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Paris Hilton was the center of it all. Now she's shedding the 'character' she created

Hilton says she has been misunderstood and underestimated.
Cole Bennetts
Getty Images for Paris Hilton
Hilton says she has been misunderstood and underestimated.

Before the word "influencer" was a household term, before Instagram and TikTok allowed users to document every moment of their life in real time, Paris Hilton was the woman at the center of it all.

A platinum blonde heiress with a mega successful reality show. A mainstay of tabloid gossip, thanks to an ever-present throng of paparazzi and a leaked sex tape. A consummate party girl who leveraged her starpower to launch a career in modeling and music. An early-aughts emblem of femininity and excess, whose breathy baby voice still conjures memories of the catchphrase, "That's hot."

Now, Hilton, 42, is ready to harness her voice in a new way after spending years living as what she describes as a manufactured caricature — in part, to protect herself.

"I just feel for so long I've been misunderstood and underestimated," Hilton told NPR. "And I feel that the past over two decades in this industry, my story has been told by other people. And I was just ready to get real and tell my truth."

Much of that truth involves unpacking the trauma of some of her teenage experiences in her new book, Paris: The Memoir, which has just published. In it, Hilton details an inappropriate relationship with a teacher when she was underage; sexual assault; and the abuse she experienced during years spent at boarding schools that were allegedly for "troubled teens."

The memoir delves into Hilton's pre-fame life.
/ Dey Street Books
Dey Street Books
The memoir delves into Hilton's pre-fame life.

Hilton said her exasperated parents, Rick and Kathy Hilton, decided to send her to these intensive residential schools after she spent years sneaking out of her home at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York to go to clubs, and she was kicked out of several elite schools.

Hilton also shares more fond memories of her adolescence and tales that set her on a path that the culture would later deride as being "famous for being famous." There are stories of teen antics with her sister, Nicky, including an attempt to sneak a young Khloe Kardashian into a bar by dressing her in a long wig and floppy black hat. There are musings on how an adult ADHD diagnosis changed her life for the better. Hilton also gives her take on the modern day influencer, a title for which she thinks she deserves a fair share of credit.

"I've been doing this so long, even before there was a name for it," Hilton told NPR. "And it's just amazing to see that something that I started so long ago has now become like a full fledged career and started this whole new genre of celebrity."

Hilton performs a DJ set in Austin, Texas in 2022.
Rick Kern / Getty Images for The Sandbox
Getty Images for The Sandbox
Hilton performs a DJ set in Austin, Texas in 2022.

But Hilton also writes about that pop culture ubiquity serving as a way to cope with her experience in the so-called troubled teen industry. In the book, Hilton describes being dragged out of her bed in the middle of the night by two men and being flown across the country to attend a "therapeutic" school run by the now-defunct CEDU Educational Services. There, she was subjected to an invasive cavity search, she writes. She was initially not allowed to wear shoes – and was told they were a privilege she had to earn. Students were forced to participate in what Hilton called "raps," a nightly ritual where they were forced to insult and denigrate one another for hours.

"I know that wasn't my family's fault. They were lied to and manipulated," Hilton told NPR. "My parents had no idea. When I was there they would always be monitoring every phone call and if I tried to say anything, [the school] would immediately hang up the phone ... and take away my phone privileges, and then just tell my parents, 'Oh, she's lying. She just wants to leave. She's being manipulative.'"

At times, passages of the memoir read like a thriller as Hilton describes several attempts to escape CEDU facilities, and later, Provo Canyon School, where she writes about spending hours in solitary confinement, often without clothing, and being provided with pills that made her feel like "my head was disconnected from my body."

Hilton first divulged her experiences to film director Alexandra Dean in the 2020 documentary, This is Paris. It was a conversation that she says she never planned to have.

"When I got out of there, I made a promise to myself that I was never going to tell anyone about it. And this was not a part of my story," Hilton told NPR. "And that's why I basically created this character, Paris Hilton, in order to not have to think about, or feel the trauma I went through and experienced."

In a statement posted on the school's website, Provo Canyon School noted that it changed ownership in August 2000, after Hilton was a student there, and that the school does not "condone or promote any form of abuse."

"We are committed to providing high-quality care to youth with special, and often complex, emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs," the statement said.

Hilton said that while it's been "very scary and really hard" to publicly reveal that trauma, writing her memoir has also lifted a weight.

"I just know that there are so many girls, boys, women, men who have been through the same thing as me. And they hold on to a shame. And that shame should not be on us. It should be on the people that hurt us," she told NPR.

The process of trying to let go of that pain and shame changed everything about her world, she says, including her romantic relationships.

She met now-husband Carter Reum, a venture capitalist, in 2019, at a family Thanksgiving dinner in the Hamptons. In the book, Hilton describes telling Reum about the harrowing revelations in This is Paris. She says it was the first time she "began a relationship of full disclosure."

"I feel so lucky that I found him," Hilton told NPR of Reum, whom she married in 2021. "That was the first time that I really let those walls down that I had around my heart. I just feel that timing is everything, and Carter is just my twin flame."

Hilton and Reum attend the 10th Annual LACMA ART+FILM GALA in 2021.
Rich Fury / Getty Images for LACMA
Getty Images for LACMA
Hilton and Reum attend the 10th Annual LACMA ART+FILM GALA in 2021.

This year, Hilton and Reum announced the birth of their first child, Phoenix Barron Hilton Reum, via surrogate after more than two years of IVF treatments. Hilton says that with motherhood, some of her priorities have changed.

"Now that I'm a mom, it's way easier to say no. Before I didn't, you know, have something like this. So this is the most important thing in my life, and I want to be there for all the special moments."

Yet, as Hilton indicated to NPR, her spirit of risk-taking remains – but these days, it involves more honesty.

"I think it's so important for people to come out and be vulnerable and tell their stories, because life isn't perfect," said Hilton. "And it's important for others to know that they're not alone and that we all go through the same thing."

Ashley Brown and Kat Lonsdorf contributed to this report. contributed to this story

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.