Starting more than 20 years ago, Paris Hilton built a carefree public image, becoming in the process a celebrity “influencer,” reality TV pioneer and social media star with millions of fans. But underneath it all was a very different Paris Hilton, a woman traumatized by experiences in her teenage years.
“This is the first time in my life where I’ve ever been so vulnerable, open and honest,” Hilton said on a panel for the documentary at Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted awards-season event. “It was a very therapeutic and healing experience. And I’m so grateful to have really opened up and told the truth, because I feel like I’ve just been misunderstood and underestimated for way too long.”
In the film directed by Alexandra Dean, Hilton recounts moving to New York with her family when she was 15. She started sowing wild oats, partying at New York nightclubs and becoming a fixture in gossip columns. Alarmed, her parents sent her away to various “tough love” boot camp-style schools, including one in Utah where Hilton says she and other students endured horrible treatment.
“These places are extremely abusive and on a daily basis I was physically, emotionally and psychologically, verbally abused,” she said. “It was just so traumatic and something I just never even wanted to think about again, or talk about or tell anyone. So I had no idea that I was ever going to reveal this part of my life.”
In Dean’s telling, it becomes clear why Hilton created an image at odds with what she had gone through.
“It is possible for a child who undergoes this kind of abuse and trauma to create and construct a fantastical kind of shield in the form of [a] persona,” she said. “I didn’t want to, obviously, exacerbate the trauma that was starting to show when we started to lift Paris’ mask and see the person behind it. And so I was trying to tread that line very carefully and thoughtfully.”
This Is Paris has recorded more than 21 million views on YouTube since its debut.
“Before the film premiered I was so nervous. I had no idea how the world was going to react. I was terrified. But then when it came out, just the outpour of love and support from all around the world was incredible and I felt people finally understood me,” Hilton said. “I had no idea just the power of being honest and truthful, what it would do and just how many people could relate to my story. And I feel like people finally understand and respect me.”
Check out the panel video above.