Hillary Clinton once called a campaign aide a “fucking Jew bastard.” Anna Wintour has daddy issues when it comes to powerful men. Jerry Seinfeld is, of course, some ambiguous form of gay.
Jerry Oppenheimer has given us these gems via his unauthorized celebrity biographies, one after the other, in which he meticulously carves household names into quivering bite-sized chunks for us to devour.
But in the genre of celebrity journalism, Oppenheimer does manage to rise to what passes for literary highbrow. If anything, he’s mastered the art of keeping one foot in the cerebral (his obsessive mapping of celebrity genealogy is almost forensic) even while the other is planted ankle-deep in a landfill of gossip and anonymous backstabbing. In his latest work, House of Hilton, he works to decipher the riddle that is Paris. By analyzing her family roots – focusing mainly on her mother, Little Kathy Hilton, and her maternal grandmother, Big Kathy – he attempts to explain how the “heirhead” (or “celebutard,” depending on your favorite “Page Six” portmanteau) became what she is today. He charts a fixation on fame and wealth that has consumed the Hilton clan for four generations, as well as the bizarre upbringing Paris and her sister Nicky endured: blowjob tips at the hands of their mother, unrelenting pressure to marry rich men, engineered scandals and fuckups created solely to get the Hilton name in the tabloids. When it’s all said and done, out drops something wholly unexpected: a portrait of Paris as a sympathetic figure. Nerve spoke to Oppenheimer about pulling the drapes back on wayward VIPs. – Catrinel Bartolomeu
Do your subjects know you’re writing an unauthorized biography about them?
Usually I send a letter telling the person they’re going to be the subject of a major biography. I say that I’d like the opportunity for an interview. Usually they reject that, or give no response.
Has anyone ever sat down and talked to you?
No. With the Hilton book, Paris was in New York last summer at Macy’s hawking her perfume. I introduced myself to [her parents] Rick and Kathy, and told them I was writing a biography on the Hilton dynasty. I especially told Kathy that I was really focusing on her mother, Big Kathy, and on her own life to show how Paris developed. And while she was very friendly, her reaction was, “Well I hope it’s going to be a nice book,” and she declined to be available for interviews.
You describe her family as so messed up, it almost makes Paris seem sympathetic.
The context of her family roots make her sympathetic. Her grandmother and her mother were both celebrity obsessed, star obsessed, fame obsessed, and Paris kind of had no chance to do anything but what she’s doing today. She’s quite successful in terms of the revenue she’s generating, but had she been brought up in a differently, she might be the veterinarian she hoped to be when she was a child. She always loved animals. She tried to sneak her ferrets into the Vegas Hilton. But from the day she was born, her mother called her a star – that was her nickname.
How much do you think she actually had to do with the release of the sex tape?
It’s impossible to prove if she had a role in doing that. Certainly her parents issued a hard-hitting statement denouncing the video, but in the end, they’re very proud and happy with everything she’s done.
Why do you think Paris and Nicky have such different public roles?
Nicky is the only one of the two who’s had a marriage thus far. Paris pursued Paris Lastis and Stavros Niarchos III unsuccessfully. I know her parents were behind such marriages because they’d bring big money into the family. In the end, I think a corporate decision was made to keep Paris in the spotlight and have Nicky go into the background.
Has anyone ever done anything to stop you from writing?
My publisher received several letters from an attorney for the Hiltons. Martha Stewart made similar attempts. It’s typical with celebrities or iconic figures. They’ll tell people not to talk, they’ll have a lawyer write a letter – it’s routine. The goal is to have a chilling effect on the author’s work. I remember Barbara Walters was very friendly with Liz Smith and Cindy Adams. They wrote columns where they had little items saying Barbara Walters is furious with this book and friends shouldn’t talk. They passed along that sort of thing, which again is kind of ironic since Barbara Walters’ main job is to elicit tears and emotion from everyone she interviews and claim she’s a journalist.
I read Liz Smith wasn’t talking to you because she was angry you quoted her as saying she loved Barbara Walters.
Yeah, I spent some time interviewing Liz Smith about Barbara Walters. She wasn’t misquoted.
Do you make enemies in your line of work? Are people always pissed at you?
Probably my books are upsetting because I delve into areas of [celebrities'] lives that they wouldn’t want the world to know about. I wouldn’t expect them to be celebrating the publication of another Jerry Oppenheimer biography.
Is someone going to write a biography on you?
I doubt it. I have a boring life. It’s difficult work, a lot of leg work. I wish I could just make it all up and write novels.