The king of the tip-off
Or, locked inside the gates of his own kingdom.
Perez Hilton—real name Mario Armando Levandeira Jr—is hoping to reconcile his public and private personas. This particular task is more difficult for the lauded celebrity gossip blogger than one might imagine, not because his two identities are diametrically opposed, but because they meet in unusual ways, and at certain junctions, seem contradictory. The real Perez, or Mario, is a fascinating character: a single father of two who hired his mother and sister as soon as his growing business allowed for it (his sister, who he describes as “like my COO,” made the arrangements for our interview); a gay man who was himself sort-of ‘outed,’ but until recently, had no qualms in outing celebrities he believed were closeted; a character who grows frustrated with the relentless machine that hurriedly spits out inane commentary on the famous, in a way that can only remind you of a hamster on a running wheel, a clever one who built his wheel himself and is unable to disembark it. Hilton spearheaded the rise of the snarky gossip blog, but, as evidenced by his much-publicised five- day ‘Kardashian Kleanse’ last August (“Thank God it was before the Lamar Odom situation”), even he gets sick of the fire he fans.
“If it weren’t for Kanye West, the Kardashians would not be where they are today,” Hilton tells me at one point in our hour-long conversation. Incidentally, it’s common for Hilton to pluck examples from the lives of the famous and, without irony, make parallels to his own. He does it so often you get the feeling his experiences are largely mediated through the effulgent and powerful. Adele is one of his favourites, someone he feels, after reading her Rolling Stone interview, has the same complicated feelings about the show business industry. “Before Kim started dating Kanye, her career and life was in a much different place. The fashion industry would not touch her—she was a leper in that community. Her career was going to start declining, and consequently that of her whole family was going to start declining, and Kanye saved them. He made them what they are now.”
Gossip is at the core of the human condition. Not necessarily the breed Hilton became famous for, fast-talking, merciless and reputation soiling, for many years interspersed with doodled- over tabloid images (he’s scrawled semen, cocaine and words like SLUT and FUG BITCH and WHOREANUS over well-known faces), but the straightforward act of exchanging information about other people. Robin Dunbar, the Oxford professor, anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist, has likened spoken gossip to the social grooming of other primates, a means to pass on behavioural guidelines and norms. As early social groups expanded, Dunbar suggested it became harder to interact with every member. Gossip filled the gaps, bridging spaces in growing social networks, all the while facilitating a bond between teller and hearer.
Hilton enjoyed gossiping long before he started PageSixSixSix.com (later rebranded under his own name after he was sued by The New York Post). Gossip was all around him, at his all-boys Jesuit preparatory school in Miami, Florida, and especially at home. “I grew up in a Cuban household with a very loud mum, listening to her gossip. She would buy the Spanish-language gossip magazines and I would pick them up. But it was also just me watching all that television. Not just the sitcoms, but the talk shows and entertainment news. I literally would watch everything.” Hilton is close with his mother still, who “makes everything happen,” picking up mail, dropping his clothes at the laundromat. While she likes to gossip, she has never read his infamous site—she does not own a computer and “only started texting, like, last year.”
Hilton has never viewed gossip, in and of itself, as a negative practice. It’s natural. Something we cannot help but indulge in, in spite of gender, even though historically, it has usually been associated with the unappealing feminine. “We are not animals,” he tells me. “We are curious, and that manifests itself in different ways. Centuries ago, people wanted to know everything about the royals. The royals were the celebrities of their day … Even like, your mum, might have been really curious, like, ‘Oh, do you hear what so-and-so down the street is doing?’ and ‘That mum is having an affair with the dad from across the street!’ It’s just in our DNA to be that curious. The reason why so many people attach their curiosity to celebrities is because there’s both an aspirational element and an ease of consumption to it. It’s so readily available and it’s not like you’re having to watch really depressing news or read about somebody being murdered or raped or something really real and sad.”
The steady ascent of PerezHilton.com as one of America’s biggest (and most feared) celebrity gossip sites can partly be attributed to its internal routines of news making, which are aggressive and comprehensive. Hilton describes his approach as almost British— which one could assume to mean less afraid, more invasive, both jocular and insolent in its treatment of the star system. “In the US, there was a very reverential approach to celebrities, like they were gods. There was this image of them being perfect. Celebrities were able to have more control of their image, the publicists were more powerful and—before websites like mine—there was a lot more time to do behind-the-scenes deals, to negotiate, to barter. ‘OK, if you kill that story on my client, I’ll give you access to this, that or the other.’”
Perez Hilton is more than a blogger now. His name is a brand, still bathed in his trademark shades of pink, and carries with it a certain weight. He has a podcast. A children’s book. A starring role in Full House: The Musical Parody, an unauthorised Off-Broadway adaption of the sitcom. There are guest spots on TV talk shows and radio segments. It feels prudent to ask how it’s possible, and the exchange—in which a terrified Hilton muses on fears of economic insecurity—reveals rather a lot.
“I’ve had your website open for the last two hours and have been watching tens of updates tick up. Are you still working those insane hours that you used to? Or are you able to step away, let the machine tick on without you?”
“I wish I could but, first of all, I’m driven by fear. Fear is a great motivator for me. I think maybe that has a lot to do with my dad dying when I was young and also me growing up really poor. And actually—my god—this just resurfaced in my brain, I remember watching Oprah interview JK Rowling. They both grew up poor and they both have this fear that they might end up poor again. And I have that very real fear as well. So, yes, I have staff and if I wanted to I probably could take a day off but I never do, not even on weekends, not even on vacation, because I’m driven by fear. I can delegate, I have a team—and they’re great—but I need to be on top of things, I need to know what’s happening, I need to make sure they’re posting in as timely a way as possible. I’m probably not going to want or be able to keep that up forever, but I’m only 37 and I figure I could do that for another few years, and then when I’m 40 I’ll have a real sit- down and reassess how I’m spending my hours. This past year, knowing my daughter was coming, I made a lot of changes to my life in terms of spending. I’ve never been an extravagant spender but I definitely was spending more than I am now. For example, I would take cabs everywhere in New York City because I thought it would be quicker to get around that way, and actually it’s not, it’s quicker to get around by the subway. So now I only take the subway or I’ll walk. And I also used to take private yoga sessions daily, in addition to working out with a trainer at the gym … now I’d rather save the money that that cost me just in case the future throws some challenges my way. You never know what will come in the future, and I am so OCD, and I am so trying to control the future—I know you can’t control the future—but I’m just trying to be as planned and prepared as possible so I don’t look back and regret these years I spent too much. Here, in Manhattan, I just bought a new place. I didn’t buy a place within my means … I purposely chose a place below my means, well below my means, because it’s so expensive here and I didn’t wanna be stuck with a huge mortgage. This is my brain. This is the adult me. This is the exciting stuff that I think about!”
“Are there things in your childhood that you feel you were deprived of, or things you’d like to change about your own children’s upbringing?”
“There are two things that come to mind. I never had a computer all through high school. In fact, my first computer I didn’t get until my senior year of college. Up until then, I had my brother’s word processor. I don’t know if you know what a word processor is, it’s like a fancy typewriter. And then in my senior year I got my sister’s hand-me-down desktop. That was my first computer, her old reject one! She got a computer before I did and I was always resentful of that. And then the other thing was, I grew up in Miami which is extremely suburban and I was so poor. I could never afford a car of my own, so I always had to depend on my mum or friends to take me places. I hated that, I felt like I was trapped in home, trapped in my city and I didn’t like that feeling … I want to provide everything better for my kids than I had and I am, and I’m doing it so differently [to] how I was raised. I was never encouraged to be active when I was young, therefore I was a super fat kid my whole life. I encourage my son to be active and hopefully by the time he’s older he’ll have been doing it for so long he’ll just love it. So he’s in gymnastics class, he’s in a yoga class, he’s in a soccer class and he loves it, he’s having fun. He doesn’t know that he’s doing exercise. In addition to being really fat and numbing my existence through food, I did the same with television. Instead of going out and playing, I would watch TV for eight to nine hours a day—I said, I didn’t have a computer, all I had was my TV. In my house now with my kids, we don’t watch any television, which a lot of parents criticise me for but I don’t care! Every family does things how they want to for whatever reasons they want to. And sure, when my son’s older I’m sure he’ll incessantly be begging me to let him watch TV and we’ll probably start to incorporate some TV consumption in our house, but it will be very moderated and we’ll probably do it as a family.”
Interviews, by their very nature, are funny, forced exchanges. Both interviewer and subject arrive at the meeting or the scheduled phone-call with their own imagined checklist of outcomes, an idea of what they need to say or hear before they leave. As with any conversation, the self you present is an edited one: you choose, however consciously, which bits you wish to reveal. If anyone knows how to prepare for an interview—how to exude the requisite charisma and energy that confirms Big Things Are About To Happen in his life and career—it’s surely the media-savvy Hilton. Since at least 2013, when Hollywood’s Public Enemy No. 1 became a father for the first time, with the aid of an anonymous egg donor and surrogate (the result, a clearly very loved Mario Armando Lavandeira III, later, a sister), Hilton has been busily rebranding himself. New York Magazine’s The Cut called it “attempting a moral makeover.” Gone is the celebrity hang-on of LA, best friend and worst enemy to various stars, the self-described “media whore” banned from the Château Marmont because his very presence made its clientele squirm. In his stead, Hilton insists, is the real, laidback him: a dad who spends his evenings at his new home in New York, someone nicer and infinitely regretful, with a reformed approach to the content he publishes. Mario and Perez are less distant than they once were.
“I remember a year and a half ago, I made the bad decision of publishing those (nude) Jennifer Lawrence photos,” explains Hilton. “I [was] like, ‘Oh my god, this is such a huge story, I can’t ignore that!’ But I quickly realised the error of my actions. And what’s interesting too is that we live in a very hypocritical society. It was bad because it happened to her, because she’s so loved. But if it would have happened to somebody like, let’s say, Amber Rose or somebody of whom it’s ‘expected’ or somebody who is not loved, the reaction that most people would have had I think would have been very different. And if it would have been a man, I think the reaction [would be] very different too. But I’ve just made the decision not to publish those kinds of photos across the board … I’m a work in progress. All I know is, like that Maya Angelou quote, “When you know better, you do better.” So, I know better and I’m trying to do better daily, and I’ll make mistakes and sometimes I’ll even regress and then I have to kick myself in the butt and be like, ‘You’ve regressed, you’ve taken steps backwards. No! Stop that!’”
The trouble with Hilton’s new ‘nice’ approach is that its niceness is selective. Lorde and Taylor Swift, for instance, are deserving of his praise, a morally upright, more private breed of starlet, while Kylie Jenner is still worthy of castigation: “so obnoxious and grating, ungrateful, boastful. Just truly awful in my mind. I’m not saying she’s a bad person, but [that’s] the image she is giving off.”
There are things he says he will never publish now, like images from private funerals or paparazzi shots of children. Recently, he maintained a vehement no to photographs of the Kardashian and Jenner clan outside the hospital of basketball player Lamar Odom (“it didn’t add to the story [and] it didn’t make me feel good”). There is an ethical line, but it’s self-imposed and blurry. He’s still plenty acerbic. A very Hilton summary: “In the past, I chose to be a prick, now I’m choosing to try and do better daily.”
In 2007, Hilton was interviewed in BUTT, that deliciously zine-like quarterly “for and about faggots” by Gert Jonkers and Jop van Bennekom. A point of concern in the discussion was his attempts to ‘out’ celebrities, from Lance Bass (nicknamed Princess Frosty Locks by Hilton), to Neil Patrick Harris, Kevin Spacey and Jodie Foster. Hilton’s logic—”I don’t believe that being gay and out will hurt your career”—was perhaps, in its strange way, well intentioned, but dangerously misplaced as a moral crusade. It is possible, of course, to be private about one’s sexuality without carrying an association of shame, and scrawling SUCKS DICK across an image will do little to empower an isolated teenager. After standing his ground for so long on the topic, Hilton deserted his mission of public outings in 2010, though he still claims to know some closeted gay actors, “really good looking ones” who choose to keep their private lives private. “I definitely am now at a point where I believe that it’s everybody’s personal right and I don’t want to contribute to anybody having pain in their life by forcibly extracting them from the closet—even though they’re in a glass closet. But I think that we still live in an age where there’s so much discrimination against LGBT people, and visibility is key.”
The most interesting reflections Hilton makes surrounding his shift in public and private character, of the fact he has grown tired of relentless mean-spiritedness, is oddly enough, made explicit in his descriptions of interacting with Katie Hopkins, the astringent British columnist. The two were introduced on the UK’s Channel 5 reality series Celebrity Big Brother last year. Hilton admits he saw a lot of his old self in her, almost tenderly, just before we both hang up and continue, post-interview, with our day-to-day business. “Katie Hopkins,” Hilton says, “gets paid to have extremely controversial opinions; cartoonish, clownish opinions that are not just hurtful about individual people but hurtful about groups of people. She’s a professional troll and makes a good living doing it … She believes the only way she’ll get invited on talk shows or whatever is if she has these extremely negative or cruel opinions. I used to think a similar way. I often used to know what I was doing was wrong, but I’d do it anyway because I wanted people to react. I wanted to get a response from my readers, leaving a comment saying ‘How could you say that?’, and I hopefully wanted to get a response from the celebrities. But I don’t have that need anymore because as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also become more happy with myself and more confident in myself and my abilities … I probably didn’t believe that I was special and awesome when I was younger, that’s why I felt like I had to fake it, that’s why I died my hair all these crazy colours and I got lost in this character that I created of Perez Hilton. I straight up drank the Kool-Aid and got lost.”
And then, just like that, the self-appointed king of the tip-off—who wants so badly to ween himself off Kool-Aid, and for you to know it—was gone.