Maclean’s Interview: Perez Hilton

On John Travolta’s tragedy, Avril Lavigne, and the new 15 seconds of fame

Perez Hilton

Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr. is the 30-year-old Los Angeles-based blogger, radio host and television personality behind the popular, brash celebrity gossip website, written under the pseudonym Perez Hilton. The site gained fame in 2005 when it was the first to post a photograph of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie on an African beach, thus confirming their rumoured relationship. Hilton’s first book, Red Carpet Suicide: A Survival Guide on Keeping Up With the Hiltons, will be published in Canada this week.

Q: You’ve written a satiric how-to, or as you call it, a “bible to fame whoredom,” offering advice on how to become a “hilton” spelled with a small “h.” Define “hilton.”

A: By “hilton” I don’t mean Paris or Nicky or her parents. I mean this group of people who are famous for being famous—who don’t have much, if any, talent. There seems to be a lot of them these days.

Q: The strategies you lay out are pretty extreme—adopting an eating disorder, getting charged with DUI, staging a public meltdown, even early death. Is there any line the wannabe celebrity shouldn’t cross?

A: Obviously the book is meant to make you laugh. You shouldn’t really follow all these 12 steps unless you really, really want to be famous that badly. And there are some people who want it that badly. Having said that, there is some truth in humour; these 12 steps are based on reality. And I guess it’s a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for because you can get it and it’s not always what it seems.

Q: True, you describe Anna Nicole Smith as the ideal “hilton.” Not many would want her as a role model.

A: [Laughs.] Maybe Britney Spears would. But that’s the old Britney. The new Britney is on track and hopefully will do a lot better this year.

Q: Is there any story you won’t touch?

A: Absolutely. For example, after the death of John Travolta’s son, the paparazzi were camped outside of his home. They even had helicopters taking aerial pictures of the property and the funeral. I refuse to run those pictures. I don’t think they’re appropriate because they don’t illustrate a story. There’s nothing newsworthy about it and it’s really making that painful time for John Travolta and his wife even more painful. That’s not to say I will treat the issue with kid gloves; if there is something new I will report it. For example, I did touch on the issue of [Travolta’s son’s] caretaker and talk about whether his son was taking medication or not because it’s newsworthy if John Travolta was neglecting the health of his own child.

Q: You reference Andy Warhol in the book’s foreword and afterword. Do you view yourself as the inheritor of his mantle?

A: Yes. He was interested in pop culture and celebrity in the same way I am. He manifested that curiosity in his art. Mine finds its way onto my website and my new book. He talked about the 15 minutes of fame. I talk about the 15 seconds everyone wants these days. Fame is a lot more attainable today, even for those without any real talent.

Q: You write about gossip as a form of viral marketing, saying publicists will trade information about an A-list celebrity if you mention a product or a C-list celebrity in return. Do you see yourself as part of that machine?

A: Absolutely. It’s just as much a game as it is a machine. And like any sport you need to play the game or you’ll be in the dugout. It’s all in good fun, as any sport should be; I don’t want to hurt anyone and I don’t want to get hurt either. I like to be biting but I don’t want to draw blood. There’s a difference.

Q: David Denby’s new book Snark accuses you, along with newspaper columnist Maureen Dowd and the website, of contributing to the current sarcastic tone that permeates public discourse. Any comment?

A: I haven’t read Denby’s book, nor do I know who he is, but I thank him for the mention.

Q: You’re openly gay and you support gay rights. Yet you’ve received a lot of heat for outing celebrities on your site. What’s your thinking?

A: Anyone that chooses to be an actor or politician is making a choice to lead their life in the public eye. And I don’t call what I do “outing.” I call it reporting, because if I’m saying someone is gay it’s because I know for a fact they are. However, just because I report on the private life of a public figure doesn’t mean that person is going to come out. Yes Lance Bass came out, yes T.R. Knight came out, yes Neil Patrick Harris came out.

Q: In your book you write that you believe the rumour that Oprah Winfrey is a lesbian. Do you have evidence?

A: Do I have evidence that she’s gay? No. Do I have evidence she’s not gay? No.

Q: What about her long-term boyfriend?

A: That means nothing.

Q: You touch on litigious celebrities in the book, writing the sentence that you’d never use Jennifer Aniston and “pot” in the same sentence. Do you have a crack legal team?

A: I always obey the law. Sometimes people will sue me to make an example of me but I don’t sit home worrying about it; I’m too busy working. Thankfully they don’t happen too often. And I tend to win them. Just this year I won a lawsuit against Samantha Ronson, Lindsay Lohan’s ex-girlfriend.

Q: It seems there’s no such thing as bad publicity anymore but obviously there are stories people don’t want told. Have people approached you to buy your silence?

A: Not really. They know that they can’t.

Q: You write about celebrities controlling their own publicity by paying for paparazzi coverage. Who’s the shrewdest manipulator?

A: I’d say in the last year—and I have to give them credit—Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag from The Hills really worked it very well in regards to staging their own photo ops and profiting from those pictures. They have eclipsed Lauren Conrad in terms of fame and she’s the star of the show.

Q: Is the global financial crisis affecting what you do? I wonder how long interest in the people who are famous for being famous, like Heidi and Spencer, can continue.

A: I don’t see Heidi and Spencer, a.k.a. “Spiedi,” going away any time soon. They’ve still got a real wedding to plan. And a baby that will no doubt come.

Q: Over the past three years you’ve become famous as the real Paris Hilton with a website, clothing line, radio show and TV appearances. Do you see this as compromising your ability to report on celebrity?

A: No, as much of an insider as I become I will still always be an outsider. It’s just the essence of me being who I am and doing what I do. I’m still not allowed at the Chateau Marmont hotel [in L.A.].

Q: Why ?

A: They say they really value the privacy of celebrities and my presence would upset any celebrities staying there or having drinks there or whatever. There are still a lot of parties I’m not invited to. And you know what? I don’t really care if people don’t like me. The only thing I care about is if they are reading my website.

Q: Why do you think your website is so popular?

A: The fact that I was one of the first definitely helped. I also work harder than everyone else. I do the website by myself, yet I post more than blogs and sites run by big corporations with dozens of staffers. People like knowing that there will always be new content up every time they visit. And they also get the latest breaking celebrity news there first. Plus, I post about a variety of things that keep my readers coming back.

Q: You often proclaim your affection for Canada.

A: I love Canada. They were one of the first to embrace me. I’ve been doing MuchMusic for three years; they put me on TV before anybody put me on TV. I remember those who were supportive from the beginning.

Q: Yet one of your favourite targets is our own Avril Lavigne. Why?

A: My issue with her is that she’s a brat. She’s in her twenties now; she should be a young woman, not a brat. I like to call people out on their s–t and when she behaves like a brat I’m going to say, “Hey, you’re behaving like a brat.” It bothers me that celebrities aren’t held accountable for their actions. I really started to sour on her when she started spitting on the paparazzi. I’m not saying you have to be nice to them. But spit at them? That’s just disgusting, rude, unprofessional. I just had a run-in with her after Christmas and she was hammered. But she was very nice, I think partly because she was afraid of me. I don’t mind if people are afraid of me; I actually like it.

Q: You also took Jessica Alba to task for disassociating herself from her Latino heritage.

A: Yes, I took her to task so much for it that she’s now trying to be a super-Latina. So good for her.

Q: What story or person are you covering most avidly currently?

A: Right now it’s Robert Pattison from Twilight and everything associated with the sequel because people can’t get enough. Any time I write about him or the movie it instantly becomes one of most emailed or commented-upon stories. I definitely like to give people what they want and to feed that hunger. Q: What’s driving the Twilight mania?

A: I’m not the key demographic, but I think it just resonated with women, specifically young women, and that is definitely a large part of my audience.

Q: At the end of your book you make a lot of tongue-in-cheek celebrity predictions. Do you have any for Perez Hilton?

A: In 2009, I see myself at a playground with my kids. I’m not going to have children to make myself more famous but I definitely want to have a lot of children. I’ve come to realize that life isn’t just about working. That’s what my life is right now—work, work, work. And I love it and I’m happy but there comes a point when you want to do more. I want to have five kids.

Q: You and Angelina.

A: She has six. Six might be a bit too much for me, especially if I’m doing it on my own.

Q: Photos of mothers and children are frequently featured on your site. What’s behind the fascination with maternity?

A: People love mothers and pregnancy and babies because it’s not all negative and it gives variety to what I do. It’s not all bitchy, bitchy, bitchy, mean, mean, mean. There are the positive stories and people I like and there are those uplifting newsworthy events. Like Jennifer Garner just gave birth. But some people use pregnancy and their kids to get ahead. As I say in the book: “Sell your first-born.” Even Angelina Jolie does that.

Q: Then you have examples like Katie Holmes who appears to be constantly using her daughter Suri as a photo-op prop.

A: I don’t mind if the child is happy and warm. I just wish they’d put a coat on that kid.