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The Existential Dread of Paris Hilton

Why the it-girl entrepreneur’s grapple with the futility of life and the finality of death makes her the most interesting feature of Netflix’s new documentary “American Meme”

Dazed & Confused

Paris Hilton American Meme
Paris: Project

Paris Hilton is bored. “I’ve been 21 for two decades… Same shit, different day,” says the reality-star-turned-global-brand, over footage of her reclining by her Bel Air mansion pool, in the new Netflix documentary The American Meme. Later, while talking about her fatigue from travelling and making appearances, she toys with the far-fetched idea of having “clones” that she could send out to take her place while she stayed at home.

This sense of ennui is surprising to hear from a personality brand who basically invented the influencer lifestyle, and yet seems to be disinterested in taking part that lifestyle herself. Hilton has made billions from perfume sales, design collaborations and DJ appearances, but it seems the fabulous life can drag. As The American Meme shows, Hilton has bigger concerns on her mind.

The American Meme explores the lives of several social media stars, charting their rise and riches, as well as their struggles and angst. The Fat Jew offers a master class in how to meme; the former viral Vine comedienne Brittany Furlan struggles to find herself – and acting work – when the platform that made her famous shuts down. While Furlan found redemption in a relationship with Tommy Lee, Kirill, a photographer and party host who travels the States spraying champagne over willing women’s bare bodies, fights against the strain of his relentless lifestyle.

Paris Hilton is by far the most interesting character we meet. The way she speaks about her experiences as a reality TV star, tabloid obsession, and global brand is both world weary and, at times, profound. While discussing the promotional posters for House of Wax, the 2005 horror movie in which she plays a character who meets a gruesome end in a wax museum, she explains how deeply affected she was by the poster’s tagline, which captioned her waxy, melting head with the invitation to “See Paris Die”.

Hilton had already lived through the experience of the world seeing her having sex when a private video featuring a 19-year-old Hilton and a former boyfriend was leaked when she was 22. The poster felt like another violation.

It was also deeply disturbing, she says, because her biggest fear is dying – “because I have no idea what happens after. And I’m really scared that it’s nothing, because that would be beyond boring”. This short clip – which itself has instant meme potential – is surprising, though not simply because these words are spoken by a woman who has been portrayed as one-dimensional, sexual and superficial.

The idea that it’s somehow unusual that she’d be concerned with existential questions relies on the same kind of prejudices that underlie the amusement at Pamela Anderson’s radical polemic on French politics, or the Kim Kierkegaardashian Twitter account, where the whole joke hinges on how ridiculous it is that someone like Hilton protégé Kim Kardashian would be interested in the kind of questions explored by existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

In Hilton’s case, it’s her unique experiences of fame and shame that have led her to this point. Her angst surprises us because our entire culture has been built around the pursuit of what she has – the pinnacle of influence, a mountain of followers – and yet, it’s not enough to distract her from life’s biggest questions. Her existentialism is darkly relatable: ‘Celebrities, they’re just like us – afraid of death and the eternal nothing that threatens to await us!’

As the documentary draws to a close, we see Hilton working on her latest project. Not “Bottle Service”, the fake apparel range for baby DJs in collaboration with The Fat Jew, but a VR version of herself which could interact with fans in a virtual space. “I could be in my living room and I’m gonna have live streaming of me DJing and performing,” she explains. “It will be just like being in a nightclub in Ibiza or Las Vegas.”

The “clones” she fantasises about earlier on, have become a reality. For someone whose persona and personhood has been dictated by the media, the controlled environment of a computer-coded world, where trolls can be kicked out, is appealing. “It’s just endless what I could do with this platform. I could just really control the way people see me,” she says.

“There’s a reason that I am who I am. I already do have a legacy, but once you start that, you just can’t stop,” says the pioneering blonde, who has not only found a solution to her apathy towards her public obligations, but perhaps for her more spiritual concerns.

The digital doppelganger she has developed to exist in a VR world not only pre-empts the next fad in social media, but when Hilton says, “a lot of people don’t understand that you need to be sustainable forever”, she’s also soothing her own existential dread. The solution she finds is typical of her business sense, dodging the finality of death through the creation of a dimension in which, through her enduring likeness, like her idol Marilyn Monroe, Paris Hilton can live forever.

Text © Dazed & Confused / Laura Havlin. Originally appeared on Dazed here.

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