Exclusive interview

Like him or loathe him, it’s hard to deny that Perez Hilton is anything less than a media phenomenon. On average more than seven million people visit his websites each day. Let’s put that in perspective: The Wall St Journal, America’s best-selling newspaper, boasts a daily circulation of 2.1 million. More people than that follow Perez on Twitter (he has 3.5 million followers at the time of writing). Though highly controversial in the past, he’s been better behaved of late. Laurence Watts caught up with the world’s most famous blogger to find out more.

Perez Hilton was born Mario Armando Lavandeira. Like others in the world of entertainment, including his self-styled ‘papa’, Elton John, he now goes by the moniker he found fame with.

“I love the name Perez,” he tells me. “Perez has made my life a lot better. I don’t think I would ever legally change my name though because I’m proud of the fact that I’m Cuban.

“I’m my father’s son. There used to be a difference between Perez and Mario, but in last eight months I’ve really been working at trying to integrate the two and show the world more of my true self.”

In late 2004 he started blogging in his spare time while temping and working as a freelance journalist for America’s gay press. Six months later he got his first big break.

“The Insider [an American TV show] contacted me because they were doing a segment on Hollywood’s most hated websites. They asked me if I minded being number one, the most hated website in Hollywood! I didn’t necessarily agree with the title, but I was all for going on television. That was not only the first moment I realised people were reading my blog, but also the inspiration for me to keep working hard at it.”

Not long after The Insider programme aired he changed his website’s name from PageSixSixSix.com to Perezhilton.com, a result of being sued for the first time. Six months later blogging ceased to be a part-time occupation.

“I got fired from Star Magazine, a job I hated, but the upside was I was able to collect unemployment and focus full-time on my website. About a year later it started making enough money to support me.”

It was a time when most magazines used their websites merely as tools to sign up physical edition subscribers. Perezhilton.com and the celebrity websites that followed forged a new model for breaking news online. Why was his website such a success?

“I think that fact I was one of the first, if not the first, definitely gave me a major advantage. I worked harder than everyone else too. I post an incredible amount and I think people like knowing that every time they visit there will be something new.”

“What also sets my site apart is me: my filter on the world. I’m not trying to be objective and I’m not sure I could be objective. One of my biggest criticisms is I’m too nice to Lady Gaga, but I’m her biggest fan!! I love her and she’s one of my friends. Of course I’m going to be nice to her!”

In addition to Gaga, Hilton’s been credited with launching the careers of a host of other musicians including Katy Perry and Adele. The audience he carries has also led to his direct involvement with acts themselves: he recently appeared in Rihanna’s video for her hit single S&M. His hit blog has spawned TV and film appearances, books, songs, concerts and now his own record label.

“None of it came from a business plan,” he tells me. “It’s all been very organic, things I’m interested in and wanted to do. Right now I’m trying to create an opportunity for myself in TV because I love it and I think I’m really good at it. When they were looking for X Factor judges here in America I plugged myself pathetically and embarrassingly at every opportunity. It would have been my dream job, but I didn’t get it.”

For a celebrity news site most popular with young straight women, Perez has blogged consistently about and in favour of gay rights, making him one of the loudest voices for equality in America.

“I consider my readers allies and I would consider it a disservice not to talk about those things. I have this platform so let me educate them and empower them to help make the world a better place.”

That he receives little credit for his advocacy is perhaps no surprise. After all, Perez Hilton was the man who ‘outed’ Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris, who nicknamed Lindsay Lohan ‘Lezio’ and was renowned for his catty comments. He claims he’s had a wake up call.

“I had a big slap in the face in October this past year when there was a rash of gay teenagers committing suicide in America. I was blogging about how awful it was and encouraging young people to seek help rather than take their own life when a lot of people started calling me a hypocrite and a bully myself. I’d never viewed myself as a bully. I’d always justified what I said and did by the fact I was dealing with celebrities: that they know what they’re signing up for. But if enough people say you’re a hypocrite and a bully then that’s what you are.”

Since then he’s stopped doodling inappropriately on photos, stopped using ‘mean’ nicknames and has called a halt to outing celebrities.

“I think for the longest time gay men were embarrassed and upset by me and thought I was a poor representation of the gay community. Having made the changes I have I’m still able to be sassy and opinionated, but I can sleep better at night knowing I’m not contributing to the problem.”

I wonder aloud how long it might take for the public to see a different Perez Hilton or if they ever will. I tell him I was surprised by the lack of sympathy for him when he was assaulted at a Black Eyed Peas concert in Toronto in 2009.

“It didn’t necessarily surprise me, but it was still hurtful that the majority of people thought I somehow deserved it. It hurt and saddened me. I’d like to think if something like that were to happen five years from now the reaction from people would be different.”

Making the changes he has was risky; after all it was his previous formula that made him successful.

“I worried about that before I made the changes. I’d been reluctant to do it for some time, but when the suicides happened I decided I didn’t care. I was prepared for traffic to go down. Thankfully though it hasn’t.”