The Real Perez Hilton
Editor's Note:This issue of The Advocate had already gone to press by the time Perez Hilton made national news by calling will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas a "faggot" after they exchanged words at a 2009 MuchMusic Video Awards. This is an Advocate.com exclusive update to the cover story.
If I were to begin this profile of Perez Hilton in the style of one of his blog posts, which is to say that if I were to begin this profile in the style of a catty, celebrity-obsessed seventh-grade girl, I might write something like this: OMG!!! Sources confirm that former fatty Perez Hilton is getting LEAN and wants to get NAKED with writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis! Can U believe it?!?
Perez admits as much to me one recent evening in Los Angeles, as we're braving rush-hour traffic in his Toyota Camry, a car that seems entirely wrong for the self-described Queen of All Media. He's been talking about gay things (cute boys, the gym, gay marriage, American Idol finalist Adam Lambert), but he's kept it all above board until now, blurting out that he's almost ready to take his clothes off.
I'm not sure what to say to that. I also feel a sudden and unexpected kinship with former Miss California Carrie Prejean, who drew Perez's infamous question about gay marriage at the Miss USA 2009 pageant in Las Vegas. When she told Perez that she believed marriage should be a union between a man and a woman, he called her "a dumb bitch" on a video blog on his website, PerezHilton.com, igniting a firestorm and propelling the loudmouthed gossip blogger into the national conversation about gay marriage. (Perez had actually written the question hoping Miss Utah would answer it, thereby bringing attention to the Mormon Church's financing of the Yes on Prop. 8 campaign.) Will Perez call me a mean name too if I respond negatively to his nudist intentions? Fortunately, I've misread the situation. Perez doesn't want to get naked with me in his Camry. He wants to get naked in front of other people at a later date. PHEW!
"I've been working so hard on my health and my body," he tells me sometime during the 20 minutes it takes us to drive four blocks, "and I'm almost to the point where I'm comfortable enough to show it off. When I am, I'm going to be naked, all the time, everywhere. I'm going to be like Marc Jacobs. Every photo shoot he does, he's naked. That's going to be me."
There's symbolism, I think, in Perez's impending nakedness. Both professionally and socially, the 31-year-old Perez, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, tells me he's never felt so happy, so free. (This is a month before Perez saw his world upended in Toronto, June 21, at the MuchMusic Video Awards, when he called Black Eyed Peas front man will.i.am a "faggot" and then allegedly was punched in the eye by the band's manager. Instead of receiving sympathy, Perez, who posted an angry and tearful video on his blog the next day, was ridiculed by celebrities and readers of his blog alike, some of whom said he had it coming. Perez also found himself under attack from many in the gay community, who were aghast to learn that he'd used the word "faggot" to describe the musician. "I've always known that a lot of gays didn't like me," he told me a week after the incident, "but after this it felt like no gays liked me. It was one of the worst weeks of my life." More on the incident and Perez's reaction to it later.)
After falling into a deep depression several years ago, the "professional troublemaker," as he calls himself, says he made a conscious decision to "create the happiness" he wanted. He's started eating healthier and working out, moved his mother and sister from Miami to Los Angeles (they live downstairs from him in his charmless gated apartment complex), and bought a goldendoodle puppy he named Teddy Hilton whose portraits now adorn his apartment walls. Recently, Perez has also tried to bring happiness to his romantic life.
"My whole life has been a quest to be happy," he says, adding that he feels a kinship with Oprah Winfrey, who he suspects is on a similar life quest. Unlike Winfrey, though, Perez says he doesn't read self-help books -- or any books, for that matter.
What he does do -- and what he says brings him an endless amount of happiness -- is "entertain the world" on his blog, which reaches 14 million readers each month (mostly women in their 20s) and is the 131st most popular website in America, according to the Web information company Alexa. As a blogger Perez relies heavily on exclamation points, abbreviations, and the caps lock key, and he loves to draw cocaine and semen on the faces of celebrities he dislikes. An unapologetic believer in outing closeted celebrities (he ridiculed Clay Aiken relentlessly, scrawled "bottom" on a picture of Lance Bass, and was losing patience with Adam Lambert before the singer came out on the cover of Rolling Stone ), Perez saves his most vicious criticism for people he considers to be (a) train wrecks or, worse yet, (b) dishonest.
Emmy Rossum, an actress and singer who considers Perez a close friend (many of his friends refer to him as Mario), tells me Perez gets genuinely offended when people deny who they really are. "I think he's so proud of who he is and he's so unabashedly himself that he doesn't tolerate hypocrisy or people who pretend to be something they're not," Rossum says. "It's no wonder that he's so taken by people like Katy Perry, Madonna, and Lady GaGa. They're all talented people who speak their mind and are real people."
By championing the music of his favorite real people, Perez also has become, as Lady GaGa puts it to me, "the ultimate tastemaker in popular culture right now," although one has to wonder if the will.i.am incident might permanently hurt his tastemaking brand. Lady GaGa has certainly profited from Perez's relentless cheerleading but insists that he "can't be bought." (They talk on the phone nearly every day and can sometimes be found eating out together on Sundays, Perez's one "cheat day" on his diet.)
Perez has leveraged his cultural influence for more than just access to the celebrities he worships. To the dismay of many, the Miss California episode propelled him into a leading role in the marriage equality movement. But Perez's activist streak is nothing new. Back when he moved to Los Angeles in 2002 in a failed attempt to become an actor, he worked for a time at Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; Joan Garry, executive director at the time, remembers him as an "outrageous, larger-than-life personality who was obsessed with entertainment and really passionate about LGBT equality." Perez then went to work at the gay magazine Instinct, which he says fired him after five months for selling books on the Internet that publishers sent for free to the magazine.
Perez's activism -- his earnest belief that one of his true callings is as a civil rights leader -- is the reason we're stuck in traffic tonight. Normally, he prefers not to leave home on weekdays, when he gets up well before sunrise and works on his blog until about 7 p.m., taking only an hour break in the afternoon to work out with a trainer. But Perez agreed to drive across town to appear in a public service announcement for marriage equality. On our way, I ask him if he ever feels a conflict between his roles as a gossip blogger and gay rights activist. "Do you ever feel the need to tone down the outrageousness when you're making the argument for gay marriage?"
He shakes his head. "I don't really separate the two parts of me like that," he says, wearing black jeans and a white T-shirt that says "Vote for Gay Marriage." "I mean, I'm gay, and I make no apologies for that. Ever. I'm just being me. Besides, there are a lot gayer people out there than me. On the gay scale, I'm probably a 6 out of 10. I could be way gayer!" He pauses to answer an e-mail on his Sidekick. "But what's wrong with being gay, anyway?" he huffs 10 seconds later. "Nothing. I love being gay! I'm gay. I suck cock. I went on this date the other night with this guy who said he didn't like sucking cock, and I was like, 'Excuse me? I don't have time for you.' I'm gay. I'm very gay. And I like sucking cock. A lot. Put that on your cover!"
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."
While Perez seems genuinely aghast that anyone would respond to his relentless name-calling with violence, few people were surprised when he was punched in Toronto. But many gay people were shocked to learn that Perez had, in an attempt to hurt will.i.am, called him a faggot. "For someone in our own community to use it to attack another person by saying that it is, quote, 'The worst possible thing that thug would ever want to hear,' is incredibly dangerous," Rashad Robinson, senior director of media programs at GLAAD, said in a statement. "It legitimizes use of a slur that is often linked to violence against our community. And it sends a message that it is OK to attempt to dehumanize people by exploiting antigay attitudes."
But Perez tells me that, in the heat of the moment that night, he almost chose to use a different word. "I thought about calling him the n word," he says over the phone a week after the incident, "but I thought the f word was even worse. I was so filled with hate at that moment because I was hated on so much, and I reacted in the worst way possible. Then I went on to make a bunch of other mistakes. I shouldn't have made the video. I shouldn't have released so many statements. But what's come out of all of this is that I've learned so much about myself, and I'm in a much better place. I'm actually thankful that it happened. As cheesy as it may sound, I had almost a spiritual moment when I just let all of the anger and worry go and am now filled with peace, happiness, and wisdom. I could let this jade me and go back to being the super bitch that I was when I first started the website, but I've softened on my website and in life, maybe because I'm happier in my personal life than I've ever been."
Perez says he tries to take his cues from Madonna, or at least from what he imagines Madonna might do in similar situations. "In times of doubt I ask myself, What would Madonna do? " he says. "For the majority of her career, she was as equally hated as she was loved. She went from one controversy to another, but she just worked through it. She didn't let it affect her. And that's what I'm going to do. Even if I feel battered and hopeless and that the whole world is against me like I did during the week after this happened, I'm just going to soldier on."
After filming the marriage equality PSA, Perez drives us to an upscale club for the birthday celebration of a local party promoter. When we arrive, he spends a minute being photographed on the red carpet before stopping for a series of quick, inane interviews with reporters from magazines like Star and Us Weekly. He never tires of talking about celebrities, and there is plenty to talk about tonight. Only hours earlier, Kris Allen was crowned the newest American Idol.
"OMG!" Perez gushes in a reporter's microphone. "What an upset on American Idol ! I totally thought Adam Lambert was going to win. I'm kind of devastated." (To my surprise, Perez says he doesn't actually watch American Idol -- or any other television except awards shows.)
When another reporter notices Perez holding a wrapped present in his left hand, the following conversation ensues:
Reporter: You brought a present.
Perez: I did.
Reporter: What did you get him?
Reporter: What kind of porn?
Perez: Hot gay porn!
With that settled, Perez makes his way inside the party, where a handful of "Z-list celebrities," as Perez dismissively calls them, mingle with their assorted friends and hangers-on. Among the recognizable faces (in Hollywood, at least) is Matt Dallas, best known for being the attractive young star of the former ABC Family series Kyle XY .
Perez's and Dallas's presence at the same party adds some potential drama to the evening. Perez has repeatedly called Dallas gay, even posting occasional updates on his blog about who Dallas is supposedly dating. Perez doesn't like to call this "outing." "What I do is report ," he says, "just like I will report on the love lives of straight celebrities." Dallas has publicly denied being gay (on The Howard Stern Show , no less), and a friend of his wonders aloud at the party if the actor might have a few choice words for his least favorite blogger. I relay this to Perez, who can't seem to care less. After all, being accosted by celebrities is nothing new for him. As Perez tells it, Tara Reid once threatened to throw him in the pool at a party, Nicole Richie approached him at a coffee shop and demanded that he call her anorexic to her face (Perez declined), and Desperate Housewives gardener Jesse Metcalfe found him at a nightclub and announced, "Do you know how many times I've fantasized about killing you?"
Dallas chooses not to join this growing list of celebrities, and unless you count a couple of persistent social climbers who try desperately to engage him, Perez ends up spending much of the party alone or talking to me. "Most people I know out here just sort of tolerate Perez," one party attendee says. "Some will pretend to like him, but not many people actually respect him."
With no one he knows to talk to (his friend Katy Perry doesn't arrive until later), Perez sets his sights on a boyish 25-year-old who looks like an actor or model but is apparently neither. (Perez's longtime friend Eric Carr, who works in film marketing, told me that Perez's taste in men "is on the higher end" and that the blogger "wishes he could marry actor Zac Efron.") "He's really hot," Perez says of the young man at the party, trying to build up the courage to walk over and give him his number before we leave. Fifteen minutes later, he texts me from across the room -- "Still trying to work my magic here." More time passes. "I'm such a pussy," he whispers to me a few minutes later as I stand near the pair and watch as the young man playfully grabs Perez's shoulder. In the end, the man gives Perez his number before Perez can give him his.
"I know I didn't show it there, but I've actually gotten much better about asking out guys that I'm attracted to!" Perez tells me as we make our way to the exit. "I'm definitely on the prowl for dates. And to my surprise, a lot of guys that I've asked have said yes."
How does he know if someone is dating him only because he's a celebrity? "I think I'm self-aware enough to figure that out," he says. "But if it's just for a casual date, I don't care if someone's using me. I'll use them right back. I know how to play this game."
After five years as Hollywood's most notorious blogger, one would hope so. And as tempted as Perez might be to engage in some mutual using tonight with his new friend, it will have to wait. "I need to get up early and get to work," he tells me as we wait for a valet to bring him his Camry. "I may not be the best writer or the funniest writer, but I work harder than anyone I know. People can say a billion different things about me, but they can't say I'm lazy. And I have to give myself a pat on the back, because these last few years I could have lost my focus, or gotten caught in the bullshit of going to parties every night. But I didn't. And I have my success to show for it."