In 2022, it’s indisputable that Kathy Hilton is reality-TV gold. Over her two years as a friend-of on Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the 63-year-old socialite has managed to unofficially trademark “hunky dory” (sorry to David Bowie), make hotel slippers chic, gag Lisa Rinna at a reunion, and convince me that caviar baked potatoes taste good.
This past weekend, however, I discovered that this wasn’t always the case for America’s favorite wacky matriarch. (Yes, she’s currently beating Kris Jenner in the rankings). On a bored Saturday afternoon, I decided to binge all eight episodes of I Want To Be A Hilton, NBC’s one-season reality competition hosted by the hotel heiress, on the streaming service Tubi.
I had vague memories of the show premiering in 2005. But of course, my 9-year-old self had more compelling things to watch (Phil of the Future) than the mother of Paris Hilton teach a group of civilians how to row in a canoe. Little did I know that this failed knockoff of The Apprentice would have such archaeological value to me all these years later.
After just one episode, I understood why this series wasn’t the appropriate platform to turn Hilton into a notable television personality, nor was it the right time. But boy, did I enjoy myself and possibly concern my roommate, given all the involuntary laughing and yelping coming from my bedroom.
Here’s a synopsis: I Want To Be A Hilton, produced by Rick Hilton, follows 14 middle- and working-class contestants competing in various challenges for the opportunity to “live like a Hilton” for a year. The winner receives a $200,000 “trust fund” and a fully-furnished Manhattan apartment. The silliest prize in this package is “access to the Hilton Rolodex,” as if anyone who does business with the Hiltons would pick up the phone for a random reality-show winner.
Divided into two teams, Madison and Park, the contestants are educated on aspects of high-society life—like attending formal dinners, organizing charity events and handling press. (The job of a “socialite,” according to this show, is more like the job of a socialite’s assistant or publicist).
In most episodes, they’re thrust into some uppercrust environment and forced to showcase their knowledge in front of Hilton and other illustrious guests like Billy Bush, Ted Allen, and Hilton’s younger sister Kyle Richards. At the end, Hilton deliberates with the losing team and pretends to write a list of which contestants she wants to save. Whoever doesn’t make “the list” is sent back home to Idaho (or wherever) to resume their humble life.
The series shares the same DNA as popular reality competitions at the time like The Apprentice, America’s Next Top Model and Queer Eye for The Straight Guy. Those shows were more well-rounded in terms of what made them entertaining. But in the case of I Want to Be Hilton, the only amusing aspect is the contestants, who make a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy out of a second-rate, copycat series.
Among the show’s eccentric candidates is a former pageant queen named Ann, who randomly breaks out into song; a mother named Latricia, who becomes increasingly fed up with her white peers; and a Vegas showgirl named Yvette, who has to be told to dress appropriately in every episode. I also must note the insanely long (and loud) Frank Sinatra-inspired theme song featuring the cast that has not left my head.
I Want To Be A Hilton is not nearly as cringe-y as I expected an early-2000s program to be. Obviously, there’s an inherent classism to aspirational shows that promote a wealthy lifestyle as “the good life” and equivocate etiquette to morals. But getting rich is the goal of practically every competition show. The series manages to capture the contestants’ naivete without looking down on them. It assumes that most viewers would identify with Johnny the plumber over a multi-millionaire.
And then there’s the show’s main Achilles heel—Hilton, who might as well be a robot dressed in a silk blouse and diamond earrings. (It isn’t that far outside of the realm of possibility.) It’s not just Hilton who comes across as lifeless and unenthusiastic in nearly every scene. But she lacks an intimidating quality as a host that was popular on network television at the time.
This was the era when Donald Trump made “you’re fired!” a catchphrase, Gordon Ramsey verbally abused chefs for giggles, and Tyra Banks made 18-year-old women risk their lives for photoshoots. On American Idol, Simon Cowell ignited our brief obsession with scowling British men. Hilton, on the other hand, was clearly doing damage control for some unflattering publicity, including the release of Paris’ sex tape the year prior.
During an assignment where the contestants have to speak at a press conference, one of them asks Hilton how she handled the backlash. We get a dramatic dun-dun before it cuts to commercial, suggesting that Hilton will not take this inquiry well. However, instead of a curt “no comment,” she provides an eloquent, seemingly publicist-provided answer and moves along to the next segment.
During a deliberation, where a contestant shares a sob story to save themselves from the chopping block, Hilton immediately breaks down in tears. Hilton could very well just be a sweet, sentimental woman. But overall, it seemed like it was in her best interest at the time to present herself as powerful but approachable.
Given my impression of Hilton now as extremely daffy, I was able to recognize some of her quirks. But in 2005, it makes sense that she wasn’t able to grip the average viewer and give NBC’s audience something memorable to hold onto. Also, why spend an hour with Paris Hilton’s boring mother when you could watch the flashiest member of the Hilton clan on The Simple Life or frolicking around Beverly Hills on PerezHilton.com?
Still, I implore anyone who’s a fan of 2022 Kathy Hilton to watch I Want To Be A Hilton. Think of it as an interesting time capsule. It’s a refreshing glimpse of some less-serious reality TV before social media ruined the genre forever. Additionally, the show and its brief time on air adds some interesting context to Hilton’s alleged desire to, as alleged on Real Housewives, “take down NBC”—although, she’s in better standing now with the media conglomerate. Talk about aspirational.