Paris Hilton doesn’t call herself #TheOriginalInfluencer for nothing
It's difficult to imagine The Simple Life getting made in 2018. The show's premise – take two white, cisgender, super-rich LA natives and send them to work a normal job – veers too close to being problematic. But when the first episode aired 15 years ago, The Simple Life definitely captured a moment, attracting 13m viewers to US network Fox. Arriving 18 months after The Osbournes and three years before Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, it was a very early example of reality TV that documents the lives of the rich and not-quite-famous, making celebrities out of heiresses in a pre-Kardashian era. It surely helped that Paris Hilton was already notorious because of a recently leaked sex tape that prompted an inevitable wave of internet slut-shaming. ("I feel embarrassed and humiliated,” she said in a press statement less than a fortnight before The Simple Life debuted.)
As an awkward, closeted teenager, I loved The Simple Life so much that I got the season one DVD for Christmas in 2004. I admired Hilton and Nicole Richie's unabashed confidence and completely authentic camaraderie, and the way they could make any situation fun by basically being silly AF. To this day, I'm still kind of disappointed if I drop a "sanassa!" into conversation and someone doesn't get it. But like a lot of viewers, I got tired of the show pretty quickly. In the US,The Simple Life was downgraded from Fox to cable network E! for its third and fourth seasons, before being cancelled altogether.
Even so, more than a decade after the final episode, Paris Hilton is still a thing. She's said that she earns up to $1 million per DJ set. A 2017 Marie Claire profile reported that she has “18 product lines, including clothing and accessories for kids and pets, sold in at least 63 countries”. Her pop-reggae bop “Stars Are Blind”, the sole proper hit from a sporadic recording career, has somehow become low-key iconic. In 2015, Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander tweeted: “I will never write a better song than stars are blind.”
But Hilton's most significant impact on pop culture could be the career path she helped to pave for today's reality stars-turned-social media influencers. Kim Kardashian, seemingly an on-off friend of Hilton’s, has refined and super-sized Hilton’s formula of turning reality show notoriety and an ostentatious LA lifestyle into an extremely lucrative business portfolio. Everyone from Jersey Shore’s Snooki to Real Housewives’ Karen Huger to Hilton’s Simple Life co-star Nicole Richie has now launched her own perfume. In the UK, Gemma Collins can rake in more than a million a year by capitalising on a celebrity persona that’s different from Hilton’s, but just as clearly defined and immediately recognisable. Every Love Island star who cashes in after the series by collaborating with brands is essentially selling a sort of post-Hilton aspirational glamour.
These days, Hilton may not be a top-tier social media star – she has 9.8m Instagram followers to Kylie Jenner's 120.2m – and she's not a gossip site staple like Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin. The last time she came close to dominating the pop culture conversation was when she admitted, then denied, voting for Donald Trump in the US presidential election. But a quick scroll through her recent Instagram posts proves surprisingly revealing. She promotes her latest perfume, her DJing, and her own back catalogue. But there are no galling #spon posts for anything like the dubious “fitness teas” that the Kardashian-Jenners have been criticised for endorsing. Maybe Hilton just isn’t that appealing to brands in 2018 – or maybe she’s honed her own so much that she simply doesn’t need to collaborate with the crap ones.
Most significantly, Hilton seems self-aware and self-reflective about the crux of her appeal – the sign of a true social media influencer. She frequently plays up to her inherent kitschness, is known for sharing many memes of herself, and even calls herself #TheOriginalInfluencer. In her cover interview for the latest Gay Times – itself a testament to her enduring camp image – Hilton reiterated once again that her Simple Life persona was just that: a persona. “What most people don’t know is that it was a character that I came up with for the show, and created for several reasons," she says. “I had so much fun doing it, and I love being able to prove people differently today.”
Hilton’s Simple Life persona is arguably the only Paris Hilton that the public knows. She was the first person to do what, in 2018, thousands are doing: leveraging a public reality TV character into a profitable #PersonalBrand. And she’s kept it going for over a decade. But if you asked me to guess what she’s like IRL, on a night out that she isn’t being paid to attend, I wouldn’t have a clue. For someone who’s built a super-successful career off the back of reality TV – a genre that thrives on stripping back the gloss and humbling its subjects – that looks a lot like playing the game, and winning.