As the most famous musical progeny on the planet, Paris Jackson is following in her father Michael’s footsteps with an album of deeply personal songs. Lifelong family friend Kathy Hilton speaks to her about healing, her inner hippie and making “honest” music
Words by STEPHANIE RAFANELLI Photography by DANIELLE LEVITT Fashion Direction by MARYAM MALAKPOUR
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Paris Jackson doesn’t like labels. If she had to pick, she’d prefer to describe herself as a “musician” and “activist.” More than words, though, she wears herself on her skin: her intense 22 years of life inscribed in over 50 tattoos all over her body, for those curious enough to read past her last name. Today, she sits on the floor between ethereal white drapes, all blue eyes and cheekbones, like an intricate human sketchbook. A bright sunflower on her forearm speaks to sunny times; seven chakras from her sternum to her navel, to healing; and reportedly nine tattoos dedicated to her beloved father, Michael Jackson — whom she lost when she was 11. “Queen of my heart” is scribbled on the side of her left wrist in his handwriting.
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Jackson — a singer-songwriter whose bohemian spirit is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Joan Baez — might be most at ease seated on the floor barefoot with her acoustic guitar. But in her public life she is known for taking a stand. In the last few years she has spoken out to her 3.6 million Instagram followers in support of her “fellow LGBTQ+” community, climate action, Native American rights and her friend Paris Hilton, for breaking the code of silence around abuse in her 2020 YouTube Originals documentary This Is Paris. Jackson is a true 21st-century woman: publicly baring her body hair, her scars and her soul, being searingly honest about her mental health struggles as a 15-year-old and her spiritual path to recovery.
This outspokenness is all the more impressive given that she grew up in the cloistered world of Neverland Ranch (recently sold to supermarket billionaire Ron Burkle) with her brothers Prince (now 24; like Jackson, the child of Debbie Rowe) and Bigi (now 18, perhaps better known by his childhood nickname, “Blanket”), their privacy and identities fiercely guarded until they stood blinking in the spotlights at their father’s 2009 memorial concert at the Staples Center, which drew an estimated 2.5 billion viewers. Since moving out of her grandmother’s Calabasas home at 18, Jackson has made a cautious debut, dipping her toe back into the spotlight once again as the face of Calvin Klein, making guest TV appearances and performing around L.A. with her then boyfriend and bandmate from the Soundflowers. But it was the release of her haunting solo album Wilted last November, detailing the renewed wave of grief of their breakup, that singled Jackson out as an authentic talent: a melancholic artist unafraid to carve her own off-kilter space in the world.
Few could be prouder of her than Kathy Hilton, mother of the other Paris and proxy mama to this one. The “friend of” cast member on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was a close friend of Michael Jackson — they met at school in the 1970s. A fellow night owl, Hilton, 61, interviewed the L.A.-based Jackson via Zoom with C Magazine one evening, talking sound baths, Greta Thunberg, horror and the uplifting power of “disturbing art.”
Paris Jackson: What’s up, mama?
Kathy Hilton: Not much, little mama. I’m having a little wine. What’s going on?
PJ: I’m just drinking sparkling water. But I have two vapes. I have issues with nicotine.
KH: What time is it there?
PJ: It’s early, like 9:30 p.m. I go to sleep around 6:30 a.m. I think maybe it’s because my heart belongs in Europe. I live permanently on European time.
KH: I’m the same way.
PJ: I even have the Union Jack [tattooed] on my lower back. All of my best friends are in the UK, so [nighttime here is when I talk to them]. My music taste is British. Radiohead is my number one, and so are the Beatles.
C Magazine: So how do you ladies know each other?
KH: I’ve known Paris since she was born. She was the most beautiful little baby. And we had the opportunity to spend time together in New York, when Paris [and Michael were] living at the Waldorf Astoria for about six months. And also [when they lived in] Bel Air. She’s always been such a smart young woman, way beyond her years. And I’m just so proud of the independent woman that she’s become, being able to make music but stay in her own lane.
C: When was the last time you saw each other?
PJ: It was in L.A., right before the [pandemic]. I came over to Kathy’s place.
KH: Sometimes she’ll just call and we’ll get together and just sit around and talk. Paris has really helped me when I’ve been down. She’s a real helper. She’s got a big heart. You’ve been very busy since…
PJ: I think a lot of people who are creative have been able to take this time to really create. I got really into painting as well. I like abstracts in acrylic and oil, but lately I’ve just been doing watercolors of animals, trees, landscapes.
C: Kathy, legend has it that you, Michael and La Toya made a pact at school that you would all call your first daughters Paris. Is that true?
KH: Well, the name Paris was something that we joked about and played around with when we were little.
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C: Are you close to the other Paris, Paris?
PJ: I absolutely adore her. I admire her strength. She’s insanely smart, insanely funny. It’s really nice having someone there who has been around the block. She’s done this for a long time and she’s clearly so good at maneuvering her way through the industry. It’s nice to know that I can call her when I hit a crossroad. We have a lot of similar experiences.
C: You supported her when she came out about the emotional and physical abuse she suffered at her reformatory boarding school in Utah.
PJ: I went through some very, very similar experiences with those kind of teen places. I went to another [reformatory] school in Utah. She’s been through a lot and it’s amazing to see her come out of the other end … a diamond. [She’s taught me] the importance of setting a good example as a strong woman, and being able to uplift other women. We don’t really have as great a head start as some men.
KH: In the past, if a woman spoke out, she was judged. Now, the people that judge? Shame on you. What is so great about Paris
is she doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks
the walk. A lot of young people just say what they think is cool to say of the minute. She really cares.
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PJ: I don’t really see the point of having such a [big social media] platform, if it’s just going to be about me, me, me the whole time. I want to leave this place a better world than when I came into it, use my platform to uplift causes, whether it be the environment, animal rights, human rights, feminism. … I want to play my part.
C: Do you think that your resolve as an activist was made stronger under the Trump presidency?
PJ: I’ve always been this way, even before the last presidency. I was going to protests before 2016, getting up on stage barefoot and talking about the things that are important to me.
C: How do you feel about the coming of a new presidential era?
PJ: I am definitely celebrating the [executive order canceling the Keystone XL] pipeline. If anyone has spent any time getting to know me over recent years, they known I am very passionately anti-oil pipelines. Anything pro-environment, I will definitely celebrate.
C: Are you a fan of Greta Thunberg?
PJ: I’m a fan of anyone who dedicates their life to preventing extinction.
C: Do you spend time in the wilderness?
PJ: I love camping. I love Joshua Tree. I love being outside. … I enjoy being surrounded by nature and trees. I’m always moving around.
C: As a tranquility lover, how’s it been for you with the increased exposure of releasing the album?
PJ: I’ve been [an object of media interest] since I came out of the womb, so it’s not really new. Thankfully, I’ve been getting better at maneuvering and being able to handle it and finding ways to stay at peace outside of my career and public life. Meditation and prayers are very important to me. Spending time with people who I uplift and they uplift me: people who I can be weightless with. If I’ve got that on lock, I can pretty much handle anything.
KH: Do you still do the healing?
PJ: Of course.
KH: A couple of years ago you were going to take me down to Malibu, you had someone really cool there.
PJ: I can call you later about that.
KH: I’ve been doing these sound baths. I found them to make me emotional. Paris [her daughter] and I did one together. I really loved it.
C: Do you still do tarot cards?
PJ: I gave a reading to my friends two nights ago.
KH: If you had a choice which era would you live in? The ’60s, the ’70s?
PJ: Sometimes I think the 1960s, because of Woodstock and the music and the civil rights movements. People call me a hippie and I don’t mind that. I take it as a compliment.
KH: She’s an old soul.
PJ: But I think right now. I am happy to be alive during this time of human rights and feminism. I feel like we are on the brink of a huge awakening. I’m also alive at the same time as my musical heroes, and I got to work with them on this album.
C: You collaborated with Andy Hull from [rock band] Manchester Orchestra on Wilted.
PJ: They are my heroes. They’ve changed my life for the better. I first listened to them when I was 13 or 14, but in the last few years I was able to dive into their discography. It’s really been the soundtrack to my healing. It’s gotten me through some tough times. I think Andy is the Bob Dylan of our generation — him and Conor Oberst from Bright Eyes.
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KH: What inspires you to write music?
PJ: Everything inspires me. Nature. My friends and family. … I like to see my family as much as possible. Me and my older brother are so close in age, we’ve always been very close and supportive of each other. … Happy experiences inspire me. Traumatic experiences inspire me.
C: On Wilted, the pain is almost visceral.
PJ: The music that resonates with me the most is honest. Personally, I can’t ever see myself in the future making music that isn’t honest. [Making that album] was an extremely healing experience: to get it all out there and have such a positive response.
C: There’s a Gaelic tone to your singing. I know you lived in Ireland with your father for a while. Have Irish bands like the Cranberries influenced you?
PJ: I do like Irish music, but I think my sound is a combination of all my influences. For this record, I was going for a Radiohead/Manchester Orchestra vibe. But on a more subconscious level, I think I am still being influenced by my dad’s music, the music I grew up on: Motown, R&B, soul, the Beatles, classical, jazz. … I used to sing all the time [as a kid].
C: The video to “Let Down” is pretty gory. You literally have your heart ripped out. Would your father let you watch horror films as a child?
PJ: Yup. The very first horror film I watched was the original House of Wax , with Vincent Price. I like gore.
KH: She was really exposed to some cool, old-school stuff growing up.
C: Speaking of dark, what is it about the melancholia of Radiohead that uplifts you?
PJ: I think that true art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. All of my favorite visual artists have done that too: Van Gogh. Modigliani. Pollock. Basquiat. The art that I like the most is the disturbing kind, that makes me feel comforted.
C: Do you do much on the L.A. art scene?
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PJ: Before the pandemic, yeah. I love underground exhibitions and supporting local artists. For my last two projects I’ve used art by [lesser-known] artists. For my next project I’m supporting a friend who’s an underground L.A. artist.
C: Your upcoming film Habit sounds pretty art house too. You play Jesus?
PJ: I’m not actually playing Jesus Christ. I’m playing a hallucination of him which comes from this girl’s trauma with her mother.
C: Do you plan to pursue music as a full-time career?
PJ: I do think that music is my destiny. This is where I’m meant to be. The more I do music, the more I feel myself, the more I find myself and create myself. But I still don’t know what route I’m going to [take]. I want to try new genres: hard rock, soft rock … maybe even pop one day. I want to keep exploring. I think that’s what life is about. I certainly haven’t figured it out. I’m just going with the flow, listening to my heart.
Production by LAUREN SCHUMACHER. Prop styling by DANIEL HOROWITZ. Hair by PETER SAVIC at OPUS BEAUTY. Makeup by PATI DUBROFF at FORWARD ARTISTS using CHANEL. Manicure by EMI KUDO using CHANEL Le Vernis.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of C Magazine.