Last year, Paris Hilton appeared in the documentary “This Is Paris,” in which she made the argument that she isn’t the person we see on TV. Her somewhat vapid persona, she said, purposefully obscures her real self. Her new Netflix series, the lushly overproduced series “Cooking With Paris,” seems like a first attempt at testing that case, moving beyond Hilton explaining herself and deepening what she says is her game of image management.
The problem, for Hilton, is that “Cooking With Paris” is a disaster — an utterly unappealing sit that many viewers will tune out before the first episode has ended. I have no reason to disbelieve Hilton that when she is on-camera, exhibiting an incuriosity that’s breathtaking in its extremity, she’s putting on a performance. But does it matter? Paris Hilton may not actually float in a sea of assured entitlement, the way “Paris” does on Netflix. But she is, if nothing else, the one who thinks this act is funny, rather than bone-tired.
The premise here resembles that of “The Simple Life,” the Fox series that launched Hilton’s career as a reality star. Now, as then, Hilton is placed in an unfamiliar situation and forced to cope. The difference is in degree of difficulty: On “The Simple Life,” Hilton, with costar Nicole Richie, traveled America. Here, she leaves her kitchen only to visit food shops and stock up; well-known guests come to her, and together they prepare a meal. This sort of social-distancing seems purposeful. At home, interacting with a curated guest list, Hilton has a secure handle on how she wants to present.
And her default tends to be a pose of proud ignorance. What might once have read as her familiar unbotheredness — the Paris we’ve known since the early 2000s is iconic because she’s laconic — rankles now. In an episode about Hilton’s taco dinner with the rapper Saweetie, Hilton mispronounces the names of Mexican food items past the point of amusement; she repeatedly talks over producers trying to explain what cotija cheese is, finally announcing, “It’s corrita.” Her “chief of staff,” a woman who does much of the actual work of hospitality on the show, arranges for a piñata shaped like a taco to decorate the dinner scene, which Hilton greets with “Yo quiero Taco Bell!” And reflecting on Mexico, Hilton tells Saweetie that the resort town of Tulum is “like Ibiza mixed with sexy island.”
A show about an unskilled home cook trying to make fun meals is not necessarily the ground on which to stage a debate about authenticity and representation in food media. But Hilton has been given a massive megaphone by Netflix, and has only the imagination to use it to say, for instance, that Mexico is the place that reminds her of Taco Bell and Tulum; provided the opportunity to learn a single word, Hilton decides it’s cooler to live in a reality where she’s the boss.
It can be easy to forget just how big Hilton was in her moment, and “Cooking With Paris,” perpetually, seems to be reaching for something in the past. Hilton’s constantly repeated catchphrase, “sliving” (a clumsy portmanteau of “slaying” and “living”) is transparently an attempt to recapture the magic of “That’s hot,” if magic it was. Having Kim Kardashian West as a guest on the first episode, too, is a meta nod to Hilton’s own personal history. Kardashian West, like Hilton, emerged as a reality star after enduring having been the subject of a leaked sex tape; unlike Hilton, who reached fame first, Kardashian West has always had an easy fluency in making the stuff of her high-flying life seem tied, if only barely, to earth.
Preparing food together, Hilton makes a show of her own ineptitude, and Kardashian West barely plays along. (“Why does this keep turning brown?” Hilton asks, of French toast on the stovetop. “Because it’s just cooking,” Kardashian West replies.) While the Kardashian family raise plenty of their own questions, Kim’s attitude of benign competence has lasted her through a decade-plus of cultural shifts. Hilton’s affected confusion at what normal people do is tougher to take.
The mere fact of “Cooking With Paris” existing suggests that things for Hilton are on an upswing, one that’s conveniently timed: The revelations around the maltreatment of Britney Spears, a figure whose time as an object of paparazzi lust coincided with Hilton’s, have only intensified a season of reappraisal. Our culture is looking back in time to see what interpretation that worked a decade ago doesn’t fit today’s mood. This happens in big ways and small: Big-time movie producers who abused people have, for now, been exiled from the industry. Talk-show interviews with starlets like Lindsay Lohan that seemed to some like ribald fun now look to be committing the sin of punching down. Monica Lewinsky’s public image as the White House seductress has been punctured, at quite some length, by Lewinsky herself, in essays, speeches, and on social media. And Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, a couple perceived in their 2003 heyday as fame-hungry and distasteful for flaunting their passion and their wealth, have, upon reuniting, been celebrated as the love story we need right now.
Hilton has asked for the same reevaluation, but it’s hard to know how, exactly, to grant it. Her past treatment (by the media as well as in an adolescence she has described as marked by abuse) was genuinely troubling on a human level. She deserves our kindness. But the second ask — our continued attention — is a more complicated one. Based on “Cooking With Paris,” she hasn’t earned it: There simply aren’t two decades’ worth of interest in the character of a terminally bored person. And the Hilton image coexists uncomfortably with heightened awareness of inequality throughout our society: Who is going to root for a person, even a fictional one overlaying the real Hilton, who quite literally makes a show of her lack of interest in reaching beyond the protection of wealth?
Paris Hilton’s mother currently appears on “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” a show that ruthlessly undermines its cast’s pretensions; on “Cooking With Paris,” the pretensions are the star. By the end of the series, what we’ve learned about Hilton is that she sort of likes to cook, sometimes; that she has a staff willing and able to transform a room of her house into a theme restaurant at her command; that she likes compliments; and that she doesn’t like learning new things. None of this is hurting anyone. But if Hilton wants to keep us watching, at some point it might help to actually create something greater and more lasting than a pose.
“Cooking With Paris” debuts Aug. 4 on Netflix.
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