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Paris Hilton and the reclaiming of Y2K power 

Megan Cassidy looks at the second chapter female celebrities are claiming for themselves, this time on their own terms.

By now you’ve probably been targeted with an Instagram ad for a hot pink bubble chair or found yourself seriously considering a bucket hat for your summer staycation. Maybe you’re suddenly drawn to bright, in-your-face colours, embellishment, dare I say… velour? 

It’s true, tack is back, and a Y2K resurgence has washed up a host of sleeping celebrities ready to fulfil our new desire for the glittery, the gaudy, the showy. 

‘Tasteful’ is no longer interesting, as we crave the feel-good frivolity of Megan Fox in a frontless, backless Mugler dress, licking her new rockstar boyfriend’s outstretched tongue on the red carpet. We relished a two-hour-long cheesecakey Friends reunion that was resolute in its celebration of fun. Travis Barker is dating a Kardashian, Bennifer are back in the gossip blogs. And of course, we’re witnessing the renaissance of the queen of Y2K, the one who crawled so that the Kardashians could run, Paris Hilton. 

Psychologists have attributed this recent nostalgia obsession to the stress of the pandemic and an increasingly uncertain world. Of all the eras to return to amid a global pandemic, the Y2K, zero f*cks era is fitting – but there’s a stark duality to this resurgence, a knowledge that the era had a troubling undercurrent of misogyny and mistreatment. 

Underneath the glitter and the jokes is a realisation that Paris, Megan and the rest are finally reclaiming their own power, that it’s different this time, because this time the joke’s not on them like it so often was in the past. 

Paris’ comeback, in particular, has been a striking mix of shadow and light, an examination of all the contours of celebrity – the bright, uninhibited glory and adulation tempered by a dark claustrophobia. 

Paris’ 2020 YouTube documentary This Is Paris was a sobering reflection on her troubling past including a shocking exposé about abusive treatment at Provo Canyon boarding school. Having shed the sickly sweet vocal fry we remember from The Simple Life, she explains that the version of Paris we all know is a constructed persona, a deliberate attempt to separate her public and private lives. She talks about the sex tape leak which is now recognised for what it was – revenge porn, and how vulnerable she was in the situation. 

This week, Paris announced that she is set to release a new memoir – ‘a searingly honest and deeply personal’ look at her life and her most intimate struggles. This is a marked departure from her 2004 memoir Confessions of an Heiress in which readers could expect to find tips and tricks such as ‘never eat caviar – it’s for wannabes’ and ‘never wake before 10am’. 

Paris’ new memoir will be published by Dey Street Books, the publisher behind Jessica Simpson’s best selling 2020 memoir Open Book. Jessica’s memoir was an unexpected hit – a gut-wrenching, incredibly introspective work that didn’t just string together a parade of scandalous noughties revelations but looked deeply at the machinations of celebrity in the tabloid era, and her difficult journey inwards. 

Jessica’s book was a long time in the making. She turned down an offer to write a motivational memoir in 2015 as she ‘didn’t want to lie’ to her readers. It was only when she had perspective, and felt she could write from a place of authenticity and power that she put pen to paper, a trajectory that can be easily mapped onto Paris’ journey. 

But Paris is also leaning into the joy of being an icon all over again. Her Instagram grid is a mix of belly-baring throwbacks, #Lovesit, and promos of her popular DJ sets. She’s finally in full control of her image, and it’s a much more well-rounded picture than we’ve seen before – a luxury not afforded to her and her peers in the past. 

A photo of Paris taken at the height of her Y2K fame, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase ‘Stop Being Poor’ is a popular meme, popping up any time there’s a display of rich, ignorant privilege online. Paris has now debunked the viral snap on her own social channels, confirming that the photo is in fact a photoshop, and that the original t-shirt actually reads ‘Don’t be Desperate’. She says in the explainer Tiktok video, ‘don’t believe everything you read’, a phrase you don’t often hear anymore, now that celebs have access to their own social channels and thus control their own narrative. It’s an environment that Paris is thriving in as she connects old and new, fortifying her status as the OG ‘famous for being famous’ celeb while adding context and filling in the blanks. 

Megan Fox is another triumphant return to the spotlight. Fox has been the subject of many uncomfortable conversations as we grapple with our treatment of female sex symbols in the past. She has said herself that she felt pigeon-holed, sexualised and objectified to the point that her only choice was to retreat from show business. When she spoke out against her Transformers director Michael Bay and his manner on set, she was effectively cancelled and the big gigs dried up. 

In a fantastic piece in Pajiba, Kayleigh Donaldson writes, ‘there was a sense that we’d lost something, or at least denied her the chance to reveal her potential’. 

Megan’s recent overt displays of sexuality and PDA with her new boyfriend, musician Machine Gun Kelly, is a gorgeous rebellion. It’s vulgar, childish, fun and empowering. She has taken her sex symbol status and blown it up times ten, and this time it’s the Megan show. 

Megan and Paris’ most recent Instagram posts at the time of writing are eerily similar – hot pink skin-tight outfits and Barbie references with bubblegum pink emojis. The Empowered Barbie trope is reminiscent of Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, a movie that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of this new Y2K. Carey Mulligan’s character sports candy coloured nails and baby tees, the shine and gloss deflecting from a darker interior as she seeks revenge in an effervescent display of female rage. It’s no surprise that Fennell insisted on featuring Paris Hilton’s song Stars are Blind as a plot point in one of the most talked-about scenes in the movie. It’s a rare moment of pure light in the film, a glimpse at a romantic storyline that has the potential to lift us out of the relentless anger. It’s playful, whimsical but with an uncomfortable undercurrent that means the song hits differently this time around. Context was important to Paris, who put Fennell through her paces before giving permission to use the song. If the movie poked fun at the song and the artist, forget it. This time, Paris wanted to be completely in on the joke. She made sure we knew it too, posting the scene to her Instagram with a quote from Emerald praising the song as one of her favourites of all time. Paris is making it clear that she can poke fun at herself but she will not be mocked any longer. 

This is the new status quo. The new Y2K is grittier than before. It’s unapologetically feminine. Underneath the candy-coloured shell there’s an unflinching, gutsy defiance. It’s worth noting that the return of the Y2K crew coincides with a golden age for women over 40. This year Forbes released its first ‘50 over 50’ list; a “definitive lineup highlighting women shattering age and gender norms”. 

There’s a ‘second chapter’ energy that female celebrities of the past were not afforded, and these women are seizing it. There’s a debt to be settled with our past, and the Paris Hilton cohort are not going to be subtle about it. Revenge is sweet.