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A pretty, petite lady, Ramirez has taught English and writing classes at Belen since 1990, the same year Lavandeira enrolled. She met him when he attended her seventh-grade speech and writing class. "He was a very expressive kid, always arching his eyebrows and opening his mouth wide," she recollects. "He was also a very talented writer who loved public speaking."
Ramirez describes Lavandeira as a precocious boy who preferred the company of adults over that of his peers. She became one of his few confidantes. "I think we hit it off because I'm a big believer in freedom of expression," she says, noting the ultraconservative culture of Belen, not exactly a place where a gay teenager could feel at ease. (Lavandeira did not come out until his freshman year at NYU.) "He felt comfortable coming up and talking to me," she says. "He was very mature for his age."
While Lavandeira excelled in academics, he was ostracized by his classmates, who harassed him because of his weight. "I just did my thing," he says. "I really didn't hang out with other guys from school."
Humberto Guida, who was in a journalism class with the aspiring thespian, remembers him as "an obnoxious dork," he says. "He looks amazing now compared to when he was at Belen. Back then he was a blob. It looks like the spotlight has brought him out of his shell." Guida says Lavandeira made fun of the teachers he thought were gay. "One time Mario asked one of the priests why they were always asking us about masturbating," Guida continues. "He would bring that shit up in the middle of a retreat when we were supposed to be talking about God."
Kris Conesa, a 1997 graduate, says students called Lavandeira a "fag" and pinched his back fat. "People in my grade would harass me for talking to him," Conesa says. "People in his grade left him alone in the sense that they would avoid him like the plague." Lavandeira pretty much looked the same in high school as he does today, Conesa says. "He was fat, had pimples, and was always flaming. He was very effeminate."
Guida caught up with Lavandeira last year in L.A. "I didn't know anything about Perez Hilton," Guida says. "I just remembered he was the crazy, flamboyant dork from high school who would say random shit." Turns out Guida was one of the first people to interview the new and improved Mario Lavandeira.
"He vaguely remembered me," Guida says. "He wasn't rude, but you could tell he has so many things going on. He had that Hollywood air about him."
Lavandeira's phone rings nonstop with calls and text messages from celebrities, their enablers, and, of course, just about every major publicist in the nation. He works on his blog 17 to 19 hours a day, producing an average of 30 posts. He was first with pictures of a hard-partying Lindsay Lohan checking into the Wonderland Center rehab clinic in January 2007. When he reported Fidel Castro had died this past August 17 and again on the 24th, news outlets took him seriously — until the Cuban leader came out of hiding.
When he is not jetting off to nightclubs, red carpets, and meetings with TV, film, and music producers, Lavandeira is working — if you can call it that — on his laptop from before dawn till well past midnight. During a telephone interview, he put New Times on hold for more than 10 minutes to field a call from someone obviously more important. "I'm really lucky that I get to be my own boss," he admits. "I enjoy what I do for a living so much. You can have fun and work hard."
PerezHilton.com has ascended into the top 10 entertainment news sites, drawing 2.6 million unique visitors worldwide, with more than half residing in the United States, according to Internet tracking firm comScore Media Metrix. His huge audience has attracted advertisers willing to pay $9,000 a week for one spot and $45,000 for the most expensive package, according to Henry Copeland of Blogads.com, the site's sales representative. His average reader is a 26-year-old woman, and his audience demographic attracts advertising from major fashion brands, spirits companies, and Hollywood movie studios. When the first episode of What Perez Sez ... About Divas aired this past February 19 on VH1, the network saw its ratings more than double among 18- to 49-year-olds.
Although Lavandeira won't publicly comment about his annual take, Rolling Stone and Radar Online have pegged his income at $250,000 a year, likely a conservative figure. Eleven months ago, he was living in a cramped crib with no TV or Internet connection, blogging from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard. Last year, Lavandeira bought a 2007 Toyota Camry to replace his 1999 Honda Accord, purchased a Prius for his mother, and moved into a gated two-bedroom loft-style apartment with high-speed Internet access.
Everyone wants a piece of Perez. He sparred with Joy Behar and Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View. In his VH1 reality series, he cavorts with his favorite divas, including Gloria Estefan and Tori Amos. During London's fashion week in February, he kept company with starlets Kimberly Stewart, Kelly Osbourne, and Sienna Miller (whom he has dubbed "Sluttyiena" on his site). He played himself in an episode of FX's Dirt and was a contestant on MTV's reality show Celebrity Rap Star. He's got a book deal. And Warner Music Group is talking with him about starting his own label, offering Perez a $100,000 advance on the 50 percent profit share he'd get for finding, signing, and promoting new acts.