HE'S a Hollywood gossipmonger's dream and a troubled celebrity's nightmare. He's like US Weekly, the Star, the Enquirer and Life & Style all rolled into one sweet yet snarky, sagacious yet salacious gay man. Mario Lavandeira, better known as Perez Hilton, he of the eponymous website, is so popular he is becoming a celebrity in his own right, scoring loads of swag at Sundance and hanging with his "cousin" Paris Hilton at parties.
The regular features on Perez's photo-illustrated website include celebrity gossip, of course, but also "Separated at Birth" photos (a recent pairing: the old Star Jones and the new porky Britney Spears); "Personally Perez," about his celebrity interactions and party hopping; animated shorts (including the hilarious "Dirty Colin," a riff on the infamous Colin Farrell sex tape); and "Wacky, Tacky and True." He is also known for his celebrity nicknames: "Baby Zahara" for Nicole Richie, the Federjerk for Kevin Federline.
Perez started his website in 2004 as pagesixsixsix.com, a play on the New York Post's gossip page, and debuted perezhilton.com in May 2005.
What sets it apart from other celebrity gossip sites, Perez says, is that while other sites have a tone, his has an identity, the "character" he has created. "I also actively and aggressively try to break stories on a daily basis," he says, relying on contacts including friends in the industry and at celebrity magazines, restaurant and shop workers, publicists and celebrities themselves.
Perez came to L.A. to pursue an acting career after graduating from the Tisch School of the Arts in New York and started his website for fun while working a temp job at E!, a position he lost after blogging about a particularly memorable visit to his workplace by Janice Dickinson, the erstwhile big meanie, uber-Botoxed judge on "America's Next Top Model." He still does his website for fun, but with about 600,000 hits daily, it is now his day job, and doubles as a party-invitation and swag magnet.
Perez has made a few enemies along the way. He was once elbowed in the face at a club by a friend of Richie.
Now he's on E! News, has a reality show in development called "Gossip Queen," a book deal and a regular stalker.
"Do you want to hear some gossip?" Perez, 28, asks in a conspiratorial stage whisper as we walk down Robertson Boulevard one recent Saturday. "Allegedly ..." It was a juicy tidbit about Tom Cruise and, sorry, it was off the record.
This night on the town with the Miami-born Cuban American princess offered a peek into Perez's world. The self-proclaimed "gossip gangster" has deceptively innocent baby blue eyes, carefully coiffed facial scruff and an endearing smidge of pudge.
He needed to buy two birthday presents for two parties he'd be attending later, so we headed for Kitson, a clothing store so trendy there was a velvet-roped line outside waiting for the privilege of perusing $68 T-shirts and $125 hoodies.
Inside: Perez in action. He ran into a friend from People magazine and warmed up with a query about what to get his friends, a publicist and an actress. Then, during a pause in the conversation, he nonchalantly queried: "Is Britney pregnant again? Tell me."
The People person said she didn't think so and explained why, but Perez was unconvinced. "She is so pregnant," he said after the woman walked away.
After he bought two tees (the manager gave him 15% off just for being him), we wandered down to the Ivy for Pimm's cups (that's a gin-mix liquor on the rocks with cucumber) -- and to scout for celebrities. Perez checked his Sidekick constantly, tracking feedback and tips posted on his website.
"There's David LaChapelle," Perez said nonchalantly, looking up.
"Dave Chappelle?!" I asked.
"No, the photographer," he said.
After milking our Pimm's cups as long as we could, we headed to Crustacean in Beverly Hills, another prime celebrity-spotting locale, for appetizers and drinks.
The garlic noodles, coconut shrimp and dumplings made us so giddy, Perez began belting out Kanye West's "Gold Digger," segueing into Britney Spears' "Crazy" out on the sidewalk as we walked to the car.
Next stop: Dominick's, an Italian place said to be a favorite dining spot of such celebrities as Kiefer Sutherland, Kirsten Dunst and Joaquin Phoenix.
Alas, none of the above seemed to be there, although Perez did create a stir when he accidentally knocked a wine glass to the floor in a state of distress after being told the restaurant did not serve Red Bull.
Exhausted, I was heading home, but the night was just beginning for Perez.
It's a tough job being a gossip gangstar, but somebody's got to spread it.