When Celebrities Were Almighty: Remembering Paris Hilton’s “My New BFF”
Former contestants remember a different era of fame and reality television.
“I just want to be your best friend, Paris. I don’t want to be tortured like this. If you want me to die then just shoot me, this is too much, my heart is going to stop, I can’t feel it beating.”
These were the words of Onch, a contestant on Paris Hilton’s 2008 reality series My New BFF, who confronted his paralyzing fear of rollercoasters in an attempt to win her affection. His bones shuddering as he clutched a crumpled water bottle, Onch’s breakdown had the theatricality of King Lear or a Nicholas Cage compilation video. As he stumbled off the ride and vomited into a dumpster, the rest of the hopefuls—girls in low-waisted Baby Phat, with sharp hip bones and cowl neck tank tops—pointed and said “Ew.” Onch might have made it onto the rollercoaster, but Paris remained unimpressed. Cameras cut away to her reclining in stilettos on a velour chaise longue, her blonde hair puffed up like whipped cream. Her verdict: “You’re crying like a little baby.”
As the title suggests, My New BFF, which premiered on September 30th of 2008, saw 12 hopefuls compete to become Paris’s new best friend, a role which would presumably involve holding her chihuahua outside Michael Kors stores, walking two feet behind her on the red carpet, and hopefully getting an E! reality spin-off in which they, say, start a seafood restaurant with their rapper husband. Before blue verification check marks and FaceTune apps, the show epitomized early digital fame. In those days—though Paris perhaps represented the tipping point—celebrities weren’t relatable vloggers or Instagram gym nuts but terrifying, God-like figures who brought people to an ecstasy akin to a religious experience. Fans were willing to put themselves through hell to be closer to the stars.
Ten years ago, TV had seen people compete for pre-wedding plastic surgery procedures, win money for correctly identifying their biological father, and fall in love with (a fake) Prince Harry, but the concept of winning the role of ‘friend’ was a wholly new one. “Audiences didn’t want character-driven stories that played out slowly over a season anymore. They wanted to watch people drink bull semen for a hundred grand,” Scott Thomas, who came up with the concept for the show with his partner Jed Elinoff while working at VH1, tells me. “We thought the prize of ‘best friend’ was an appropriately absurd idea for where we were at in the history of the world. But it couldn’t just be anyone’s best friend. It needed to be someone everyone wanted to hang out with,” Scott continued. With her sickly-sweet perfumes and memorable slogan “that’s hot,” Paris was queen of being famous for no reason. “This was also the era that gave birth to the word ‘celebutante,’ and Paris Hilton was the queen of celebutantes,” Scott said.
After season two, and the subsequent spinoffs My New British BFF and My New Dubai BFF, it seemed obvious that no one actually got to be Paris’s friend at the end of the show. But in the first season, the contestants truly believed in the show’s premise. Onch was a rabid fan, he bounced on his bed listening to Paris’s pop-rock anthem Nothing in this World, read Confessions of an Heiress and even named his long-haired blonde chihuahua Paris. Onch tells me that “I believe in magic, I manifest—meaning I dream things and then they happen. I was watching the Simple Life with my school friends and I said ‘She’s going to be my best friend one day,’ and, it actually happened. I don’t understand how the universe works, but given Paris’ work with PETA, it helps that growing up I had a monkey, squirrels, lizards and a goose.”
“Audiences didn’t want character-driven stories that played out slowly over a season any more. They wanted to watch people drink bull semen for a hundred grand.”
Each week’s task measured how far each contestant would go to win Paris’s star-studded love. Episode two’s 24-hour party challenge started with a game of I Have Never over chicken chow mein and egg fried rice, and ended with them all dehydrated and blocking the headache-inducing sun with thick-rimmed sunglasses. Here, partying was an act of endurance akin to spin class: seeing whether you could keep up with Paris as she moved between nightclubs, where she appeared to stage the suggestion of—but ultimately avoid—a blurred-out crotch shot in next week’s US Weekly.
All the contestants appeared mesmerized by celebrity. “Dancing with Paris was amazing. I’ve never danced with a celebrity before,” says Lauren, a girl whose streaky blonde side bangs partially cover her eyes. But it didn’t look much fun. Paris partied with the precision of a high-def brow, her eyes permanently absent as though busy thinking about sucking her cheeks in for the Sony digital cameras zooming in on her. “Paris Hilton, we’re kicking it with Paris Hilton, just letting you know,” Lauren told a guy she was grinding on. “That’s tight,” he responded. The contestants were hyper-aware of the celebrity surrounding them, reveling in it like the Holy Ghost.
While some were reprimanded by Paris for partying too hard (“That girl is up there looking like Courtney Love”), others were told off for not partying enough. Paris was unimpressed when Baje—pronounced Beige—fell asleep on a sofa: “This isn’t a wake. It’s a party. Wake up.”
“My body couldn't handle it,” Baje said in a phone conversation.“We were awake for going on three days, definitely two. I slept throughout the second club and didn’t take part in the task the next day. I was wearing heels, I just needed to take a seat.” Zui, another contestant, explained, “We had all barely eaten. One girl apparently passed out from exhaustion.”
Eventually Paris headed home in a limo, sending her pets off to a party yacht. “I came out of my mother’s pee-pee at this time,” slurs Kayley.
While some still pretended to be enjoying themselves, others looked on, deadened, as their hangover crushed into the soft purple of their brain tissue. Hours later, as the sun ripped the sky into gashes of orange and lilac, Kayley sat with a white fleece blanket draped over her hair, her false lashes hanging by a thread, puffing from a pink cigarette like a corrupted Virgin Mary. She’d lost her shoes somewhere and presumably, also, the will to go on. Sadly, it wasn’t over. The producers dragged them to a country club where they played polo on the backs of topless men, beasts from a different form of stud farm, before declaring over a mimosa their devout love to Paris and her mom, Kathy Hilton. “I waited a very long time to finally feel your presence and I still very much want to share with you my energy. Thank you for being the beautiful free spirit that you are,” Natasha told them. Paris gazed on with those wan, relaxed eyes, soaking up the rightful affection like body butter.
Looking back, it’s not surprising the cast tried so hard. Paris Hilton’s My New BFF came at a time when fame was lofty and unattainable. Non-invasive surgeries were not something every girl with an Instagram had, but rather the war markings of the elite. Contouring was yet to be democratized to the masses via YouTube tutorials, so those of us out of the spotlight wore bad blusher and flaky mascara. Celebrities were different. They walked on red carpets with cheekbones sharp as switchblades. They ate wafting green salad leaves for lunch and hurled pink flip phones at bathroom assistants. Influencers, the next gen of celebrities, persuade us they are just like us (except better at working out). Today, there would be no place for My New BFF because influencers have already convinced us that we are their new BFF—what would we be competing for?
“One thing I live by is that I don't ever want to be relatable,” Onch told me. “Celebrities back in the day were almighty. There was something about them that one could not achieve—an extreme amount of money, beauty, intelligence. I want to look up to somebody who is so wonderful and so magical that I could only be 1% of what they are. But with influencers now—which to me is a joke job, they have made fame so accessible. We all know the images of their perfectly symmetrical breakfasts is not real life, but they encourage us to compare ourselves to them.”
For Onch, Paris still possesses something wholly special. “Every time I see her, I still feel a tingling: if only I could have a little bit of what she has, because there is some magical aura around her, and that’s the truth. Who doesn't want to be a beautiful blonde, wealthy girl?”
Onch might not like influencers, but by curating an inorganic performance of dumb blondeness, Paris basically invented influencer culture. She monetized her personality and with it became the first to be famous for no reason. “Paris is a very smart woman” explained Baje. “She has a deeper voice than that squeaky baby sound you hear when she’s on TV. She would order vodka but then she would spit it back into the Red Bull can. She didn’t want to seem like a party pooper; she wanted everyone around her to drink.”
Onch might have been eliminated episode in 4 and Brittany might have been the eventual winner, but Paris still secured Taiwan-born Onch a green card and he says they spend time together. “We have movie days watching Legally Blonde and other chick flicks like Practical Magic without any makeup, just relaxing with a glass of wine, chatting about horoscopes and girls. You know, we gossip.” I asked what the last text she sent him was. “She said, ‘happy 11/11 <3 <3 <3’ because we both believe that when the clock strikes 11:11 you have to make a wish.”
Paris Hilton’s show came into a world in which celebrities looked like they might shatter your jaw with their acrylic nails, and it would feel good. Does Paris ever act like a normal human? Towards the end of our phone call, Onch stumbled, “Don’t get me wrong, she has a really down-to-earth side where she would like, go to the supermarket.”