Illustration by Jorge Alderette
Perez Hilton cannot stop smiling.
The world’s most famous celebrity gossip blogger is a guest on The Tyra Banks Show, and his grin—usually big and white and gummy—looks even bigger and whiter and gummier under the studio lights. Though Perez frequently mocks Banks on his Web site Perez Hilton.com, his aggressively cheerful disposition today seems to suggest that he and the host are the best of friends.
“What is your real name?” Banks asks. “Mario Lavandeira,” he says, thrusting out his chin as he emphasizes the Spanish-accented e. With his dyed orange hair, kelly green shirt, and AstroTurf-colored jacket, Perez looks equal parts leprechaun and Little Orphan Annie.
“Lava-da-ra-what?” she asks.
He laughs—there’s that smile again. The blogger, whose Web site is read by 1.3 million people each day, thrives on dissing celebrities about their bad behavior and bad Botox. Banks digs in: Does he ever feel he’s gone too far? Nope! Any regrets? None. Well, maybe. Was he ever picked on as a kid? Sure! OK then, doesn’t he think the pain of those old wounds drives his nastiness? No. Fine, but won’t he stop taking potshots at the underage kids of celebrities—the toddler with the unfortunate outfit choices, the teenager with the “potato head”? All right, yes, he says; in fact, he’ll agree to leave them alone for three months, but only if he can appear on an episode of Banks’s other show, America’s Next Top Model. It’s a bargain designed to buoy his own fame, and she agrees—if he promises to refrain for six months instead of three. “That sounds like a deal,” says Perez, his voice as enthusiastic as it is nasal. They high-five and shake on it.
Soon after the Tyra taping, Perez will get into a catfight with Demi Moore on Twitter. The actress will say that anyone who follows Perez “supports violating child pornography laws,” referring to photos he has posted of her 15-year-old daughter, Tallulah, in clothes that partially reveal her breasts and butt. Eleven minutes later Perez will respond to Moore by tweeting, “Bring it on, bitch!” and then link again to the photos. But really, neither Banks nor Moore nor any celebrity with a grievance should blame Perez. They should blame Mario, because without Mario, Perez wouldn’t exist.
If Perez is the burnished, camera-ready face of PerezHilton.com, then Mario is the perennial outsider. He may deny it to Banks, but it’s hard to believe that Perez is not pouring a lifetime of his alter ego’s hurt and disappointment into each toxic post: the loss of his father at a young age, the teasing he endured for being a fat, gay kid who didn’t fit in, the rejection he faced as a young actor in Hollywood. “Mario’s not a confrontational guy when it comes to causing problems,” says his sister, Barbara, “but I feel like Perez will tell you exactly what he thinks.” Melanie Bromley, the West Coast bureau chief of Us Weekly, says, “I see them as two different people. The real Mario is actually quite sensitive and a bit shy, whereas Perez Hilton is the person who will, on the Internet, go up to someone in his face and scream in their ears that their outfit is terrible. I don’t think Mario would ever have the balls to do that.” Henry Copeland, who runs Blogads.com, which handles advertising for Perez’s site, says he finds it interesting that the blogger originally aspired to be an actor. “There’s a sense in which all this is sort of one big construct, like a big performance art piece that millions of people a month are watching.”
Mario’s Mid Wilshire apartment has the tidy, antiseptic quality of a doctor’s office. The dominant palette is beige; even the dog blends in. The exception is the bathroom, which is bubble gum pink and graced with the kind of fluffy rose-colored toilet seat cover favored by Boca Raton bubbes. Against this bland backdrop Mario has created a shrine to Perez. The walls are plastered with portraits of him looking “faboosh,” as he likes to say: on Jimmy Kimmel Live, as a vampire sitting atop the Hollywood sign, as a boy toy sandwiched between Madonna and Britney. “Perez is bold and loud and fun,” says the blogger. “Mario is boring. Mario sits in here and works all day.”
Mario blogs from a threadbare La-Z-Boy recliner. It’s a seat of judgment from which he issues praise or damnation that has taken on near-biblical proportions for readers and celebrities. Mario says he will hunker down for up to 14 hours a day, MacBook Pro on his lap and cell phone signaling, with a series of hollow electronic chimes, the arrival of an incoming call, text, or instant message every few minutes. He clicks away to maintain the Perez Hilton brand. “I’m working all the time,” says Mario, raising a lever on the chair to extend the footrest. The Internet has been good to Mario. Thanks to the Web, a would-be reporter who proved too timid for the job, a guy who filed for bankruptcy less than five years ago, now heads a media empire at 31.
Mario rises from the recliner and pads across the living room. It is time to record a syndicated celebrity news radio segment that is beamed to 63 stations across the country. He walks into a bedroom he’s converted into a giant closet. A fluorescent light flickers momentarily before buzzing to life. Racks of colorful hoodies and shoes, many of them freebies picked up at parties and award shows, line the walls. He closes the door to keep out any noise. The air is stale. Dressed in a loose-fitting Puma T-shirt and nylon pants, he sits cross-legged on the floor with his laptop and ever-present phone. He sighs and rubs his eyes, which are puffy; he could use a shave. Some acne creeps along his receding hairline. “I’m so tired,” he says with a burp. He pauses, then smiles. “I think I let out a burp when I said that.” He puts on a microphone headset and summons some Dick Clark enthusiasm. He also summons Perez.
“OK,” he says. “Here we go.”
PerezHilton.com will be visited 168 times before you finish reading this sentence. Hot pink and exploding with exclamation points, the site isn’t just loud—it screams. In typical blog format, most entries contain a photo or video accompanied by a short post that reads like a glorified text message. Words are frequently misspelled or improperly capitalized. Sentences often trail into cyberspace. “OMG!!!” and “Fierce! Fierce! Fierce!” are two favorite expressions. Strunk and White would be distressed.
If there’s one stylistic element that defines the site, it’s the white doodles that mar almost every photo. Usually lewd, Perez’s embellishments often congregate around celebrities’ mouths and nostrils. They resemble cocaine or semen, but Perez won’t cop to that. “It’s just silly,” he says, “just something to make you laugh.” Now that this particular design feature has gone mainstream (a Nikon COOLPIX digital camera includes a built-in stylus pen for drawing on photos), it is easy to forget that it was once outrageous. In an early post about Miley Cyrus, for example, Perez sketched a penis across the singer’s face. She was 14 at the time.
The written content of PerezHilton.com is about as subtle: Men are liars, hypocrites, publicity hounds, pathetic, stupid, ugly, or some combination thereof—unless they are hot. Women are lumped into these categories as well and enjoy the added benefit of being saints or whores: Whitney Houston is “Simply Stunning,” while Kate Hudson is a “Ho”; Gloria Estefan is “Caliente!” while Sienna Miller is “Sluttyienna.” (“I have the people I like and the people I don’t like, and I make no secrets of it,” Perez says.) He is at once prudish and prurient. He will savage a celebrity for, say, a leaked sex tape even as he savors the juicy details. Here Perez follows the tradition of the career tattlers who came before him: Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons, and Hedda Hopper. Unlike them, however, he sees no need to maintain any veneer of decency. Why should he? He has no editor to answer to. Nor is he too concerned about quality. “I’m trying to produce as much content as possible, as efficiently and accurately as possible, and in as entertaining a way as possible,” he says. “I know I could be much funnier. I know I could be more grammatically correct. I know I could be a bunch of different things, but I’m having to juggle all those things.”
Why mess with a successful formula? PerezHilton.com is one of the most visited entertainment sites in the world, falling somewhere between the newsier TMZ.com and the wittier Defamer.com, both corporate owned. “When something goes on his site, I’m dealing with several phone calls right away,” says Hollywood publicist Lewis Kay. According to the Internet tracking firm Quantcast, the site had 230 million page views in October—the most recent figures available. The Blog Reader Project, an online demographics survey, states that 59 percent of PerezHilton.com readers are 21 to 34 years old, and 88 percent are female (the average reader, says Copeland, is a 26-year-old woman who browses while at work).
It is difficult to determine how much Web sites are worth, but in February the financial Web site 24/7 Wall St. listed PerezHilton.com among its “Twenty Five Most Valuable Blogs” and noted that it generates $8.8 million a year. 24/7 valued Perez’s site at $32 million, about six times its operating income. It also stated that if Perez left the site, it would be “worth almost nothing.” (By contrast, 24/7 valued HuffingtonPost.com at $90 million.) Perez says he is not entertaining any offers to buy. If he ever did put it on the market, however, he says he’d never give up more than half of his interest in it and would use the money to expand the site. He has hired his sister to help him run the business and his mother, Teresita, as his “professional mom” to pitch in with everything else. He has moved both of them into apartments in his building.
The matter of who actually writes PerezHilton.com is up for debate. A 2008 declaration in a copyright infringement lawsuit quoted his sister as saying, “I and Mario’s other two staff members prepare the initial draft of each of his posts, which he then edits.” The question became an Internet topic du jour this summer when a letter from Perez’s lawyer surfaced online and revealed that Barbara had posted an item. The Latino gossip Web site Guanabee.com also stated “we’ve had people come forward to tell us exclusively that they ghostwrote for Perez Hilton as far back as 2006.” Perez dismisses all of this. “I write everything,” he says.
Beyond his syndicated radio gig, Perez has expanded into a clothing line, a book, ads for Levi’s and Gap, plus appearances at events, in music videos and movies, and on TV. This summer he launched a largely snark-free spin-off blog called CocoPerez.com, about celebrity style, and a Warner Bros. record label called Perezcious Music. He has hosted music showcases (an early champion of Lady Gaga, he likes to say he discovered her), and this fall he kicked off a 20-city concert tour featuring some of his favorite acts. He has even sold corporate sponsorships for his birthday parties. His goal, as he frequently says, is to be “the gay Latino Oprah.” By any estimate, Perez is raking it in. “I earn more than $10 a year,” he says. “I don’t like to discuss money. I think it’s tacky.”
Plenty of blogs dish dirt, so why has PerezHilton.com reached critical mass? His timing helped. He launched the site in 2004 and “emerged right at the beginning of that celeb-tainment culture,” says Gabriel Snyder, the editor-in-chief of Gawker.com. “Matt Drudge did it with political news in the late ’90s, and Perez did that in gossip.” Kevin Dickson, the features director of Life & Style magazine, says Perez knows instinctively what celebrity groupies want: “He makes the middle of the country feel like they’re behind the velvet rope.” There’s another reason, too: Perez is willing to go further than anyone. He may not be the funniest or the smartest or the first in, but when he wants to, he can be the tawdriest and the meanest. In an era when people can become famous for sex tapes instead of talent, Perez’s approach is pitch-perfect because it is so debased.
Take, for starters, this April’s Miss USA pageant, at which Perez was a judge. He asked Miss California, Carrie Prejean, whether she supported legalizing same-sex marriage. She answered that marriage, to her, should be between a man and a woman. That night, in a video on his site, Perez called her a “dumb bitch.” Later in an interview he said, “I called her the B word, and hey, I was thinking the C word.” June was a particularly busy month: On the 12th he posted photos of Dustin Lance Black, the gay Oscar-winning writer of Milk, having unprotected sex (he later took the photos down). In the early hours of the 22nd, outside an after-party for the MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto, Perez called the Black Eyed Peas front man,
will.i.am, a “faggot”—whereupon, Perez said, the band’s road manager punched him in the face. Then on the 25th, when Michael Jackson went into cardiac arrest, Perez initially called it a “stunt.” “Either he’s lying or making himself sick,” Perez wrote. “Get your money back, ticket holders!!!!”
The teenage Mario loiters at the dinner table as his mother and her girlfriends gossip. It is the 1990s, and home is Westchester, a middle-class, largely Cuban suburb of Miami. The ladies talk for hours about their neighbors, their relatives, the teachers at his school. Gossip may be seen as negative outside these walls, the sleazy stuff of supermarket checkout lines, but here, Mario learns it’s fun, it’s information, and it’s a way to stick together.
When Mario is 15, his maternal grandfather dies. About a week later his father, Mario, who owns a wallpaper-hanging company, suffers a fatal brain aneurysm. Mario is destroyed. He and his dad had been close. Still, he doesn’t outwardly grieve. He pretends it never happened; he has to be strong for his mother, a homemaker who, like his father, had left Cuba as a teen, and for his little sister. He loses himself in academic and extracurricular pursuits at Belen Jesuit Preparatory, an elite conservative high school. As he always has, he spends hours watching TV in his bedroom, where he frequently eats dinner alone off a tray. He is chubby and awkward, sometimes petulant, which doesn’t win him any points with his peers. Kris Conesa, who attended high school a year behind him, recalls the numerous taunts of “fat-ass” and “faggot” that Mario would endure. Although he doesn’t come out—doing so would be social suicide at his strict Catholic school—his homosexuality is no secret. “Cuban culture is a little bit homophobic,” says his sister. “I feel like maybe he didn’t come out sooner because maybe he’d been afraid.”
He expresses himself in other ways. In what would become his blogging trademark, he scrawls across his classmates’ yearbook photos “Mean” or “Friend.” At Belen he often lashes out at the bullies. “If you got in his face, he’d get in your face with a snap,” says Conesa. One afternoon, at a school talent show, Mario walks onstage in a full bunny costume and delivers a monologue borrowed from a beat poet and playwright. He bites into a prop that looks like a brain—a soldier’s brain, explains the bunny—and fake blood squirts everywhere. The audience of students, parents, and administrators is appalled. “Mario knew he was overstepping his boundaries,” says another classmate who was there. “But he was very comfortable with that.”
It is a chilly night in West Hollywood when Perez bursts through the door of Millions of Milkshakes, a Santa Monica Boulevard shop where the ice cream and yogurt concoctions are named “La Toya” and “Britney” and plasma screens show footage of stars ducking cameras. Perez is here, clad in bright yellow jeans and a jacket of a similar hue bedazzled with a silver-sequined tiger, to promote his book, Red Carpet Suicide: A Survival Guide on Keeping Up with the Hiltons. It is a tongue-in-cheek manual on how to become famous. Among reality-TV stars, Perez has pull. Kim, Khloé, and Kourtney Kardashian, from Keeping Up with the Kardashians, have shown up to help him, as have Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt from MTV’s The Hills. If the event feels staged, that’s because it is. Outside are at least a dozen waiting paparazzi, some of whom work for the shop’s owner, who also runs the celebrity-photo agency Hollywood.TV. It’s an unlikely retail union: a business that sells shakes and fame.
“Hi, I’ll take a milk shake,” Perez calls to the three Kardashian sisters, who are behind the counter. He tops six feet and lists forward slightly, like an overzealous bobblehead doll. Though he likes to trash the trio online, they greet him in a sugarcoated chorus: “Hi, Perez!”
Montag and Pratt join the group. Earlier this evening they had dined with Perez at CUT in Beverly Hills. (“We try to do our CUT powwow at least every other week,” Pratt says later. As for being a constant target of Perez’s scorn, he says, “At the end of the day, it’s all free publicity.”) The cameras flash as Perez eats a banana, pours chocolate syrup into Montag’s cup, then instructs the couple to put their “rings together and kiss!” At one point the theatrics eclipse reality: Two young men wander in, shouldering past the cameras, and order peanut butter milk shakes. Not now, says a server, “it’ll mess up the pictures.”
Suddenly Perez remembers his raison d’être. “I gotta get my book,” he says. “I gotta pimp that shit out!” He poses with the slim volume for the photographers, then hands copies to the others, who do the same. On his blog and in public Perez often calls the celebrities gathered tonight “famewhores.” He’ll file pictures from the event in a section of his site called “Personally Perez,” which is devoted to news about himself, and the photos will generate buzz and money for everyone, including the paparazzi.
At evening’s end Perez steps outside, where a handful of photographers mill about. One paparazzo yells from the crowd, “Look at you, Perez! You’re running the entertainment game.” But Perez has vanished, and it is Mario who purses his lips, eyes empty and unfocused. The paparazzo yells again, “You’re pulling the strings, Perez! How does it feel?” Mario glances at the pavement, turns on his heels, and leaves the scene.
With high school behind him, Mario is in New York City—“the opposite of Miami in every way,” he says. “In New York I could walk everywhere, I could take a cab, I could take the subway, I could be openly gay.” It’s the fall of 1996, and Mario is on a full scholarship at NYU, where he is studying acting. His mother isn’t thrilled: Why not something more stable, like law or medicine? Mario has decided that a career in movies and TV will impart a sense of immortality, which he craves since the death of his father and grandfather. Postgraduation, he bounces from bit part to bit part, including a brief scene on The Sopranos, before he moves to L.A. in 2002, hoping to land a sitcom role. He lives off his credit cards and gets around on a bicycle. Japhy Grant, who had attended NYU with Mario and was by then living part-time in L.A., says Mario was “unabashedly into celebrity. He would watch E! for hours. His apartment would be filled with pictures of celebrities.” Grant remembers him as “a really pleasant guy in New York” and “a really angry, mean person” in L.A. “You could tell he was frustrated because he wasn’t getting anywhere. I remember him having this speech about how much he hated the people of L.A.” Mario doesn’t recall it that way. “I instantly loved L.A.,” he says. The apex of Mario’s early acting career would be his appearance on From Flab to Fab, a VH1 reality weight-loss makeover show.
In L.A. he scares up whatever work he can find—as a publicist at a public relations firm, as a production manager at the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and as a senior editor at the gay magazine Instinct. He also reads blogs. “I don’t even remember which ones,” he says. “It was such a long time ago, a lot of them aren’t even around anymore. A lot of blogspot blogs. I was like, ‘I could do that.’ ” So in September 2004, he does, launching PageSixSixSix, named for the New York Post gossip column. At the time he is not a reader of Page Six; he just thinks the name sounds clever. He quickly finds a niche in wicked posts that ridicule household names; he can also be sweetly starstruck, uploading pictures of himself with the celebrities he meets. Soon Mario is toying with creating an Internet persona. In December he goes club hopping in Miami. At bar after bar he keeps hearing that Paris Hilton is about to show up. “Please,” he says to friends. “Paris Hilton isn’t showing up, but maybe Perez is.” Bingo.
In the “About Me” section of his PageSixSixSix blog, he posts a fictional biography: Perez Hilton “is the Internet’s most devilish gossip columnist.… His signature colors are blush and bashful. His favorite drink is a Viagra Martini, and his motto is, ‘I’m gay, but I’m not as big a slut as Paris.’ He loves animals, enemas and animus.” In 2005, when he reports that Clay Aiken, the former American Idol contestant, trawls the Internet for men—and Aiken fans send death threats and post the fledgling blogger’s home address online—Mario disappears from the site. Perez revels in the notoriety. “We wanted to call somebody ‘Hollywood’s Most-Hated Website,’ and nobody would do it,” says Joshua Lopour, a producer on the TV show The Insider. “Everyone else was afraid of it. He couldn’t have been more excited.” The designation attracts so much attention that it crashes the site. In April PageSixSixSix crashes again when Perez posts his first big exclusive: photographs of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on a secluded beach in Africa. “Not only does Brad have a hot new bitch, he already has that kid he’s been wanting so bad,” Perez writes. “We can just imagine Brad and Ange making sweet love by the ocean. Vacation sex is the hottest!” He says he received the photos from one of the many sources he had cultivated—in this case, an editor at a U.K. magazine.
Perez doesn’t formally change his Web site’s name until a month after that scoop, when the New York Post sues, claiming the site infringes on its trademarked column. “Instead of being ‘that dude from the Web site,’ ” he says, “I became Perez Hilton from PerezHilton.com.”
“I’m glad there are no kids here,” Perez says to a room full of about 200 fans, mostly young women, in Barnes & Noble at the Grove. They’ve come to hear him speak and have him sign copies of his book. In purple pants and a gray plaid shirt, Perez resembles an overgrown eggplant. “I was at the Mall of America on Saturday,” he says, referring to the Minnesota mega shopping center, “and I had to really watch what I said, because there were fucking three-year-olds there. I couldn’t say Miley Cyrus is a fuckin’ whore!” The audience, dressed mostly in skinny jeans and ill-fitting synthetic tops, laughs and screams giddily. They hold their camera phones aloft, and a hundred mini Perez Hiltons appear in the room. Lady Gaga pulses through the store speakers: Baby, you’ll be famous / Chase you down until you love me / Papa-paparazzi.
In the crowd tonight is Haley Greenland, a tall 18-year-old who is with her mother, Joan. “I told her about the Web site,” says Joan. “I like the things he says about people’s outfits,” says Haley. “He can be mean or harsh, but I think it’s all in good fun.” Elisa Ramirez, a 20-year-old from Santa Maria whose T-shirt reads Let’s Make Out, plans to study Perez’s book. She is moving to L.A. to be an actress, and if that fails, she says, she would be “totally fine” with just being plain famous. A quartet of pint-size Orthodox Jewish women giggle in unison. They are 28-year-old moms with baby faces who have been reading Pe-rez’s Web site for years. Among them is Chaya Sufrin, who explains her love for Perez: “It’s like he’s our friend telling us about people who we don’t know but wish we knew.”
Perez realizes that “for every two people who like me there are probably three who don’t.” This summer nearly 14,000 people signed an online petition to remove him as a nominee for the 2009 Teen Choice Awards. There are currently three “I Hate Perez Hilton” groups on Facebook. Then there are the vitriolic comments on his site, like this recent one from a reader named barf shit: “EVERYONE IN LA hopes you die.”
At Barnes & Noble Perez takes questions from the audience. Hands shoot up. He calls on a young man in the front row who asks, “Will you marry me?”
“I don’t wanna get married,” Perez says, “because then we’ll end up getting divorced. I’m greedy. I don’t wanna give up half of my whatever.” He laughs. “I’m not giving up half the dog. He’s mine.”
It is the spring of 2005, and Mario has moved back to New York from Los Angeles. Blogging, it turns out, isn’t paying the bills, so he takes a job as a reporter for Star magazine. Jared Shapiro, an executive editor at Life & Style magazine and coauthor of Perez’s book, worked at Star briefly during Mario’s tenure there and remembers then editor-in-chief Joe Dolce’s excitement over landing the guy behind PageSixSixSix. “Your goal as an editor is to bring in talent,” says Shapiro, “and Mario was talent.” From the start, though, it’s an awkward fit. Mario can’t post magazine scoops on his Web site. “It was a nebulous area,” he says now. Not so nebulous, perhaps: Dolce says it became obvious to colleagues near Mario’s open work space that he was blogging on magazine time. That’s not the only problem. On one assignment Mario goes to the Mercer Hotel to investigate after Russell Crowe throws a phone at one of its employees. He is promptly ejected and doesn’t return. “I’m not good at, like, doing that shady stuff,” Mario says.
“I don’t see what’s shady about that,” said Dolce recently of the incident. “That’s called reporting.”
Mario hates the job—“I just felt dirty,” he says. He is also depressed. Each morning he soothes himself by curling up in the shower in a fetal position. He is suicidal. He takes prescription pills. They don’t help. He phones Miami daily to talk to his mother, who reassures him that he can always come home. Do that, he thinks, and I’ll kill myself for sure. He puts the word out to coworkers that he wants to quit in order to focus on his blog. They caution against it—no one is making money from the Internet.
About six months later, in what Mario describes as “a mercy killing,” he is fired. “I didn’t protest,” he says. Now Mario has almost no income. His expenses, plus the credit card debt he has brought from L.A., force him to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. He scrapes by on severance pay, unemployment insurance, and a trickle of money from freelancing, and he devotes much of his time to his blog, shrinking celebrities’ lives into soap opera story lines and making up nicknames (he claims to have invented the moniker “Brangelina”). The blogging helps ease his depression. “It was so much fun,” he says. “It was my own little world.” In early winter of 2005, he moves back to L.A. in a “leap of faith” and blogs full-time. Hollywood hadn’t been kind to him as an actor, but surely it would be different now that he was savaging stars and not trying to be one. Selma Blair, Amanda Bynes, and Pauly Shore, who are regulars at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf where he camps out for free Wi-Fi, stop by to say hello. Some confront him about what he is writing. He recalls Nicole Richie asking, “Do I really have zombie hands?”
“I was like, ‘Uh, can’t we just hug it out?’ ” he says.
When he’s not at his laptop, Mario is crafting a public persona commensurate with his online one. At first he thinks it’s “lame” to call himself Perez Hilton outside of his Web site. That quickly changes. “I thought, ‘You know what? No. It’s not lame at all. Perez brought opportunity to my life. Perez made me happier.’ ” He colors his hair in psychedelic shades and talks his way into parties and events to collect gossip and groom sources, part of a strategy he calls “fake it till you make it.” He chooses an auspicious time to become an instant celebrity: Nobodies can be somebodies overnight on YouTube and American Idol. The detailed exploits of Young Hollywood (late-night parties at Teddy’s, shopping sprees at Kitson) are fodder for tween chitchat in Topeka, thanks to Us Weekly, its legions of copycat titles, and the ever-expanding celebrity blogosphere. PerezHilton.com feeds the beast, toggling between Mario’s wanting to comment from the sidelines and Perez’s wanting to be on the field.
In September 2005, he meets the crown princess of Young Hollywood and the woman to whom he owes an incalculable debt: Paris Hilton. He approaches her at a Fashion Week party in New York. Paris remembers telling him, “Don’t be mean to me.” “No,” he replied, “I love you.”
As it turns out, the two have a lot in common. Paris is recalling their first encounter as she perches on her enormous blue velvet sofa, marred by scratches from her Pomeranians. In her Mulholland Estates home the prevailing decorative style is narcissism: Pictures of herself hang everywhere, including a massive portrait made up of thousands of tiny portraits—an old master reimagined by Flickr. When Paris first heard about the site, “I was flattered that someone would want to use my name,” she says as she places a faux-leopard-print pillow across her lap. In 2008, after Perez applied to trademark the name Perez Hilton, records show that Paris asked the federal patent office for time to oppose it. Ultimately she did not go forward with the action. Perez rarely criticizes her on his site—his coverage was negligible when she served a jail term in 2007 for violating probation in an alcohol-related reckless driving case. Following their initial meeting, Paris began to run into her namesake at parties (“It’s a small town,” she says), and a friendship was born. Or a Hollywood version of it, since their relationship seems to hinge on the businesses they have built around their respective personas. What do they talk about when they’re together? In her lilting voice, Paris says, “Our brands.”
Celebrity stories no longer break in print; they break online. “That’s definitely changed the industry,” says Bromley, the Us Weekly bureau chief. “It’s made things faster. There is this appetite among the public for information—quicker and more of it. Perez is a big part of that.” He has also helped drive Hollywood stories into mainstream TV news shows and onto the front pages of major newspapers, where they were anathema just a few years ago. His tone has influenced the culture of snark that now defines so much Internet discourse.
Bloggers have long “borrowed” photos from other sources for their sites, without payment and usually without attribution. Perez was no different. “If I had to pay for pictures at the very beginning,” he says, “I probably wouldn’t have started blogging because I didn’t have the money.” He says he combed Yahoo! and Google to find photographs to post. Photographers didn’t take kindly to him, heckling Perez (“You are stealing photos!”) as he walked down red carpets. Jill Ishkanian, the founder of CelebrityBabylon.com and the Sunset Photo and News agency (both now defunct), says, “You’d see your stolen pictures on a zillion sites, but Perez took the wrath of the industry because he was the most high profile, and people assumed, and I think rightly, that he was making a lot of money.” In November 2006, a group of photo agencies accused him of using their images without permission. Calling themselves the “Magnificent Seven,” they demanded that he cease and desist. Four of them in addition to another agency later sued in federal court. A paparazzo in Sydney, Australia, and the L.A.-based X17 Agency filed suits as well. “He was taking pictures that were worth a lot of money,” says François Navarre, owner of X17. Eventually the suits from the agencies were settled. The Australian photographer successfully sued in small claims court. Now Perez says he pays for every photo on the site. “I never saw myself as a big boy,” he says. “I was like, ‘Why are you picking on me? I’m just a little blogger.’ ”
There have been other accusations of stealing. In 2007, Universal City Studios Productions sued, claiming Perez had illegally obtained and posted topless photos of Jennifer Aniston shot on the set of The Break-Up (the action was settled); Zomba Recording said he unlawfully copied and posted Britney Spears songs (the case was dismissed). Bloggers, too, have frequently accused him of lifting their content without credit. This summer E! Online columnist Ted Casablanca said Perez posted a quote from Casablanca’s interview with Twilight actress Ashley Greene. “As we’ve told you time and time again, it’s just piss-ass insane when Perez straight up steals our exclusive material and reuses it without giving any sort of credit,” he wrote in protest.
Perez stands by his posts. “I like that my readers know that when they come to my Web site, they’ll read what’s really happening,” he says. “The truth.” This is not always the case. In 2007, he famously reported that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro had died—and stuck to the story for days. “At the time I had an impeccable source, who’s still a good source,” he says. “But that person had got bad info.” It’s unclear whether that same source told him that actress Jaclyn Smith had attempted suicide in Honduras, which Perez erroneously reported in September. The Web site GossipCop.com, which launched in July to “police the gossip industry,” finds problems with Perez’s reporting almost daily.
Only two celebrities have sued him: Colin Farrell, in 2005, after Perez posted a link to a sex tape the actor had made with a Playboy model (the suit was settled), and DJ Samantha Ronson, Lindsay Lohan’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, who in 2007 filed a $20 million defamation suit against Perez and Ishkanian. Lohan had crashed her Mercedes-Benz into shrubbery in Beverly Hills, and police reported finding cocaine in the car. Perez blogged about it, linking to CelebrityBabylon, which reported anonymous sources as saying the cocaine was Ronson’s. In response to the suit, CelebrityBabylon issued a retraction. In exchange, Ronson dropped her claim against the site. Perez refused to retract and won the case on the grounds that Ronson was a public figure and harder to defame than a private person. Ronson was ordered to pay him nearly $85,000 in legal fees.
More recently Perez has played the role of plaintiff. He is suing Liborio “Polo” Molina, the road manager for the Black Eyed Peas, who he alleges hit him in Toronto. The incident that spurred the altercation—when Perez called will.i.am a “faggot”—caused the latest flare-up Perez has had within the gay community. He plugs gay causes and charities, yet he has a history of reporting on the romantic lives of gay celebrities, whether or not they’re out of the closet. “Everyone has the right to come out as is appropriate to them,” says gay rights advocate Cleve Jones. “The only time I believe in outing is when a person with political power is using that political power for bad.”
Perez says he is only promoting equality. “Why should I treat gay people differently than straight people? I don’t out anyone. I report.” Of his reputation for opening the closet on so many celebrities, he says, “I fuckin’ hate that it’s such a long passage on my Wikipedia.” He planned on donating any proceeds from the Molina suit to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which honors the young Wyoming man murdered because he was gay. The foundation declined his offer. Perez maintains he is not trying to represent the gay community. “Just in the same way that I’m not trying to represent the Latino community,” he says. “I’m just being me.”
The uproar over Perez’s use of the word faggot spurred Jezebel.com, the smart pop culture site geared to women, to ask: “Where has this outrage been over the years that Perez has spent crudely slamming women?” Perez says he doesn’t understand the fuss. “I’m not doing anything worse to women than women do to themselves or that the women’s magazines do,” he says. “I am like a woman. I think like a woman thinks. I relate to women in their struggles. I think being gay definitely makes me more in tune with women and what they want than a straight guy.”
The criticism leaves Perez unfazed. “In terms of what I do on the Web site, I don’t think there’s anything dirty or sleazy about it,” he says. “I think what I do is noble. I’m making the world a better place. I am entertaining people. I am shining a light. I shine the light on celebrities behaving badly and those that get it right.”
Mario is in his living room, stretched out on his La-Z-Boy. He may not want to relinquish his right to the dog, but he would like a life partner—or at least a boyfriend. Until recently he was self-conscious about his weight and hadn’t even wanted to get naked with anyone, he says. Working out daily with a trainer and having nutritious meals delivered has changed that. He’d like to start a family. “I wanna be the gay Angelina Jolie,” he often says. His sister thinks he’ll have kids with or without a mate. Mario is mindful of the passage of time. “There’s very few people, very few, that are able to keep the flame burning very brightly for a very long period of time,” he says. “I feel like now I’m in the golden days of my career. And eventually it’s not gonna be like this anymore…I feel like I’m not that young anymore.”
He’s right. PerezHilton.com won’t be a hot commodity forever. That’s partly because Web sites, like nightclubs, can be faddish. In Web years PerezHilton.com is practically ancient. It’s also because, like all trends, gossip trends wax and wane. In July the Associated Press reported that Yahoo!’s OMG.com, which features positive posts and photos, became the most viewed celebrity Web site—a sign that the public may be tiring of negativity. CocoPerez.com, the gentler spin-off blog he started in August, addresses this possible shift. Still, Mario is not above hedging his bets. He lives frugally and drives a 2006 Toyota Camry. He refuses to call himself a celebrity. He knows better than most how fleeting celebrity can be.
His awareness that what he has “could all go away tomorrow” stems from having lost his father and grandfather. “I think about death every day,” says Mario. Everything he does or wants to do in life, he says, is an attempt to counteract his mortality—including having children. “That’s like a piece of you that lives on.” Mario may fear death, but Perez can deal, because for Perez, it’s all about having fun. “If it’s not fun, then I try to make it fun. That’s one of the themes in life for me.”
All this heavy talk is making Mario hungry, so he walks to the kitchen. He opens the refrigerator door, removes a low-fat lemon tart, and deposits it in his mouth. The light illuminates his face like a klieg, and for a moment his eyes take on the glimmer of Perez.
Sara Wilson is an associate editor at Los Angeles magazine.