Kathy Hilton literally helped birth reality television. Her daughter Paris Hilton, star of the landmark unscripted series “The Simple Life” from 2003 to 2008, came to define an era of tabloid celebrity culture and über-wealthy voyeurism.
But did we ever really know Kathy Hilton? Thanks to genius casting on the 11th season of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” the American society matriarch has come to vivid life.
Social media superlatives have been plentiful. “Icon,” “effortlessly funny,” “national treasure,” “basically Moira from ‘Schitt’s Creek’ in real life,” fans have tweeted. Longtime viewers of the series, on which Hilton’s sisters Kim and Kyle Richards rose to contemporary fame, have responded to her persona: part daffy aunt whose screwball antics lighten up a show rife with white-collar crime and wine throwing, part bad-girl-at-the-sleepover who convinces ladies to take martinis to the head.
Hilton recently opened up her lush Bel Air home to discuss her breakout stardom, the social politics of 1980s New York and the media’s reexamination of how it treated young women like Paris in the early aughts.
You are so unexpected on “RHOBH.” That Kathy is very different from the American socialite we’ve been reading about for decades.
It’s funny for me to see this response too, because I know who I am. I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this, but I was married very young. We lived in New York, and my husband was working with people who were 25 years older than us. I was 18! You learn there to dress a little more conservative, and you adapt to that environment. In New York, you do not want to stick out at all. At the end of the day, the women ruled the town, and you went with the status quo. Then we had children. I had Paris at 20, Nicky three years later, and then we waited a little for the boys. That’s part of me, that kind of serious part. I also think the days of the word “socialite” are gone. I’m hardworking and dedicated to my philanthropy. A socialite is one who looks pretty and does nothing else. Some are flattered by it; I think the term is frivolous.
Who was the most exciting guest you’ve ever hosted in Bel Air?
Yoko Ono. She came for Thanksgiving. She was unbelievable, so lovely and sweet. It was before we redid the house. A woman who worked for me at the time, Maggie, had no idea who she was. At that time, we had a bathroom off the kitchen, and it had a bathtub. That is where the cat’s litter box was. No one was supposed to go in there. Yoko goes down to put on some lipstick or whatever, and the caterers let her in. Maggie begged her not to use it. She went right in there with the litter box and was cool as could be. We laughed about it.
It’s a long time ago now, but Paris was something of a supernova. Have you reflected on that as a family?
We moved to New York, and who would’ve thought? I never wanted my daughter modeling or any of that. I made that very clear. I think because you had two girls — attractive with a very famous last name — for some reason it just blew up. Had we stayed in Los Angeles …
I’d pick up the New York Post every day before school, and I remember one of her first big moments was two days after 9/11. She was photographed in a star-spangled dress at a party.
My friend Muffy Potter was in New York at that time for Anna Wintour’s event New Yorkers for Children. We were both on the committee, and the board was going back and forth asking, should we still have this event? We decided to do it. I was getting my hair done at Bergdorf Goodman, and of course I always run down to the fifth floor and buy something. Catherine Malandrino had this star-spangled-banner dress. I went upstairs and I bumped into Muffy, and I said she had to go down there. She ended up getting the same dress. Paris was there too.
Pockets of the media seem to be relitigating how young women like Paris, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears were treated in those days.
Yes, everyone is saying, “I’m sorry,” now. It was totally irresponsible, totally ugly and abusive. Don’t kid yourself: People carry that scar with them forever.
You’ve been referenced off camera on “RHOBH” for years, with some heavy and very candid storylines. What made you finally say yes to coming on?
Kyle and I have had our ups and downs, and if my mom was still here, it never would’ve happened. We wouldn’t have fallen out. It was frustrating because I think I could’ve had a platform if I wanted one, but I chose to keep silent. We started to put the pieces back together a couple years ago. I had a little birthday dinner for her here at the house. I started to see what I was missing out on with my nieces. Nothing should ever come between sisters. It was heartbreaking to me, and my husband could see that.
So when the producer [Alex Baskin] asked me to do the show, he would not let up. My family knew how much I was hurting and wanting to spend more time with Kyle. Well, guess what? Kyle is filming this show for five, six months a year. Paris has seen the show and paid me some compliments and sent me some memes.
Where does Kyle’s nickname “Doogie” come from?
It’s a silly little name Kim and I came up with for Kyle as a baby. It embarrasses her, so I like to yank her tail a little bit.
Will you return for “RHOBH” Season 12?
We have to see if they invite me.