Photos by Amy Lombard
Through the power of a fake baby voice, Paris Hilton launched a business empire, invented reality TV superstardom, and disrupted American culture years before Facebook or the Kardashians.
On the seventh floor of a building in downtown Manhattan, Paris Hilton holds scissors over a male model's head. She wears a black bustier, but only tighty-whities and twinkling light body hair cover the model's skin. "Are you ready for a haircut?" Paris asks. He nods.
What else is a straight man to do? At 34, Paris Hilton has accomplished more than most people do in a lifetime. In 2014, Women's Wear Daily reported Paris had sold over $2 billion worth of perfume. (Last month, she released her 19th fragrance, a limited edition of her second-best-selling fragrance, "Heiress.") And over the past 15 years, she has opened 50 "Paris Hilton" stores in over 40 countries; licensed her name and brand to 17 product lines; opened a resort, the Paris Hilton Beach Club at Azure in Manila, Philippines (construction is nearly completed on a second hotel in the Philippines); created Paris Hilton Junior, a clothing line for children, with Genesi Srl; launched a cosmetics line with Pearl World in China; performed three Foam & Diamonds summer DJ residencies at Amnesia, the Ibiza nightclub; and disrupted the rules of American celebrity years before Facebook, Uber, and a zillion other startups disrupted technology.
On this rainy day in March, Paris is posing for Adon, a high-end men's fashion magazine sold in SoHo magazine shops. The editors have chosen a biblical theme for the spread—casting Paris as Delilah, the Virgin Mary, and other characters. Paris runs the shoot. She quizzes the photographer on his vision and the magazine's distribution plan: "When does this come out?" she asks him. In between setups, she DJs on her laptop, playing her 2014 single "Come Alive," Destiny's Child's "Independent Women," and Oasis's "Wonderwall." As I come to realize over the three days I spend with Paris, she DJs 24/7. The other thing she does constantly is work. While getting her makeup done, she Instagrams images on her phone. When the photographer shoots portraits of her, she tells her publicist Dawn Miller to take behind-the-scene photos on one of Paris's three iPhones.
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Like Hillary Clinton, Paris loves her cell phones and keeps her files on a personal server, which Paris relies on while traveling every week for work. She often travels with her boyfriend, the Austrian businessman Thomas Gross, but when he's busy running his own empire, she brings along her best friend and personal photographer Jennifer Rovero, a.k.a., Camraface.
Photo courtesy of Paris Hilton
People who don't follow all of Paris's makeup artists and hairstylists on Instagram may find this idea of "work" laughable, but to keep up with all their business obligations, high-earning celebrities must wake up obscenely early (sometimes at 5 AM) and travel every week. Paris's life blends work, vacation, and social activities into one 24/7 jet-setting lifestyle. She claims she travels so often, she doesn't experience jet lag. "I love hotels because of room service," she says. "They always clean the room, and it's, like, always perfect." But, for several years, she has been "sick of coming to New York—which is, like, where I was born and my hometown—and staying in a different hotel every time." So she purchased an apartment in the East Village. The apartment has been decorated with a Zebra-print couch and a hanging portrait of a dead socialite.
"My interior designer picked that,'" Paris tells me in a deep voice, which is startlingly unlike the baby voice she used on her reality show, The Simple Life. "I was like, 'Who is that? Why is that not a picture of me up there?' But I was joking: I don't really look up to socialites now."
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Today, Paris idolizes businessmen like her great-grandfather Conrad Hilton. To run her day-to-day operations, she employs a full-time office in Beverly Hills, but Donald J. Loftus, the president of Parlux, the company that releases Paris's fragrances, says Paris helps design her fragrances' bottles, choose the scents, and plan the marketing campaigns. "She is the hardest-working person," he says. Paris estimates that only Elizabeth Taylor has sold more celebrity-branded perfume than she has. (She will probably eventually break Taylor's record, since the actress is dead.)
At a "blogger breakfast" to celebrate the launch of her 18th fragrance, Paris Hilton Limited Anniversary Edition for Women, I see Paris's hustle in full swing. She struts from table to table to give bloggers quotes. (Paris struts—she never walks.) Wearing a blue dress and white jacket with studs, she explains how her outfit matches her perfume's sparkly, silver bottle.
"I wanted to design something like me," Paris says. "If I was to be a perfume bottle, I would be that perfume bottle."
At the start of breakfast, Loftus gives a speech about Paris's business accomplishments in the fragrance business and presents her with a framed photo of herself holding a bottle of perfume. Paris's voice climbs to her high-pitch baby voice: "I love it. I'll put it in my new [apartment]," she gushes. "I couldn't imagine as a little girl I'd be in fragrances!" Then she sits down with Loftus and her publicist for breakfast at a white table. Her voice drops to her natural pitch: "I was in Hong Kong [for a charity event]," she tells Loftus. Then she turns around, pulls out her iPhone, takes a selfie with Loftus and Miller, and then returns to talking in her deep voice.
"When I run my business, I'm like a businessman," Paris tells me two days later. "I feel like a dude sometimes."
Or, as her sister Nicky Hilton Rothschild puts it: "[Paris] didn't get this far being dumb."
Paris Whitney Hilton was born in New York City on February 17, 1981, to Richard Hilton (Hilton founder Conrad Hilton's grandson) and Kathy Richards, a child actress and sister of future Real Housewives of Beverly Hills stars Kyle and Kim Richards. Throughout her childhood, Paris flip-flopped between Beverly Hills and Manhattan, and today she owns homes in both cities. Her Manhattan apartment looks more like an installation project about Paris Hilton the American icon than the home of Paris Hilton. On the wall, she hangs two pieces of art: a photograph of paparazzi that flashes when you plug the photo's cord into the wall, and a painting of Paris with Andy Warhol, Darth Vader, and other American icons. The living room includes a statue of a dollar sign, bottles of her own perfume on shelves, and a copy of Paris's memoir Confessions of an Heiress. This is normal to Paris.
"I was born a brand," Paris says. She's curled up on the couch with her Chihuahua Peter Pan, and a fire blazes in a fireplace filled with crystals.
Where other rich kids' parents expected them to live off family money, the Hiltons urged Paris to become her own woman from a young age. Paris says, "I had a lot of pressure to want to even do bigger things—to make my family proud of me and to also become my own person." She took the message to heart, viewing her father and grandfather as "mentors" rather than father figures.
"She was always interested in [father's] company and how it worked," Nicky remembers. "She would snoop around."
Nicky remembers Paris tagging along with their dad to work at his realty brokerage firm Hilton & Hyland. The young Paris, Nicky says, looked very different from the future Paris Hilton brand. Nicky describes Paris as "very much a tomboy" and "definitely not a sissy." She hated the color pink and dreamed about becoming a veterinarian. After school in Los Angeles, Nicky says, Paris would play with the assortment of pet animals she had hoarded: reptiles, snakes, dogs, and ferrets. Nicole Vorias, a producer on the first season of The Simple Life, remembers Paris telling her stories about childhood pets. "She had snakes, turtles, gerbils, rats—all sorts of animals," Vorias says. "She was like Michael Jackson." To convince her father to buy her pets, Paris employed the baby voice.
"[The baby voice] developed when I was like really young, when I was a baby or a kid," Paris says. "If I wanted to get something from my dad, I'd be like, 'Dad, I really want this!'"
"Her voice octave went very high and sweet when she wanted something," Nicky says.
If you're in on the joke, you know what you're doing, you're aware of it, and you're doing it purposefully, I think it's actually smart.
Richard realized what Paris was doing and stopped buying her pets, so Paris saved her allowance and paid for her own animals. Her parents had purchased Charlie's Angels star Jacqueline Smith's former mansion in Bel Air, and Smith had left behind a dollhouse with running water and electricity. Paris, Nicky says, hoarded her chinchillas, rats, mice, hamsters, and—at one point—a goat in the dollhouse. "I don't think [our parents] found out [about the goat]," Nicky says. "[The dollhouse] was [so] far away from the main house that my parents never went down there." Today, Paris credits the dollhouse as the inspiration for the life-size dog house in her backyard in Beverly Hills.
As a teen, Paris lived in California while Nicky attended school in Manhattan. When Nicky visited Paris across the country, she discovered the teenage Paris Hilton looked very different from Paris the childhood animal hoarder. Nicky describes her sister then as a "bubbly, bright, and blonde" California girl.
During one visit, Nicky says, Paris wanted to take her to a club. Nicky worried bouncers would reject her since she was underage. Paris, Nicky says, proceeded to line Nicky's eyes with black eyeliner, place an unlit cigarette in her hand, and put sunglasses on her face. "Don't talk," Nicky says Paris told her. "Just stand there and pretend to smoke a cigarette, and you'll look older."
Paris had learned to act like different characters in certain situations to get her way with men. "One is not born, but rather becomes a woman," French existentialist Simone de Beauvoir wrote. Paris learned the characteristics of femininity and then exaggerated cliché womanly behavior. In her teens, these gender performances, as feminist theorist Judith Butler has called them, manipulated boys to give her what she wanted.
"I learned that from a young age," Paris explains. "If my boyfriend got mad at me and I was a teenager, I'd [say in a baby voice], 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to.' Then [boys would] just forgive you."
Although Paris's look and evening activities changed, Nicky says that her values did and have remained the same. When Paris returned to New York for high school, Nicky says Paris and her best friend Casey Johnson, the late Johnson & Johnson heiress, filled their backpacks with ferrets and brought them to school. She still didn't use the baby voice unless she needed something. The only real difference is that Paris exaggerated her femininity to get into nightclubs.
"I act, like, kind of childlike sometimes," Paris explains. "It is a fantasy."
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And the fantasy enraptured the city. In 1999, the New York Post became obsessed with Paris and Nicky's late-night personas. In an article, the tabloid published an article about local young heiresses, anointing Paris as the most fascinating girl in town. "The most outrageous [New York City-based heiress] is hotel-darling Paris Hilton, 19, a part-time model with a tendency to flash her thong," Michelle Gotthelf wrote in the Post on October 15, 2000. "Hot on her Prada heels is sister Nicky, 16—a high schooler who looks 25—who's been seen at clubs drinking champagne and smoking cigarettes." Paris and Nicky posed for David LaChapelle in Vanity Fair, Nicky wearing a black-and-white dress and Paris in silver short-shorts and a silver jacket with no top or bra, in September 2001. The Post went from writing about Paris nine times in 1999 and 2000 to publishing 17 stories about her in 2001. In one article, Gotthelf quotes someone describing Paris as a vulgar stupid party girl:
"It's disgraceful the way most of them act these days," says the source. "If they had any respect for their families they would keep their noses clean."
But even three years before The Simple Life's premiere, Paris knew how to manipulate her femininity for business opportunities. By breaking the Upper East Side's dated Edith Wharton rules about heiresses' behavior, Paris became the protagonist of the local tabloids. Everyone was talking about her, so everyone wanted her at their parties. Party promoters even started asking the sisters if they could pay them to show up, making them among the first people to receive a paycheck for going out.
"We just couldn't believe it," Nicky says. "We were like, 'Wait, what do we have to do? You're going to pay us just to go? And have fun with our friends? Fuck yeah.'"
When Paris returned to Los Angeles after high school, she planned to use the same persona to take over Hollywood and the national media. In April, I met Vorias at the Todd English food court in the basement of the Plaza to discuss how Paris accomplished this goal. The Todd English is essentially a mall food court, except the cashiers serve sushi on ceramic plates, rather than Chick-fil-A nuggets in cardboard boxes. It was the perfect place to discuss Paris Hilton's early career.
"[Paris] knew what she was doing," Vorias told me, wearing a pink cardigan and clutching a flower-print bag.
Vorias met Paris while she was working as a development executive at The Firm, Paris's then-management company. At the time, Paris had starred in several movies. In 2003, Fox approached her to star in a reality TV version of the sitcom Green Acres. Paris agreed to star in the first season, and Bunim/Murray, the production company behind The Real World, would executive produce.
Neither Paris's management nor Fox expected The Simple Life to succeed, Vorias says. At the time, Survivor had recently become the first megahit reality series on a major network and The Real World had ruled MTV for over a decade, but reality television had yet to churn out an American icon on par with Jennifer Aniston or Ben Affleck. Paris, however, knew she could use the program as a launching pad for a major career. Sure, Vorias says, producers organized reshoots, but Paris directed herself. She created the "Paris talk and the ditziness" and famous one-liners.
"Remember that line when she was like, 'What's Walmart?' She knew what Walmart was," Vorias says. "She [created the line] herself and made it something that she knew [would] be like a watercooler [moment]."
"When I was developing the character for The Simple Life I just was like, 'This is your voice for the show, do it all the time,'" Paris says. "I think if you're actually like that in real life, it's, like, beyond. But if you're in on the joke, you know what you're doing, you're aware of it, and you're doing it purposefully, I think it's actually smart."
At the start of her career, Paris designed her phases and postures to appear as a hyper-feminine, ditzy version of herself, subverting the dumb, rich, blonde girl archetype. She understood the humor of catch phrases like, "That's hot," but Americans were too stupid—and probably too sexist—to understand her radical femininity.
Although The Simple Life set the stage for reality television's takeover of TV screens and tabloids, the program differed from most reality shows. Where Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Kendra on Top have used stars' tabloid exploits as plotlines, The Simple Life showed Paris acting in set-up scenarios as a ditz. In the third season's seventh episode, Paris and Nicole ride a bus and giggle like obnoxious rich girls, annoying everyone around them. Paris then interns at a daycare, wearing a Cheetah-print coat. "Does it look like we work at a daycare?" Paris asks. "Show me the money." If Keeping up with the Kardashians is a serialized Dickens novel about how fame affects family, The Simple Life was a 1930s screwball comedy about class.
Paris has continued to perform different roles—from young party girl to older respectable matron—based on the situation. "When I'm in Ibiza I'm dressed like a raver Barbie," Paris explains. "But then if I'm in New York and I'm going to a charity event, I'll wear, like, a black gown and be totally covered up and be like a different person." Paris limits her performing to public life, but occasionally slips into baby voice at home or while out with friends.
"I always talk normal, but if I start doing it they'll be like, 'Sit down, baby voice,'" Paris explains. "People who don't know me probably assume I'm like the biggest airhead on earth."
I wanted to design something like me. If I was to be a perfume bottle, I would be that perfume bottle.
Justin Stoney, a leading acting vocal coach who operates New York Vocal Coaching, says previous American icons also manipulated their voices in public. The best example, he says, is Michael Jackson. "[He] used the Michael Jackson voice in public, when he was in front of the cameras," Stoney explains. "There are audio recordings of him in voice lessons [speaking in a deep voice], and he's like, 'Hello, I'm Michael Jackson.'"
If Jackson's media tactics made him the king of the 80s, Paris's performance anointed her the queen of the Bush era. Thirteen million viewers watched the premiere episode of The Simple Life in December 2003. For context, only 4.8 million people watched the highest-rated episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. ("It's nice to inspire people," Paris told Yahoo Style when asked about the Kardashians.) In 2004, Paris became the most googled person of the year—a title only Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Jennifer Lawrence, and Kim Kardashian have also held. She started selling her perfume and recorded an album, Paris, with Scott Storch that spawned the cult classic "Stars Are Blind." While other heiresses her age looked for husbands or lived off family wealth, Paris focused on work.
"I like being able to get whatever I want, when I want," Paris says. "I don't think I would feel as happy if I was just accepting things from my family. You don't feel like you've worked for it, and it just doesn't feel as good."
Stoney attributes some of her success to her intelligent voice manipulation. According to the coach, celebrities seek vocal training because the voice tells people how to perceive an individual. "When you use a baby voice, you're evoking qualities of youthfulness, of innocence and of being unassuming," he says. "There's something that you know everybody loves about babies."
During the Bush era, though, Los Angeles frowned on Paris performing the character of Paris Hilton for fame and money. She endured late-night comics making jokes about her being "famous for being famous"; now A-list actresses like Jennifer Lawrence could pose for selfies with Kris Jenner today. Vorias says Paris faced a fight after The Simple Life became a hit. "A lot of people didn't want to work with Paris. They thought she was trashy and Hollywood, because back then was reality TV and it was doing really well, but it had that stigma to it," Vorias explains. "Even though it was such a successful show, it was [still] reality television." When A-listers like Lindsay Lohan partied with Paris, they received blowback. "Lindsay [Lohan] was on the A-list, and it's like she was fighting to get onto the D-list," a source told Vanity Fair for a Lohan profile by Nancy Jo Sales, the same woman who profiled Paris for the same magazine in her first big feature in 2000.
At their house in Santa Barbara, Spencer and Heidi Pratt told me that BWR—the publicity firm that has repped Brad Pitt—considered the Pratts a huge risk when they signed with them. Spencer says Paris broke the mold and set the path for the Pratts and the Kardashians alike. Paris's disruption of celebrity, her reinvention of what it meant to be an A-lister, was evident even back in 2004. Following The Simple Life's success, Vorias says all the Hollywood executives who had ignored her for years wanted to meet her; she went on to develop Criss Angel: Mindfreak and work as a development executive at MTV during the heyday of The Hills and the height of the mid-2000s reality TV boom.
I don't think I would feel as happy if I was just accepting things from my family. You don't feel like you've worked for it, and it just doesn't feel as good.
"I had people calling me off the chain," Vorias says. "I still became a development person that all these people were coming to me with ideas. Before that happened, I'd have to go in search for stuff. It changed everything."
After The Simple Life, cable channels began programming reality television shows. MTV's second golden age consisted of The Hills; Andy Cohen reinvented Bravo with a repertoire of Real Housewives, and TLC started teaching Americans about Dance Moms and Honey Boo Boo. Paris created what academic Daniel J. Boorstin called "an image." According to Boorstin, "pseudo-events," news stories made up of moments that aren't particularly newsworthy, are images that sum up a moment of time. He writes, "An image is not simply a trademark, a design, a slogan or an easily remembered picture. It is a studiously crafted personality profile of an individual, institution, corporation, product or service." Paris turned every moment into an image. In one Hollywood TV paparazzi video in 2008, for instance, she walks down Robertson Boulevard with a maltese in one hand and a shopping bag in another. A paparazzo asks her multiple questions, but she ignores him until he poses one that would be on-brand to answer.
"What's your dog's name?" he asks.
Paris smiles, breathes, and then lets out a baby voice: "Marilyn Monroe."
She remains silent for the rest of the video. She shops, walks down the street, silently poses for snaps with fans, and then hops in her car and starts playing Britney Spears's "Piece of Me." Lyrics: "I'm Mrs. Lifestyle of the rich and famous / I'm Mrs. Oh my god! That Britney's shameless."
As feminist theorist Camille Paglia told US Weekly in 2006, "[Paris] changed fame by mining high-fashion poses learned from drag queens." Both Paglia and Spencer Pratt consider Paris a groundbreaking figure in Hollywood history, but few saw Paris this way during the early years of her career. In her book The Bling Ring, an account of the kids who robbed Paris's house, Nancy Jo Sales positions Paris as a celebrity symbol of how destructive individualism ruled the 2000s. Wealthy people spent hundreds of dollars on pink Juicy Couture sweatsuits, and affluent parents spent millions on their kids' 16th birthday parties so they could appear on MTV's My Super Sweet 16.
In 2007, Newsweek published a cover story called "Girls Gone Bad: Celebs and Kids" depicting Paris as a harbinger of sin. "Like never before, our kids are being bombarded by images of oversexed, underdressed celebrities who can't seem to step out of a car without displaying their well-waxed private parts to photographers," Kathleen Deveny writes in her paranoid feature. "Are we raising a generation of what LA moms call prosti-tots, young girls who dress like tarts, live for Dolce & Gabbana purses and can neither spell nor define such words as adequate?"
These critiques ignored Paris's charitable efforts. Throughout Paris's career, Paris has volunteered for several charities, aiming to help women and children. This summer, for instance, Paris DJed for underprivileged kids in Ibiza, and for three years, she has also donated to the India School Project, an organization that provides kids with schooling and finances a women's empowerment program. Paris paid to build a school. To make the group self-sustaining, she also funded a chicken program. Paris gives the charity chicks, which they raise, and once they reach maturity, the charity then feeds the chickens to children or sells the animals to support teachers' salaries. In 2014, the Starlight Children's Foundation honored Paris for her work, and last month, the Make-A-Wish Foundation in Chile honored her for her volunteering and donations.
I don't really look up to socialites now.
"I feel that I have been so blessed in life that it is my duty to give back," Paris says. "I love being a philanthropist and shining light on causes I believe in. It is such a wonderful feeling to help others. There is nothing more rewarding than giving back and making a difference in the world to those in need."
Paris entered a celebrity world before Jezebel and Tumblr's reign, a time during which the media could attack female celebrities' sexuality without getting labeled sexist, prudish, or "slut-shamey." But instead of apologizing, Paris continued behaving as she wanted.
"I really don't care what people think about me," Paris says.
"[Paris] is a rule breaker," Nicky explains. "She doesn't follow the rules."
Paris's middle finger to conventionality has made some gay men consider her a genius. Today, many homosexuals celebrate Paris as a radical trailblazer. At grimy gay bars in the Lower East Side and Bushwick, DJs play "Stars Are Blind" in between punk-dance songs like Le Tigre's "Deceptacon."
"Paris endured close to a decade as the most hated girl in America," explains John Tuite, a writer who regularly DJs Paris songs at the Jane Hotel in SoHo. "She embodied everything that was despised according to Bush-era morality. Until recently, it was unheard of to come across a headline that put Paris in a positive light. The fact that she survived—even thrived—under this intense scrutiny is a testament to the fact that she's punk."
While Paris is in a relationship and has had very public flings with a Greek shipping heir and a male model, she has never focused on getting married or pumping out babies, unlike some successful women who list "proud mom" as an accomplishment in their Twitter bios. "I hate those mothers who are constantly hounding their daughters, [trying] to marry them off," Nicky says. The Kardashians have created an entire television show based on Kris Jenner's daughters' attempts to get married and have kids.
It's arguable that the Kardashians owe their success to Paris making reality stars legitimate celebrities who could hawk products for corporations. Vorias even sees the Kardashians' vocal fry as an evolution of Paris's voice: "I always think of the Kardashian voice as the new accelerator or the new version of that baby voice." Stoney agrees—he defines the Kardashians' voice as vocal fry, a "gentle tightening of the vocal chords." To gain a vocal fry, he says women mix their tightened vocal cords with "a higher larynx and maybe a little bit of nasal resonance, that gives you that sort of Valley Girl, sort of baby kind of quality" that differs from a lighter baby voice.
Where everyone celebrates the Kardashians as businesswomen, Paris has been derided. She built the reality star archetype without receiving the rewards. This falls in line with other 2000s disruptors. Emily Gould, for instance, blogged about her personal life in Brooklyn on Gawker in the mid-2000s, and the media crucified her. Five years later, Lena Dunham was writing for The New Yorker based on Girls, her show based on her sex life as a writer in Brooklyn. Her material is very similar to Gould's, but she receives a fraction of the disdain. Similarly, MySpace's Tom is often a punch line, though Mark Zuckerberg probably wouldn't have conceived Facebook without that now-irrelevant template.
"Paris Hilton is very smart," Spencer Pratt says.
Photo via @MissJoyceHilton
Pratt also credits Paris with setting the stage for Speidi. People may say Paris's star has dimmed, but Pratt argues she has created longevity for herself. Even without a television show, Paris has remained famous, diversifying her portfolio with foreign clothing stores, perfume lines, and DJing. "She pretty much invented being paid to attend a party. She pioneered that whole movement," Nicky says. "And now, since venues have started spending more money on the entertainment and the host, she's becoming the entertainment at the party."
When E! eventually cancels Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Pratt expects the Kardashians to once again copy Paris. In many ways, Paris is bigger than ever. She sells out DJ shows, has appeared on 17 magazine covers this year, and was nominated for "Celebrity DJ of the Year" at the 2015 Global Spin Awards. In the next few years, she plans to open 200 cosmetic stores with the Shanghai Yasen Cosmetic Group in China and release her 20th and 21st fragrances.
Sitting on her couch with Peter Pan, Paris laments how the media has portrayed her as overly sexual, dumb, and mean. "I don't think people realize that I am sensitive and I'm a sweet person and I'm real kindhearted. I'm not like what some people want to say about me." As she said this, I noticed a painting of her with Darth Vader and Andy Warhol on her wall. Like Star Wars and Warhol's soup cans, she's changed America.
"The people who don't get it are the ones who would say that because they only saw The Simple Life or an interview where I talk like a baby that I'm just this spoiled airhead," Paris says. "Anyone who'd actually look into it would actually know it's the opposite: You don't get this far and build something like this by being a dumb blonde."
Buy Paris Hilton's 19th fragrance, "Heiress," here.
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