paris hilton is the greatest performance artist of our time
For the inaugural edition of Philippa Snow’s brand new column, TMZ Theory, she explores Paris's life as artistic performance, and examines the similarities between her and the singer/internet artist Naomi Elizabeth, who has perfected a pop bimbo persona.
If Paris Hilton did not exist, to paraphrase the philosopher Voltaire, it would be necessary for us to invent her. An all-American, near-Aryan blonde who shares a first name with the most romantic European city, a middle name with a Biennial, and a last name with a hotel chain, she seems pre-built for socialising, advertising, and making middle-aged columnists at newspapers completely apoplectic. She is racehorse slight and supermodel tall, but lightly flawed enough to divide media opinion as to whether she is, as she would most definitely put it, hot. Her lazy eye, on the left side of her long, feline face, gives her the air of being slightly stoned at all times. She is a dance music DJ, and a businesswoman, and a reality TV personality, and per about eight or nine million Google hits, she is “a slut.” She turned 38 this year, but dresses like a pageant toddler or a character from Mean Girls. She claims, although I would not know where to begin with proving the veracity of something like this, to be the inventor of the selfie. She is mostly blonde, so that when she appears in public as a brunette, it feels like we’re seeing her bad self, a doppelgänger or a cousin à la Twin Peaks. In her Beverly Hills home, she has an enormous portrait of herself made out of other, tiny portraits of herself. She owns, or has owned, a pet monkey named “Brigitte Bardot.”
"Hilton seemed in 2002 to be both of the moment, and as timeless and essential as Voltaire’s idea of God. Except: at one time, Paris Hilton did not actually exist, and it was necessary for somebody to invent her."
A perfect walking work of satire, born into a generation who elevated her to the status of a Goddess for her dumbness, her immense wealth and the way she breathed her catchphrase (“that’s hot”) as if she were so aroused she’d slipped into a coma, Hilton seemed in 2002 to be both of the moment, and as timeless and essential as Voltaire’s idea of God. Except: at one time, Paris Hilton did not actually exist, and it was necessary for somebody to invent her. That somebody happened to be Paris Whitney Hilton, b. 1981, one of the best, most enduring and most terrifyingly committed artists of the age, a Marina Abramović whose medium is modern American vapidity rather than, say, energy transference, or heterosexual cruelty. The soft baby voice she speaks in on TV is nothing like the voice she uses in her private life, which she describes as “very low,” and her intense love of historic blondes suggests an interest in the iconography of female famousness beyond the typical starlet obsession. “There’s nobody in the world like me,” she once purred. “I think every decade has an iconic blonde, like Marilyn Monroe or Princess Diana, and right now, I’m that icon.”
“[Her home decor] feels too self-aware to be real,” W magazine mused, visiting chez Paris in 2017 for a profile with the title Paris Hilton Invented Everything You’re Doing in 2017, and She Knows It. “[It’s] too in on the joke. On Hilton’s bookshelf, for example, are a selection of the For Dummies series, ( Nutrition, Pilates, Poker, and The Bible), as well as a copy of Valley of the Dolls. And on her kitchen counter are three cookie jars labelled Uppers, Poppers, and Quaaludes.” The role Hilton plays now is that of a Stepford Wife who’s never married, or — seeing as she already left the necessary context clue — a kind of flat-chested Jennifer North from Valley of the Dolls, all sex and sweetness and no obvious talent. She is, it is easy to infer, playing at being America itself: rich, white, doll-like and as consumable as a hamburger, the character of Paris Hilton cannot help but comment on the times. When she said “This is Earth. Isn’t it hot?” she was admittedly not strictly speaking about climate change; but with great artists, isn’t the temptation to apply one’s own interpretation?
Only when she released her new single, an electro-ode to asses — “fuckboys everywhere trying to make a pass/but I can’t stop looking at my best friend’s ass” — did it occur to me exactly who her vibe as an invented personality suggested to me: not Amalia Ulman, whose Excellences & Perfections also used the medium of Instagram to lampoon an image-obsessed culture, but the singer and maybe-performance-artist Naomi Elizabeth, whose homemade videos show her dancing horribly and jerkily to music that approximates chart pop from an adjacent, similar-but-different universe: one where Rihanna might have cut a single with The Residents. Unlike Paris Hilton, who describes herself as “sexy but not sexual,” Naomi Elizabeth is sexual but not sexy, her songs sometimes as tight and as crystalline as the best tracks by Lana Del Rey, and sometimes spooky in the way that something not-quite can be spooky, as if written via algorithm, or improvised in a nightmare. She has also recorded a song in which The Topic is Ass, although rather than being about the hotness of her best friend’s derriere, it is for some reason about the notion that American-born asses have their own elected president.
Reddit users are divided over whether or not Naomi Elizabeth is “fucking brilliant,” “a spoiled moron,” “mocking pop music”, “vapid”, “a cult artist”, “smooth as 50grit sandpaper”, or “hilarious”. I believe that she is probably a genius. “It is true that a lot of attractive trucks and SUVs proposition me for sex,” she deadpans to camera, in a 15-second Twitter clip pitched somewhere between Babestation and Tim and Eric, “but I wouldn't admit it, because I don’t think the owners of the cars know.” “If you were walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, as you say you were,” she offers blankly in another, “then why weren’t you running? Because that sounds very spooky.” If it is hard to picture Paris Hilton on a verbal jag this surreal or amusing, you may not have spent enough time listening to Drunk Text, the dance single from 2012 she guested on whose lyrics include: “To take the world sex, and mix it with texting/It's called sexting/When you add drunk sexting/The words just don't make sense,” and “I went out to the club the other night/To, you know, dance with my bitches.” In the 2018 documentary The American Meme, too, she proved that she had spent a not-inconsiderable amount of her time in contemplation of the speed at which she might traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death. “My biggest fear,” Hilton admits, “is to die, because I have no idea what happens after. And I’m really scared that it’s nothing, because that would be beyond boring.”
Didn’t Hamlet say the same thing? To believe the lie that Paris Hilton is above all else an idiot baby, a spoilt heiress with a voice like a particularly easy cartoon rabbit, is the same thing as believing that a woman who once posted a shot of herself wearing a wedding dress with “REST IN PEACE, BITCH” written on it in black marker (“a tribute to my friend who died”) on Twitter is “a moron”, “vapid,” not in on the joke: it misses the fact that to imitate the kind of woman who is vacuous, a capitalist, obsessed with her money and her own good looks and derided as much as she is desired is in this era to land on a true, incisive form of satire. Intention almost does not matter; what is crucial is what being this way says about our lives, the way it makes those who observe it feel. Posting an image of herself on Twitter last month wearing a bikini, flanked by extraterrestrials, with the caption “I’ve always felt like I’m from another planet,” Paris ended up producing something doubly surreal. It is absurd to think that she could come from any other place, another time, when she’s an artist for right now.