Content warning: This article contains an account of verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The year is 2020 and we are once again invited to peek into the private life of Paris Hilton. No, this won’t be anything like the not-so-simple “The Simple Life” with Nicole Richie or the competitive reality TV show “Paris Hilton’s My New BFF.” In her YouTube Originals documentary titled “This is Paris,” she opens up about her childhood trauma—alleging abuse when she attended Provo Canyon School, a boarding school for troubled teens.
Although Hilton still dishes out interesting little details like how she’s afraid to date someone who’s her equal, the documentary is not your usual celebrity documentary about the ups and downs of fame. The film is also a commentary on the troubled teen industry, showing how adolescent residential facilities have enabled the physical and psychological abuse of teenagers further alienated them from their family and peers, as well as a look into the legacy that Hilton has made as “the original influencer,” for better or worse.
The documentary, now available on YouTube along with a premium version with extended cuts, includes interviews with her mother Kathy Hilton and her sister Nicky Hilton Rothschild, among others. The two provided their perspective on Paris’ rebellious years as a teen in New York, going against her strict, conservative parents’ rules and sneaking out of the Waldorf Astoria to go to parties. This behavior was what led her parents to justify sending her to different emotional growth schools, which are alternative boarding schools set up specifically to take in “troubled teenagers” and have been criticized for the long term harm they do to their students, and she describes her attempts to escape those schools and being beaten up for doing so. Eventually, her parents sent her to her last school, Provo Canyon School, in Utah.
Hilton alleges in the documentary that the students of Provo got yelled at, hit or strangled, as well as being fed unknown medication. “I felt like a lot of the people who worked there got off on torturing children and seeing them naked. They would prescribe everyone all these pills. I didn’t know what they were giving me,” she said. When the staff found out that she found a way to stop taking medication, she alleged that she was put in solitary confinement where the adults in charge would make people take their clothes off and go in there for 20 hours.”
Several former students of the school have come forward with their own stories of abuse. In a statement to USA Today, Provo Canyon School CEO Adam McLain states that the school was “sold by its previous ownership in August 2000” and “therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time.”
Aside from going into detail about her experience in the facility, Hilton also opened up about how it led her to enter toxic relationships and in turn, made it more difficult for her to trust. “One thing I’ve seen with other survivors is that because the lines of tough love and abuse are so blurred that it’s really easy to not see the signs of abuse ahead of time in a relationship,” says Katherine McNamara, an organizer for the Code Silence movement to break the silence on the troubled teen industry, in the documentary.
“After being in Provo, you don’t even know what love is or how to have a relationship,” Hilton says. While looking through old tabloid articles talking about her bruises, she says, “I’ve been in a lot of relationships where people get so controlling and so angry that they become physical.” (Earlier on in the docu, she briefly mentions boyfriends throwing laptops at her.) She claims that if she didn’t go to Provo, she wouldn’t have gotten together with her ex Rick Salomon who leaked and made money off the infamous sex tape which many cruelly attribute to her rise as a media personality.
After the leak, she faced heavy backlash and made her the subject of online ridicule, sexism and internet hate. “That was a private moment with a teenage girl not in the right headspace, but everyone was watching it and laughing like it’s something funny,” she says, adding, “If that happened today, it would not be the same story at all. But they made me the bad person, like I did something bad.” She then talks about how she was pressured into doing the video at 18, and how devastating it was to hear people speculate that she leaked the videos herself because of the spate of celebrity sex tapes that came after. “It was like being electronically raped.”
She reiterates this in an interview with Hollywood Reporter, saying, “Being a young girl and having something like that, so private, come out and for people to make fun of me for that was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced in my life. And I’m proud now in this time, in this day and age, that there is the #MeToo movement and that it is spoken about in a different way. Because I didn’t get the [opportunity] to experience in that way. Like today, it would not be like that. So I’m happy that people are finally realizing that.”
By sharing her story through this documentary, Hilton is empowering her fellow survivors and challenging her audience to denounce the culture of victim-blaming and troubled youth industry abuse.