ALEX GOLDMAN: Hi. Uh, this is Alex. And today we're doing something different which is that we want to introduce you to another Gimlet show that is relatively new, and that I really really like. And in order to do that I have a special guest. Her name is Simone Polanen — she hosts the podcast Not Past It. Um, Simone, welcome to, Reply All.
SIMONE POLANEN: Thank you so much for having me.
ALEX: [LAUGHS] You sound so excited to be here.
SIMONE: I really am. Well, I, like, am not talking to that many people these days. So it's, you know, nice to see a new face in the mix.
ALEX: That's fair. Um. But, but, the things that I think our listeners should know in preparation for this is that: A, you have the best recommendations for the Reply All newsletter.
SIMONE: Oh, man. Thanks.
ALEX: And then also, like, you know everything about pop culture, has been my experience.
SIMONE: Mmm. Not quite everything, but I do like, steep myself in it, uh, yeah. Pretty, pretty frequently.
ALEX: You know, when I heard that you were doing a history podcast, I was like, what's- a history podcast? Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt? [SIMONE LAUGHS] But then when I saw the history that you are actually reporting on, like, I was like, oh, this is quintessentially Simone. Can you tell me a little bit about your podcast, Not Past It?
SIMONE: Well, it's funny-it's funny that you say that, your idea of history was like, you know, American presidents. I feel like I had a similar, concept of history going into this project? Um, ‘cause, like — I don't personally identify as a history buff per se. [ALEX LAUGHS]
To me, what's interesting about history is like, people, right? Like, people are weird and fucked up and interesting and cool, and like, that has been the case always. And on the podcast, we get to like, dig into all of that. So what we do on the show is, we’ll take an event from that week in history, and we’ll explore it, and we find ways that those historical events still feel relevant now.
ALEX: I have to say that one of my favorite Not Past It episodes was the PG-13 episode. Um, it's about the creation of the PG-13, uh, rating for movies—
ALEX: Um. I, I happen to have been four or five when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins, both sort of the catalysts for the PG-13 rating, came out. They were both PG, and they were both movies, since they were PG, that my parents thought would be appropriate to take me to — and absolutely scarred me. [Simone & Alex laugh] I mean, they pull a guy's heart out in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
SIMONE: Yeah, it's, it's a lot. It's a lot.
ALEX: And, and and uh I mean, I remember sitting through Gremlins and enjoying it — but the thing I remember being super scandalous about Gremlins, in addition to being an incredibly gory and scary movie, is that Phoebe Cates talks about Santa not being real.
ALEX: And all the kids in my school were like: “THEY SAID SANTA’S NOT REAL IN GREMLINS!”
SIMONE: Oh, my God. Holy shit. Oh my- that's like, cruel.
ALEX: Yeah, it's crazy. She has a big monologue about how her dad dressed up as Santa and got stuck in the chimney and died. And then she says—
SIMONE: Oh my God. What?
ALEX: And then she says, ‘and that's how I found out there was no Santa Claus.’ [SIMONE LAUGHING] Anyway, if there are any children, I'm sorry I spoiled that-that Santa wasn't real. Enjoy Not Past It!
SIMONE: [LAUGHING] Wow.
ALEX: Yeah. It was pretty, pretty rough.
SIMONE: I really gotta see Gremlins.
ALEX But, uh, the particular episode we're going to play of Not Past It this week is, uh — is about Paris Hilton. And I’m curious like, when you started working on Not Past It, was this a story that you knew you wanted to pursue?
SIMONE: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think I came to the show with this in mind. I was like, had been thinking about Paris Hilton, and sort of what she represented as a cultural figure, and sort of how she had shaped, you know, my generation's idea of, um, you know, sexuality — and particularly like, women and their sexuality. I was like— like, Paris Hilton is like quintessential American history. It's like a big part of my history, that's a big part of like, cultural history. Um. So I was like, yeah, if we're going to make a history show, like it has to have— there needs to be space for Paris Hilton.
ALEX: So that’s the episode of Not Past It we’re going to play today… it’s called Paris Hilton Sex Tape… you can listen to the rest of the show exclusively on Spotify. And we will be right back after the break.
[ARCHIVAL, photographers: [yelling], [click of camera shutters]]
SIMONE: At a Los Angeles Grammy Awards party in 2004, photographers gathered around the red carpet, hungry for the IT girl to arrive. And when she finally did, they erupted in shouts to get her attention.
[ARCHIVAL, photographer: Paris!]
[ARCHIVAL, photographer: Look over here, Paris!]
[ARCHIVAL, photographer: Paris!]
SIMONE: It was Paris Hilton: socialite and heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune. On this day, she was all smiles in her pink ruffled dress and matching headband. But she declined to talk to the photographers.
[ARCHIVAL, photographers: Paris!]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: I’m not talking to anybody tonight!]
[ARCHIVAL, photographer 1: We just want to look at you…]
[ARCHIVAL, photographer 2: No gossip! No gossip!]
[ARCHIVAL, photographer 1: We don’t want to talk.]
[ARCHIVAL, photographers: Paris!]
SIMONE: “We just want to look at you… We don’t want to talk.” Wow, cool guy.
A few weeks after this Grammys party, even more fuel was added to the Paris paparazzi fire -- because…
On June 15th 2004, 17 years ago this week, the sex tape 1 Night in Paris, featuring Paris Hilton and her then-boyfriend -- was released commercially by an adult film distributor.
[ARCHIVAL, Conan O’Brien: Everyone’s talking about the Paris Hilton sex tape. That’s what, really, people are talking about right now.]
[ARCHIVAL, Donald Trump: I have seen it.]
[ARCHIVAL Howard Stern: You did. What’d you do? You went on the internet? How did you see that? What did you do?]
[ARCHIVAL, Trump: Melania showed it to me.]
[ARCHIVAL, Joan Rivers: Paris Hilton did a porno film and, oh, her poor parents. [GASPS] Can you imagine how they must have felt? That she did a porno film in a Marriott Hotel?!]
SIMONE: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I’m Simone Polanen.
Today on the show, we’re revisiting Paris Hilton’s scandal. Her public humiliation. The cultural carnage it left behind. And the beginning of intimate moments gone public.
And so much has changed since then: the nature of fame… the way we talk about young women, their bodies, their agency... So let’s reckon.
After the break, we’re time traveling to Y2K … so get in, beeyotch!
SIMONE: Let me take you back to the early 2000s. It was a time of Juicy sweatsuits, lowrise jeans, and massive sunglasses with tiny rhinestones... Our TVs were stacked with Extreme Makeover shows and movie screens lit up with titles like School of Rock and Mona Lisa Smile.
And Paris Hilton… well, she was everywhere…. But, we didn’t really know why…
Bobby Finger: Famous for being famous, famous for being famous, that’s what everyone was constantly saying, oh, she like, she basically is the reason we use that term.
SIMONE: That’s Bobby Finger, co-host of the celebrity news podcast Who? Weekly.
Bobby Finger: We were so used to people becoming famous through very specific avenues, and she came in in a completely different avenue and, like, steamrolled her way through. And I think that was shocking and it was disorienting.
SIMONE: Paris made her name by simply being. And the cameras followed her wherever she went. Shopping at Fred Segal, hitting the red carpet, posing with the hottest, latest jewel-encrusted flip phone. People were definitely intrigued. And then two things happened simultaneously that turned that intrigue into obsession.
First, she hopped on the then new-and-growing trend called “reality television.”
[ARCHIVAL, VO: Meet Paris Hilton: model, jetsetter, target of the tabloids, and heir to the $360 million Hilton fortune.. ]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: Oh my god...]
SIMONE: This is the intro from the very first episode of The Simple Life. It premiered on FOX in December 2003 and starred Paris Hilton and her best friend and fellow heiress Nicole Richie. The premise: two rich and spoiled girls from Beverly Hills move to the country and get working class jobs doing manual labor, like working a dairy farm.
[ARCHIVAL, VO: They’ve challenged themselves to live... the simple life!]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: Listen, everyone thinks Nicole and I are these two girls who have never worked a day in their life, and that we can’t do anything. And we’re doing this to prove everyone wrong and show we can do anything!]
Lindsey Weber: It was a compelling show.
SIMONE: That’s Lindsey Weber, the other co-host of the Who? Weekly podcast.
Lindsey Weber: They both have these, like, very specific characters. They did a great job of whether these were real personas or not. Like, yes, I know they were playing themselves, but they clearly were playing up characters.
[ARCHIVAL, Nicole: Hi, I’m getting paid in like two hours…]
[ARCHIVAL, cashier: OK]
[ARCHIVAL, Nicole: But I just wanted to get my boss a gift ‘cause his nails are so sick looking, so can I just have an advance and I’ll pay for this in two hours?]
SIMONE: The show was an instant hit. The first episode drew an audience of a whopping 13 million. It wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed, but audiences loved watching Paris and Nicole act ditzy and charming.
Lindsey Weber: They also had a really compelling friendship that I ended up thinking was really sweet. And now when I watch it back, I still think the friendship is quite sweet.
SIMONE: But at the same time, the Paris that starred in The Simple Life was being overshadowed by another version of Paris. A much more salacious one.
Because just as her star was rising, her infamous sex tape started popping up online. It had been shot a couple of years back, in 2001, and featured Paris and her boyfriend at the time.
The leak of the tape happened in a few stages.
First, a 3-minute clip emerged online. This happened just months before The Simple Life premiered. The tabloids speculated that this was some sort of splashy promo for the show. And many people, like Bobby Finger, believed it.
Bobby Finger: I definitely thought it was Paris's idea, like, that was a pervasive opinion in the celebrity press, especially celebrity blogs, that she did this to herself to become famous -- that was sort of the narrative that was being pushed.
SIMONE: Paris and her ex-boyfriend both insisted they had nothing to do with the leak… then, a few months later, the ex changed his tune.
He set up a website called “trustfundgirls.com” where he offered up the full, 39-minute version of the tape…. $50 for 5 showings. He then brokered a deal with a pornographic film distributor to release the video on DVD… they called it 1 Night in Paris…then they released it on June 15th, 2004.
Bobby Finger: When I think about the sex tape, I just remember it being everywhere.
SIMONE: Bobby says, swirling around all of this was an absolute media feeding frenzy.
Bobby Finger: It was talked about for months and months and months and months and months like, this was, it was the story.
[ARCHIVAL, Conan: Everywhere I go people are talking about this Paris Hilton sex tape. And everyone knows the tape is out there, but what they want to know is when they’ll actually be able to see it.]
[ARCHIVAL, Colin Quinn: I saw a bit of that Paris Hilton Tape today...and now there’s a new tape comin’ out. It’s a sex tape of me jerkin’ off to the Paris Hilton tape.]
[NEWS CLIP, anchor: Hilton, who’s actually famous for just being famous, says the tape was meant for personal use only. Unfortunately for her, lots of internet users watched it for their own… [clears throat] personal use, too.]
[ARCHIVAL, Lynn Koplitz: I think this is like an audition tape, it’s like a plea to the porn industry...]
[ARCHIVAL, Jim Norton: I’ll tell you what it is, it’s her doing exactly what she should be doing in show business.]
[ARCHIVAL, Lynn Koplitz: [bleeping] dick. [applause]]
SIMONE: When all of this was happening, I was around 11 or 12 -- just fully in the thick of puberty. And watching the media take down women like Paris Hilton put the fear of God in me. I was absorbing these toxic messages about my body and what I was and was not allowed to do with it.
One thing that stood out to me in all of this was just how comfortable everyone was being so vicious. Paris made for an easy punchline. And no one was pushing back on how she was being discussed. So in my pre-teen brain, I wanted to fill in the blanks—because she must have done something to deserve this, right? Was it the sex part? The taping it part? Was it the lack of shame? Why was this okay?
This 2004 clip from the TV show South Park begins to answer that question.
[SOUTH PARK, announcer: Hello everyone, the Guess clothing company is pleased to have as its new spokesperson/model, a woman all you young ones can look up to, Miss Paris Hilton.
[SOUTH PARK, girl 1: Wow. That’s really her. Paris, over here!]
[SOUTH PARK, girl 2: I don’t get it, what does she do?]
[SOUTH PARK, girl 1: She’s super rich!]
[SOUTH PARK, girl 2: But what does she do?]
[SOUTH PARK, girl 1: She’s totally spoiled and snobby!]
[SOUTH PARK, girl 2: What does she do?!]
[SOUTH PARK, man: She’s a whore!]
SIMONE: For my 12-year-old mind, embedded in the news coverage, in the jokes, in the fixation around a young woman having sex on tape, was a message: Your life is not your own. The choices you make about what you wear, how you have sex, how you live, we all get a say in that. And if you make a choice we don’t like, we get to humiliate you and call you all kinds of “sluts” and “whores.”
But here’s the thing. This mandate of: “don’t be a slut or else,” it comes with a threat, but it doesn't come with any rules. Just a vague sense of “good” and “bad” behavior. An unwinnable situation.
Witnessing all of this while also beginning to explore my own sexuality was… I think clinicians call it a “mind fuck.” And I was far from the only one wrestling with this anxiety.
I called up my friend Amber, who I’ve known since we were about that age. We attended the same all-girls school… and we were reminiscing about this time and just how confusing it all was -- and the ways some of this even came up in class...
Amber: I don't know if you remember our, like, we took, like, an art history class with Ms. Frasier and she introduced us to the Virgin Whore complex.
Simone: Yeah, I've been thinking about that a lot.
Amber: Yeah! It like [makes sound] made everything make so much sense.
SIMONE: The Madonna-Whore Complex. It’s a concept that came from Freud, but is now used to describe how women are limited to basically two archetypes: sexless Madonnas who are meant for loving, or… you know, sexy whores who are meant for boning. For Amber, the struggle to maintain a perfect balance between the two felt impossible.
Amber: But I remember. Feeling like, for example, like Britney Spears, like very sexy and like feeling, like, kind of jealous and like feeling like I want to be like that, but also, like, a disdain. Like, I want to be both. Not being too sexy, but also like not, not being a baby or not being too frumpy.
SIMONE: Back at our middle school, we were trying to parse this all out. The Paris of it all. The Britney of it all. What were the boundaries of this desirability game?
Amber: There was this weird sense that, like, you don't want to have too much attention from the boys because that's bad, like. You should be getting attention, but you shouldn't be getting attention. It's all very murky. All very, very unclear. A lot of angst regarding that. I remember wearing the skirt with the jeans underneath, because that is both sexy but modest. (laughter) It's like the best of both worlds.
SIMONE: Be called a slut or be forced to wear jeans under a skirt. That’s a lose-lose if I’ve ever heard one.
The messages embedded in scandals like Paris's, they stick around -- and they end up shaping so many of us… But what about Paris? How did this all affect her?
At the time, she didn't really make many public statements. She let her lawyers do the talking instead. She sued the internet company that initially distributed the tape for $30 million in damages for violation of privacy.
A judge tossed out the case for reasons the public never found out -- the records are still sealed. Paris settled for a portion of the profit from the distribution of the tape. She asked that the sum be donated to charity.
And then, in 2011, she finally broke her silence.
[ARCHIVAL, Piers Morgan: Paris, Do you feel like you've entered the lion's den a bit tonight?]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: A little bit.]
[ARCHIVAL, Piers: Why?]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: I always get nervous in interviews, especially being at CNN.]
[ARCHIVAL, Piers: Why, why CNN?]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: Because it's just, you know, very serious and you make me nervous!]
SIMONE: After the break, Paris in her own words about the fallout from being exposed to the world.
SIMONE: Welcome back. Before the break, we traveled to the early 2000s, when Paris Hilton’s leaked sex tape was late night’s favorite punchline.
Paris waited nearly a decade before speaking about the scandal that rocked her career. In 2011, she granted CNN's Piers Morgan an interview… Yes, I know. Who thought, “ah, a celebrity interview about sexual trauma. This calls for the delicate hand of noted woman-supporter Piers Morgan.” But, in this particular interview, he is uncharacteristically gentle. Their conversation was a rare peek behind Paris the character and into Paris the person.
[ARCHIVAL, Piers: Take me back to, I don’t want to labor the point on this, but take me back to the moment you knew this was all going to go public, how did you actually feel?]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: I was in shock. I had no idea. We were in Australia when I heard the news that someone had been sent a clip, uh, one of the entertainment shows and I didn’t believe it at first and then when I landed back in LA is when I saw what happened. It was the most embarrassing, humiliating thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.]
SIMONE: Watching this interview… it’s almost jarring how different Paris is from the bubbly party girl I had come to know her as. She’s soft-spoken and contained. And vulnerable.
[ARCHIVAL, Piers: How do you even begin telling your mom something like that?]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: I just called her crying.]
[ARCHIVAL, Piers: Do you remember, Kathy?]
SIMONE: Paris’s Mom, Kathy Hilton, was right beside her for the entire interview.
[ARCHIVAL, Kathy Hilton: You know, I don’t. It’s all like a fog right now and, um, it was a very difficult time.]
[ARCHIVAL, Piers: Although -- ]
[ARCHIVAL, Kathy: To keep her home for like three months straight, was uh, you know it had to have been very embarrassing.]
SIMONE: Paris Hilton was 20 when her private video was filmed and 22 when it leaked. She just turned 40 this year. In that time, she’s made herself into quite the businesswoman -- she has perfume, shoes… she’s also done TV and movies… and she’s one of the highest paid DJs in the world.
She’s made it clear: Paris Hilton the character has moved on -- but for Paris Hilton the person… an experience like that doesn’t just go away with time.
In a 2020 documentary about her life titled This Is Paris, she gives maybe her most raw take on that time in her life.
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: That was a private moment with a teenage girl, not in her right headspace, but everyone was watching it and laughing. Like it’s something funny.]
SIMONE: When she talks about it, the pain’s still there. But it sounds like she's spent a lot of time thinking about all of this. Like she’s developed a new sense of clarity…
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: “It was like being electronically raped.]
[ARCHIVAL, Paris: But they made me the bad person, like I did something bad. If that happened today, it would not be the same story at all.]
SIMONE: This is really difficult to listen to. Look, I’m not saying Paris is perfect. She’s definitely done things that I believe deserve criticism. But hearing this tape… it’s the first time I even thought to put myself in her shoes. And it’s heartbreaking.
And to her final point -- I think Paris is right.
If that story happened today, it probably wouldn’t have played out the same way.
We’ve started to name and challenge that brand of misogyny. Terms like “slut shaming” and “rape culture” are increasingly mainstream. They refer to the systemic ways women’s bodies are policed, and the dominant culture that ignores consent.
Also, today, we probably wouldn’t call it a sex tape -- because we have a term for sharing intimate content of someone without their consent -- revenge porn. And it’s now a felony in some states.
But if you do want to share your nudes, you can. Platforms like OnlyFans allow people to monetize their own erotic content. In general, it just feels like women have more agency and control -- over the space they occupy and the gaze they can command. Social media has certainly helped there, too. Giving people the power to write their own public narratives.
It’s worth noting -- “famous for being famous” isn’t even a punchline anymore. It’s a career. A really lucrative one. It’s called being an influencer.
Celebrity will never be perfect… it is by its nature a machine that takes people and compresses their humanity into digestible and profitable chunks. But it’s been exceptionally cruel to young women, and we're only just now starting to reckon with that.
We’ve got a long way to go… but we are starting to chip away at this deep seated culture that punishes women for existing as they are… and that’s hot.
Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media.
Next week, we’re throwing our hat in the viral TikTok challenge ring and taking you on a historical domino effect journey from an obscure Nazi battle to a blockbuster movie musical.
Simone: Alright, any questions so far?
Mary Hallowell: (laughs) I didn't know this was a TikTok thing. This is thrilling.
This episode was produced by Kinsey Clarke and Sarah Craig. Our associate producers are Julie Carli and Jake Maia Arlow. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott, Zac Stuart-Pontier, Lydia Polgreen and Abbie Ruzicka. Fact checking by Jane Ackerman. Sound design and mixing by Bumi Hidaka and Bobby Lord. Welcome to our intern Laura Newcombe. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With Music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka.
Special thanks to Livia Moynihan and Joanna Andreasson. Tayo Amos. Kalena Giessler Gonzalez. Lauren Mah. Lydia Polgreen. Dan Behar and Clara Sankey. Emily Wiedemann. Liz Stiles. And Nabeel Chollampat.
Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on @SimonePolanen.