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Paris Hilton was at the center of it all. Now she's delving into her pre-fame life

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Paris Hilton was the it girl of the early 2000s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, Paris. How you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Paris, can we get a picture, please?

SUMMERS: Constantly followed by paparazzi, Hilton was a mainstay in tabloid gossip and the center of the party scene. She had her own reality show...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPLE LIFE")

PARIS HILTON: Tell your grandsons we're in town.

(LAUGHTER)

HILTON: We're single, and we're here for five weeks.

SUMMERS: ...Her own tagline...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILTON: That's hot.

SUMMERS: ...And her own album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARS ARE BLIND")

HILTON: (Singing) Even though the gods are crazy, even though the stars are blind...

SUMMERS: But some of that life in the spotlight was masking a dark and painful secret.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THIS IS PARIS")

HILTON: You're sitting on a chair staring at a wall all day long, getting yelled at or hit.

SUMMERS: That's from the 2020 documentary "This Is Paris," which marked the first time that Hilton detailed the abuse she says she suffered at the Provo Canyon School in Utah and other facilities for troubled youth. Provo Canyon was sold by its previous owners more than 20 years ago. The current owners told NPR that while it can't comment on operations prior to that time, it does not condone or promote any form of abuse. And now Hilton is revealing more about her experience in her new book, "Paris: The Memoir."

HILTON: It was difficult to talk about because it was something that I just had not even said out loud because 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 part of my story. And that's why I basically created this character, Paris Hilton, in order to not have to think about or feel the trauma that I went through and experienced.

SUMMERS: I spoke to Hilton about the evolution both she and the media have gone through since she created Paris, the character, in a pre-influencer era.

HILTON: The times have really changed, and I'm so grateful for that because growing up, it was just so difficult to have to deal with the media, the constant scrutiny when, you know, we were just young girls living our lives and figuring out who we were. And, you know, to have the media constantly just harassing us, it was very painful.

SUMMERS: What do you think society has learned from the way that it treated you and other women living in that moment? What do you think that we've learned from that experience?

HILTON: I think that people are finally understanding that it wasn't right. And I've just seen so much change, especially in the past few years, people speaking about mental health and how it's affected them. And I'm just really proud of the change. I know that we still obviously have work to do, but I see it moving in the right direction.

SUMMERS: You recently became a mom, and first of all, I want to say congratulations.

HILTON: Thank you.

SUMMERS: And I know in the book, you talk a lot about this creator/influencer world that we live in now and the realities of social media. I mean, social media offers this incredible connection, but there's also this lack of privacy. There's the personal branding of it all. And it's got to be really hard to be a young person coming up in that. And I know that your son is really young, but do you think about how you will introduce him or future children you might have to that world and help them understand it and navigate it?

HILTON: Yeah. I think - I can't even imagine being a teenage girl and having to deal with, you know, just the pressures of it and the trolls online and these filters and just all of it. It must just be so incredibly hard. So I think it's important to teach your children that the opinions of others doesn't matter - more important what you think of yourself - and to not base your whole life on it.

SUMMERS: I want to turn now to a part of your book that you preface with a warning that was tough to read, that it felt tough for you to recall, where you detail the trauma that you experienced in years spent in schools that were for so-called troubled teens, including the residential Provo Canyon School in Utah. And I know that this is a story that you first talked about in the documentary, "This Is Paris." And you wrote that this is an experience that you buried deeply. What made you start to break down those walls, to want to open up about what you personally experienced?

HILTON: It was incredibly difficult. This was something that I kept in for so long, and it was so traumatic that I didn't even want to think about it. So I tried just to bury it. And then during my documentary, "This Is Paris," that was the first time that I opened up about it. And then when the director told me - showed me all this research that it was still happening today and it had now expanded into this multibillion-dollar industry with thousands of schools - and I knew that I just couldn't keep that in anymore and I needed to tell my story. And it's just been the most empowering time of my life to finally tell my story and just to see the impact it's made and the difference and all the laws that I've changed so far and just everything I've done. It will make it worth everything I went through if I could stop it from happening to other children.

SUMMERS: Do you remember what it was like the first time you decided to open up about this?

HILTON: Nobody knew about what was happening until now, until my book. Even in the documentary, I speak about things, but that was just the beginning of it. It doesn't really scratch the surface. But this book really does. And it's been such a cathartic and healing experience, and I'm just really just proud of my story.

SUMMERS: Yeah. The experiences, the things that you talk about that happened at these schools, they're not the only really tough experience that you talk about between things that happened when you were a child in terms of sexual assault, a predatory teacher. And I'm just curious - after all these years, what has it felt like to open up, to speak openly, for, really, the first time, in some cases, about these things, to kind of pull back some of your own walls?

HILTON: It's been definitely very scary and really hard but also such a weight off my shoulders. And even though it was so difficult to put this in my book, I just know that there are so many other girls, boys, women, men who have been through the same thing as me, and they hold onto a shame. And that shame should not be on us. It should be on the people that hurt us because I feel that shame is such a powerful thing, and it's - really should never be on the person who is hurt ever. And I think that's just a really important lesson for people to know and to know that they're not alone.

SUMMERS: You know, I have to tell you that when I learned that I was going to be speaking with you, I immediately told my stepdaughters. And they're 14 and 16, and their eyes just totally lit up. And they were a little starstruck, as many kids that age might be. And it just made me wonder, what is your message for young women and girls like them who are in that kind of really awesome but also really scary and really impressionable but empowering ages who are intently watching a person like you, looking for a road map as they kind of are just trying to figure it all out?

HILTON: Well, tell the girls I say hello - so sweet. And yeah, I think my message to them is just to be who you want to be and to not put so much attention on outside opinions of people who are not in your circle or in your life. I think it's just important to love yourself and surround yourself with kind, good people who want the best from you and to really value yourself and just live your life in a way that makes you feel the happiest.

SUMMERS: We've been speaking with Paris Hilton. Her memoir, "Paris: The Memoir," is out now. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

HILTON: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.