Love Him or (He Prefers) Hate Him
Perez Hilton, as a host on “The View” and mingling at a VH1 awards show, says: “I don’t have to answer to anyone but me.”
MARIO ARMANDO LAVANDEIRA JR., better known as Perez Hilton, the self-proclaimed “Queen of All Media,” clearly operates by media rules of his own.
Take a recent week from his July datebook: On a Friday morning, he was sparring with Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on “The View” about the not-so-nice dish on his celebrity gossip blog, Perezhilton.com. The next Monday, he made a cameo appearance on Victoria Beckham’s reality special on NBC, followed by Kathy Griffin’s reality show on Bravo on Tuesday. Then he wrapped up the week with a “Nightline” profile on Friday.
After all that dignified mainstream exposure, he challenged a rival to a hot-dog eating contest on a paparazzi-patrolled block of Los Angeles, and the next day exposed himself to a camera crew from the celebrity news Web site TMZ.com, which merrily posted the footage.
At present, sitting at a Cuban restaurant for an interview and picking at his ropa vieja (which he promptly dismissed as inauthentic), Mr. Lavandeira said that even he himself, who has seen his share of the baffling and surreal since coming to Hollywood, is surprised at his own rapid ascent.
“I’m doing things on my own terms,” he said. “I don’t have to answer to anyone but me.”
In barely three years, Mr. Lavandeira, 29, has risen from the blogosphere to reap some of the same fame and notoriety as the entertainers he celebrates and humiliates daily on his Web site.
With his shameless self-promotion and buffoonish appearance, Mr. Lavandeira, a childlike bear of a man, has become a hard-to-ignore Hollywood player.
But what game he is playing is hard to define.
One day he was a struggling actor, paying bills with nonglamorous day jobs (publications manager for a gay organization; publicist for trade shows; a reporter for Star magazine, which fired him).
The next, he was an orange-haired pop culture phenom: a blogger whose infantile but easily digestible style of scrawling crude commentary on celebrity pictures has helped him triple his traffic in the last year alone, earn enough income to employ his family members, and, most crucially for the Perez Hilton brand, score his own television show on VH1.
“Perez Hilton obviously found a great formula,” said Tyler Gray, a senior editor at Radaronline.com, who admitted he was jealous of Mr. Lavandeira’s Internet following. “So did Robert Oppenheimer. It doesn’t mean it’s good for the public.”
It has been good for Mr. Lavandeira. ComScore Media Metrix, the Internet tracking firm, places Perezhilton.com among the top 10 entertainment news sites, saying that every month it draws 1.7 million unique visitors in the United States alone (2.6 million worldwide).
Mr. Lavandeira brags about his “exclusives” and “sources” but describes his formula simply: He says what many people think but never utter aloud.
In his blog postings, he lavishes exclamation points on the ravishing looks of arbitrarily chosen heroes like Angelina Jolie, Jennifer Lopez and Dita Von Teese, and snarkily picks on so-called villains like Clay Aiken, Kirsten Dunst and Sienna Miller for perceived sins like excessive drinking, promiscuity or denying homosexuality.
“I’m like Madonna, I’m not afraid to offend,” Mr. Lavandeira said in one of several self-generated comparisons to the pop star.
Nothing seems off-limits on his blog. He has labeled both Victoria Beckham and baby Suri Cruise “aliens” and drawn antennae on their heads. He chronicles the foils of Hollywood’s bad girls — Britney, Lindsay, Nicole (but not his namesake Paris, a friend) — in breathless, telenovela-style story threads. And when a talk show or entertainment program cannot book a genuine celebrity to fess up to their most recent scandals, they often turn to Mr. Lavandeira as an unofficial surrogate.
After Lindsay Lohan’s arrest last week on charges that included driving under the influence and cocaine possession, he spent a morning circulating among “Good Day L.A.,” “The Mike and Juliet Show” and numerous radio broadcasts.
Mr. Lavandeira, who studied acting at New York University, started his blog as a hobby in September 2004, initially naming it PageSixSixSix.com — which invited a lawsuit from The New York Post, the home of Page Six. Instead, he reinvented himself as Perez Hilton, a Latin version of Paris Hilton, the heiress and one-woman gossip factory. But he didn’t make a living from the blog until last year, when he began devoting 17-hour days to produce what today is an average of 30 items a day.
Mr. Lavandeira says he is doing it all for fun. And as if to prove his point, he spent a portion of his interview singing along to a Celia Cruz song playing in the background, and dancing alone in a largely empty restaurant while tossing around a flower he brought as a photographic prop, not a gift for his interviewer.
But behind the silliness is a business operation with an increasingly diverse portfolio.
Mr. Lavandeira’s blog commands as much as $9,000 a week for a single advertisement and $45,000 for the most expensive ad package, according to Henry Copeland of Blogads.com, the ad sales representative for Perezhilton.com. His demographics — a largely female readership, with an average age of 26 — lure ads from fashion brands, spirits companies and, of course, Hollywood.
He has channeled his ample spirit and gossip knowledge into a book proposal. And he has parlayed his frequent television appearances into two gigs as a host: one for MTV Tr3s, a Latino-themed music channel, the other “What Perez Sez,” a VH1 series of reality specials coming in September.
But while Mr. Lavandeira’s take on celebrities and low-brow humor appeals to a broad audience, many also react with a big “eewww!”
“Please move to Mars and take Michael Jackson with you,” reads one of the more printable insults hurled his way in readers’ comments at TMZ.com, which covers Mr. Lavandeira as if he were another Hollywood personality.
But TMZ’s managing editor, Harvey Levin, said he appreciated Perezhilton.com, which often cites TMZ and which, he noted, only helps generate more interest in celebrity news. "He’s aggressive, he’s edgy,” Mr. Levin said of Mr. Lavandeira’s appeal. “He calls it as he sees it.”
But less amusingly, paparazzi agencies have sued Mr. Lavandeira for copyright infringement for posting their pictures without paying for them, or at least giving them credit.
Mr. Lavandeira is also facing a libel suit from one of his targets, Samantha Ronson, a D.J. and friend of Ms. Lohan’s.
Mr. Lavandeira declined to comment on the legal disputes.
Numerous celebrity publicists contacted for this article refused to comment and the few who did spoke on condition of anonymity.
“He can and does print the most outrageous things without a kernel of truth to them,” said a publicist for several A-listers. “It debases all the real P.R. people that some feed him tips. They’re just feeding the beast.”
The more resentment Mr. Lavandeira elicits, the more opportunities seem to fall his way. Designers send him free clothes, record companies send him music hoping to break new artists and some celebrities befriend him.
After being routinely ridiculed on Perezhilton.com for her refusal to smile for the cameras, among other offenses, Ms. Beckham, the former Spice Girl and the wife of the soccer star David Beckham, set out to ambush Mr. Lavandeira at the West Hollywood coffee shop where he often wrote his blog.
But it was all to Mr. Lavandeira’s advantage. On Ms. Beckham’s NBC reality special, she was seen chatting with him and entertaining his request to send him naked pictures of her husband.
When Mr. Lavandeira jokingly campaigned to be a host on “The View,” it seemed inevitable that he would eventually be invited on the daytime gabfest.
Mr. Lavandeira used his platform on “The View,” to announce his new show on VH1 (“I’m going to be their gay Barbara Walters,” he joked) but soon the hostesses were taking him to task for using his blog to mock the children of celebrities.
“I think you’re funny,” said Ms. Behar, who asked whether Mr. Lavandeira was himself made fun of as a child. “But a kid, come on?”
Mr. Lavandeira, the oldest of two siblings from a working-class Cuban-American family, says he was indeed taunted at the all-boys Catholic school he attended in Miami for his bulky frame and homosexuality. His father died of a brain aneurysm at age 51, when Mr. Lavandeira was 15.
But he said he was not exacting revenge by skewering the rich and famous. He pushes the envelope, just as he relentlessly markets himself, because outrageousness translates into more eyeballs and contributors to his site.
“When I go to parties people recognize me and that’s another contact, another tool in my bag of tricks,” he said. “I don’t even have a publicist. I work it.”
Mr. Lavandeira has shrugged off questions about his wealth, but he has made enough to leave the Sunset Boulevard coffeehouse that was once his office and now produces the site from a rented two-bedroom apartment in a gated community. He is also transforming Perezhilton.com into a family enterprise. He recently hired his 23-year-old sister, Barbara, as his first assistant. His mom, Teresita, 53, is also moving from Miami to help out.
Mr. Lavandeira said he has no significant other and no time to date, preferring to work on other potential Perez Hilton brand extensions, such as a clothing line and a music tour of his favorite artists. He also sees three to four children in his future, some adopted and some biological, like a “gay Angelina,” he said.
In Mr. Lavandeira’s eyes, celebrity powerhouses like Ms. Jolie, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna and Ms. Hilton are not just role models but also kindred spirits.
“I realize my time is now because I’m young and things are hot and happening,” he said. “I may be yesterday’s news next year.”