When he was running for president in 1999, Al Gore made the unforgettable claim in a CNN interview that he had, in fact, invented the Internet.
At least that’s how the now infamous remark has been translated over the years. His actual words were a little more garbled. “During my service in the United States Congress,” he said, “I took the initiative in creating the Internet.”
Paris Hilton, the hotel heiress and consummate socialite of the early 2000s, made an equally bold assertion on Wednesday, telling W magazine that she had invented the selfie.
Unlike Gore, the 36-year-old “celebrity entrepreneur” of reality show and sex tape fame didn’t seem to equivocate. Per W magazine:
Despite Hilton’s longtime dependency on various cellular devices, it is perhaps visionaries like Steve Jobs who are indebted to her, seeing that it was Hilton who took their creations beyond their wildest expectations, inventing along the way the maligned but ubiquitous selfie.
“If a beeper had a camera, I would have taken a selfie with it,” said Hilton later, agreeing that she was truthfully the matriarch of the modern phenomenon. “I think I have a selfie from when I was a little kid, like on a disposable camera.”
The story goes on to say that Hilton was “shaping up to be a pioneer and prophet of the zeitgeist as we know it,” having proved that “you can get paid to be yourself, and that ‘yourself’ can be a multi-hyphenated entity.”
“She did this all without a publicist, a stylist, glam squad, or social media,” the story says.
Few would deny that Hilton turned the celebrity world on its head in the early aughts. She represented a new breed of socialite, bursting into pop culture at a time when jewel-encrusted Motorola flip phones were a status symbol and Snapchat wasn’t even a gleam in an app developer’s eye.
As The Washington Post’s fashion critic opined during this year’s New York Fashion Week: “There were plenty of party girls before her, but Paris — we’re still on a first-name basis with her — managed to monetize empty fame. And she did it without the help of Instagram. She laid the groundwork for the Kardashians. God bless, Paris.”
Whether any of that qualifies Hilton to anoint herself inventor of the selfie, well, that’s a different story.
For starters, she may have to contend with Karl Baden, a 64-year-old college professor in Massachusetts. Baden has been snapping self portraits almost every day since Feb. 23, 1987, as part of an ongoing art project, the Associated Press reported earlier this year.
Over the past three decades, he has amassed almost 11,000 photos of himself, all headshots, all with the same neutral facial expression. Not quite the smirking, cockeyed fashionista that Hilton presents to her 6.9 million Instagram followers, but fans have nevertheless dubbed Baden the “father of the selfie.”
Steve Sasson, the creator of the first digital camera, has also been accused of enabling the selfie phenomenon. Sasson’s 8-pound, 0.01-megapixel black-and-white digital camera was created at Kodak in 1975. Forty-some years later, Sasson says, he’s dealing with the “law of unintended consequences.”
“I get blamed for selfies,” he told The Post’s Matt McFarland in 2015. “They do it just to get a rise out of me or something.”
Of course, people have been taking self-portraits for as long as they’ve been using cameras. But it wasn’t until 2013 that “selfie” became fully enshrined in the English language, earning the Oxford Dictionaries “word of the year” distinction.
According to Oxford, the first recorded usage of the word traces back to a 2002 post in an Australian online forum, where one commenter used it to describe a picture taken of his or her bloody lip, apparently the result of a drunken night out. Social media and photo sharing sites such as Flickr helped popularize the word over the following years, and by 2012 it was frequently popping up in mainstream media.
“The word gained momentum throughout the English-speaking world in 2013 as it evolved from a social media buzzword to mainstream shorthand for a self-portrait photograph,” Oxford said in a statement. “Its linguistic productivity is already evident in the creation of numerous related spinoff terms showcasing particular parts of the body like helfie (a picture of one’s hair) and belfie (a picture of one’s posterior); a particular activity — welfie (workout selfie) and drelfie (drunken selfie), and even items of furniture — shelfie and bookshelfie.”
Hilton was no doubt shooting selfies in 2002, and if nothing else, she found a way to harness them as a vehicle for celebrity. In her interview with W Magazine, she seemed to imply as much.
“Nowadays, I feel like it’s so easy becoming famous,” she said. “Anybody with a phone can do it.”
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