As cyberculture secures its place in 21st century mainstream media and more people demand instant news and information via the Internet, the infamous celebrity blogger Perez Hilton continues to dish it out like no one else. English writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton may have coined the phrase, “The pen is mightier than the sword” 170 years ago, but for Hilton, a laptop computer and a Wi-Fi connection is equally—if not more—indomitable. And definitely a lot sharper.
“Before I came along, consumers were OK waiting a week to read about something in a new issue of a magazine,” Perez, 31, told Hispanic during an interview from his home in Los Angeles. “They were OK reading about it in the newspaper the next day or watching it on TV that evening. But now they want it as soon as it’s breaking and happening. I love the immediacy of it all.”
Whether readers of his wildly popular, if controversial, website PerezHilton.com are curious about what nightclubs Kim Kardashian frequents, interested in candid photos of Rob Pattinson-inspired mobs, or wanting to read scathing commentary of Ashlee Simpson’s red carpet wardrobe, Hilton has every square inch of Hollywood covered.
Don’t think, however, the fearless blogger stays busy all day by just doodling snarky remarks across the faces of celebrities. Hilton’s aspirations now extend past the computer screen. Not only has he made his moniker synonymous with scandalous and up-to-the-minute gossip on his website, the self-proclaimed “Queen of All Media” has branched out over the past year to transform his saucy pseudonym into an enterprise that now spans across other industries including fashion, music, books and advocacy groups.
While he doesn’t worry that he will spread himself too thin, Hilton admits he will have to work harder than the average entrepreneur if he wants to be more than just a trend that fades with time. And Hilton wants staying power. Through his new endeavors, he has started to build his empire from the ground up and could care less what his detractors say—just as long as they continue to read and follow him online.
“It’s been very challenging because people want me to fail, and I get that,” Hilton says. “But just because I may fail at first doesn’t mean I’m not going to continue trying. Everything I do, I do because I’m passionate about it.”
In the Beginning
Love him or hate him, Hilton is living the American dream. Born Mario Armando Lavandeira, Jr., Hilton was raised in Miami by Cuban parents and had a fairly normal childhood growing up. It was at an early age when gossiping became second nature to him. Call it part of his Latino upbringing if you wish, but chatting among family members about everything and everyone was a routine event in his household.
“When I was a kid I would always see my mom and everyone else in my family chismiando (gossiping) all the time,” Perez says. “It was just something they did. There was never a negative connotation associated to it. I never saw it as something wrong. I thought it was my job to sit around and listen.”
After graduating from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Miami, Hilton, who set his sights on becoming an actor, enrolled at New York University where he earned his undergraduate degree in performing arts. While acting eventually fell by the wayside, drama was definitely something in which Hilton would find himself immersed when he made his move to the West Coast.
In September 2004, Hilton launched his first blog, PageSixSixSix.com, a playful take on the trendy “Page Six” gossip column published by the New York Post. The Post, however, was not flattered by his imitation and sued Hilton for trademark infringement.
“That was one of the best things that ever happen to me,” Hilton says. “Instead of being ‘that dude’ from ‘that website’ I became Perez from PerezHilton.com.”
Already distinguished as “Hollywood’s Most-Hated Website” when he changed the site’s name, Hilton continued to do what he did best—talk about celebrities. It was something he says no one else was really doing online at the time.?
“That’s what set my site apart from others at the beginning,” Hilton says. “Before me, there weren’t any websites doing it. Celebrity magazines didn’t even have websites, and even if they did, it was just to subscribe to the magazine. I think I really helped change the way people consume celebrity news.”
Often Imitated, Never Duplicated
Hilton is not quite sure where his own personality ends and the character of Perez Hilton begins. As the years pass, it gets harder to distinguish what part he’s playing.
“The line starts to blur,” Hilton says. “I’m like Jekyll and Hyde now. I’m both at all times, just because I’ve been doing both for so long. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” It’s actually a good thing for Hilton, who says other celebrity junkies have followed him into blogosphere, including TMZ.com, PopSugar.com, and CeleBuzz.com. Still, it’s Hilton’s unique and matchless personality and what he calls his “Cuban work ethic” that has kept him a principal player in the online pop culture movement.
“I definitely feel the pressure that I put on myself to continue to work hard,” Hilton says. “I want to continue to entertain my readers. I’ve spoiled them, so they’ve come to expect certain things from me. I need to continue to produce at that level.”
The website monitoring company Quantcast has clocked PerezHilton.com as luring as many as 1.9 million global visitors daily, and according to the company, the website had as many as 15.3 million global page views in June, though it typically sees 4.5 million U.S. visitors a month. A top 500 website, PerezHilton.com has considerable web heft. Forbes named Perez Hilton the No. 1 Web Celeb two years in a row, ahead of web editor Matt Drudge. Forbes timed PerezHilton.com uploads, and writes that a new post appears approximately every 12.5 minutes.
It’s not an easy task keeping up with fans craving sensational news every day. As much as constant posting would exhaust any web-entrepreneur, Hilton has been very clever about his writing. A trademark of the site is its insistence on involving the audience—at the end of every post Hilton asks what his fans think. A great way to generate instant feedback on each story, the question also serves as a model for direct intercommunication between a medium and its audience. That exemplifies a trend that’s taking place all over modern media: a breakdown of the wall between media makers and media users.
Another plus for Hilton is his own growing presence in the celebrity rumor mill. He’s no stranger to controversy, which has only increased traffic to his site. In the past five years, he has butted heads with everyone from Universal Studios to the Black Eyed Peas to the paparazzi. Much debate over Hilton’s antics stems from his decision to post inside information about the sexuality of certain celebrities.
Then, there was the Miss USA question heard ’round the world. In April Hilton, who was a judge in the pageant, asked Miss California contestant Carrie Prejean whether every state should legalize same-sex marriage during the question-and-answer portion of the finals. Prejean’s answer, that she believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, didn’t sit well with openly gay Hilton, and cut to the heart of one of the nation’s continuing moral questions. Her answer, which was both booed and cheered after her response, fueled a fire storm of online insults and speculation that has yet to be extinguished.
Since Hilton’s stumping of Prejean at the pageant, the former beauty queen has built a reputation as a conservative commentator appearing on FoxNews and Larry King Live. She also has been on a media tour to promote her new book, despite a controversy for allegedly making a series of sex tapes.
At PerezHilton.com, Prejean’s name is not listed in the “StarSeeker” tool where you can find all the celebrities he blogs about. That’s because Hilton, who is credited by many for making Prejean a household name, decided to categorize all of his comments about the Miss USA contestant under “Icky Icky Poo.” Still, Hilton doesn’t necessarily consider his website mean-spirited. He says if you look deep enough, there is more content than what most people would expect.
“I would consider [my site] well-rounded,” Hilton says. “There are some websites that are biting and that’s definitely part of what I do, but there are also those [celebrities] that I love and champion. I talk about a lot of things—political issues, social causes, music. People have these preconceived notions about who I am but they’re always wrong.”
The Evolution of Perez
With an audience of millions, it was only a matter of time before Hilton realized the platform he was standing on could be used for more than snark. While Hilton would rather not be seen as a spokesperson for the Hispanic or gay community, there are still issues he supports including gay rights and universal healthcare, and organizations such as PETA.
“Hopefully, by just being me and being vocal enough for the things I believe in, I can do my part,” Hilton says. “It’s all a reflection of me and my interests. It’s evolved into that.”
Part of that evolution has occurred over the past two years. Perez says he has become happier in his own life. “I’ve taken a lot of steps in creating that happiness for myself,” Hilton says.
“Everything from moving my mom and sister out to L.A. to traveling less to sleeping more to getting a dog and getting in shape has helped. All of those things have created the wonderful life that I have for myself now.”
Not only is his advocacy increasing, the Perez Hilton brand is undertaking multiple crossovers. For as much as he pokes at celebrities, some seem to roll with the punches and stand beside the blogger. Hilton opens Britney Spears’ “Welcome to the Circus” tour with a video introduction, and has lightheartedly shared jokes with Victoria Beckham on camera. Along with his duties as a guest Hollywood insider on various TV and radio shows (MTV, Tyra Banks, and Joy Behar are a few who sent invites; he even got to conga with Gloria Estefan at a Las Vegas show in October), Hilton launched a sister site, CocoPerez.com, in August to monitor the ever-changing fashion world. He released his second book in 2009, Perez Hilton’s True Bloggywood Stories: The Glamorous Life of Beating, Cheating, and Overdosing in December. His first book, Red Carpet Suicide: A Survival Guide on Keeping Up With the Hiltons, was released in January 2009. This past summer, Hilton also launched his own music label, Perezcious Music, for Warner Music Group. He considers all his moves into these different arenas a “natural progression.”
“This has been the most eventful year of my life,” Hilton says. “I was able to transcend people’s perception of me and not just as that blogger with the crazy hair. I was able to get them to see me as a real person. Now, I’ve created everything that I have. Nothing has been handed to me. I built this all from hard work and resourcefulness and a little bit of talent; well, maybe a lot of talent.”
This interview was first published in Hispanic Magazine, Dec. 2009