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Perez Hilton: tastemaker and troublemaker

His popularity and power grow as he adds a music imprint and another website, but is the empire sustainable?

August 09, 2009|Robin Abcarian | Los Angeles Times
  • Perez Hilton.
Perez Hilton. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Perez Hilton is not sorry.

He is not sorry for trashing Miss California for saying marriage should be between a man and woman.

He is not sorry he accused Michael Jackson of faking it on the day he died ("Heart attack or cold feet?"), though he did redact his post to remove the cynical speculation. 

He is not sorry he posted photos of Oscar-winning "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, avatar of gay family values, having unprotected sex with a porn actor. ("If you make a sex tape or pictures, they will get out. And I will post them!" And in this case, take them down when threatened with a privacy invasion lawsuit.) 

Nor is he entirely sorry for directing a gay slur at Black Eyed Peas singer (although after getting punched in the face by the Black Eyed Peas' road manager in retaliation, he realizes it was wrong to use that word and issued a qualified apology to "the gay community" -- but not to, who, he said, "is a moron").

Anyway, why would he be sorry? 

"I've built my brand on being a bitch," said the gay celebrity blogger. "So what?" 

But Hilton no longer just gossips about celebrities; he has become one. Now they gossip about him. No longer the failed actor with his nose pressed against the glass, Hilton is firmly on the inside now. He is a star in his own right, in the midst of an expansion that could secure his status as a tastemaker and entrepreneur, or irreparably dilute his brand.

Hilton's closest competitors -- popular sites such as TMZ, OMG! and Wonderwall -- are corporate owned (by Time Warner, Yahoo and Microsoft, respectively). Far less idiosyncratic in tone, none has inspired the intensely passionate love/hate reactions engendered by Hilton, who produces up to 60 posts a day with two people: his younger sister, Barbara (Barby) Lavandeira, 25, and a recent college graduate whom he declined to name. "Why do you want to know that?" he said "It's all about me!"

Increasingly, he is a force to be reckoned with in other spheres of pop culture as well. On July 21, Hilton launched his own music imprint, Perezcious Music, for Warner Bros. Records. While he is trying to come up with a fresh idea for a TV entertainment news show, he's already got Radio Perez, a daily gossip report for Citadel Broadcasting that runs in 55 markets. [Locally, it airs on KPWR-FM (105.9).] It's recorded at home, in the Pepto Bismol-pink guest bedroom he's converted to a closet brimming with free clothes and shoes. ("I love mah freebies.") This week, he is preparing to debut a second website aimed squarely at his vast number of female twentysomething fans.

Every time Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, utters the sort of outrage that would land him in prison for life if the world were governed by laws of good taste and kindness, his popularity -- and by extension his wealth and influence -- only grows. Even Hilton, a once-schlubby but increasingly lean (thanks to two trainers and a $70-a-day meal service) Cuban-American kid from Miami, seems amazed.

"In. San. Ity," he trilled, sitting in a T-shirt and sweat pants on an L-shaped couch in the living room of his surprisingly modest two-bedroom Park La Brea apartment. The room's high ceilings give an impression of space and offer plenty of room to display the many portraits of him sent by fans. During an interview, the blogger ate a low-cal salmon entree.

Henry Copeland, president of BlogAds, which handles advertising for Hilton, thinks his allure is simple and timeless. Hilton's readers -- the great majority of whom are women in their 20s -- love the way he kicks dirt on Hollywood's mythmaking machine. "Perez comes along and says everything is not the way it seems and people do not have perfect lives," said Copeland.

The schtick has not endeared him to many of the stars he picks on, nor their fans. After dissing Michael Jackson, an "unfollow Perez" campaign was launched on Twitter (though he netted new followers). When he was attacked in Toronto after tangling with, plenty of folks were happy to see him get a real-world comeuppance. "People don't want to see you hurt," Tweeted John Mayer in an exchange with Hilton. "They want to see you experience something equalizing. . . . Today, the fourth wall came crashing down."

One Hollywood publicist who represents high-profile actors frequently in Hilton's cross hairs and didn't want to be named for fear of compromising her clients said she respects his work ethic and that he has built a business from scratch, but she doesn't worry about what he writes, invest time cultivating him or think about him when planning a campaign.

"He is literally not on my radar unless I want to go on and laugh about something," she said, adding that many of her clients find him toxic and vengeful.

"Do I think he has a genuine impact on how the world sees talent? I don't think so."

Some major celebrities have gone out of their way to cultivate him, though.

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