Paris Hilton’s New York apartment is about as sparkly, hot pink, and gilded as you would expect. When I dropped by on a recent afternoon, a row of crowns and tiaras lined a living room cabinet, and a Paris-size mirrored version of a LuMee iPhone case was propped against a wall, inscribed with her name in cursive and primed for her next selfie. But what really stuck out was a couple of cheap shower curtains spread across the chevron-print carpet—her fiancé Chris Zylka’s makeshift tarp for his artmaking.
“She’ll kill me if I make a mess,” said Zylka, 32, who had white paint all over his fingernails. He gestured away from the corner he’d taken over with an easel, spray-paint cans, and stencils toward the rest of the silk-walled living room with its white leather couches, marble-block coffee table, and—it would be hard to not notice it—a re-creation of The Last Supper, except with Hilton flanked by dining companions like Snow White and Hugh Hefner. (Hilton would refer to the painting at one point, absentmindedly, as a version of “Jesus’s Breakfast.”)
For a couple who have been dating for only a year and been engaged for less than two months, Hilton and Zylka are conspicuously close; if you believe Zylka, they haven’t been apart for longer than four hours since their first date almost exactly a year ago. Which would mean that—if you take into consideration their other life at their L.A. home and that Hilton’s DJing and her 19 product lines has the couple traveling for what Hilton estimates to be 250 days of the year—they’ve only spent a week or so in this apartment over the course of their relationship. The only real signs of life in the place speak to the whirlwind of their comings and goings: a large pink leather tote with dozens of $100 bills scattered freely inside, say, or a random glue gun sitting atop a pile of rhinestones in a corner.
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To recount how it came to be that “Paris Loves Chris,” as a tangled gold-plated necklace on the floor had it, Zylka took a seat on the carpet with a tall glass of orange Pedialyte, which he’d topped off with a little whiskey. Even he seemed struck by their unexpected love story: that a once-homeless former “CW leading guy” from the Rust Belt who doesn’t have social media would end up making a perfect match with an heiress and “living icon”—as Zylka called his fiancée—who arguably invented the selfie. Part of what brings the pair together is as unexpected as their love: a shared lifelong passion for and commitment to making art. (Yes, Hilton is an artist—she’s always loved drawing, and has lately been combining it with painting, photography, LED lights, Swarovski crystals, glitter, and emojis to, as she put it, “make really cool stuff.”)
Zylka’s artmaking, on the other hand, has often come from “a darker place,” starting from when he was nine years old and growing up in a “pretty broken home” near Akron, Ohio. “It was actually a therapist who said, ‘Paint what you think of as your insides,’” he recalled. “And I painted this.” He rolled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of an angel apparently gone bad, and then laughed it off.
Zylka comes across as earnest, and shares with Hilton a humorous self-awareness; he knows as well as anyone how different their backstories are. After he graduated high school, Zylka stuck around Ohio for college at the University of Toledo, where he was “a quarterback and an art major,” before dropping out to take care of his grandfather. His days started at 3 a.m. with work (he transported freight across the state in a 16-footer), then assistant-coaching his high school football team, and ended with him crashing on the couch with his family in time to watch, as it were, The Simple Life.
At 19, Zylka took off for California with just a few hundred dollars in his pocket. For a while, he lived behind a 7-Eleven dumpster, survived off canned tuna, and showered at a gym where he would also charge his phone, he recalled, “so my mother didn’t think I was homeless.”
The next part is pure Hollywood. One day, he was spotted by a talent manager who had just lost a client—Chad Michael Murray, then on his way to becoming the Next Big Thing—and asked Zylka if he had aspirations to be an actor. “I think he just saw a blond guy at a restaurant,” Zylka said. At that point, he had no acting training whatsoever, and was living in a semi-functioning 1994 Ford Probe that he sometimes had to push from parking lot to parking lot. What was the harm in saying yes?
Zylka’s first role was in a TV show called—haha—Everybody Hates Chris. Then he appeared in shows like Hannah Montana until, finally, his big-screen break: The Amazing Spider-Man, in which he played Peter Parker’s classmate, Flash Thompson. The project was not only his biggest to date, it also changed his life in another way. It was at an Oscars party around the movie’s release where he first met Hilton. They immediately hit it off.
“I was with my sister at one of the villas at the Chateau Marmont when he walked in,” Hilton recalled, having returned from a long day of doing press. “And I just looked at Nicky and said, ‘I have to meet him. This is the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
That was eight years ago. They flirted and talked at the party, and Hilton said she “knew there was something special about” him, but it would be awhile before they got together. Zylka’s growing professional success meant he could finally afford to get back to his painting. Soon he was taking his work down to Art Basel Miami, which is where Paris’s brother Barron Hilton took a liking to his art. He invited Zylka to hang with a group that happened to include Paris, sparking a string of text messages between them that would last for over a year, a period during which Zylka spent much of the time filming The Leftovers, in Austin.
Upon his return to L.A., the pair finally got the chance to talk in person. Zylka knows the particulars of their reunion by heart: February 2, 2017, their first date. They were actually meant to meet the day before, but Zylka got too nervous. But he needn’t have been. “I saw her,” he recalled, “and that was it.” They spent the night in, talking for hours and watching The Secret Life of Pets. Hilton’s recollection of their first date is just as sugar-frosted. “You know, being in Hollywood, you’re always around so many people taking pictures and talking,” she said. “I was just looking into his eyes and seeing how kind and sweet he was.”
It wasn’t long before they started hosting “art nights” for themselves and their friends. “When she gets into an artsy-fartsy mode, she goes off,” Zylka said of Hilton, who has tirelessly promoted her fiancé’s art career—especially since Zylka, who sells his work privately, recently got rid of his primary tool for self-promotion.
“The day Trump got elected, I got off social media,” Zylka said. He spends much of his time following politics and watching CNN, and says his artworks are absolutely political, like a painting he made on a trip to Ibiza shortly after the election, when he was “f—ing fuming” about the turn of events. Zylka wouldn’t discuss the role politics plays in their relationship on the record (they supported different candidates in the last election, of course), but he did conclude: “We don’t talk about politics too much.”
Zylka’s paintings take only about an hour to make and are typically unplanned, but on this day, he had intentions to make a work specifically for this story. The words “DOUBLE YOU” appeared on the canvas for only a minute—his paintings often feature all-caps words and phrases in a nod to Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose name he mentioned at least five times over the course of our afternoon together—before Zylka switched gears and painted over them with a swath of black, making room for a silhouette of Donald Duck, whose eyeless face he then filled in with an American flag and the phrase “ME 2.” As he was painting, Zylka occasionally broke the silence with unprompted declarations—“We shouldn’t have talked politics!” or “Pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down? The Donald!”
Wiping the paint from his hands on his new sneakers, Zylka stood back to take in his creation. He burst into laughter and declared that Paris was going to hate it. He said it enough times that I felt compelled to ask if this story would cause a rift between them.
“No, oh my god,” he said while carefully washing his hands. A few minutes later, his phone buzzed; he’d sent Hilton a picture of the painting. Her reply: “Did the balloon guy come yet?” It was her 37th birthday party that night; if the painting bothered her, she didn’t show it then. (Later on, she did tell Chris that she loved the painting.)
Since dating Hilton, Zylka has been painting less, largely because he now finds himself less and less in that “darker place.” By no means, though, has either of them abandoned art. “One of our favorite things to do is to walk to the Blick [art supplies] store a couple of blocks away, where I’m like a kid in a candy store, buying basically everything I can find—every kind of paint, spray paint, glue, glitter, crystals, and of course resin to make it shiny,” Hilton said. Zylka has actually gotten more into photography since they started dating because, as he put it, “I have the most gorgeous girl on the planet to take pictures of every day.”
Lately, Zylka has found himself increasingly drawn to being behind the camera as well as in front. He starred in The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, spending most of his time onscreen with Kit Harrington but also enjoying the company of Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, and Jacob Tremblay, as well as the director, Xavier Dolan, who encouraged Zylka to get a copy of Dolan’s Harry Potter-themed tattoo as soon as they finished filming. (The release date has yet to be announced.) At the same time, Zylka also directed and produced Hilton’s music video, “I Need You,” earlier this year and is beginning to shop around his first script, which he described as “Banksy meets Dr. Kevorkian.”
Meanwhile, Hilton’s own art career is starting to blossom. Though her schedule so far hasn’t permitted it, she has gotten multiple offers to show her work at Art Basel Hong Kong—something she’s long planned to do for charity, and is now determined to do with Zylka. “She’s actually a better painter than I am,” Zylka said. Hilton smiled and responded, simply, “Thanks.”
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