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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

“I don’t believe in a redemption arc for Perez Hilton” : Perez Hilton in Conversation

William Foxton interviews Perez Hilton on blame, shame and the price of fame.

Perez Hilton is saying sorry.

17 years since the rise and fall of his controversial blog, this near-universally loathed gossipmonger turned businessman and doting father of three is now offering a heartfelt apology to those he believes he has hurt.

But are we ready to forgive him? And does he care if we don’t?

There was a time when this once significant contributor to the cultural conversation was everywhere, fanning the flames of celebrity discourse wherever he went. Some loved his ‘tell-all’ approach to celebrity gossip. Most despised his vitriolic take-down of those in the limelight. Everyone knew his name.

Perez Hilton, or Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr as he was known before taking on his infamous alter ego, helped to usher in a new age of celebrity gossip. In doing so he became one of the most hated men in the world. 

“Nobody was doing what I ended up doing,” Perez tells me at the beginning of our call, “the celebrity magazines back in 2004 would just use their websites as a landing page to get people to sign up for subscriptions to the print edition. They wouldn’t break news on their sites.” 

Perez revolutionised the model, creating a blog that allowed him to break news in real time. At the press of a button he could report the latest celebrity scandal, offer up his opinion on the most recent faux pas or fashion mishap.

The way he spoke about celebrities also differed from his contemporaries. He recalls a time when celebrity discourse centred around their relatability. Magazines like US Weekly, led by pioneering figures such as Bonnie Fuller, would post photos of celebrities taking out the trash. The overriding message was that these people were just like us.

“That never interested me,” Perez tells me.

Instead he drew from the British tabloid model, known for its bite.

“The British press can [be], and often is, extremely vicious,” he tells me, “I’m sure Meghan  Markle would agree. Or Caroline Flack.”

According to Perez’s vision, celebrities weren’t just like us. They were much worse.

And so whenever there was a celebrity slip-up or an infamous fall from grace, Perez was there, ready with a salacious headline and a scathing take.

It was this radical choice of content that made Perez a household name, at least among the celebrity obsessed. His notoriety skyrocketed in 2007, which he terms “the Year of the Girl Gone Wild.” The year of Brittney Spears’ breakdown, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton’s very public court dramas, the release of Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, 2007 was a gossip’s dream. 

The chaos that ensued in Hollywood, paired with Perez’s biting commentary, was a winning combination. Perez made celebrity gossip enticing. And addictive.

“I pandered to people’s basest instincts, their DNA,” he tells me, “Most everybody I know, if they’re driving their car and they see a car crash, they’re going to slow down and look and see what happened. That’s just who we are as human beings. We’re curious people.”

In the heyday of his online empire, Perez controlled the narrative of Hollywood. The heroes and the villains, the victims and the vixens, the crazies and the Brittneys, he was ruthless. Nobody was left unscathed.

His early blog posts are difficult to read now. There’s a scathing post about Lily Allen that reads Lily Allen + Motherhood = Disaster!!!, accompanied by an image of the singer, cigarette in hand. Perez has drawn a coughing baby onto Allen’s stomach. In the final line, he asks “Can’t you stick to intoxication instead of moving on to procreation?” Jennifer Anniston is frequently referred to as “MANiston”, with cruel remarks about her appearance and relationship status. Amy Winehouse is a “crackhead” and a “wino”. Most of his targets were women.

Spears was a particular favourite. Unflattering paparazzi photos of the singer are plastered across the blog. One caption reads: “this mess is still in self-destruct mode.” Another shows an image of Heath Ledger, posted shortly after his death. The caption reads: “why couldn’t it be Brittney?”

In the wake of the #FreeBrittney movement and a re-evaluation of the way we treat those in the public eye, how does he feel about the words he wrote?

He pauses for a moment, before tentatively saying, “I think that is clearly lacking in compassion. At the time I was saying what a lot of people were thinking. That and many others were unnecessarily cruel and I was being purposefully hurtful. This is why I don’t believe in a redemption arc for Perez Hilton.”

“I knew at the time what I was doing was wrong and I didn’t care. I did it anyway because I was being rewarded for bad behaviour. Like you see now with Jake Paul or Logan Paul. They’ve both been cancelled numerous times, but in 2021 Jake and Logan Paul are bigger than ever, making more money than ever, and being rewarded for their continuous bad behaviour. It’s as if I created the blueprint for the Paul brothers,” he says. 

Perez likens his obsessive reporting to an addiction, previously stating in an interview for BBC HARDtalk in November 2020, that “I was a full blown addict. And while my drug of choice was not drugs or alcohol, I was fully and severely addicted to attention.”

It’s an addiction his followers shared. “When Brittney Spears was at her wildest, people were glued to my website” he writes in his 2020 memoir. This was a two-way relationship. Perez Hilton didn’t exist in a vacuum. Even now, as I read his old posts, I can’t help but feel compelled by the narratives he constructs. There’s something very clickable about his portrayal of celebrities on the verge of a public breakdown.

Why does he think we found his content so irresistible?

“Because it makes your life seem wonderfully boring,” he tells me, “everybody’s life is messed up. Like I said, nobody is perfect. But when you are reading these wild, shocking stories, regardless of whatever drama you have, you might say…well, at least I’m not so and so or at least I’m not that person ….”

There’s a certain hypocrisy, Perez notes, in the way we respond to celebrity gossip.

“Let’s say there’s an Adele phone hack and photos or sex videos of her leaked. A lot, if not the majority, of people online are going to be looking it up to try to see that,” he tells me, “and even some of the people that might secretly look it up, publicly, they will criticise any outlet for publishing it and criticise any person for viewing that content.”

Perez reached a turning point in 2010 following an altercation with the manager of the Black Eyed Peas, Polo Molina. Molina punched Perez, after he used a homophobic slur against will.i.am. Documenting the incident in his memoir, Perez writes: “‘I need to make some changes,’ I said to myself. I really meant it.” After years of online cruelty, Perez’s reign of terror had finally come to an end.

It would be remiss to claim Perez has been incident-free in the years following. Though he maintains any mistakes he makes nowadays do not have the same malice behind them.

“Since 2010, I have made mistakes, but it’s never been my intention. My thought process has never been…I want to say something really bad about so and so. Or do something really terrible to get a reaction out of them or the public. Back to the addiction issue, it’s a constant struggle. I absolutely sometimes lapse back into old Perez. I should probably sit and think about things more often but this does not excuse my behaviour,” he tells me.

Speaking to Perez, the impression he gives is one of genuine repentance. He speaks openly about his past mistakes and takes accountability for them.

“I’m not trying to erase my past. I’m not pretending it didn’t happen. For me, I think that shows how awful I was back then. And that’s who I’m not anymore,” he says.

“I carry not just regret,” he tells me, “but also deep shame.”

He can understand why people find it difficult to believe his remorse, but this won’t stop him from apologising.

“That is one of the many things that I can and do to try and clean my karma of the past and of the present because I still make mistakes,” he tells me.

But what does this mean for the people he hurt? The irreparable damage he did?

“I don’t necessarily think that apologising is enough,” he says candidly.

“I will apologise sincerely if I believe I did something wrong and when I don’t, I won’t apologise for it. I’m not sorry for everything I did,” he continues.

What isn’t he sorry for?

“I’m not sorry for creating something out of nothing,” he replies, “Nothing was ever given to me.”

Perez also remains unrepentant for a recent TikTok scandal he’s been embroiled in. Perez was banned from the platform in December of last year, after a comment he left on a video TikTok star Charli D’Amelio had posted. In the video, D’Amelio, 15, is shown dancing in a bikini to a remix of Brockhampton’s Sugar. Perez met with backlash from D’Amelio’s extensive fanbase, after questioning whether the dance was appropriate, given the sexually explicit nature of the lyrics.

“I’m not sorry about that. At all,” he says when I bring the incident up, “because I was not slut shaming anybody. I was not body shaming anybody. I was not even trolling.”

“Me asking [if it was appropriate] is not inappropriate. Me asking that is not bullying. A year and a half later, I think perhaps what I should have done differently is directed that question at her parents, like ‘is it appropriate that her parents haven’t deleted this yet?’”, he says. 

D’Amelio’s fans retaliated. Some made videos attacking Perez. Perez’s provocative response to one such video, commenting “all these videos are getting me hard”, came under fire. The creator of the video was a minor.

“I don’t regret that either. A, I didn’t know that girl was a minor. B, that person had made multiple videos attacking me. So instead of responding with hate, I responded in a dumb, shocking way. I thought it was better than saying something negative to this person who had made so many videos hardcore attacking me.”

I can understand the sentiment, though I question whether it’s ever wise to cause such outrage for the sake of it.

“I have nothing to lose or nothing to win,” he tells me, “In the minds of people, they view me a certain way, that’s how they will always see me and, like I said, I still make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes.”

But isn’t the usual response to at least feign some sense of shame in the face of cancellation?

“Here’s what makes me different,” he interrupts, “Most celebrities that are getting hate will ignore it. I always engage. If you go to my Twitter today, and you scroll down, and yesterday as well, you’ll see I retweet the hate. I was doing the same thing on TikTok. I engage because I know that doing that will get even more attention.”

So he’s fine playing the villain in the eyes of his critics? 

His response is characteristically provocative. “I never said I was fine with it, but I will continue to play that part until I don’t have to anymore. I don’t have ‘FU’ (“Fuck You”) money in the bank.”

Perez is committed to staying in vogue. And, for the large part, he has. While many of the names associated with him have faded into obscurity, his has endured. This is, he claims, due to his self-professed “unhealthy work ethic”. Recalling an earlier comment about the Paul brothers, I can’t help but feel as though there might be something else at play. Perez has gone to lengths to apologise for his past; the question of forgiveness is another matter.

“I don’t even need to be forgiven because I still have a career, and I’m still making money, and I’m still chatting with you right now,” he tells me, “Whether people like it or not, Perez is forever. I’m not going anywhere.”

To be forgiven is to be forgotten. Perez isn’t ready to let that happen. And, with our commitment to cancelling him, our collective outrage at every scandal he embroils himself in, and our morbid curiosity to see what comes next, neither, perhaps, are we.

Image Credit: Harry Kidd

Perez’s line of CBD gummies are available at MyTrue10.com.

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