He doesn't call it "Hollywood's Most-Hated Web Site" for nothing. As celebrity blogger Perez Hilton -- real name: Mario Lavandeira -- walked down the red carpet of VH1's Big in '06 Awards earlier this month, the paparazzi pointed their lenses to the ground, refusing to shoot his photo. In Hollywoodland, where looks might kill but not being seen is fatal, it was as if the eye of God had turned from Perez. After two years of Hilton appropriating -- OK, stealing -- online paparazzi photos, scrawling words like "whoreanus" (a, um, "pun" on the word heinous) across them using Microsoft Paint and posting them on his site, the photographers and their agencies have finally turned on the world's most popular gossip blogger, who they claim is cutting into their bottom line.
Last month at an Xbox 360 launch event in Los Angeles, Perez got into an argument with a photographer on the red carpet over stealing photos, and when X17, Hollywood's largest celebrity photography agency, told him that he could no longer use its images without a license, he fired back: "Instead of wanting to have me as a friend or an ally you choose to be a cunt! CUNT! And I don't wanna work with cunts. And liars. And unethical people. And that's what you are!" Now, X17 is suing him for copyright infringement, and asking for $7.5 million.
The lawsuit is only the blogger's most recent brush with controversy. A few weeks back, the latest chapter in the is-he-or-isn't-he debate over "American Idol's" Clay Aiken's sexual orientation unfolded on network TV after Kelly Ripa took Aiken to task for putting his hand over her mouth, saying, "I don't know where that's been." Rosie O'Donnell thought the remark was homophobic, commenting on "The View" the next day, "If that was a straight man, if that was a cute man, if that was a guy she didn't question his sexuality, she would have said a different thing." "Good Morning America" picked up on the story and brought in Perez to comment. It was the crowning moment for the self-proclaimed "Queen of Media." Since he launched his first blog two years ago, Hilton has been vocal in trying to out gays in popular culture, and Aiken has been one of his favorite targets: Last year, he questioned Aiken's sexuality on his site, writing, "Clay may be a bottom and only 26, but he's one helluva sugar daddy." Now, with a "GMA" turn, his crusade had made it to network television.
Nowadays, you can't pass a newsstand without seeing a feature on the self-styled "gossip gangsta." He has been profiled by the Associated Press, the Guardian and Ocean Drive, GQ lavished four pages on his life story, the Los Angeles Times recently put him on the cover of its Calendar section, Details calls him one of the "Power 50," Paper shot him in his tighty-whiteys for its Beautiful People issue, the New York Post anointed him one of the "Top 25 Latino Movers & Shakers," Hispanic magazine named him one of the "Top 10 Entertainers of the Year," and MTV is going to make him a host for its New Year's Eve show. He inspired a Fergie song and appears on a track for rapper P-1. More meaningful than all the write-ups and cameos, he was the most-searched-for blogger in 2006, according to Yahoo. Mainstream media has embraced Perez Hilton as bad-boy darling go-to gay, blissfully unaware that, to the gay community, he's what Ann Coulter is to everyone else -- a crass, self-serving marketer disguised as an ideologue.
Full disclosure: Mario and I were casual friends in the late '90s, when we were both studying at NYU. We both later moved to Los Angeles, and I would sometimes hang out at his apartment, where we would sit and watch "E!" and talk about Robbie Williams' ass. When he began posting celebrity news on Friendster's bulletin board in the summer of '04, I suggested he get a blog. "What's a blog?" he asked. So I showed him Blogger, the popular do-it-yourself blogging site. Within minutes, his first blog, PageSixSixSix, was born.
At the time, not much was going on in Mario's life other than waiting for his episode of VH1's reality show "From Flab to Fab" -- in which he was given a makeover, complete with a velvet pink suit -- to air. It was pretty clear early on that he had the sort of non-ironic obsession with celebrity culture coupled with the free time necessary to make it as a professional blogger.
His blog was soon becoming so widely read that the New York Post sued him for infringing on its Page Six moniker and he was forced to rename the site PerezHilton.com. The lawsuit only made his site more popular, and employment offers from Us Weekly and InTouch followed, though he decided it was more lucrative to focus solely on the blog.
Since then, his clout has grown astronomically. In the past year, he has been credited with forcing at least two celebrities out of the closet. One of his long-term outing projects focused on former N'Sync band member Lance Bass, who he claimed early on was more than just friends with "Amazing Race" winner Reichen Lehmkuhl. At one point during his campaign, Hilton published a post about the couple heading to Palm Springs, Calif., for the weekend, with a postscript: "Out of respect for their privacy and security -- and because we are not evil -- we did not mention where Lance & Reichen will be staying in Palm Springs this weekend. But ... If you pop on over, you're bound to run into them at one of the local sex clubs or something." When Bass appeared on the cover of People magazine under the headline "I'm Gay," Hilton popped up on "Inside Edition," "The Insider" and "Access Hollywood" as a talking head.
"Doogie Howser" star Neil Patrick Harris was a more recent target -- in his attempt to out the actor, Hilton appealed to the readers of his site for photographs of Harris with other men, at one point writing, "Shame on you Doogie! Shame!!!" After Harris came out, Hilton wrote a gloating post: "We are so proud (despite the nay-sayers) in having a hand in bringing about change. We've said it before and we will say it again: the closet no longer exists if you are a celebrity or a politician!" He followed his statement with the names of a dozen celebrities he claims are gay. He told the L.A. Times, "In my own way, subserviently, I am trying to make the world a better place." This raises the question: How does drawing cum stains on Clay Aiken's mouth, crudely scrawling the word "bottom" across a photo of Lance Bass or putting a call out to anyone who has "slept with Neil Patrick Harris" make the world a better place for gay or straight people? And what does it say about the mainstream press that it has adopted him?
While the average gossipmonger is content to collect his pay and scurry back into the shadows, Perez describes his work as a moral crusade. He portrays himself as a Savonarola in a pink pantsuit, a gay crusader who will use whatever means necessary to achieve his aims. As he told "Access Hollywood" after Bass came out this summer: "It upsets me that people think what I'm doing is a bad thing ... I know there is some controversy about outing people, but I also believe the only way we're gonna have change is with visibility. And if I have to drag some people screaming out of the closet, then I will."
Perez claims his blog is a public service, a check on Hollywood's excess and decadence, and not simply a self-serving vehicle to boost his own public image, career and bank account. He wrote that he wept tears of joy when he found out Harris had come out, calling it "another step towards full equality under the law for gays and lesbians, their relationships and their families." This is what separates Perez from the rest of the tabloid pack. Spreading gossip is just your average pedestrian variety of immorality. Claiming that you're doing it to further civil rights is an outright sham.
While Perez maintains that outing celebrities is good for gays, gay activists disagree. The Advocate's A&E editor, Corey Scholibo, explains, "It's not our policy to out people. We only out people when they have come out to us personally or when they have been previously written about by other publications." Perez still appeared in the magazine recently as part of a feature on bloggers, though. "He's a divisive figure in the gay community," Scholibo admits, "but he's definitely newsworthy." Damon Romine, spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, an organization that promotes fair, accurate and inclusive representation of gay people (and where Lavandeira briefly worked as a media relations assistant) says, "Media speculation about a celebrity's orientation is not something we support. This kind of gossip can lead some people to the decision to come out, as we've seen recently, or it may drive others further into the closet. People are going to become more guarded and secretive and not less, because they don't want to create any opportunities [for anyone to out them]."
Not everyone in the mainstream press is in Hilton's thrall. At a Mediabistro event in New York last month, Us Weekly editor-in-chief Janice Min, talking about how her magazine is dealing with the rising popularity of blogs like his, said, "I love Perez, but this is a guy who draws cocaine sprinkles falling out of celebrities' noses and writes things like 'sucks dick' on pictures of celebs he wants to out."
Of course, Perez counters that he's no journalist, just a guy with a Web site. This is a disingenuous, if not calculated, pose. In addition to working for GLAAD and writing for a variety of print magazines, he also was briefly the managing editor of Instinct, a gay men's magazine.
But even other celebrity bloggers repudiate Perez's tactics. Trent Vanegas, who runs Pink Is the New Blog, says, "I do not outright call people gay. I do not feel it is my place, or anyone else's place, to make people come out of the closet. Being shockingly hurtful just to get attention is not my style." David Hauslaib, who designed Perez's Web site and now runs the gossip blog Jossip, also disagrees with Hilton's motives, arguing that "the rationale that he's doing this for the good of that gay community is tantamount to saying that there is a gay agenda. Is this a positive for the gay community? I'd say, 'No.'"
So why has the mainstream media given him such a free ride? Hauslaib has an idea about that. "That he's in Details, or GQ or the L.A. Times, or now on Salon makes sense from a journalistic point of view because he is a story. Whether people are celebrating him is another question entirely." In fact, Perez is filling a cultural role first blazed by Steven "Coju" Cojocaru, Carson Kressley and Bobby Trendy: the bitchy gay man who has all the dish. Perez acknowledges that his signature flashy outfits and affected manner are an act, telling a German TV reporter that he wears "outrageous things because it gets attention. It gets people talking." It doesn't take a degree in psychoanalysis to see a link between Perez's vehement claims that he's a force for positive change for gays and the fact that, to succeed, he has been forced to adopt the outmoded stereotypes of who a gay man is. Like Cinderella in reverse, Mario, once a bespectacled cardigan-wearing hipster, has transformed into Perez, who saunters through Hollywood parties in a satin pantsuit with his name embroidered on the back. In a very real way, he's a modern-day Stepin Fetchit, cheerfully describing himself as a "media whore" for hire. The mainstream entertainment press, be it "E.T." or "Good Morning America," is happy to have him until the next bleached-blond, sequined caricature comes along to talk about the sex lives of former American idols.
Of course, the rationale Hilton employs in outing celebrities isn't unprecedented -- gay activist blogger Mike Rogers has made a name for himself over the past few years by outing members of Congress. In March 1990, Michelangelo Signorile, a gay writer, used OutWeek to publicly out billionaire Malcolm Forbes and, two years later, outed the son of conservative political activist Phyllis Schlafly, prompting a vigorous debate on the ethics of outing. Signorile, who now hosts a show on Sirius Radio, sees a direct connection between what he did and what Perez is doing now. "For me, it's about equalizing journalism," he says, adding, "When it's relevant, and only when it's relevant, it's appropriate to out someone. In the world of gossip, of course, there are different standards. Why can we only gossip about the love lives of heterosexuals? I think people like Perez Hilton are a part of the equalizing of that."
The logic is that outing minor celebrities who don't promote their sexual identity will force marquee celebrities to come out. Bruce Vilanch, the comedy writer best known for punching up the Academy Awards and sitting center-left on "Hollywood Squares," has, as he puts it, "been out longer than Perez has been alive." Of Hilton's argument that he's helping further gay civil rights, he says, "I don't understand why we profit from having some bitter miserable person exposed against his will. How does that make a gay teenager happy to be gay? What kind of a role model does that establish? I don't think it does anything for anybody." Vilanch also sees the connection between Signorile and Hilton, saying, "It's the same thing I said when Michelangelo Signorile was doing it: What purpose does it serve? These are professional homosexuals. They are gay people for a living. They have to respect the rights of homosexuals who aren't professional."
"If somebody isn't going to willingly announce that they are a positive individual, with a positive outlook on life," Vilanch asks, "why would we want to include them among us?"