Looking at photos of Paris Hilton from last month’s Cannes Film Festival makes it hard to remember the celebutante’s golden era. Her platinum-yellow hair, diminished spray tan, and now-outdated sense of style better recall a Dancing With the Stars recruit than a multimillion-dollar celebrity powerhouse—one that grew from thin air at the turn of the millennium.
But as Sofia Coppola’s new film, The Bling Ring (out June 14), points out, Hilton’s rhinestoned, glossy-lipped veneer was at one point integral to Hollywood. Simply put, she defined an era: those early, prelapsarian aughties. So much so that her taste for vaudevillian femininity prompted a group of Los Angeles teenagers to break into her home and loot her closet.
Given her current profile, it is easy to forget that between 2000 and 2007, Hilton maintained an immense influence in fashion. She used style to convey her personal brand, making Hilton’s provocative, girly-girl aesthetic an irresistible force in the public eye. After all, one doesn’t accumulate a reported $100 million celebrity net worth without a sense of calculated, stronghold intelligence.
Hilton’s fashion formula was one of tiny tops and bottoms—the kind that displayed her cavernous, rust-colored stomach between teeny panels of fabric. Party-favor tiaras, spindly jeweled sandal-heels, ass-grazing pleated miniskirts, and barely-there ruffled pink dresses were all a part of the equation—one that soon found itself reinterpreted on the racks of Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale for teenage consumption.
Hilton, with her head full of gleaming blonde hair, vacant stare, and gaunt features may have first emerged on the scene in 1999, shimmying atop a Las Vegas banquet with glassy eyes and glossy lips. But by 2007, she had a booming nightlife franchise, a top 10 single, a reality television show called The Simple Life (whose premiere drew more than 13 million viewers), a line of fragrances (which has grossed $1.5 billion since its inception), and a line of clothing that launched at Robertson Boulevard boutique (and Hilton-era epicenter), Kitson, and sold out in a single day.
And if that isn’t enough evidence of Hilton’s fashion quotient, in 2009, her mantra “dress cute wherever you go; life is too short to blend in,” was added to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, years after her relevance had waned.
New York–based designer Richie Rich, formerly half of the fashion label Heatherette, which was known for casting Hilton as a model in its New York Fashion Week shows, describes Hilton’s brand as “Legally Blonde gone couture.” Speaking to The Daily Beast by phone, Rich says that Hilton “is living a life where she does what she wants to do and she loves to dress up and go out. I think people look up to her. They want to be like her as well.”
It’s easy to ridicule someone who stores their tea cup Chihuahua named Tinkerbell within the unzipped cleavage of a Juicy Couture track suit. Someone whose breakout moment was a sex tape called 1 Night in Paris. But in Hilton's case that tea cup Chihuahua is a published author. And that sex tape is “the best selling adult DVD of all time,” according to the sales director of Red Light District, the film’s distributor. (Not to mention countless more free Internet views.)
Hilton, and her trailblazing (admittedly smutty) brand of pink, have been laughing all the way to the bank (and maybe even the history books) for some time now. And it’s not over yet: at present, you can sign up for VIP access to her website relaunch—a membership that promises “an exclusive trailer for the reimagining of Paris Hilton's iconic brand.” It’s a reboot that will also reportedly include a new EDM album, released on Lil Wayne’s label Young Money.
And it seems like Hilton’s coming back for a second helping at just the right moment. She will receive an added dose of relevance with The Bling Ring’s release, scenes of which were filmed in Hilton’s own home (she even makes a cameo). But she’s also poised for an aesthetic comeback: as fashion’s ’90s revival cycles into its peak, the next trendy wave of nostalgia to take hold will logically be the early aughties (a phenomenon that has already kicked off on Tumblr, where Hilton is often portrayed among religious iconography). It’s a time for which she serves as a poster girl. You’d have to assume that where the Spice Girls’ platform sneakers and crop tops are the latest craze, Hilton’s micro-minis and low-rise jeans aren’t far off.