Watching This Is Paris feels like you’re truly seeing Paris Hilton for the first time. For the better part of two decades, the public thought they knew the real Paris Hilton: A spoiled heiress who leveraged money into fame; another celebrity with a sex tape; a vapid out-of-touch reality TV star. But This Is Paris reveals the contrary. What we’ve been seeing — the voice, the demeanor, the prim girly-girl — is a persona. We don’t know Hilton at all.
And now, the star is finally ready to take the mask off. As the documentary reveals, the reasons why she shielded her true self from the public are much more complex than anyone could have ever imagined.
Released as a YouTube Originals documentary on September 14, This Is Paris is an intimate portrait of Hilton as she continues to build her international empire while confronting childhood trauma that has largely shaped who she is today. When she was a teenager, she was emotionally and physically abused for nearly a year while attending Provo Canyon School in Utah. This experience would haunt Hilton for the rest of her life, affecting everything from her ability to trust family members to her ability to sleep at night. In This Is Paris, viewers see her face the past head-on for the first time.
Documentaries have become a popular outlet for celebrities in recent years, but This Is Paris is strikingly different in one major way: the director, Alexandra Dean, had the final say on what was revealed in the film. Hilton completely surrendered her story to the Emmy Award-winning journalist and director in an unprecedented way.
Dean gained notoriety for helming the 2017 documentary Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story about 1940’s glamour icon, actress, and inventor Hedy Lamarr. It was Dean’s ability to retell Lamarr’s remarkable story — the actress' accomplishments had been written off by the media at the time, depriving her of recognition for her groundbreaking work as one of the first inventors of Bluetooth technology — that made her the perfect match to tell Hilton’s story.
“I'm two years older than [Hilton], but I grew up alongside her, in a way,” Dean tells Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “The only person on the same number of magazine [covers] was Princess Diana. I remember wondering what was happening behind the scenes with this very famous face. I also heard that she went to [reform schools], and I knew that she was very private about it. There was this question mark hanging over her.”
The documentary does provide some answers, but it also leaves the viewer with more questions. In fact, Hilton herself is still trying to understand who she really is — when you wear a mask for most of your life, you can feel uncomfortable in your own skin. “The fear around people realizing who she is and not loving her brand anymore, that's really real and informed by her trauma,” Dean says, acknowledging the risk Hilton’s made by sharing her full story. “And if you don't understand that, you don't understand Paris Hilton.”
Refinery29: Since Paris Hilton had never spoken about her trauma before, why do you think she decided to do this documentary?
Alexandra Dean: “Originally, I thought she wanted to do it because she felt her reputation was kind of lagging behind this reality, which is that she's a really successful business woman and also the number one female DJ in the world. While we were doing the film, a deeper, psychological reason emerged and I think you see that happening: She was plagued by these nightmares and couldn’t sleep. She started to feel like if she did something about what was happening to these other kids who were going off to these abusive boarding schools, that maybe the nightmares would stop.”
Did the nightmares stop?
“Yes. At the very beginning of the press tour in January, somebody asked her, 'What's happening with your nightmares?', And she said, 'I don't have them very often since we stopped filming.' I got a kind of chill.
“When you're asking people to talk about trauma, the last thing you want to do is to exploit them again. You need to feel like you're doing something positive. Part of taking Paris back through her trauma was almost like a therapy for her. She told me at the beginning of us talking together that she couldn't go to a therapist because she’d felt abused by them in these schools. Therapy was part of her PTSD. I started to realize that she'd likely never reflected on these things, and that might be why she was plagued by these terrifying nightmares and couldn't sleep. Knowing how to use the media and feeling more comfortable with telling her story this way, she chose this as a path instead of therapy.”
How were you able to capture moments when Paris was being herself and not the persona?
“I knew I needed to be with her at moments where her whole entourage wasn't around, when she was in a point of self-reflection, when she kind of had to shed the armor for a moment. So one of the reasons I asked to be with her the whole time during that work trip to Seoul was that I knew that she had this punishing 24-hour schedule and she would do it for days at a time. At the end of it, I knew she was likely to hit a wall. I was looking for that moment to really say to her, ‘Okay, what's really happening here,’ because I knew the character wouldn't answer: It would have to be Paris.”
Was it difficult to tell when you were getting the character “Paris” versus the real Paris?
“Once I really got to know her, it became really clear [that] she's not really in control of it herself. It's like seeing somebody with two accents. I actually happen to have two accents: I grew up in London, but I'm an American. My accent wildly goes between the two, and I can't control it. I felt like that with Paris's character. She would slip into it and out of it, sometimes within a sentence. I sometimes thought I was seeing an animal in the process of transmogrification, like the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis.”
Do you think that you can capture authentic moments even when people know they are being filmed?
“The film is kind of a meditation on that. I do believe they can because there are points where the emotion takes over and you can't help your real self breaking out. You see that in the Tomorrowland scenes, where Paris and her ex-boyfriend [Aleks Novakovic] have this big fight. There's no way in that moment, when the emotions and the stakes are running too high, for her to be aware of the camera. It just falls away.
“Paris also hasn’t lived any of her life off-camera. So of all people, she is someone who has to learn how to be a normal person off-camera. The reason that last scene with her mother [Kathy Hilton] is riveting is because her mother really didn't know what happened to her. You can see that in the interview moment where I mentioned Paris’s ‘solitary confinement’ to her and she looks electrified.”
How did it feel when you realized that you were the first one to tell her mother about it?
“What's strange about being a journalist is that many things are happening in your head at once when you get an unexpected moment like that. I needed to know the level at which her mother actually understood what had happened, and now I had a clear sense. On another level, I was feeling alarmed that I'd been the one to tell her and hadn't realized that I was going to be the one to tell her. But I didn't want to talk to Kathy any further about what had happened, because I really wanted Paris to have the space to tell her mother herself.”
After spending a year with Paris Hilton, what is something that you were surprised to learn about her?
“I was most surprised that she would allow me to have editorial control at the end of it. That had been a prerequisite for me of making the film, but saying that at the outset and then allowing that to fly after are very different things. I watched her watch the whole cut next to me, shaking like a leaf. It was sort of like watching somebody without their skin, just shaking...just the nerves exposed.
“I thought, this is going to be really hard for her to accept — all of this stuff she'd never seen already knit into the narrative. She didn't love everything, but she allowed it. She didn’t fight me. She didn't cry. And I thought that was an act of really great bravery. I can't say that I would allow somebody to do that about myself. I think about it all the time: How did she allow that?”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.