Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Paris Hilton: Her glamorous dynasty and life after that sex tape

A story of success and excess: Paris Hilton has earned over $1.5 billion in her own right
A story of success and excess: Paris Hilton has earned over $1.5 billion in her own right
Paris Hilton with her parents in Dublin
Paris Hilton with her parents in Dublin
Paris with her sister Nicky Hilton
Paris with her sister Nicky Hilton

Just one week last April was an example of how extraordinary life is for Paris Hilton. After announcing the launch of her 17th perfume to her 12.7 million Twitter followers, she attended her uncle's wedding at her grandfather's LA estate (where the guests showered the newly-weds with thousands of live butterflies) before being pictured taking her chihuahua Peter Pan shopping in Beverly Hills.

She later shared an Instagram picture of her and Peter Pan watching American Hustle in her father's private cinema. It was an unintentionally poignant image: a poor little rich girl in daddy's movie theatre with only her dog for company.

What is it about the Hiltons? From great-grandfather Conrad Hilton's humble beginnings as a teenager who turned his parents' fortunes around by converting their house into a makeshift hotel to Paris's domination of the modern media landscape, they come across as ballsy survivors, not afraid of courting failure or ridicule in their attempts to hold on to wealth and power.

In the 21st century, Paris Hilton, the heiress, socialite, fragrance magnate, reality-TV star and serial miniature-dog-owner (at one point she had 17; they live in their own miniature two-storey Spanish villa) has become the face of the dynasty.

She is even the subject of an academic thesis entitled The Phenomenon of Paris Hilton in American Culture: January 17, 1981 is a cornerstone in American culture and literature, since a new type of heroine was born.

Now synonymous with (extremely lucrative) self-promoting celebrity, the Hilton brand has always been the epitome of the American dream, a celebration of the good life that the luxury hotel business represents.

Nowadays, the Hiltons are rivals to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as heroes of the new philanthropy. With $2.2bn (£1.32bn) in assets, the Conrad N Hilton Foundation's target areas include homelessness, teen substance abuse and helping young people to make the transition out of foster care. The annual Conrad N Hilton Humanitarian Prize, launched in 1996 and worth $1.5m, is the largest humanitarian award in the world.

Over the years, though, the family has got itself into some terrible messes, gleefully documented by the gossip pages for the past 60 years.

Conrad, a deeply religious Catholic, became so successful and captivating that he became a character in Mad Men (series three) and the patriarch of a dynasty who loved to live to excess.

The biographer J Randy Taraborrelli describes the descendants of Conrad Hilton as “some of the most captivating and complex characters I have ever written about in my long career as a writer”.

Conrad Hilton was born in New Mexico in 1887, one of seven children. As a teenager he had the idea of renting out a few rooms in

their tumbledown house for $2.50 a day. “We all worked hard and no one harder than my mother. I wouldn't take a million dollars for what those days taught me,” he said later, “and I'd give a million dollars for one of the suppers she served.” This was the unlikely prototype for Hilton Hotels.

By the late-1930s, he owned the Dallas Hilton, the Waco Hilton, the El Paso Hilton (“Radio in every room!”). The fledgling company nearly crumbled during the Depression, when no one could afford to stay in a hotel. Conrad was in debt to the tune of $500,000.

He promised repayment in the good times ahead — and held himself to this. At one point a bellman at the Dallas Hilton subbed him his life savings: he received dividends on Hilton stock for the rest of his life.

After divorce from first wife Mary in 1934, the next woman to catch Conrad's eye was Zsa Zsa Gábor, or “Georgia”, as he used to call her (he claimed he could not pronounce her original name).

Her glamour was key in the emerging Hilton story: from the moment she entered the picture, the family was destined to be linked to Hollywood, celebrity and, long before its time, the idea of being “famous for being famous”.

They married in 1942: Zsa Zsa was 25, Hilton was 55 (Zsa Zsa, aged 97, is now on husband No 9). By the 1950s, money and privilege were becoming complicated issues for the family.

When Conrad's son Nicky married Elizabeth Taylor it was “the wedding of weddings”, organised by MGM and featuring 700 guests. The receiving line, including Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly and Spencer Tracy, lasted six hours and made the as-yet-unborn Paris Hilton's canine mansion look subtle.

The marriage lasted eight months, amid stories of drinking and gambling. Within a few years Nicky was seeing Natalie Wood and Joan Collins at the same time. He died of a heart attack at 42, brought on by years of heavy alcohol consumption.

The partying and scandals were at odds with Conrad's continuing hard work. He was as entrepreneurial as ever, pioneering a centralised reservations system, air-conditioning and a TV in every room, and the hotel opening “a cultural event”, as he called it. The middle son Barron (Paris's grandfather) took over as CEO in 1966.

When Conrad died in 1979 he left most of his fortune to his own charitable foundation. Barron contested the will, managing to divide the legacy between company shares and the foundation. In 2007 a private equity company bought the Hilton Hotel Corporation for $20.1bn.

Today the most notable Hilton is, of course, Paris, now 33. Once upon a time she was best known for a leaked videotape, 1 Night in Paris, which featured her interrupting sex to answer her mobile. She was famous for her “dumb blonde” quotes — “Walmart? Do they, like, make walls there?”, or “What's a soup kitchen?” — as well as her catchphrase “That's hot”, which she has fought to trademark.

But she has recently developed a series of quips worthy of Zsa Zsa Gábor: “Every woman should have four pets in her life: a mink in her closet, a jaguar in her garage, a tiger in her bed and a jackass who pays for everything.”

Barron is now chairman emeritus of the Conrad N Hilton Foundation to which he has pledged 97 per cent of his $2bn fortune. This won't bother his granddaughter. Her product endorsements and fragrance lines have already earned her an estimated $1.5bn.

As her grandfather puts it, she's a Hilton to the last: “She has a product and she knows how to sell it.”

On a rare occasion out together, the two were besieged by paparazzi. Paris was heard to shout: “Thanks so much for showing my grandfather so much respect. You guys are hot!”

The Hiltons: The True Story Of An American Dynasty by J Randy Taraborrelli (Warner Books, £22.99)

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