A couple of weeks ago, writer Jo Piazza witnessed a swarm of about 20 paparazzi at L.A. restaurant The Ivy. This is a usual occurrence at the place, and Piazza figured it was just "a Kardashian sitting on the patio." She asked photographers who was there, and, to her dismay, they replied, "Paris Hilton."
"I said, 'Does anyone care?'" Piazza recalled. "And they said, 'Well, we do now because of The Bling Ring.'"
Until press for the movie picked up in earnest, Paris Hilton was merely a husk of her formerly huge persona — a relic of shameless Bush-era wealth who still enjoyed great fame overseas but was easily ignored in the U.S. Some cherished Hilton's lost grip on fame because it represented the faint hope that the mind-bogglingly vacuous and boring era of the Kardashians would also one day end. If she was going to come back in a big way, it wasn't going to be easy. But America loves a comeback story, and The Bling Ring gave Hilton the opportunity to re-emerge. Yet the flourishing renaissance Hilton could be enjoying right now just hasn't quite materialized.
The Bling Ring was the perfect opportunity for Hilton to sneak her way back into the media. She saw that the artsy film could help her turn a corner, allow her to trade her party-girl persona for something more meaningful, and associate in a big way with Sofia Coppola — impossibly chic wearer of clothes, close friend to Marc Jacobs, and a talented woman many see as thoughtful, inspiring, and visionary. Coppola and the film offered Paris the chance she'd been waiting for to re-enter the spotlight. Indeed, her Q Scores — a measure of celebrities' appeal — will be updated for the first time since 2011 in August.
To some degree, Hilton capitalized on this. She made a cameo in the film and let Coppola shoot in her home. She did TV interviews with Piers Morgan and David Letterman to promote the movie and herself. And she let Coppola photograph her at home for Elle magazine. Those photos display a newly demure side of the socialite: Hilton sits on her patio wearing a slouchy sweater and low-heeled Oscar de la Renta pumps, and sits upright in an armchair wearing a conservative, pale blue A-line Valentino dress. The spread is edgy without trying, possessing the same effortlessly cool air synonymous with Coppola and her films. Finally, Hilton appeared of-the-moment rather than like a ghoulish version of her old self. She looked like she'd grown up.
Hilton's transition from New York It girl to bona fide celebrity began in 2000, after Nancy Jo Sales, author of the book on which The Bling Ring is based, wrote about her for Vanity Fair. At the time, "she was just this girl in nightclubs dancing on tables," Sales said. Before The Simple Life premiered in 2003, making her and Nicole Richie international stars, the sex tape came out. Hilton exploits, mostly revolving around her nighttime partying, saturated the media so much that Lloyd Grove banned her from his gossip column at the New York Daily News. Later, the Associated Press vowed not to write about her for a whole week. By the time the second season of reality competition show Paris Hilton's My New BFF came out in 2009, it was hard to get the American public to care about anything she did. Though she faded from the press after eight or nine years of utter Paris saturation, she had still made an enormous imprint on the culture of celebrity and reality television. Hilton made it possible to be famous for being famous.
The now-32-year-old Hilton in those Elle photos looks like the kind of fallen star America would usher back to fame. Maybe she could join Bravo's Housewives — that's the kind of move that would make sense for a formerly super-famous socialite in her early thirties. But then you click over to her Twitter feed, and you start to think the image of Hilton on her patio wearing kitten heels is just a rouse. Here, you're faced with a magnified version of the old Paris Hilton. She'll tell all her followers to watch The Bling Ring trailer because she's in it. But in the next breath she's telling everyone to stop by her summer residency as a DJ at an Ibiza nightclub, or Instagramming photos of herself wearing a crown of daisies or light-up tutu at a rave.
She's self-consciously and comically narcissistic, which enables her likability somewhat — instead of being mindlessly self-absorbed, she acknowledges she's ridiculous and owns it. But her image is inconsistent, which helps explain why the reintroduction of Paris Hilton just isn't gelling.
"She still thinks her brand is back in 2004," said Piazza, author of Celebrity Inc.: How Famous People Make Money. "She doesn't realize her shelf life as that person" — a party girl who dances on tables in nightclubs — "is over. If she wants to continue to be a viable celebrity brand she needs to move into the next phase." Kim Kardashian, who copied the Paris Hilton model of celebrity, right down to the sex tape, understands that. Each year, her life enters a new phase — whether it's getting married, divorced, or pregnant.
Sales thinks Hilton won't ever enjoy Kardashian levels of fame. "Kim Kardashian took the Paris model of reality star success and did her one better," explained Sales, noting parallels right down to the sex tape. "Kim has a more sustainable model because she's a nice girl. She's boring as hell, but she's nice. She doesn't get arrested, she doesn't get DUIs, she doesn't flash her panties, she doesn't go in and out of jail, she loves her family, she doesn't use the n-word."
And though Paris Hilton might not ever be as famous as she once was, she never really went away and she'll never really go away. She still gets paid to make appearances at parties overseas, has more than 11 million Twitter followers, and makes a fortune off perfume sales. We just don't see her on TV or read about her as much.
"What's surprising people about her coming back now is she's also a symbol of the Bush era," said Sales. "This is when we had the rise of the plutocrats and the one percent, leading up to the financial collapse. And 'Paris the heiress' — she's sort of the face of all that."
Once The Bling Ring blitz dies down, Hilton could very well turn in the kitten heels and cable-knit sweaters and go back to her life as a party girl with the 21-year-old boyfriend. But if she wants to hold onto any tabloid real estate, she'll probably need to drop a new piece of major news about her personal life, like that she's engaged or pregnant. And she might have to do it soon, because The Bling Ring buzz may already be fading.
While working on this piece, I Gchatted a friend who works at one of the top celebrity weeklies about Hilton, and this is how it went:
Me: What do you think of Paris Hilton?
Friend: I don't think of Paris Hilton.