The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has been limping along these past few years, struggling to grasp the magic that made its older seasons sing. This year, frontloaded with mountains of intrigue from the high-profile divorce of Erika and Tom Girardi as he is slammed with accusations of running a settlement shell game with his clients’ funds, we already knew we had something. But then Kathy Hilton walked in.
Hilton, the mother of Hilton hotel empire heirs Paris and Nicky, isn’t a completely new entity to the show. Her sister Kyle has been a cast staple on the series for years, but we could never catch more than a glimpse of Kathy as she flitted around on the periphery. Now that she’s in focus, I cannot imagine the cameras ever turning away.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has always trafficked in flagrant extravagance, with women parading around in tacky designer fashion and flaunting their supposed wealth, but a dash of desperation was ever present. The sense that these women needed the show, whether for vanity, status, or even just a paycheck often left me feeling hollow. It’s difficult to view these hyper-managed personas too caught up in the awareness of audience perception through the lens of camp, because it doesn’t allow for anything deeper. The artificial isn’t hiding anything here except insecurity, so there’s no chance for whimsy or surprise. More than any other franchise, Beverly Hills usually appeared to be a show about the guarded self-perception these women were willing to share, rather than any version of truth. But Kathy Hilton couldn’t care less. She enjoys gleefully popping the bubbles of these women’s delusions as much as she loves inhabiting her own.
Perhaps producers lured her into a spot as a “Friend of,” a moniker given to women who appear on trips and at group functions but never earned a spot in the main cast, thanks to her friend Crystal Kung Minkoff, the series’ newest housewife. Minkoff is a stunning, mean-girl presence who fits perfectly in this above-it-all cast. But even she now stands in Kathy’s shadow.
Whether it’s her fear of contact lenses or her belief that Mazel Tov means Merry Christmas, what’s beautiful about Kathy Hilton’s existence on RHOBH is her pure, unvarnished self in the face of the cameras. She doesn’t hold back, and often seems unaware that a show is being filmed around her. During an Instagram Live with her sister earlier this year, she even had to ask what channel RHOBH aired on.
In her first episode, during a planning conversation for the cast’s trip to Lake Tahoe, she casually slips in a question asking if she should bring her scissors and dental supplies. A curious, comical moment, but then it transitions to a talking head interview where she explains that as a child she would perform dental procedures on the children of her neighborhood and make her sisters serve as makeshift assistants. What started as a quirky aside ends up hinting at a much darker and much funnier personality.
Her absurdity never relents. While on the trip she wanders into her sister’s room at 1 a.m. and crawls into bed with her, only to start crinkling a bag of chips, sipping a Red Bull, and paging through newspapers late into the night. When Kyle playfully yells at her that she’s drinking an energy drink after midnight she innocently replies “I thought it was just, like, a soft drink.”
The easiest reading of this brilliant character is that Kathy Hilton’s enormous wealth has left her completely unaware of regular society, so out of touch that she doesn’t know what Red Bull is or how to plug a fan into a wall. But there might be a wink lurking just below the surface. When you mix her talking-head commentary with her extemporaneous nonsense, her entire performance feels almost covered in a sort of wry self-consciousness. She understands her own weirdness, but never compromises on it.
Every episode we’re left wondering how in on the joke of herself she is, as she shows off a craft project of deliciously gaudy holiday wreathes adorned with miniature trinkets, or walks through another cast member’s low-ceilinged boutique with nothing but notes. Her extreme version of particularity mixed with those fleeting, canny winks to the viewer fling the doors to camp wide open. The subtext potential in her existence is so rich, we can all over-read her in our own way.
Her camp nature is precisely what makes this season work, allowing us to ignore all the usual plot elements, like two women fighting over the meaning of the word “violation,” and the supposed authenticity of Erika Girardi’s divorce. Instead, we can set up shop on Kathy Hilton Island, watching every shot for another flash of camp brilliance to add to our collection. If she ascends to the main cast next year she might be tougher to camp, forcing us to reckon her troubling history with her daughter, or the strained relationship she had with her sisters, but for now we get to bathe in her untainted camp bliss and wink right back at her.