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It happened in 1996. Mario Lavandeira Jr. can't recall the exact date, but it was late in his senior year at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, the all-boys Catholic institution that relocated to Miami from Cuba in 1961 after alumnus Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista. Educators, parents, and students filled Belen's old 100-seat hall, on the second floor of the main building. Lavandeira was among a dozen teenage boys taking the stage for a school talent show that day.
Waiting in the wings amid a four-man rock band that played Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and a well-dressed crooner who sang "The Impossible Dream" from Man of La Mancha, Lavandeira was outfitted in a white bunny costume that covered everything but his pudgy, pimply face. When his turn came, the 12th-grader hopped onstage toting several props, including a spoon, a jar, and a watermelon. "Hi! I'm Spider Rabbit!" he introduced himself in a cheerfully creepy voice. "Gee, it is so nice to be here."
Lavandeira ate imaginary testicles from the jar and dined on a pretend soldier's brain. He smashed the watermelon on the floor. It was his interpretation of Spider Rabbit, a highly abstract one-man, one-act play written by beat poet and playwright Michael McClure during the Vietnam War. More than a decade later, Lavandeira can't remember why he chose it. But he does know his Spider Rabbit performance solidified his place as a freakish outsider.
"It was actually one of my proudest moments in high school, because so many people hated it," he recalls. "The principal almost puked, and the club moderator that put on the show cursed at me to get my shit off the stage."
The reaction to his deranged bunny bit foreshadowed Lavandeira's future as the most hated celebrity blogger in the universe. But under his nom de guerre, Perez Hilton, the self-anointed Queen of All Media has gone from being the ultimate outcast to being the consummate Hollywood insider, proving that if a bitchy, Miami-born Cuban-American homosexual can't make it here, he can at least make it in La-La Land. !Ay, hijo! His blog, PerezHilton.com, draws about seven million visitors a day with its 24/7 dissection of the trials and tribulations of celebrities — warts, wastedness, warped morals, and all.
The 30-year-old Westchester native has made his alter ego into an overnight Tinseltown franchise. As Perez Hilton, Lavandeira has become one of the most sought-after personalities in the entertainment industry. Not bad for someone whose signature is doodling penises and cocaine boogers on images of celebs such as Clay Aiken and Britney Spears. The fact that these photos have, quite often, been pilfered has landed Lavandeira in legal trouble; a pending suit against him by photo agency X17, if it is not settled, could become a landmark case in Internet law.
Aside from talent, perhaps the one thing that launched Lavandeira to his exalted position among the pop culture commentariat: being in the right place (Hollywood) at the right time, as the public's growing appetite for tawdry celebrity gossip merged with its gusto for fast-moving blogging. In a world where reality television and YouTube churn out 15-minute marvels at the rate of a broadband download, Perez Hilton seems no more or less a commodity than the stars whose foibles he ruthlessly exploits.
"My goal is to be the gay Latino Oprah," Lavandeira boasts over the phone as he walks Teddy, his designer breed Goldendoodle Maltese puppy, outside his two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment a few days after the Oscars. "I want to have my own little empire that I get to do cool things and whatever I want to do."
Cool things like dying his hair in headache-inducing Rainbow Brite colors, sporting garish outfits on his oafish frame, and outing closeted gay celebrities such as former 'N Sync band member Lance Bass. Life in the Perez lane never seems to slow. In the span of four weeks, he returned from a trip to London in time to hit the red carpet at the Oscars. Five days later, he was on a plane to New York for a television shoot. After that, it was off to Las Vegas for a club appearance, followed by an appearance at Austin's SXSW music festival, where he hosted an exclusive party. "It's been pretty crazy," he says. "I really don't have time to reflect about anything these days."
The last thing Lavandeira worries about are the harsh comments he frequently attracts on his site. A recent response to a Perez post about an aging Meg Ryan reads, "You will be there sooner than you think, and then your rainbow hair and all your indie-punk clothes will start looking pretty ridiculous. Your fat will start to sag and droop. The question is, will you embrace it?"
Lavandeira relishes the venom spewed his way. "In high school, I was always the outsider, the freak," he says. "I didn't give a shit about what anyone said about me. And I don't care now."
On a balmy afternoon in Westchester, Aurora Leon is inside her four-bedroom house on SW 21st Street, sitting at her sewing table in a room she has converted into an unofficial alteration shop. Neatly pressed, plastic-covered clothes hang on racks throughout the cramped space. While she works the spindle, the seamstress chats with New Times about the kid she used to know as Mario Lavandeira Jr. "His family lived in the house next door until 2004," Leon says. "I used to do all their alterations."