"Even though it was a horrible situation for me," says Hilton (at her grandfather's Bel Air home June 26), "I'm happy that it maybe can help other people."
06/28/2007 at 09:00 AM EDT
"Thank God I'm free!" exclaims Paris Hilton
, smiling before a mirror in the foyer of her grandfather's Bel Air mansion and fluffing her newly replaced blonde hair extensions just before a photo shoot. Since her flashbulb-lit exit from the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, Calif., on June 26, Hilton, 26, hasn't taken long to readjust to life on the outside after 23 days behind bars. Sitting down for an exclusive PEOPLE interview just 17 hours after her release, she was soft-spoken, occasionally shy – and clearly relieved to be home. Surrounded by family photos – a cake
topped with pink flowers and the words "Welcome home" rested on a nearby table – she says one of the day's first orders of business was food: "I ate a huge breakfast, pancakes and scrambled eggs and orange juice and toast and Frosted Flakes. I haven't had a great meal in a couple weeks now."
Born an heiress to her family's hotel fortune, Hilton banked millions more as a businesswoman, capitalizing on her notoriety as a party-circuit fixture and star of TV's The Simple Life
. (The jeans she wore leaving jail? From her upcoming denim line.) But jail time made Hilton more of a polarizing figure than ever. Handing down an unusually stiff sentence, L.A. judge Michael T. Sauer cited her "disregard" for the law in twice driving with a suspended license, an offense that violated her probation following an earlier DUI charge. Then she was reassigned to home detention by Sheriff Lee Baca because of undisclosed medical problems – only to be ordered back to jail the next day by the judge. Extremely close to her parents, Kathy, 48, and Rick, 51 – along with her siblings Nicky, 23, Barron, 17, and Conrad, 13 – she says she plans to spend time with her family, get back to work and change what people think of her. Hilton spoke with PEOPLE's Jess Cagle and Elizabeth Leonard and answered questions about her time in jail, her plans for the future – and how she's been hurt by her party-girl image.