'
May 2007 CIUDAD MAGAZINE
 

"I'M A SHAMELESS WHORE!"

So says Mario Lavandeira, the wannabe actor who recast himself as the fearless celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. How long can he sustain his notoriety?

By Daniel J. Vargas
 

  On just about any morning before dawn, you'll find a solitary figure, hoodie pulled over his head, typing away on a laptop outside the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. When the shop opens at 7a.m., he moves inside to a table where the only power outlet is located. You might assume he's one of the countless wannabe screenwriters in this town, obsessing over the script that will finally bring him fame. But why is he here at this ridiculous hour? Maybe he's homeless. A homeless writer with a laptop-- that's not such a far-fetched notion in Hollywood.

  But, no, he's not a screenwriter. Mario Lavandeira is, however, a Hollywood player with stories to tell. The failed actor and journalism washout recast himself two and a half years ago as Perez Hilton, the outrageous, self-described "Queen of All Media." His celebrity-gossip-website, PerezHilton.com, receives millions of visitors daily, drawn to his acerbic commentary and puerile scrawlings on celebrity photos that often include cocaine trails from their noses or unattractive bodily fluids oozing from their mouths.

  What in the world happened to Mario, the jesuit-educated, nice Cuban boy from Miami who trained at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts? And what's going to happen to Perez Hilton now that he has multimillion-dollar lawsuits hanging over his head?

  One of the curious things about Perez Hilton--and, let's be honest, there are many--is that you're unsure if you're talking to a character or the actual person behind the notorious, Internet alter ego. He doesn't hesitate to call Paris Hilton a friend and gleefully offers to read an e-mail from her. He talks about having his next birthday bash at the Moon Nightclub in the Palms Resort & Casino in Las Vegas--something a celebrity would do.

  Is the real Mario Lavandeira sill in there somewhere?

  When I first met him more than a year ago, there was a distinction between the personalities. Since them however, Lavandeira and his polarizing counterpart have either fused, or Perez has become a wild persona to hide behind. And perhaps Perez allows Lavandeira to vicariously live the glamorous life he criticizes yet seems to covet. "I don't analyze it too much," he says, "I mean, Mario comes through when I [write about] artists that I believe in, that I want to share with my public."

  "The lines certainly have been blurred," says Japhy Grant, an editor at Frontiers magazine and the author of an article about Lavandeira/Hilton for Salon.com. "Most people our age have an ironic or love-hate relationship [with celebrity culture]," Grant says, "Mario loves it and really, really wants to be part of this world."

  Hollywood is filled with tales of meteoric ascendance, but is Lavandeira, 29, destined for a supernova-magnitude collapse? He's being sued for alleged unlawful use of photographs, and he's been heavily criticized for prodding celebrities he believes to be gay to come out of the closet with his truculent coverage of their private lives. He could be the most maligned yet irresistible personality on the Internet. "He's not a bad guy," says Grant, who has known Lavandeira since 1999, when they were classmates at NYU. "He just really wanted to be famous. And he's got this "Showgirls" [mentality] that says, 'I'll do whatever it takes to get ahead, to be famous, and if I have to lie, steal, cheat to get there, I'll do it.'"

  It's several minutes past our appointed meeting time, and a thought comes to mind, Maybe Perez isn't going to show. A week prior, he had responded via e-mail to my interview request: "I'm happy to sit down with you for 2-3 hours... I just don't have the time, energy or desire to let reporters follow me around anymore. Plus, it puts added pressure on me, and this experience should be fun and easy."

  It sounds as if he's weary and, dare we say, not having fun. As I wait at Elixir Tonics & Teas in West Hollywood, I pop my head up often looking for him. What if he's so busy he forgot? Just as I'm about to call his cell, a rumpled, thickset man walks in. "My secret place isn't so secret," he says, scanning the semicrowded garden area. But Elixir is hardly a secret-- it's a popular stop for young Hollywood, a place where you'll be noticed, especially if you're sporting a hot-punk faux-hawk.

  Lavandeira looks as if he has just rolled out of bed and thrown on his clothes--faded green pants and a brown H&M hoodie. Since we first met, he's become more outrageous--in hairstyle and language. He also seems more aloof ("I hate it when readers or journalists or other people call me Mario. I'm like, "We're not on that level. You're not my friend. Why are you calling me Mario?") and overly dismissive ("I don't care what anyone thinks, really, I'm too busy to care"). This Lavandeira acts like, well, a celebrity.

  "First of all, I'm not a celebrity, I wish," Lavandeira says with uncharacteristic modesty. "A celebrity is someone who can go out and party till 3 or 4 in the morning and then not have to wake up till noon. I'm up at 5:15, I'm a worker. I do have the privilege of enjoying some--or a lot-- of the perks that celebrities get to enjoy, but I'm not a celebrity. If anything, I'm a celebretard."

  Lavandeira may be an indefatigable worker, but he's acutely aware of his popularity and power. Depending on whom you ask, his site averages either 5.5 million views daily, according to Lavandeira, or 3.2 million, according to Blogads, which sells ads on his site. That traffic allows him to charge anywhere from $1200 to $9,000 for an ad to run for a week on his site. Advertisers include major movie studios such as Warner Bros. To put the site's traffic in perspective, Trent Vanegas says his popular celebrity--gossip blog, PinkistheNewBlog.com, receives 170,000 hits daily. More established news-gossip sites such as Gawker.com receive from 400,000 to 500,000 according to Gawker's managing editor, Choire Sicha.

  "I think it's a great piece of entertainment and clearly very successful," Sicha says of PerezHilton.com. "I feel like he's more identifiable than any of the other great blogger. When you think of Matt Drudge, you think of the man in the fedora. When you think of Perez, you think of the crazy queen in glasses. And it totally works. "

  But, according to a veteran Hollywood publicist, it's best to avoid Lavandeira's attention. "it's sort of like a poison ivy patch. You don't want to go in there," says Howard Bragman, who cofounded the powerhouse PR firm Bragman Nyman Cafarelli and now runs the firm Fifteen Minutes. "It's a nuisance that can last a long time." However, Perez does have the publicist's attention. "I think he's charming, and I think he's funny," Bragman adds. "Like a lot of people in this town, I read his [blog]."

  And the blog has made Perez somewhat ubiquitous. He's a talking head for TV entertainment programs on VH1 and E! and has done fashion commentary for US Weekly. He appeared on MTV's New Year's Eve special last year. He's snagged guest appearances on shows such as Pepper Dennis and Courtney Cox's Dirt, and he recently appeared via webcam for an entire week on MTV's TRL. He attends awards shows and film festivals and is a regular presence on the Hollywood party circuit. Even prominent clothing companies such as Ben Sherman provide him with attire.

  Yet, for all the success he's enjoying, a storm is brewing-- one that could disrupt his nonstop party. He is facing two lawsuits, one by Universal City Studios Productions for posting an allegedly stolen photograph of a topless Jennifer Aniston, and another by the photo agency X17 Inc, which is suing Lanadeira for more than $10 million for alleged unlicensed use of its celebrity photos. "He's obviously one of the most heavily trafficked sites on the Internet in the celebrity-gossip-news-entertainment world," says Brandy Navarre, who co-owns X17. "I think he's a funny guy. I just don't agree with his attitude or his feeling that every picture you find on the Internet is fair game. I cannot let this person use my images without paying. It sets a very dangerous precedent."

  Lavandeira's attorney, Bryan J. Freedman, argues that his client's use of the photos falls under the "fair use" exception to the Copyright Act. "Perez will fight this battle on behalf of all bloggers and, if necessary to defend these rights, will take the case to trial." Lavandeira adds, "I don't believe I'm doing anything wrong or illegal, and I'm going to defend myself vigorously. This could potentially have a lot of repercussions in the blogosphere."

  When he's not being sued, he's being chastised from within the gay community. Lavandeira is often cited for pushing actors such as former 'N Sync member Lance Bass, Grey's Anatomy cast member T.R. Knight, and actor Neil Patrick Harris to publicly announce their sexual orientation. "I don't out people. That word is not part of my vocabulary," Lavandeira says. "I report, I'm still a reporter and an entertainer. I believe in equality, so I'm not going to discriminate because they're gay. I'm going to report on everyone the same--gay or straight, out or not." Regarding his aggressive coverage of Bass, Lavandeira says: "I wasn't doing anything different reporting on his secret relationship with his boyfriend from what US Weekly was doing reporting about Jessica Simpson's secret relationship with John Mayer. I didn't force Lance Bass out of the closet. He chose to come out. No one was forcing a fun to his head."

  Ironically, Lavandeira worked several years ago as a publications manager for the advocacy group Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Damon Romine, GLAAD's entertainment media director, says, "Media speculation about a celebrity's orientation is not something we support, and it can be problematic. Coming out is ultimately a personal process, one that works best when that decision is made not out of fear or intimidation."

  Nevertheless, Lavandeira believes he did Bass a favor: "I probably helped him get the cover of People magazine. If I weren't talking about it a lot, he probably would have come out in The Advocate [circulation 145,000]. But instead, he came out in People, which is read by, like, four million [people]."

  The baby-blue-eyed Lavandeira moved to Los Angeles from New York in 2002, looking for the dream of all dreams: success and fame. Despite his training at Tisch, Lavandeira, who graduated in 2000, found himself lost among the heat shots saturating Hollywood. He tried to reinvent himself as a publicist, but that didn't satiate his creative appetite. And he didn't fare any better as a journalist, getting fired from the gay magazine Instinct for selling promotional copies of books that had been sent to the publication. Lavandeira was, frankly, a nobody.

  "He was really angry with his life and had sort of holed up in this garage apartment in West Hollywood," Grant says, "he was very dissatisfied with his life." In between freelance writing assignments, Grant says Lavandeira would watch E! all day and then post the latest celebrity gossip on Friendster bulletins. That's when Grant says he suggested Lavandeira start a blog and showed him how to set up and account on Blogger.com. In September of 2004, Lavandeira launched PageSixSixSix.com an devilish play on the New York Post's "Page Six."

  Despite his new project, Lavandeira--bruised by Hollywood--believed a change of scenery might improve his life, so he moved back to New York City in 2005. "I thought it would be all better, but it wasn't college anymore." Lavandeira recalls, "Basically, I got into the darkest period of my life." He took a reporting job with Star magazine but the requirement of trailing celebrities left him feeling dirty. "I felt icky, I felt wrong," he says. "I felt like a stalker working there."

  He had financial troubles, resulting in a bankruptcy filing. Then a bottomless languor set in. "I wanted to kill myself. I hated my life. I hated myself," he says. "I'd think, Today I'm going to slit my wrists. Today I'm going to shoot myself or take pills. Today I'm going to jump off of my building. All I could see was dark."

  His situation appeared to worsen when Star fired him. Lavandeira says he had been openly voicing his displeasure about working there, so his supervisors took matters into their own hands. He received a severance package that allowed him to focus on PageSixSixSix.com, but the Post soon sued him for trademark dilution, and Lavandeira dumped the name in order to have the suit dropped. "Getting sued by the Post is one of the best things to ever happen," he says. "That's [when] I became my own brand."

  From the crash-and-burn ashes of Mario Lavandeira rose his evil twin. "Perez made my life better. Perez brought me opportunities," says Lavandeira, who moved back to L.A. in November 2005. "Perez got me out of depression. Perez made me happy."

  And Perez energized him. That's why he's at the Coffee Bean before dawn, getting an early start on the many celebrity blogs that have launched in his wake. (He uses the cafe's wireless connection because he doesn't have Internet access at home.) "I put in 19 hours a day," Lavandeira says. "it's not a question of, Am I tired? It's, How tired am I? But now is the time to work hard. I'm in building mode. I have a strong foundation to grow from."

  That base may be shakier than he perceives it to be. VH1 and other networks passed on a reality TV show idea Lavandeira had pitched in partnership with the production company World of Wonder. His explanation: "TV takes forever. It's all talks, negotiations."

  Lavandeira may have even missed the opportunity to cash in on this website's popularity. With the pending lawsuits, PerezHilton.com may be less attractive to potential buyers. "he would have been really genius if he had been licensing all the images he uses from the beginning because he'd be in an amazing position right now." says X17's Navarre. "He would've positioned himself for a probably huge buyout by any media company--[we're] talking in the tens of millions of dollars."

  Lavandeira isn't against selling, although he says he would consider it only if the buyer were to pump his operation with the capital to hire more staff and improve the site. Of course, he would remain the face of PerezHilton.com. "I am the website," he says matter-of-factly.

  The tireless blogger knows he'll have to slow down eventually if he wants to achieve another goal of his. "I'm going to change how I operate sooner than later 'cause I have wants and needs and desires I want to act on," he says. I want to have a family and kids of my own and to adopt." Specifically, he wants five children. "My kids are going to be fuckin' superkids. My kids are going to speak 10 languages, and they're going to play 10 sports. My kids are going to cure cancer and AIDS and bring world peace."

  With that, Lavandeira--make that Perez Hilton--makes his case to grace the cover of Ciudad. "This [story] is cover worthy," he insists. "I'm a shameless whore, and I'm a self promoter. And you know what? It fuckin' works. Another one of my mottoes is, 'Fake it till you make it, honey,' I did. I faked it, and I made it."