“Excuse me, sir? What do chives look like?”
Paris Hilton is trying to convince us that she’s never been to a grocery store before. And maybe she hasn’t. She’s wearing a pink gown and matching bedazzled mask, strolling down the aisle toward the Lucky Charms. While we open on a slow-motion glam shot, wind in her hair, the camera pulls back to reveal a production assistant fanning her with a board. And now she’s wandering around with a grocery cart next to the normies under bad lighting. The joke, and also the armor, is that everyone knows that the persona of Paris Hilton is artifice. She’s in on it, too.
Cooking With Paris, Hilton’s new show on Netflix debuting on August 4, is the obvious conclusion to a January 2020 YouTube video in which she haplessly cooks a lasagna. In it, she uses a too-small a pan for the meat sauce, stirs the ricotta with a spatula, and piles all the ingredients in a foil pan while her chihuahua watches on, wearing a bedazzled apron. The responses were what you’d expect. Some followed her recipe and determined it was not very good, while others delighted in watching Hilton do what she does best: perform herself.
Hilton has become the latest celebrity to turn to cooking as a way to extend their relevance. Cookbooks and cooking shows are now where famous people, especially women in their late 30s and 40s, can still find an audience when offers for movie and TV roles begin to fade. Or, on the other side of the career-success spectrum, it can be where celebrities go to extend their business empires. Gwyneth Paltrow, Trisha Yearwood, and Chrissy Teigen have seamlessly grown their cooking brands into yet another fruitful branch of successful careers. Meanwhile, Kristin Cavallari, Eva Longoria, and Alicia Silverstone have parlayed cooking into a low-risk way to remain in the spotlight and push lifestyle aspirations. Regardless of the celebrity, the story is almost always the same: Despite their busy life and riches, the person loves to cook. It means something to them, didn’t you know? It connects them to their family or helps them unwind or lets them create? Tabloids have long capitalized on stars being just like us, and what’s more relatable than Trisha Yearwood making a chicken tortilla casserole?
But for Paris Hilton, the story — and appeal of her celebrity — is different. Since becoming a paparazzi magnet in the early aughts, she’s made her career on being out-of-touch with reality and somewhat insufferable for it. In 2005’s horror remake House of Wax, co-starring Hilton, the movie was marketed with the slogan SEE PARIS DIE. The Simple Life was an entire show based around the premise of Hilton and then-best friend Nicole Richie wreaking havoc on small towns while continuously flubbing at low-wage, blue-collar grunt work. The real surprise, though, was that Hilton and Richie could also be charming and funny, like the time they worked at Sonic and made the sign advertise 1/2 PRICE ANAL SALTY WEINER BURGERS, then wrestled in a grocery store (see, she has been in one before!) while dressed as giant Sonic soda cups.
More recently, Hilton has revealed what many of us already knew. Her ditzy persona was an act, she’ll have you believe, complete with a fake baby voice. She acted like a shallow, dumb party girl because that’s where she found success. And of course, she’s older now. At 40, she’s considering starting a family with her fiance, venture capitalist Carter Reum. Her image has softened, but it hasn’t disappeared. She’s engaging her celebrity with a wink at the audience; we all know this is for pretend, but isn’t it fun to play around sometimes?
Cooking With Paris might be a perfect vehicle for the current iteration of Paris Hilton. Her hook is that she, surprise surprise, loves cooking, and she has “found some brand-new recipes” (which magically appear in her collaged recipe book) that she wants to cook with famous friends, who are all at least slightly better at it than she is and can teach her a thing or two. She makes frittatas with Kim Kardashian, caprese salad with Demi Lovato, and steak with her mom Kathy and sister Nicky. She is also trying very hard to make “sliving” (a portmanteau of “slaying” and “living”) happen, though it doesn’t have the same appeal as her former catchphrase, “That’s hot.” The kitchen is redecorated each episode to match the menu’s theme. The drawers are full of glitzy details like rainbow bowls, a cake cutter shaped like a high heel, and Swarovski crystal spoons and spatulas that do not seem in the least bit sanitary.
There are some things to be learned from Cooking With Paris. Her frittata makes me think I should really be using my blender to get some extra fluff, her roasted salsa has lots of char, and I would absolutely eat her mac and cheese, which is just a box of Kraft with extra cheese and butter thrown in. You can’t deny Hilton is charming and still very in on the joke. She teeters around the kitchen in her heels, pushing cherry tomatoes around a smoking pan or spilling edible glitter. Her guests poke fun at her fashion choices when she gets feathers in the onion rings. She laughs at her own limitations, often telling the audience where she messed up and joyfully digs into high-fat food like fries and French toast. Every episode there’s inevitably some utensil or method or ingredient she claims she’s never heard of — whisking, tongs, zest. At one point, she washes a whole turkey with bottled water.
Criticizing Paris Hilton is slippery. Though she was always a socialite, her launch into “famous for being famous” territory was because of a sex tape that was filmed when she was 20 and released without her consent. She’s also been open about the abuse she faced at boarding school, most recently in the documentary This Is Paris. We’re currently at a cultural moment where we’re rethinking the way we treated young women celebrities in the ’90s and 2000s, the era where Hilton’s fame and the hatred it attracted, were at pique.
Her immense privilege made her a target for ire, but it also protected her in many other ways. She says when she moved to the Waldorf Astoria hotel at 18, her family didn’t give her anything, and she had to make it on her own, using her wits to become the mogul she is today. It is true that people didn’t take her seriously and money doesn’t protect you from everything, but it’s still hard to rewrite Hilton as a scrappy, started-from-the-bottom-now-we’re-here upstart because that, too, is dishonest. And it’s also not what people come to Paris Hilton to find.
It’s obvious that nobody’s life is like Paris Hilton’s. In Cooking With Paris, she feeds caviar to her dog. She loses a crystal in a recipe. While perhaps an audience can kid themselves into relating to Drew Barrymore or Teigen, Paris Hilton’s whole schtick puts everyone in a bind. The spoiled, out-of-touch version of Hilton is mockable yet appealing. The down-to-Earth version is unbelievable given the celebrity and circumstance that led to the creation of this show. How do you balance being in on the joke when the joke is you? This is the question that Hilton and her fame will continue to hang on.
In lieu of an answer, we have Cooking With Paris, which to the credit of everyone (especially Hilton) does not take itself too seriously, and lulls you into doing the same. The show is absurd. Hilton knows it’s absurd, and she knows that you’re here to watch her be absurd so you can laugh at and sometimes with her. Everyone is in on the joke, I guess. Or maybe everyone is the joke. It’s 2021. Who can tell anymore?