In the age of the gossip blog, if you still subscribe to the belief that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, then chances are you’re not a publicist.
“I’m a polarizing figure,” says Perez Hilton, the self-anointed “Queen of Media” and the creator of the celebrity gossip blog PerezHilton.com. “Some people love me and some people hate me. Some people wanna tell me everything, some people are afraid to even make small talk around me. It depends who you are and how I rub you.”
Every day, close to four million unique visitors flock to Hilton’s site (formerly PageSixSixSix.com) for the inside scoop on the latest Hollywood scandal, juiciest truth-based rumor and even the occasional news byte.
Born Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr., the Cuban-American was raised in Miami before he moved to New York to attend NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. Living in Greenwich Village (the one place gayer than South Beach), it didn’t take long for young Mario to come out. “I guess I tried to hide it the first semester,” he says, “and then I was at a party and a girl was like, ‘You’re gay!’ and I started crying but then I was like, ‘Yes! I am!’ I knew, but I guess I just had problems saying it.”
That wasn’t the only problem Lavandeira would face. “I went through a very unhappy phase. I filed for bankruptcy, I was suicidal, I was at a job that I hated, I got fired from three jobs…it was like down, down, down, down,” he recalls. But rather than joining some lame support group or writing dark poetry, he launched PageSixSixSix.com, and proceeded to literally blog his way out of debt and depression. It was only after he began receiving death threats – courtesy of some Clay Aiken fans who were none too pleased that the blogger had dubbed their American idol “Clay Gayken” – that Lavandeira adopted a pseudonym, becoming his friend Paris Hilton’s fictitious cousin, Perez.
PerezHilton.com quickly swept through the blogosphere, generating more traffic than a holiday weekend. Suddenly millions of people now had a better way to pass the time that would otherwise have been wasted actually working. Luckily, Perez is working hard enough for all of them. “I bust my butt. I don’t know if people really realize how hard I work. I honestly put in 19 hours a day on my website. I sleep four and a half, maybe five hours a night. Every other waking moment I’m answering emails, I’m writing, I’m researching, I’m scouring the Internet for what to write, I’m going to an event,” says Hilton, whose L.A. office isn’t so much an office as it is a table at The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, a local coffee shop.
Although Hilton maintains that he doesn’t really consider himself a celebrity (“I’m a celebretard,” he says), these days he is just as likely to be the subject of gossip columns as the author of them. When former ‘N Sync member Lance Bass came out betwixt the pages of People Magazine, many critics accused Hilton of having forced him out of the closet, after repeated posts on PerezHilton.com not-so-subtly implied that the singer was gay (literally, not figuratively). Hilton insists that these criticisms are simply the byproduct of America’s deep-seated, internalized homophobia.
“I feel that being gay is not bad. A lot of the reason why people criticize what I do is because a lot of people still think that being gay is bad, and a lot of people still think that being gay in Hollywood will hurt your career, and I don’t believe that… Since I don’t think it’s bad, I’m all about equalizing. So I’m gonna treat everyone the same. I’m gonna report – that’s what I do. I don’t ‘out’ anyone. That’s not part of my vocabulary. I report on facts. I don’t engage in the business of speculation or conjecture.”
What he writes about may be true, but that hasn’t stopped many celebrities from taking him to court. Last year, Hilton was named in a lawsuit filed by Colin Farrell after the now infamous sex tape starring the actor (in what was arguably his best performance to date) appeared on Hilton’s site. Hilton was also sued last November for $7.5 million by a Hollywood photo agency that claimed the use of certain photos on the site constituted copyright infringement. And in February, he was sued by Jennifer Aniston, after a topless photo of the actress appeared on PerezHilton.com.
While some celebs may be less than thrilled to find their personal lives, photos and home videos on display, when they’re not busy suing him they know that being on Hilton’s good side can also have its benefits. Frequent jabs at stars like Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan may not further damage their reputations (they tend to do that all by themselves), but for a Hollywood newcomer, frequent praise (or even just a mention) on PerezHilton.com can make a world of difference. If you’re an up-and-coming musician and Perez is a fan of your music, go ahead and fire your publicist, because you won’t be needing her services. Just one post about how adorable and talented Hilton thinks you are, and millions of people will know the name of your band.
Hilton may not be saving lives with gossip, but that doesn’t make his work meaningless. “Underneath the Perez façade, there is someone who has strong beliefs and will use this platform to hopefully do good. I know I do good, because people enjoy it, and I bring laughter, hopefully, or some sense of escape for folks who are bored at work, or who are going through a difficult time and want some sort of fantasy. That gives what I do meaning, and that’s awesome.”
But just because so many people like his blog, doesn’t mean they all like him. In fact, many of Hilton’s readers actively dislike him. “Dude, you really look like a circus act. I love the website, but there is more and more about you, and you are the most uninteresting person out there. You are a tragedy. From one gay man to another, fucking get a grip,” wrote one reader, after Hilton devoted numerous posts to documenting his own star-studded birthday party (“The Queen’s Ball”) in March.
OK, so maybe no one ever accused him of being overly modest, but isn’t shameless self-promotion exactly what being a celebrity is all about? “I created my own success, I created my own opportunity…I created Perez the celebrity,” says Hilton. “There’s a reason why I put up all these pictures of myself with celebrities: celebrity by association! The whole concept of celebrity is so tangible and so malleable; anyone can be a celebrity these days – even this loser with a blog!”
Love him, hate him, or just love to hate him, Perez Hilton’s shirt says it all: “Keep talking shit, you’re making me famous.”
(A version of this article appeared in YRB Magazine, Issue 73, Copyright 2007)