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To call Perez Hilton a polarizing cultural figure is like calling his buddy Lady Gaga a mere pop singer. Since he launched PerezHilton.com in 2005, the blogger, born Mario Lavandeira, has been making news almost as frequently as he covers it. Delivering biting barbs against frequent targets like Jennifer Aniston, Fergie, and Lindsay Lohan made Hilton's site a daily must read, though many gay people were irked by leading posts they perceived as outing then-closeted celebs such as Clay Aiken, Lance Bass, and Neil Patrick Harris.
Resentment grew stronger following a nasty dustup with Will.i.am from Black Eyed Peas and Hilton's decision to post explicit photos of writer Dustin Lance Black. Anger against Hilton was so strong that when he spoke out against the rash of bullying-related suicides of gay teenagers last year, many people didn't want to hear it, and called him a hypocrite. Hilton issued a series of very public mea culpas, even going on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to declare his intention to change.
But Hilton swears he's a new man and to prove it has turned his annual celeb-studded birthday party into a fundraiser for the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). He offered further evidence during this interview by apologizing several times for uttering a few profanities. Hilton speaks with The Advocate for the first time since his controversial 2009 cover story about his strong bond with Gaga, the message for his critics, and how Justin Bieber came to donate his hair.
The Advocate: What's the biggest misconception people still have about you?
Perez Hilton: That the real person behind Perez is an asshole. I really don't view myself as an asshole and anyone who knows me in the real world who has known me for a while would say that I'm not an asshole. But it's OK that people think that.
Why do you say it's OK?
It will take a long time to change people's perceptions and that's OK. I'm not comparing myself to Madonna and Angelina Jolie, but they both had very colorful pasts and found happiness and a calling apart from their professions and felt the need and desire to share with the world and make it better. I'm not trying to be Mother Teresa and say I want to make the world a better place. But I don't want to make it a worse place so I've been taking steps to not contribute what other people could perceive as bullying and hurtfulness.
What brought about the big change in your alter ego?
It was very organic. I've always talked about things of interest to me and my readers, such as politics and gay issues. I was very vocal in helping any way I could with Prop. 8 and I was very vocal in animal activism, which I was so involved in I started a website just for that. And there are Latino issues I've supported. Anything relevant I talk about so when all these gay teenagers started committing suicide, of course I talked about it. These are not topics you'd usually expect a celebrity blog to talk about, but it's what I've always done. And in doing so, and more than anytime in the past, I got a huge backlash.
How did you react to it?
I was extremely hurt by it, but it was a huge wakeup call. I thought, I'm trying to do good here and raise awareness, help, and people are spitting in my face. That's how strongly I felt about it. I had to step back and take a look in the mirror and say, 'Gosh, if so many people are saying you're a bully and a hypocrite, then there's some truth to that,' even if I didn't want to admit it. I decided I didn't want that perception out there. If it was accurate, then I needed to change that asap.
Has it been difficult to avoid falling back into your old way of writing about celebrities?
I'm not saying I'm perfect. I'm not saying I won't fuck up. I'm not saying I'm a saint. I am saying I'm taking active steps every day and with every post and consciously acting differently and making that public and broadcasting it. I think that's important. That's why I went on Ellen and why I made a video, which is a very public proclamation. I could have made that change and only readers of my website would have known. I wanted it to hopefully inspire others instead of just people who read my site. I feel that these issues are bigger and more important to me. I'm just doing my part, like we can all do our parts to help not just young people but everyone.
A story circulated that Jennifer Aniston convinced you to change.
There's a slight misconception about that. I don't think she ever took credit for it. But I did run into her a while before I made the public change. I told her that I had already been thinking about this so it wasn't some overnight change after meeting her. I had raised these questions before, but justified why it wouldn't make sense and why I continued the path I did for so long.
How did you justify it?
I kept telling myself it would be as if Lady Gaga wanted to release a rap album for her next record. People would likely hate it because that's not the brand she's created for herself. [Laughs] But then again if Gaga created an amazing rap album it probably would work. Who knows? She is Lady Gaga, after all. I was paralyzed by fear into not making the change on my website which I had slowly been making in my personal life. That's why I launched Coco Perez and Fit Perez and Teddy Hilton. All of those websites by nature and design were more positive in putting a kinder, gentler energy out there.
What do you say to your critics who still hold resentment against you and say you won't change?
I have changed and there's no denying that. For some people there's no way to right the wrongs I've done in the past, but I'm not necessarily trying to do that. I'm just trying to make the present and the future better. I'm trying to lead by example and being the change that I want to see. I acknowledge that I wrote and said things that were very hurtful to people. Hopefully going forward I won't have to have that reaction anymore. It's actually been the opposite. I was really scared about doing this. I was prepared for the worst.
What did you expect to happen?
I expected traffic to go way down and all my readers would stop reading. Thankfully that hasn't happened. In fact since October when I went on Ellen's show and made the proclamation it's been the happiest and most rewarding time both personally and professionally. In the past three months alone I was in the video for Rihanna's for "S&M." Britney gave me a lovely little shout out on Twitter, calling me a firecracker and saying my website is a guilty pleasure, Eminem name checked me in a song, albeit not very favorably. [Laughs] It's nice to feel that seven years after I started the site, I'm still relevant.
I don't want to rehash the past, but a lot of people thought you crossed the line when you posted the explicit photos of Dustin Lance Black. If you had it to do over, would you still post them?
I don't regret that at all. I'd do that again. There was a lot of hypocrisy around that. I'm still doing my job. There were naked photos of Vanessa Hudgens that leaked and of course I linked to them. I didn't post them on the site because I don't do that anymore, but I informed readers how they can view them if they want to. There was a lot of resentment from the gay community when I posted [the Black] photos.
What do you see as the reason for that?
They were expecting me to hold him to a higher standard than any other celebrity. And he was a celebrity at that point. He was an Oscar winner and had been on the cover of The Advocate.
How do you determine what you will and won't write about now?
I'll still talk about almost everything, but how I talk about it is different than before. I can criticize things and certain choices without criticizing certain people.
What's the response from celebrities been like?
Fergie sent me a bouquet of flowers with a lovely note and Will.i.am and I had a lovely exchange backstage at the Grammys. It's nice to have come full circle and have a certain closure with certain people. I just cover things differently now. I actually praised the Black Eyed Peas' Super Bowl performance.
How has being nicer affected traffic for your website?
It hasn't really affected it at all. It hasn't gone up or down. I'm happy with that. I'm thrilled that I haven't lost half of my readers. It's inspiring to me and shows that the world is ready to go in this new direction. Hopefully others will follow suit.
You've turned your birthday party this weekend into a fundraiser for GLSEN. What's behind this decision?
I was inspired by Adam Lambert who uses social media and his fans to raise money for his charity. I wanted to do that, as well. I want to use the opportunity of my birthday to encourage others to give to a charity that I think is important. Of course, it was important to me to choose a LGBT organization and one that works with young people. The Trevor Project is amazing, but they've been getting a lot of press whereas GLSEN, in the wake of all the teen suicides, hasn't gotten as much. And their work is just as, if not more important than the Trevor Project. If GLSEN is doing all this work in schools and providing kids with a safe space in schools, then hopefully they won't feel as suicidal and won't need to call the Trevor Project.
How much money do you hope to raise?
I had set an initial goal for $5,000, which we've already surpassed. I think closer to the cut off date it will be closer to $10,000. It's not just about money for me, it's about raising awareness and the profile of GLSEN. People can donate at crowdrise.com/perezbirthday
How did you convince Justin Bieber to donate his hair?
Bieber approached me and said, "Hey, I'm giving my hair to a few different people and I want it to be used to raise money for charity." I told his manager that I wanted to use it for GLSEN and asked if that was cool and he said totally. Justin feels very strongly that kids shouldn't bully each other and was happy to help.
What was your opinion on the alleged gay backlash against Gaga's "Born This Way" single?
What backlash? The song was number 1 in America for four weeks in a row. There was a backlash, [but] I think it's a great song. It's been the longest number 1 single in her career and if you're gonna be compared to anyone, being compared to Madonna isn't a bad thing. Artists like Madonna only come along every 25 years.
You were one of her earliest and staunchest supporters. Does she credit you for part of her success?
She does, but I would never take credit for it. It's very flattering that she's appreciative and vocal about the role I've played in helping her, but I think she would have been successful without my help. I'm just glad I was able to be there from the beginning and lend my support. In addition to being a friend, I'm one of her biggest fans.
Have you heard the rest of the new album?
Yes. This is her Like a Prayer album. By that I mean that Like a Prayer was one of Madonna's most cohesive albums and the same is true with Born This Way, The songs really inhabit this world that she created and that was co-created by her fans. Each song makes sense when listened to in relation to the others. The Fame and The Fame Monster kind of had that concept, but not really. I mean "Poker Face" wasn't really about fame. But Born This Way, the album, is a really powerful piece of work that touches on love and freedom and liberation and politics so it will surprise a lot of people. It will make a lot of people happy, but it will piss off a heck of a lot of people, too.
What's your response to Gaga dissolving her deal with Target over their political donations?
I'm not politically correct and just because I'm gentler and kinder doesn't mean I'm going to be politically correct. I didn't necessarily agree with that. I know that a lot of gay people don't like Target because of their political contributions yet a lot of those same gay people still shop at Target. I don't think it was a bad thing at all that she had a deal with Target. I do applaud her for feeling so strongly about her convictions and caring about her gay fans so much that she felt she needed to do that.
What's something about her that no one knows?
I'm always astounded by how smart she is. Obviously she's crafty and clever and creative, but she's really smart and a great writer. What I love is that she's so different from me, yet we're so similar that we get along. She grew up in New York City with an upbringing that was very different from mine. I don't mean her parents were wealthy, but she had all these references growing up that I didn't have. She grew up listening to Bowie and Yoko Ono and Grace Jones. I never listened to any of those people. I listened to Madonna and Gloria Estefan. We just talk about music all the time and art and inspiring things and what we each have going on. It's always stimulating and I feel inspired when I'm around her. When you're around smart people you become smarter yourself--ideally.
To donate to GLSEN for a chance to win tickets to Hilton's party, click here.