In the early aughts, Paris Hilton invented a new type of celebrity: famous for being famous. Hilton became a regular character in the tabloids in 2001 and was deemed New York’s Leading It Girl, but most of us know Hilton from her stint on The Simple Life, a reality TV show that tracked her and fellow socialite Nicole Richie’s experiences doing manual labor on a farm. The reality show was, in its own way, an invasion of privacy, but it was a contract Hilton willingly entered into. “I basically created this character that was basically what I thought the audience wanted, like, ‘Oh, she’s rich, so she needs to be a spoiled airhead’ — basically what the producers told me to do,” Hilton said during a recent screening of The American Meme, a new documentary that tracks the rise of influencers like Hilton, at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.
A week before The Simple Life debuted in 2003; however, Hilton became associated with a far more damning invasion of privacy than reality TV. The tall, blonde heiress who people loved to hate was now the star of a sex tape that leaked on the internet. Three years earlier, when Hilton was 19, she and her then-boyfriend Rick Salomon filmed their intimate moments. Now, those moments would define her forever.
The tape itself – dubbed 1 Night in Paris by its distributor — became an instant sensation, and later, a pop culture relic. It was a legitimately newsworthy item, covered on news broadcasts and mocked on late-night TV. In 2005, the video won the AVN Award for “Best Selling Title of the Year,” “Best Renting Title of the Year,” and “Best Overall Marketing Campaign.” The fact that 1 Night in Paris won Best Marketing Campaign is suspect, considering the movie was sold on a campaign based off of exploitation and curiosity. After all, did Hilton happily allow the tape to be released? Did she want people to see her having sex? No; but people could anyway, and so they did.
This was hardly the first time that a celebrity sex tape was released to a viral audience. In 1995, a 54-minute sex tape (and home video) of Pamela Anderson and her then-husband, Tommy Lee, was released by their jilted electrician, Rand Gauthier, who stole a safe containing the video. And it was hardly the last time this occurred. Former Hilton bestie and relative unknown Kim Kardashian’s tape with Ray J came out in 2007. According to a Page Six oral history of the tape, Kardashian initially sued over the tape’s release, and then later settled with the distributor. In an interview on the Tyra Banks Show, Kardashian dismantled rumors that she leaked the tape herself. “Why would anyone want to put that humiliation on their family, like that? That’s something that I’m going to have to live with the rest of my life and have to explain to my children one day,” she said.
As with Hilton’s tape, Kardashian’s tape was released soon before the debut of her own reality TV show. Since Hilton and Kardashians’ rise to fame is chronologically linked to the release of their sex tapes, the common myth is that sex tapes were responsible for their fame. Even Gauthier thinks Tommy Lee owes him something. "I made his career, is what happened," Gauthier told Rolling Stone.
Recent comments from Hilton about her experience, however, force us to radically rethink the narrative that tapes increase celebrities’ public profiles and ultimately are a boon for their careers. In the screening for The American Meme, Hilton likened the experience of the tape’s release to extreme violation. “It was like being raped. It felt like I’d lost part of my soul and been talked about in such cruel and mean ways,” she said. Hilton resented that the tape would be associated with her forever — which it would be. “I literally wanted to die at some points. I was like, ‘I just don’t want to live,’ because I thought everything was taken away from me. I didn’t want to be known as that.”
It took a documentary made 14 years after the incident for Hilton to express how she really felt about the experience. Perhaps no one had asked before because her answer almost certainly would have spoiled the gleeful carnival of coverage surrounding the video. “Doing [The American Meme] was the first time I’ve ever talked about it. I’ve never talked about it like that with anyone, not even my friends,” Hilton said during the Q&A. “It’s one of the most painful and humiliating experiences that could ever happen to anyone.”
What 1 Night in Paris was, and what so many celebrity sex tape leaks are, was an act of revenge porn and extreme violation. In many instances, people once close to public figures will exploit their former intimacy to make a profit — a potentially huge profit. Anderson and Lee’s tape made $77 million (in legitimate sales) in less than a year. “It’s one of the most personal moments in your life, and for somebody you trusted to try and profit off of you is just so wrong. Nobody should ever have to go through that,” Hilton said.
But it’s not 2004 anymore. The attitude toward celebrity sex tapes seems to be changing. Perhaps the change stems, in part, from the famous 2016 verdict in Bollea v. Gawker. A jury ruled that the gossip site Gawker’s decision to post a video of Hulk Hogan — real name Terry Bollea — having sex with his friend’s wife wasn’t “newsworthy,” as Gawker’s editors had claimed. It was a violation of privacy. Gawker was ordered to pay $140 million in damages. After declaring bankruptcy, Gawker shuttered in 2016.
Kevin Hart’s recent brush with a sex tape underlines the takeaway in Bollea v. Gawker and shows we really might be in a new era. In 2017, Hart publicly admitted that someone was attempting to extort him with video of Hart having sex with another woman. At the time the footage was taken, Hart’s then-fiancée, Eniko Harris, was pregnant.
Rather than pay off the extortion fee, Hart came clean with an Instagram video in which he apologized to his wife and children. “I just simply have got to do better. But I'm also not going to allow a person to have financial gain off of my mistakes. And in this particular situation that's what was attempted. I said I'd rather fess up to my mistakes,” Hart said. It was recently revealed that the alleged extortionist was a close member of Hart’s entourage; he now faces four years in prison.
Hart’s emotional confession video was a reminder of the personal repercussions of a sex tape. He seemed to be saying: This isn’t entertainment; this is my life.
Realistically, celebrities are more likely to have their photos hacked than have their sex tapes sold to a porn distributor. On August 31, 2014 — a day that would later be known as the “Fappening” — a hacker released 500 nude and suggestive photos of A-listers to Reddit. This violation, and ensuing similar instances, prompted a dialogue on the ethics of looking at photos not meant for you. “Anybody who looked at those pictures, you're perpetuating a sexual offense and you should cower with shame,” Jennifer Lawrence, whose photos were shared, said in a 2014 interview with Vanity Fair. Essentially, just because a photo or a video is of a celebrity does not indicate it should be immediately be available for the public’s consumption.
In some ways, celebrities’ lives are much more public than they were when Hilton first got famous, pre-social media. We’re now privy to moments of their daily lives, and sometimes to their scantily clad selfies. The difference? We see what they choose to share, not what their exes or extortionists release, knowing a rapt audience awaits.