The Real Perez Hilton
BY Benoit Denizet-Lewis
July 06 2009 12:00 AM ET
Perez Hilton has been "very gay" for as long as he can remember. "I saw Marky Mark in those Calvin Klein ads when I was 13, and I was pretty much sold," he says. "There was no confusion, no dating girls. I know I was born gay."
Still, he wasn't ready to come out publicly at his all-boys Jesuit high school in Miami, where he was -- no real surprise here -- a vocal presence known for speaking his mind. "I said and did outrageous things," he recalls, "but I got away with it because I was a good student. I wasn't a fuck-up. I was ambitious and resourceful. I remember that my parents couldn't afford a school trip my class was taking to Spain, so out of the blue I sent letters to big companies asking if they would sponsor me. I raised enough money, and my teacher told me, 'You're going to go far in life.'"
In 1996, Perez moved to New York to pursue acting at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Japhy Grant, a writer who attended Tisch with Perez, remembers him as being more interested in celebrities than anyone he had ever met. Both Perez and Grant dreamed of making it big in Hollywood (Perez as an actor, Grant as a screenwriter), but when Grant moved to Los Angeles after graduating, he found an angry and depressed Perez who rode around town on a bike because he couldn't afford a car.
"The city was being really brutal toward him at the time, and you could tell he wasn't happy," Grant says. "He was on that VH1 show From Flab to Fab, and he was scarfing down laxatives. He was really struggling for direction, and one day I said, 'You should start a blog.' He was, like, 'What's a blog?'" (Perez and Grant are no longer friends. In a scathing 2006 Salon.com article criticizing Perez for his outing of gay celebrities, Grant called him "a crass, self-serving marketer disguised as an ideologue.")
Perez first called his blog PageSixSixSix.com (a play on the iconic New York Post gossip section Page Six), and his devotion to it was immediate and unwavering. "He sat about four seats in front of me when we both worked at Star , and he basically spent all day on his blog and not doing much work for the magazine," recalls Anna Holmes, who now edits the website Jezebel.com . "A few people definitely got annoyed."
But it didn't matter, because on March 11, 2005, the tabloid television program The Insider labeled Perez's blog "Hollywood's Most-Hated Website," temporarily crippling the site's server but effectively putting his name on the map. Before long Perez was a celebrity in his own right. "I still can't believe that I've become famous by writing about famous people," he says. "It's even weird that I did it by writing a blog. I'm a tech idiot."
Perez isn't the only one surprised by his success. "Perez is that kid who came out to L.A. with no interest in anything other than becoming famous, and, remarkably, that's what he did," Grant says. "When he was starting his blog, I kept telling him, 'Mario, be careful. You can't write that on your site. You'll get sued! It's going to blow up in your face. This is not going to work. You'll never get a job in this town again!' But, of course, he's proven me wrong in every way. He did get sued, but it didn't matter. He wrote what he wanted and apologized later."
Or, more accurately, he never apologized at all. When I ask Perez if he's ever written anything he's regretted, his answer is emphatic. "No, never," he says. Not even when he incorrectly reported the death of Cuban president Fidel Castro? "OK, I do regret that, " he concedes. "I'm never going to live that one down. Of course, I regret when I get things wrong, but fortunately, that doesn't happen very often. I'm very careful about what goes on my site. Unlike a lot of other [tabloid media outlets], I don't make shit up. I don't have anything if I don't have the trust of my readers. I always tell the truth."
A few minutes later, though, when the conversation turns to one of his favorite targets, actress and singer Miley Cyrus, he matter-of-factly admits to, well, not telling the truth. "Do I really think Miley is a slut? No. But I am going to call her one because it's fun! I don't claim to be objective. I don't really believe everything I write. What I write is an exaggeration of what I believe. It's heightened reality. I write a lot of things just to piss people off or get a laugh. I'm not The New York Times. I'm Perez Hilton."
And as Perez Hilton, there is very little he considers out of bounds. Two weeks after my trip to see him, he angered many people by posting pictures of Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the film Milk, engaging in what appears to be unsafe sex with another man. Why would Perez, who claims to want nothing more than gay equality, post photographs that could defame one the movement's brightest spokespeople and be used as ammunition against his message?
"I actually have a huge crush on Lance," Perez told me by telephone the day he ran the pictures, "but I'm all about equality, about treating gays the same way I would treat straight people. I would post the pictures if it was a straight celebrity. I love Rihanna, but recently her naked pictures leaked and I posted them. So should I not do it with a gay celebrity? Do we want to be treated equally, or do we not? Besides, I'm a gossip blogger. This is my job."
In person, Perez comes off as significantly less vitriolic than his blogger persona. I found him to be surprisingly laid-back and even likable in real life, but he's not a deep or nuanced thinker and seems generally unwilling (perhaps unable?) to look critically at himself. He seems all too eager to genuinely believe his own spin, to make up his mind and then go searching for the evidence -- or the rationale -- to back it up. And though his close friends praise his honesty, he doesn't strike me as all that intellectually honest. A conversation we have about the Miss California controversy hints at these shortcomings.
I begin by asking him if there is any answer Carrie Prejean could have offered that would have disagreed with his position but not warranted him branding her "a dumb bitch." He nods vigorously. "Oh, yes, there could have been so many other better answers!" he says.
I ask him to name one. "Well, she could have been much more eloquent than she was," he says. "She could have said, 'I think our country was designed in such a way that the states can decide for themselves, and I support our country in whatever it is that they think is best for us.' Or, you know, a bunch of other answers."
Either Perez is lying to himself or to me (most likely, to himself), because I doubt that his suggested answer would have placated him. In fact, it strikes me as less eloquent (not to mention less honest) than the one the beauty queen gave: "I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one way or the otherâ€¦. In my country and in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense to anybody out there. But that's how I was raised." If Perez so loathes hypocrisy and so values people who are true to themselves, as he claims, then how can he justify attacking Prejean?
I go on to ask Perez if he regrets calling her a bitch. I don't suspect that he does (he's been criticized for years for being a misogynist, with no effect on his behavior), but his answer is telling. "The word 'bitch' has no meaning to me," he says. "It's just a word." But how would he react, I ask, if a celebrity publicly called him a "dumb faggot" -- or some other derogatory word that did mean something to him -- while they claimed as a defense that the word meant nothing to them? Perez either doesn't understand the question or doesn't want to go there. Maybe, putting himself in someone else's shoes -- genuinely attempting to feel empathy -- is a better-to-be-avoided occupational hazard for a man who spends his days mocking others.
"This whole idea that I'm a misogynist who is really mean to women is silly to me," he says. "I love women. I worship women. Hello? I'm all about divas, remember? I bow down at the feet of women. Unless you're a dumb bitch, in which case I'm going to call you one."