you want to understand modern celebrity and influencer culture, you have to look back to Paris Hilton — the original “famous for being famous” icon of our era. She became the human symbol of 2000s trends like the embrace of consumerism and materialism leading up to the 2008 financial recession; the dominant rail-thin female body ideal; and the growing, reality-TV-inspired hunger for content about celebrities offscreen. Paris was widely hated as a scapegoat for these larger shifts which she reflected. Meanwhile, as a kind of performance artist in a field that didn’t yet exist, Paris crafted a self-mocking, ironic persona that was a cross between a “dumb blonde” or a vapid rich girl. But many people took Paris’ brand act at face value. She was also subject to a shocking level of misogynistic bullying by the 2000s media, making her an important entry on the list of famous women who deserve a big apology.
In hindsight, Paris was a weird mix of puppet master, opportunist, and victim. Here’s our take on why the world blamed Paris, and how she helped usher in the surreal world of famesque, pseudo-event driven omni-celebrity we’re living in today.
Leaning into the fame
While Paris is often credited with inventing “famous for being famous,” the concept actually has a longer history in America. In the roaring twenties F. Scott Fitzgerald novel The Great Gatsby, Gatsby throws lavish parties and creates a cult celebrity status around his fortune, even though no one actually knows the real Gatsby. He cultivates this persona to woo his lost love, Daisy, symbolizing the American expectation that you need to be rich and famous for anybody to care about you.
In America’s booming post-WWII economy, celebutante Zsa Zsa Gabor demonstrated what scholar Neal Gabler calls the “Zsa Zsa Factor,” or “people who have gained recognition for having done virtually nothing of significance.” Gabor leveraged the attention she gained from her marriage to George Saunders to obtain movie roles, but it was her fame itself and her glamour — not her films — that defined her. Neal Gabler writes that what turns a famous person into a celebrity is “narrative” — He defines a celebrity as “human entertainment,” or “a person who, by the very process of living, provided entertainment for us.” Gabor (who would have nine husbands) embodies this to a T, also demonstrating how a key tool in increasing your fame is to date an established star.
Being the sibling or child of a famous person works the same way, as we saw in Paris and her other “celebutante” sidekicks who descend from the rich and famous. It’s natural that Paris would follow in the footsteps of Zsa Zsa, who was the second wife of Conrad Hilton — AKA, Paris Hilton’s great-grandfather. Both women flaunted their wealth and status, occasionally played into a vapid persona for entertainment value, and epitomized the key element of “famous for being famous,” which author Daniel Boorstin defined as “well-knownness.” Writing in the 60s, Boorstin critiqued all celebrity as hollow in this sense; quote: “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.”
In 2009, The Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger coined the term “famesque” to describe the characteristic of being more famous than one seemingly should be based on acting or music output alone. She wrote, “Sienna Miller is not famous. She is famesque.” While Miller is an actress, Argetsinger argues that most will know her due to her romance with Jude Law rather than her movie roles —one of which happens to be in Factory Girl playing Edie Sedgwick, another iconic “famesque” celebutante from the ‘60s.
In the 2000s, the anxiety and backlash around Paris in part came from the growing awareness that fame and obvious accomplishments were more divorced than ever, something many fiercely protested. Perhaps the deeper reason Paris’ fame made people uncomfortable was that it exposed the extent to which celebrity was a manufactured, at times absurd-feeling commodity.
And while Paris may not have been the first example of famous for being famous she was by far the biggest example of the phenomenon the world had ever seen. This was due to cultural factors that converged around her: the peak power of the paparazzi and tabloid machine met the dawn of reality TV, which maximized interest in the celebrity’s behind-the-scenes life. Another key feature of the “famesque” celebrity, which Boorsin highlighted, is “pseudo-events” — which he describes as planned occurrences, usually for the purpose of being reported on or viewed, with an ambiguous relationship to “reality.” Paris was a master of creating “pseudo-events” in tabloid and pop culture, playing pranks and doing vapid stunts like faking a plane crash to manufacture hollow entertainment. Since then, the Kardashians and countless Youtubers and social media stars have run with pseudo-events to create a steady stream of content. According to Boorstin, the celebrity is ‘“the human pseudo-event.”
In many people’s minds, Paris came to define this figure of the celebrity devoid of substance — and this was in part because of the specific persona she cultivated: the rich bitch. In Paris’ reality TV show, The Simple Life, she put on an over-the-top ditzy schtick. But the dumb blonde or “rich bitch” were calculated, artificial personas she actively cultivated to create a brand identity, thereby enhancing her fame and earning potential. Paris astutely applied her brand to all aspects of her public life, from her trademarked catchphrase — “That’s hot,” to her wardrobe, which frequently featured her wearing Juicy couture and carrying a designer bag with her chihuahua.
Paris Hilton: “Sorry, I’m so used to, like, playing a character that it’s like hard for me to, like, be normal.” - This Is Paris
The Sofia Coppola movie, The Bling Ring (which Paris blessed with a cameo) humorously pointed out she was so rich she was robbed multiple times without even noticing. Moreover, the frequent accusation that she was famous for being rich also wasn’t really true. Paris was famous for making a career out of partying; for performing her wealth a certain way; for taking an older idea of the “socialite” and making it something modern; and for picking up on a deeper sea change in the climate of fame and the media. She created a famous for being famous formula — which included, for example, having the sidekick — someone who’s playing the same type, but a slightly lesser star who won’t outshine you.
The Misogynistic Backlash
The harsh misogyny of 2000s tabloid, media, and comedy culture spared no famous woman, but it had a special target on Paris Hilton’s back. Paris was a “sex symbol” who established a style of behavior in her speech, wardrobe, and appearance that many young women emulated in her time. Her much-parodied 2005 Carl’s Jr. commercial incorporated her mix of playful irony and overt sexuality (and her “that’s hot” catchphrase), but perhaps most saliently it captured the impossible 2000s beauty standards. Women were expected to be a size zero, while being able to chow down like one of ‘the guys.’ Still, even the women who managed to attain that ideal were treated like pieces of meat and — because they performed the uninhibited sexuality that was expected of them — were assumed to have no inner value or brains. Paris gained attention for her sex appeal and her infamous sex tape, and she used her time’s beauty standards and tabloid culture to mold her brand in a sort of under-the-radar Girl-Boss enterprise — but she was ultimately hurt by those same forces. Paris’ tense relationship with the media reflected a deeply misogynistic time where powerful men (and women) felt completely comfortable roasting Paris to her face, pushing her to the point of tears, talking down to her, and treating her basically like an idiot. The total lack of sympathy and explicit ridicule directed at Paris seemed to assume that she deserved this backlash because she’d shamelessly chased celebrity by being ‘famous for being famous.’ And they were condemning her in order to condemn the cultural trends she represented.
Paris Hilton: “I’ve felt just so much pain for a long time just feeling like a punchline to so many jokes for people.” - Hot Ones
There are good reasons to dislike some aspects of what Paris’s persona seemingly embodied, like being famous for being rich; playing dumb to seem sexy; and presenting a transactional view of the world. But it was as if people thought that by disparaging her, they demonstrated their own integrity and refusal to worship at the altar of empty materialism, or as if their insults could restore an older “moral” hierarchy of who “deserved” to be famous. In reality, she made people uncomfortable because she exposed what the public wanted from the rich and famous.
The Paris Legacy
Paris’ greatest flaw as puppet master of her own story was actually not thinking big or radically enough. She created the template for a new type of celebrity and originated what would become today’s highly lucrative and ubiquitous influencer culture — yet in her early years, she still showed a lot of deference to the old Hollywood rules that a famous person had to be in at least some movies or music. Meanwhile, the Kardashians — who famously got their start due to Kim being Paris’ sidekick — never tried at all to be actors, or singers. Instead, they were forward-thinking entrepreneurs who saw opportunities that didn’t yet exist. Paris failed to evolve to maintain the same relevance that the Kardashians did. Still, even if she’s not quite Kim Kardashian, Paris has said her businesses have brought in billions of revenue and she’s been reported to have a net worth of up to $300 million.
Kim Kardashian: “She literally gave me a career.” - Access
Meanwhile, beneath Paris, Kim and Kylie, there’s an entire ecosystem of “created celebrities” on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Behaviors that Paris was criticized for, such as performing a semi-outrageous persona to court attention or flaunting wealth, are now the norm. So what can we make of Paris Hilton’s legacy, and her impact on celebrity today? Let’s start with some notable downsides to today’s influencer industry that grew out of Paris’ fame: One — chasing clicks: In today’s culture, influencers become ever more outlandish to keep getting views to build their brand and earn money. Paris understood this need to be a little performatively ridiculous, and that’s only escalated in the years since, as influencers like Logan Paul pull off increasingly shallow, ridiculous, and sometimes highly offensive stunts. Two — emphasizing material wealth: There’s also the critique that Paris capitalized on her wealth to signify her importance to society. She helped establish an American fame culture that prioritizes attaining wealth as the ultimate goal — when it’s neither an attainable goal for most people, nor a great value system on which to base a culture. Three — lack of substance: Influencers seeking attention through viral videos eventually took away eyeballs from others, including those thoughtful movies and cultural touchstones that used to give American culture meaning. Obviously you can’t blame Youtube for the death of medium-budget high-quality hit films, but it’s also striking that the 2021 Oscars ratings recorded fewer than a quarter of the viewers who watched this MrBeast video about selling houses for one dollar. Four — blurring the lines between public and private life: By making her every move a “pseudo-event,” Paris set up the expectation that celebrities should live in a fishbowl, their whole lives on display and open to judgment from the public. It also trickled down to regular people sharing everything about themselves — an erosion of the value of privacy for us all.
On the positive side, though, we’ve evolved from an old-school model of celebrity controlled by gatekeepers to a more open world where nobody has to give you permission to be famous. Influencers nowadays can push the envelope for good and challenge restrictive beauty standards in a way Paris could not. Yes, she was ultimately a rich heiress who got richer, but Paris Hilton blew the fame game open and exposed its inner workings, making new kinds of direct-to-fan paths possible. Most fundamentally, she exposed just how silly and fake celebrity is— she cheapened the value of fame in our eyes — and that’s good.
Ironically, while the perception of “Famous for being famous” was always that these people were lazy and lucky to get paid for doing nothing, being a modern influencer can be quite a lot of repetitive, unglamorous work. In recent years, Paris has carved out a career for herself as a top DJ — or as she’s framed it, what she’s always been: a professional partier. But while she clearly doesn’t need to work another day in her life, stories about her also emphasize her long hours and her identity as something of a workhorse. And even if most in her field are a lot less wealthy, this offers a suggestive window into how being an influencer who wants to stay relevant can be a pretty constant grind; it’s yet another iteration of hustle culture. So the true legacy of Paris Hilton was turning fame itself into a business like any other — success for modern influencers comes from putting in the time, turning out steady, consistent work, and continuing to show up to the job.
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