Paris Hilton and the Cultural Phenomenon of Celebrity through Visual Image

Tricia Simpson

Introduction: Celebrity and Image

Celebrities exist in a unique position within our society where their career and livelihoods are dependent on their perception and relationship with the public. This relationship can be cultivated through public appearances, breakout acting roles, or magazine spreads, all visual mediums. In the past twenty years or so, there has been a shift in what kind of visual mediums celebrities are presented through, which has prompted a change in the cultural perception of fame. From the early 2000s to the modern-day, we have seen the technological advances of cameras, which have shifted personable celebrity images from paparazzi photos to carefully curated Instagram feeds. The public perception of celebrities being within their control has created the illusion of authenticity within their posts and has bonded the public more intimately with their lives. In doing so, it has set a new standard for acceptable celebrity behaviour. No one quite captures this cultural shift like the infamous heiress turned reality star, Paris Hilton.

The Celebrity we Loved to Hate:

Paris Hilton is a cultural phenomenon. A mean bleach-blond heiress that was widely hated in the early 2000s is now remembered as an iconic figure of the time. Currently, she is applauded for her Y2K pink princess Instagram persona, and long-forgotten is her drunk mean girl image. Paris Hilton is a phenomenon because both of these vastly different perceptions of her were curated through her understanding of visual media and what type of persona was best to present through visual images for her career. During the 2000s, the media and public were obsessed with out-of-control women. They adored gawking at them, ridiculing them, and despising them despite their infatuation. Stars like Hilton were not cherished, and indeed not revered as they are now “reports in the public press, particularly on the television talk shows, however, their style, drug use, and sexuality were presented as a cautionary spectacle.” (Brown 315). Celebrities were nothing more than entertainers to their audience; the wilder the story, the more scandalous the shot, the more fame they acquired. That was the root of celebrity but is no longer the case.

Andrew, Nicholas. Paris Hilton smoking 5. 17 Feb. 2010. Flickr, ©Public Domain

 The paparazzi era has long fizzled out from the borderline unethical harassment of celebrities like Britney Spears and the late Princess Diana. With the introduction of camera phones and social media, the work of the paparazzi has been primarily taken up by the celebrities themselves, and the public that would once pay for even a glimpse of their favourite star now have free access to a consistent stream of new photos of them. The role of the paparazzi regarding the visual culture of stars is very particular, as they once controlled the narrative of celebrities’ personas through the pictures taken and distributed. Candid, paparazzi shots offered a closer and more “real” look at these stars, but of course, this “real” image was still largely curated, just not by the celebrity themself. Paris Hilton was a celebrity that was deeply intimately aware of the relationship between stars, paparazzi, photos, and public perception. 

In her 2020 documentary, This Is Paris, she reveals much of her persona in the early to mid-2000s was carefully crafted to benefit her stardom. Her high-pitched voice was famously a lie, and she fed into the image of the mean, dumb, blond heiress, with fake blue eye contacts to pull together her Barbie-like image. Hilton was aware of what image the paparazzi wished to capture of her and what audiences wanted to consume. A token of most visual media is its relationship with its audience and how it works to intrigue them. Hilton made herself into what some may call a villain and created a new type of celebrity that built off the idea of a celebutante but much more unlikable, “celebutante began to connote not just unmerited fame, but also vacuousness, misused privilege, hyperconsumerism, and the general tabloid culture.” (Brown 317). The candid shots of her partying were rarely flattering and didn’t endear her to the public at the time. But they were the pictures being taken, bought, and sold at breakneck speeds.  

The Commodification of Celebrity Self-Image

Audience consumption has always been the most prominent dictator behind the production of celebrity images. Magazine shoots are only given to those whose faces will sell copies, and paparazzi only swarm stars that intrigue the public. The development of social media has altered what audiences want from their celebrities. While the 2000s pop culture sphere was dominated by the breakdowns of starlets like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan and despised celebutantes like Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, the demands of the public have changed. Paparazzi shots of celebrities at their breaking points or showing them in the worst possible light are no longer desired as they once were, at least not of significant stars. Social media has bred a new unspoken contract between star and audience; a pledge of morality.  

Hilton, Paris. [parishilton]. Photo of Paris Hilton. Instagram, photographed by Amber Asaly, 3 March. 2022, ©Public Domain
The development of cameras and selfie culture has drastically changed the visual perception of celebrities that are sold to the public. The technological advancements of handheld devices have facilitated new cultural norms that have become reliant on these devices to engage with (Shipley 404). Their self-image is within their own hands, distributed as they wish on sites like Instagram and Twitter that act as their self-curated world they can perfect (405). This control has created a more intimate relationship between stars and their audiences. This perceived closeness has morphed into celebrities commodifying a “branded self” where they curate a persona with the intentions of public consumption (Jerslev 251). Hilton has monopolized the resurgence of Y2K fashion and the nostalgia of her fame from the era. She continues to use visuals as a critical semblance of her marketability through bright pink colour palettes and her well-known tracksuits. Hilton successfully curates iconic imagery that makes her identifiable and additionally endears her to her audience self-representation as an intimate act and strategic management of the self are fundamental to celebrity selfies.” (254). The importance of visual images and recognizability for a celebrity like Paris Hilton is also a key factor of selfie culture and how it developed into a digital age where the bad press could be detrimental to a celebrity’s public perception and career opportunities.

Moral Expectations of Celebrities:

This false sense of intimacy developed through selfie culture and readily available content has become a new ethical standard for celebrities (Jerselv 250). The closeness felt by their audiences now demands celebrities cater to it and remain likable. When outside voyeurs only produced pictures of stars, there remained a separation between them and the average person; stars like Hilton could safely exist as a spectacle rather than a real person. The visual images the public is fed of stars have shifted from being through a voyeuristic lens peaking in into an exhibitionist spectacle the celebrity puts on (Murray 92). That line of separation has become blurred with the selfie and thus the public relationship with stars. Hot messes, and villain mean-girls, can’t maintain the same level of stardom they once possessed, as career opportunities and brand deals now come at the expense of being viewed as a good and moral person by audiences. This is where we see the shift in the public perception of Paris Hilton, as she curates her altered image through her Instagram to align with modern standards of stardom.

Paris Hiltons current Instagram is leaps and bounds away from reflecting her 2000s image. Her persona once seemed to pride itself on being better than others. She was; blonder, richer, hotter, skinnier, but now she presents a much more humble and subdued version of herself. While this may have come partially from her growing up and maturing over the past twenty years, this shift is likely also very deliberate. It exposes Hiltons understanding of the importance of visual images for celebrities and how visuals craft a deeper connection between the art and its spectator. Currently, she embraces the glamorous elements of her old persona, pink, sparkles, very Barbie-inspired, all carefully crafted in immaculate photoshoots edited to perfection. She presents a refined version of her 2000s persona and has managed to tamper with public perception of how she was remembered during her youth with the images she chooses to share online. Hilton was not always the beloved party girl icon of the early 2000s; she is recognized as today. Arrested, photographed with drugs, culturally appropriated outfits, a Nazi salute scandal, and so much more bad publicity defined her image for many years, and has seemingly become forgotten as a younger audience discovers her through the lingering photos of her early 20s.

Andrew, Nicholas. Paris Hilton smoking 6. 17 Feb. 2010. Flickr, ©Public Domain

Selfie Culture, Self Image, and Public Persona:

Though her photos are mostly shots taken by others, her feed can still represents selfie culture and self-image. Selfies are self-portraits, and while Hilton is not the one physically holding the camera in many of her pictures, she ultimately has the reigns on every image she chooses to present as a representation of herself. It is a complex circumstance regarding how this new level of control celebrities have of their self-image and the emerging issues this displays. Photographs do not tell a whole story, but every picture has an audience that will piece one together in their mind. There are cases such as Britney Spears, who was unfairly slandered in the mid-2000s amidst a mental health crisis, now using social media to take back power and present herself in a way she had no control over for many years. The societal perception of her had been dictated by the photos captured by harassing paparazzi and those approved by her problematic team; she is a prime example of how celebrities having control over their self-image can be a positive element. Hilton presents a much more nefarious framing of this newly gained control. Her complicated past is no more than a quick google search away, but the shortened attention span of the public has allowed her to curate an Instagram feed that has warped public perception. 

What persona is Paris Hilton trying to portray through visual media? Her Instagram and even her 2020 documentary deliberately restructure her image through visual elements. Gone are her fake blue eye lenses in lew of her natural colour, evidence of her attempting to present a more authentic version of herself. A version that is classy, sophisticated, still fun, an icon, and someone who claims to have rarely taken any type of drugs; despite photos, arrest records, and mugshots circulating the internet that say otherwise. This new persona is just as calculated as the last, an optimal version of Hilton based on the cultural climate of celebrity-audience relationships, a climate that has evolved mainly due to the development of visual media. The quickened pace at which photos are produced and shared has minimized the value a tabloid image of a mugshot might have once possessed. Leaked images of Paris Hilton smoking a pipe, or being photographed attending court for the possession of cocaine, have been long dismissed in the slew of other pictures that have followed those scandals. A single image produced in 2022 will rarely have the impact it had twenty years prior. Think Princess Diana’s revenge dress, Britney Spears shaving her head, once significant moments in pop culture history that have remained visual images recognizable to this day. The constant production stream has diminished the impact and longevity of lesser-known images. Celebrities like Hilton have buried their scandals beneath a picture-perfect Instagram feed. 


Hilton, Paris [parishilton]. Photo of Paris Hilton. Instagram, photographed by Charlotte Rutherford, 11 March. 2022, ©Public Domain
Selfies, for many years, were presented as being an inherently vain and self-absorbed act. This perception conveyed that it was narcissistic behaviour, but with the continued development of technology and the growth of social media, it has become a cultural norm. The notion of the selfie being an embarrassing act of vanity is perhaps why a celebrity like Paris Hilton has so efficiently mastered the new age method of photo taking. Hilton has always monopolized the relationship between celebrities and the public through the visual image. She embraced and even exploited the role of hated celebutante when scandalous paparazzi shots were what sold magazines. Currently, Hilton expertly engages with the exhibitionist act of posting selfies and creating the illusion of intimacy between herself and her followers. She presents this new image through visuals, of her being sophisticated, mature, and still fun-loving but without the mean-girl spirit, maybe about as real as the blue-coloured eye-contacts and high-pitched voice she donned in the 2000s. Casual voyeurs are left to perceive her selfies and photoshoots for what they are, sneak peeks of Hilton’s life she chooses to distribute, whether they are genuine or calculated, we as the viewer are left to speculate. The expectation of stars has changed, as has the technology and the individual ability to represent yourself in an imagined “time-space that you compose, create, curate, caption, and adorn, with the self as the main protagonist.” (Shipley 405). All of this has been done through and due to the cultural paradigm of celebrity visual image.


© Images in this online publication are either in the public domain or are being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.

Works Cited

Brown, David West “PARIS Hilton, BRENDA Frazier, Blogs, AND THE PROLIFERATION OF CELEBU-.” American Speech, vol. 83, no. 3, 2008, pp. 312–325. doi:

Jerslev, Anne, and Mette Mortensen. “What Is the Self in the Celebrity Selfie? Celebrification, Phatic Communication and Performativity.” Celebrity Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 2015, pp. 249–263., https://doi:10.1080/19392397.2015.1095644

Murray, Derek Conrad. “The Evolution of the Selfie: Influencers, Feminism, and Visual Culture.” Visual Culture Approaches to the Selfie, 1st ed., 2021, pp. 90–123. 

Shipley, Jesse Weaver. “Selfie Love: Public Lives in an Era of Celebrity Pleasure, Violence, and Social Media.” American Anthropologist, vol. 117, no. 2, 2015, pp. 403–413., doi:10.1111/aman.12247. 

This is Paris. Directed by Alexandra Dean, performance by Paris Hilton, The Intellectual Property Corporation, 2020. Youtube.