There he was on national television, the self-styled "Queen of Mean." Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton sat bolt upright in an almost-conservative jacket and tie. He pledged: no more nastiness, no more bullying and no more outing of gay men.
When I called Hilton this week, it had been a little more than seven weeks since his appearance on "Ellen." He pronounced himself, yes, nice. Or at least nicer. "I have done what I said I would do," Hilton said. "There is no going back."
In recent weeks, there's no doubt that the Viceroy of Venom, the Prince of Puerile has sheathed his deadliest lance. Gone are messages scrawled over photos proclaiming stars ugly, duplicitous or washed up. Raunchy drawings have vanished. Stars still have been deemed liars, but with almost-forgiving question marks attached.
If this relative moderation is a betrayal to a few fans of the wildly popular perezhilton.com, it doesn't appear to be hurting the bottom line. Traffic has held roughly steady at about 1 million unique visitors a week, according to figures from comScore, and Hilton, 32, claims he's so committed to change, he's willing to lose some of his audience if need be.
At least one fellow Internet gossip maven insists Hilton's conversion comes from the heart. But you will have to forgive skeptics if they would like to see more than seven weeks of contrition after nearly seven years of scorched earth.
Hilton put himself in the position of the chemical plant owner who fouled the river for years then suddenly announced his environmental sensitivity. The pledge is good. A sustained flow of clean water will be much better.
The blogger has additional motivation for making nice: There aren't many big national companies that want to advertise on your website (actually websites, he has four spinoff operations now) when you call 15-year-old girls ugly and draw penises across stars' photos.
Hilton insisted he had no thought of the bottom line when he cleaned up his act. "If that was my reason," he said, "I would have done it a long time ago."
A one-time worker at a gay rights organization, Hilton said the urgency to make a change stemmed from a string of suicides this fall by young gay men. They had been ostracized because of their sexual orientation.
He shot a video for the "It Gets Better" project, in which gays and lesbians try to inspire others to have hope for the future. But that September video provoked a backlash from many, people who charged he had no right to claim the high moral ground. Hilton had ham-handedly tried to force a number of previously closeted celebrities — Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris among them — to acknowledge they were gay.
"The fact a lot of people viewed me as a bully and hypocrite was a huge wake-up call for me," Hilton said. If he wanted to be taken seriously speaking out on gay rights and other issues, he knew he had to change. So he called Ellen DeGeneres, a lesbian who described being shaken by the hate that homosexuals still confront.
She agreed to put him on her show, but understandably didn't go easy on the conversion story. "Didn't you know you were doing things that were hurtful to others?" DeGeneres asked.
Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, conceded that he too easily fobbed off blame on his alter ego, a character he created back in the days when he blogged all day from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Sunset and Fairfax. "I made up all these excuses to make it better for myself," he now says. The people he attacked were adults. They were celebrities, he told himself, who "signed up for this."
But one reason that many people won't accept the "new and improved" label too readily is that not all of Hilton's past targets were adults. And some were celebrities only by relation.
He once lashed the 15-year-old daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore for "dressing like a slut." In a later instance he wrote "barf" across her photo, X-ing out her face, while cooing "Yum!" over her date. Last summer, he posted a photo of 17-year-old pop star Miley Cyrus stepping out of a car, apparently without underwear. Called out for running the raunchy photo of the underage singer, Hilton replied that he wanted to teach Cyrus "to be ladylike."
Now he claims he will keep his edge "and have an opinion and be sassy. I won't lobotomize myself. I want to do it in a more positive way without being outwardly mean or hurtful to people or doodling inappropriate things."
When Larry King recently announced he wanted to try stand-up comedy, Hilton offered no nasty asides, just, "We say go for it, Larry!" Describing a model who had her license suspended for speeding, Hilton chirped: "Just be sure to drive safely when you get that license back, Katie!"