Perez Hilton: tastemaker and troublemaker
His popularity and power grow as he adds a music imprint and another website, but is the empire sustainable?
Hilton's closest competitors -- popular sites such as TMZ, OMG! and Wonderwall -- are corporate owned (by Time Warner, Yahoo and Microsoft, respectively). Far less idiosyncratic in tone, none has inspired the intensely passionate love/hate reactions engendered by Hilton, who produces up to 60 posts a day with two people: his younger sister, Barbara (Barby) Lavandeira, 25, and a recent college graduate whom he declined to name. "Why do you want to know that?" he said "It's all about me!"
Increasingly, he is a force to be reckoned with in other spheres of pop culture as well. On July 21, Hilton launched his own music imprint, Perezcious Music, for Warner Bros. Records. While he is trying to come up with a fresh idea for a TV entertainment news show, he's already got Radio Perez, a daily gossip report for Citadel Broadcasting that runs in 55 markets. [Locally, it airs on KPWR-FM (105.9).] It's recorded at home, in the Pepto Bismol-pink guest bedroom he's converted to a closet brimming with free clothes and shoes. ("I love mah freebies.") This week, he is preparing to debut a second website aimed squarely at his vast number of female twentysomething fans.
Every time Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, utters the sort of outrage that would land him in prison for life if the world were governed by laws of good taste and kindness, his popularity -- and by extension his wealth and influence -- only grows. Even Hilton, a once-schlubby but increasingly lean (thanks to two trainers and a $70-a-day meal service) Cuban-American kid from Miami, seems amazed.
"In. San. Ity," he trilled, sitting in a T-shirt and sweat pants on an L-shaped couch in the living room of his surprisingly modest two-bedroom Park La Brea apartment. The room's high ceilings give an impression of space and offer plenty of room to display the many portraits of him sent by fans. During an interview, the blogger ate a low-cal salmon entree.
Henry Copeland, president of BlogAds, which handles advertising for Hilton, thinks his allure is simple and timeless. Hilton's readers -- the great majority of whom are women in their 20s -- love the way he kicks dirt on Hollywood's mythmaking machine. "Perez comes along and says everything is not the way it seems and people do not have perfect lives," said Copeland.
The schtick has not endeared him to many of the stars he picks on, nor their fans. After dissing Michael Jackson, an "unfollow Perez" campaign was launched on Twitter (though he netted new followers). When he was attacked in Toronto after tangling with will.i.am, plenty of folks were happy to see him get a real-world comeuppance. "People don't want to see you hurt," Tweeted John Mayer in an exchange with Hilton. "They want to see you experience something equalizing. . . . Today, the fourth wall came crashing down."
One Hollywood publicist who represents high-profile actors frequently in Hilton's cross hairs and didn't want to be named for fear of compromising her clients said she respects his work ethic and that he has built a business from scratch, but she doesn't worry about what he writes, invest time cultivating him or think about him when planning a campaign.
"He is literally not on my radar unless I want to go on and laugh about something," she said, adding that many of her clients find him toxic and vengeful.
"Do I think he has a genuine impact on how the world sees talent? I don't think so."
Some major celebrities have gone out of their way to cultivate him, though.
Britney Spears, whom he has never met, asked him to star as a grotesque ringmaster in the video that opens each performance of her current Circus tour. Madonna sent him a video message last year, asking him to choose between her and his 2-year-old mini golden doodle, Teddy. (". . . 'Cause I can get down on all fours," purrs the Queen of Pop. "I chase balls. And I love a biscuit.")
Replaying the Madonna video for a reporter induces in Hilton the kind of hysteria one might see in a tween girl in the front row of a Jonas Brothers concert. "Ohhmyyyygawwwwd," he screams, high-pitched, sitting cross-legged on the floor, his elbows tight against his sides as he claps in ecstasy. "I am such the 13-year-old girl!"
A music fanatic who can't sing or play an instrument, he has boosted the careers of a number of pop acts, including Adele, Katy Perry, Mika, Lady Gaga (his current passion) and newcomer Eric Hutchinson, whose album "Sounds Like This" went from total obscurity to No. 5 on the iTunes album list and became the object of a record label bidding war after Hilton posted four of his songs in September 2007.
"You grow up thinking you want a single on the radio or your video on MTV," said Hutchinson. "I never thought the way to get my music going was to get the right person on a blog to give it exposure. He put a spotlight on me at the right time, and the momentum was suddenly there."
Hilton discovered Hutchinson the way he discovers all new music: Someone -- in this case, a high school friend of Hutchinson's -- e-mailed him. "People don't know how to reach record labels, and a lot of time labels don't listen to stuff that's sent in randomly," said Hilton. "I listen to everything."
Hutchinson's success allowed Robin Bechtel, former head of new media and new business ventures at Warner Bros. Records, to persuade company chairman Tom Whalley to give Hilton his own imprint. "Everyone in the company was like, 'We have to sign Eric Hutchinson,' and I was like, 'No, we have to sign Perez,' " said Bechtel. "He has great ears. If Perez likes something, it's probably going to break."
His first artist is a slight 20-year-old French pop singer named Sliimy (pronounced "slim-ee") who has opened for Britney Spears.
Rise of a gossip
A performing arts graduate of NYU who moved to L.A. to make it as an actor and ended up working unhappily for gay magazines and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (with which he is frequently at war), Hilton launched his blog out of a Sunset Boulevard Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in 2004 when he was bankrupt and at loose ends. As he garnered attention for outing entertainers such as Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris, his readership took off.
In 2007, he moved his sister and his mother, Teresita, 56, from Miami and put them to work. Barby is his assistant. Teresita is his "professional mom." She gets a salary and benefits for making his bed, filling the gas tank of his Toyota Camry and walking Teddy, who bounds into the living room during an interview with a teensy pink purse toy clutched in his jaws.
Hilton has often said he'd like to have a child by the time he is 35, and has already investigated surrogates. Should that ever happen, Teresita will transition to "professional grandmother," he said. "No nanny for me!"
In constant demand by reporters, Hilton, who is generous with his time and doesn't bother with ground rules and minders, was recently the subject of a cover story in the Advocate and a profile in Entertainment Weekly. He was furious about the Advocate piece, in which the writer was dismissive of his intellect. ("He's not a deep or nuanced thinker and seems generally unwilling . . . to look critically at himself. . . . He doesn't strike me as all that intellectually honest," wrote Benoit Denizet-Lewis.)
"He basically called me stupid," said Hilton. "I am not stupid. I don't think I have to prove that to anyone."
Even his critics don't doubt his smarts. "Clearly he is an intelligent businessman," said the publicist who would not be named.
"I deal with an awful lot of bloggers, and a lot are smart," said Copeland. "Perez is brilliant. It's a classic success story for the post-publishing environment, in which you've got a very low overhead, and a really dynamic relationship with your readers, and advertisers get that and go for that."
Copeland would not disclose Hilton's ad revenues but said the site commands as much as $72,000 for a single 24-hour wallpaper-style ad that incorporates the banner logo across the top of the site. Nailing down traffic figures is notoriously hard because there are so many ways to calculate them. Copeland said the site gets more than 10 million unique visitors per month and 300 million page views per month (although Copeland's own website tells advertisers the site gets 246 million page views per month).
On Twitter, Hilton ranks around 20th in popularity. His 1.2 million followers make him less popular than Kim Kardashian (1.6 million) but more popular than Mariah Carey (1 million). There is no question that Perez Hilton is read by millions, is rich and is getting richer.
Reader surveys show that the typical Perez Hilton reader is a 26-year-old college-educated white woman who seldom goes to church, is a Democrat and does not shop at Wal-Mart. His new website, he said, will be squarely aimed at her, though he would not reveal more. Copeland said the new site is a response to advertisers asking for something different.
Enough suits for a rack
Hilton rises around 4 a.m. to troll the Internet and his e-mail for material. He used to post images pilfered from paparazzi agencies, which landed him in a big fat copyright infringement lawsuit in 2006 that was eventually settled out of court. Terms of the agreement were confidential, but Brandy Navarre, co-owner of X17 Inc., the first of several photo agencies that sued him for copyright infringement, said, "We were happy."
"It was costing me so much money to fight that lawsuit," said Hilton. "I became a big boy without ever meaning to, or planning to and I had to play by the big-boy rules. I pay for every single image on my website now." (He seems to thrive on combat; in 2007, he filed a lawsuit against X17 in retaliation, alleging that it mistreated its photographers. A judge found he had no standing, since he doesn't work for the agency, and tossed it.)
Hilton recently won an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit filed against him by an Ohio woman who lost her job after he posted a nasty e-mail she sent to him using her work address.
In June, Hilton filed a lawsuit alleging battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Black Eyed Peas road manager Liborio "Polo" Molina, who was charged by Toronto police in the June 22 will.i.am incident, which took place during an after party for the MuchMusic Awards. Molina has not commented on the case, but will.i.am condemned violence and the use of "hateful slurs, racial or gay" in a statement released by his publicist.
Hilton announced that if he wins any money in the case, he will donate it to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, whereupon Judy Shepard, who heads the foundation named for her slain gay son, said she would not accept a donation stemming from "Mr. Hilton's admitted use of an anti-gay slur."
So while Hilton is not sorry for the things he's done, the events of the last few months have prompted some self-reflection and brought home a few truths:
There really is no such thing as bad publicity.
Dethroned Miss California Carrie Prejean, he said, "is more famous now than the actual Miss USA winner!" precisely because he called her a "dumb bitch," although he found the ensuing deluge of angry e-mail from Christian conservatives really annoying.
Planet Earth and Planet Perez are one and the same.
Hilton blew up at will.i.am because he felt he was being browbeaten by the singer for trashing the Black Eyed Peas' latest single, "Boom Boom Pow." It never occurred to him that his provocation -- calling the singer a "faggot" -- could lead to violence. "We weren't in a real-world setting," said Hilton. "We were at an industry event!" How wrong he was: "In the real world, if you use words like that, you better believe there can be real physical and violent consequences. I learned that the hard way."
The physical suffering of others should never be mocked.
"After the Toronto incident," said Hilton, "I didn't even want to look people in the eye at the gym. The shame came from people saying I had it coming -- it was karma. Even though you may think someone is a douche, you shouldn't mock a victim of violence because that victimizes them again. I am much more compassionate now."
Unless, of course, you are one of his favorite targets. Since that epiphany, he has continued to trash Lily Allen as a "cheap ho," Prejean as a "bitch" (again), Sienna Miller as "Sluttyienna," Mischa Barton as "Mushy Fartone" and Rumer Willis as "Potato Head."
Compassion is not exactly good for business.