Browse all

Why Paris Hilton is the original influencer

A part from her Y2K looks, the heiress is the forerunner of 1990s personal branding

Why Paris Hilton is the original influencer  A part from her Y2K looks, the heiress is the forerunner of 1990s personal branding

Paris Hilton is capable of conquering more than an entire decade. For the 42-year-old-boss-babe numbers are crucial: 20 years have passed since 2003, the date of her debut in the TV series 'The Simple Life' that made her world famous, during which her net worth grew to 300 million dollars - also thanks to her $1-million-a-night DJ sets. The heiress of the Hilton Hotels has built her empire with 45 boutiques and 19 product lines in various market segments, from perfumes to publishing with 11:11 Media and in the Metaverse, basing everything on her image. On several occasions she has called herself 'The OG Influencer', mimicking the American slang for street-credibility, because she is aware that she was the forerunner in making her own person into a real brand, inspiring Kim Kardashian and many other personalities who have followed in her footsteps by founding businesses simply by being themselves.

Becoming a product was a popular branding and business strategy even before the year 2000. Just think of how many actresses and athletes have pushed products and services by lending their faces as campaign testimonials. Apart from the actual possession of a talent that was attributed to the values of a certain product, self-branding before Paris-Hilton was different. She was the first to succeed in getting herself talked about in an almost morbid way by the press, well before social media enabled instant coverage and self-storytelling capable of monetising oneself.

In the 1990s Paris was a model who enjoyed the good life on the beaches of Miami and Los Angeles, hopping from one yacht party to another, shooting sex tapes and gaining media attention with her exquisite Y2K outfits. During this time she posed for Christian Dior, Guess?, Tommy Hilfiger, Guess by Marciano and Iceberg Vodka before being hired by Trump Model Management. Her eccentric look poised between a grunge & glam clubber aesthetic became a signature look, based on crotch-waisted trousers, sequins, evening shades, headbands, and a fuchsia Motorola Razor. The turning point of her career came when she was offered to star with her BFF of the time Nicole Richie in the cult reality show 'The Simple Life', in which the heiresses were supposed to live like normal people, working and doing ordinary things such as grocery shopping and the laundry.

Paris and Nicole captured the public's attention and nurtured their voyeuristic ambition by being followed in every way by cameras, even in the bedroom. The series opened an important chapter for American TV which would later give way to the reality TV format, such as Keeping up with the Kardashians, in which the uninhibited, blonde girl attitude that was popular at the time actually created the job of the influencer. Paris commented on DuJour:

""I was playing a character on The Simple Life, so I don’t blame people for thinking I was ditzy,” says Hilton, now 33. “People assumed that’s who I really was. Now they meet me and realize I’m completely different. But it doesn’t bother me that people thought I was dumb. Playing that character made life easier—I do have a certain amount of shyness, which I’m sure is a surprise to people. And I’ve never cared what people think about me—I know the truth. I’ve always known what I was capable of".

Thanks to the success of the series, which continued for four seasons, in 2004 Paris launched her own product line with Parlux Fragrances, entering for the first time in the perfumery industry. After her grand entry into the world of business and the launch of products that merchandised her public persona, Paris continued to cash in on all fronts over the years: fashion and product collaborations, such as Juicy Couture and Moet & Chandon, Lanvin, TV appearances - impossible to forget the MTV series "My New BFF" or the Netflix series "Cooking with Paris" - investments, philanthropic donations, books, masterclasses, podcasts and her starring in the real estate bubble in the Roblox Metaverse. The influencer has also promoted social causes such as the shutdown of Group Youth Facilities, where she was abused in the 1990s and for which she has also lectured the US Congress in October 2021. Although not a directly monetisable move, philanthropy and social engagement are some of the most recognised modes of brand reputation.

Her image has grown by leaps and bounds thanks to the luxury positioning designed as per a real brand. All her collaborations reflect her values of exclusivity and American style, a little 'tacky' but always at premium levels. Her beauty brands, including hair extensions and Korean skincare, as well as her clothing and footwear lines all bear her name and do very well in the Middle Eastern markets. In an interview with Fortune, Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor at Cornell University who studies female entrepreneurship in the age of social media, commented on the American heiress's empire. 

"She was engaging in a strategic self-promotion model before self-branding became something everyone did. Now we take it for granted. ... She was doing it a decade before everyone else".

Paris can be defined as a business model based on self-promotion, as even the heiress-turned-DJ's documentary 'This is Paris' demonstrates her professional growth, an aspirational benchmark that can also be taken as an example if one decides to forget her unparalleled privilege. Another note of merit for Paris is her ability to reinvent herself after a period of absence from the scene: her documentary 'Cooking with Paris' entertained many viewers, demonstrating that she is capable of evolving the character she created years ago according to the times and communication channels.

Her persona is a pop-culture myth. She has been parodied in many cult films of the 1990s, such as White Chicks and Legally Blonde, in which the prototypical blonde heiress is targeted and taken to extremes to make the audience laugh. Even in criticism, Paris catalysed attention adhering to the fundamental motto 'bad press is still good press'. In 2013, Paris, or rather, her Calabasas mansion, was also called into question by Sofia Coppola's The Bling Bling. In the film, the celebrity figure is portrayed as an unattainable idol with whom the protagonists were obsessed. Her status is coveted and envied to such an extent that she violates the privacy of her home, demonstrating the dark side of how letting fans into one's life can have dramatic consequences. Paris herself commented on The Los Angeles Times: «They were so obsessed with me that they wanted to steal my life. It's a scary world we live in today.»

The relationship between mythomania and celebrity has always run on a razor's edge, and Paris knows it well. To this day, having recently become a mother, she continues to tell her story on social media but lives a more secluded life with her husband Carter Reum, and although she exposes herself for philanthropic reasons and new business ventures in the Metaverse, she lives her life more lightly, although it is now thanks to her if being an influencer and living in front of cameras is a normal thing for many.