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."
Standing next to Leon is Mirta Ardao, a Cuban woman in her sixties who is a longtime friend of Lavandeira's mother, Teresita. Ardao has short blond hair and sports a gold necklace with several pendants, including a cross and a blue seer's eye. "He is not Mario anymore," Ardao informs. "He goes by another name."
"What's his name now?" Leon inquires.
"His first name is Perez," Ardao replies.
"Hilton," New Times chimes in.
"That's it!" Ardao exclaims. "Perez Hilton. And he has become a very famous personality."
"He is a paparazzi," Leon says.
Ardao corrects her. "No, he is the guy who reports the news about other famous people," she explains. "Suppose Madonna gets pregnant. He is the first one who would put it out there."
Lavandeira's parents, Ardao continues, had him under tight control while he was growing up. "They were on him like this," she says, slapping her palms together. "But he never caused them any problems. He wasn't a kid who was into gangs or anything like that."
His father arrived from Cuba in the late Sixties and met Teresita shortly after she defected from the island. Mario Jr. was born March 23, 1978, in Miami. His sister, Barbara, was born two years later. The Lavandeira clan resided in Little Havana until 1983, when Mario Sr. and Teresita purchased a single-story four-bedroom residence on the corner of SW 21st Street and 84th Avenue. The house, which is now beige with white iron bars on the windows, was Lavandeira Jr.'s refuge during his childhood and teenage years. "He didn't have a lot of friends," Ardao recollects. "But he was very close to his father."
Lavandeira spent most of his free time in bed, watching television. As a child of the Eighties, his pop culture diet included He-Man, G.I. Joe, Snorks, Transformers, and reruns of The Facts of Life and Diff'rent Strokes. "I was really into the Smurfs," Lavandeira says. "So for my sixth birthday party, my parents hired a guy to dress up as a Smurf." As a teenager, he graduated to Friends, Melrose Place, and the purveyor of ultimate slackitude, MTV. He would vegetate in front of the boob tube for hours on end.
His parents indulged him. Mario Sr., who owned a now-defunct wallpaper company, regularly served his son dinner on a tray so as not to interrupt his television binges. Lavandeira left the house only to go to school or participate in family outings such as attending the Dade County Youth Fair or renting a beach cabana at the Fontainebleau Hotel. "My dad enjoyed driving around a lot too," he says. "He and I would take road trips to Lake Okeechobee."
When Lavandeira was 15, his paternal grandfather passed away. One week later, his father died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. Lavandeira declined to talk about the impact of his dad's death, except to say the loss "made me acutely aware of how short life is and to make the most of every moment."
Frankie Ruiz, who graduated with Lavandeira from Belen in 1996, remembers attending the funeral. "I felt a lot of empathy for him," Ruiz says. "We never became close friends, but it is definitely cool to see him making it in the entertainment industry."
In 2007, nearly 11 years after Lavandeira moved out of Westchester, his mother and sister joined him in Los Angeles. Ardao says she talks with Teresita on the phone on a weekly basis. According to Ardao, the Lavandeira matriarch is having a ball managing her son's affairs. "Since Mario was a kid, he always had show business aspirations," Ardao explains. "But she didn't want him to. She used to tell him that it was a difficult career to succeed in."
Leon interrupts her pal. "Isn't he being sued by the paparazzi?" she asks.
"No, people steal from him," Ardao responds. "They take stuff from his mailbox. That's why Teresita and Barbara are in Los Angeles. They are his administrators."
A woman who has stopped by to pick up a dress from Leon asks if Lavandeira is married. "No," Ardao says. "He is gay." The lady is silent. Ardao adds, "But a well-educated, attractive young gay man."
Unlike most of his peers at Belen, a private prep school that has been molding young Cuban-American men for nearly half a century, Lavandeira came from a middle-class family. "When my dad was still alive, he struggled to pay my tuition," he says. "I had a partial scholarship to Belen and a full one for NYU. Nothing in life was ever handed to me."
While most Belen students aspire to become lawyers, businessmen, doctors, and, in some cases, political leaders, Lavandeira had other ideas. "I went to the school to become an actor," he says. "I think that is pretty gutsy. I don't think my mom was too thrilled that I wanted to study acting at NYU. She would have preferred that I had gone to Harvard and be a lawyer."
One of the few people to bond with Lavandeira was Cristina Ramirez, Belen's 11th-grade British literature instructor. While sipping champagne from a fluted glass and occasionally flashing a broad smile, Ramirez reminisced about Lavandeira during a conversation at Town Kitchen & Bar in South Miami on a recent Saturday night.
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.
In the past year, he's been on the cover of The Advocate and profiled by Rolling Stone and ABC's Nightline. "I am having just as much fun now, if not more, than when I first started my blog," he says. "I am creating my own happiness."
Lavandeira insists he never expected the blog he started as a hobby less than four years ago would transform him into a one-man media conglomerate. "I just wanted to do something really cool."
Christened PageSixSixSix.com in September 2004, Lavandeira's original site prompted a lawsuit from the New York Post. It was a rough period in his life. He was struggling with his acting career and making ends meet with unglamorous jobs as a publications manager for a gay organization, as a trade show publicist, and as a reporter for Star magazine, which fired him. "I went through a severe depression," he says. "I could not fathom going through the rest of my life working a job I hated."
While Lavandeira was visiting his mother in Miami, inspiration for a new name struck during a night of partying on South Beach. He and some friends hit three or four venues, where they were told Paris Hilton would be making appearances. When the hotel heiress was nowhere to be found, Lavandeira told his friends they were more likely to run into "Perez Hilton." And thus "the trashtastic Cuban cousin of Paris and Nicky," in Lavandeira's words, was born.
It wasn't long before he was making enemies across the entertainment universe. Search YouTube for Perez Hilton and one of the first clips to pop up depicts America's flabby, gossiping wunderkind jawing with an unnamed paparazzo at a Hollywood event. The still image teasing the footage has the word cunt and an arrow — drawn in the same digital white marker that has become his trademark tool for defacing celebrity photos — pointing at Perez's head. A caption at the bottom reads, "We hope you burn in Hell, you fat FUCK. Now everyone can see what a BITCH you are!"
The video begins with Perez strutting down the red carpet, sporting a white-and-pink hoodie and a bleach-blond cropped cut. He turns and walks toward a slender male photographer with a goatee and bushy hair, who is shouting at Perez: "You stole my picture! You don't give a shit about anybody!" Perez, his hazel eyes bulging wide, gets in the photog's face. "Talk to my lawyer, braaaaao," he says mockingly.
After a few minutes of haranguing by the paparazzo, Perez loses it, and the Miami chonga inside him comes frothing to the surface: "No one contacted me to take it down, so shut the fuck up!"
Jilted paparazzi represent just a small contingent in the Perez Hilton hater brigade. For every person who loves him, there are three who utterly loathe Lavandeira's alter ego. X17, a Hollywood-celebrity photo agency, is suing him for $7.5 million, claiming the gossip monger posts its images without permission. Among the X17 photos Perez has allegedly posted are shots of a pregnant Katie Holmes with Tom Cruise, Jessica Simpson shopping, Heather Locklear leaving a lunch meeting, and Nicole Kidman with her nephew.
In New York federal court, Louisiana celebrity photographer Ken Knight is suing Lavandeira for allegedly using a copyrighted photo of Jason Allen Alexander, the man who married Britney Spears in 2004 in a Las Vegas chapel only to have the nuptials annulled 55 hours later. Brandy Navarre, X17 Online's vice president and co-owner, says Lavandeira was sending to other bloggers the message that it was okay to use copyrighted photos without permission.
"He wouldn't be where he is today if he didn't have our images," Navarre says. "And he certainly wouldn't have as many visitors as he has now. There is no doubt that his success is built on the work of others."
According to a recent article in The Atlantic, Lavandeira's means of appropriating images has included "gaining the passwords to newswires, photo-agency accounts, and the photo departments of major magazines."
Lavandeira filed his own federal lawsuit against X17, claiming the company was avoiding payroll taxes as well as employing photographers who were undocumented aliens and making them work long hours without overtime pay. The complaint was dismissed. In addition, last June 20, after ignoring numerous warnings about his use of copyrighted celebrity images, Internet hosting company Crucial Paradigm took PerezHilton.com offline. The site was back up hours later with a new host, Pressflex, which prohibited Lavandeira from uploading his archives, which were filled with contested celebrity photos. "He knew he had no choice," Navarre says. "Now he has completely changed the way he works."
Indeed, he has added a disclaimer page to PerezHilton.com where photographers can contact him if they believe he is using a copyrighted image. Navarre adds that her company and Lavandeira are in settlement negotiations.
He also got in legal trouble with Colin Farrell after posting a link to the actor's notorious sex tape, and with Universal Studios for posting a photo of a topless Jennifer Aniston ("Maniston," in Perezland). Last year, DJ Samantha Ronson, a friend of Lindsay Lohan, sued Lavandeira for libel. He gleefully points out she lost and had to pay his attorney fees and other court costs totaling $85,000.
When he's not busy battling photogs and celebs, Lavandeira is mixing it up with other gossip blogs. On March 17, 2006, Gawker unearthed Lavandeira's profile on gay website Adam4Adam.com, which featured his picture and proclaimed his fondness for group sex, various fetishes, and combining drug use with sex. Lavandeira had posted the profile while he was at NYU.
Gawker posted an image of the ad and the following screed: "We hate to do this — we really, really do — but given his public profile these days, it was only inevitable. We were pointed to a certain webpage today, and it turns out that when Perez Hilton isn't blogging on his eponymous site, he's on the hunt for 'wild times with nasty, sane, cool guys.' Oh, and 'group sex' and 'misc fetishes' work well, too. He's HIV-, you'll be thrilled to hear, although his 7.5 inches may leave some men wanting more."
Within 15 minutes, Lavandeira had posted his reply in Gawker's comments section, taking a swipe at the site's then-editors, Jesse Oxfeld and Jessica Coen: "Thanks for putting up my college profile. I wish I was as skinny as I was back then, as fake blond and getting as much sex. Alas, I'm not. But if anyone is interested, my e-mail is Perez@PerezHilton.com. Hot guys only. Jesse Oxfeld need not apply. But Jessica Coen should. We hear she has a really big dick!"
Lavandeira declined to comment about the Gawker episode, but he told Radar during a 2006 interview that he was not ashamed of things he might have done in the past. "I really don't care if some people hate Perez," Lavandeira said. "Perez has made my life better."
Coincidentally, Gawker's founding editor, Elizabeth Spiers, sublet a room in Lavandeira's apartment when he lived in New York. Via e-mail, she says she has always liked him. "He's always been incredibly sweet to me," Spiers notes. "Really considerate and really nice."
It's March 6, 2008. Perez Hilton is looking haggard and sporting heavy stubble as he films himself in his living room. Later he will post the video on his site for a segment called Perez TV, a series of clips featuring him simply being Perez, whether just cooing and kissing his dog Teddy or laughing, screaming, and crying hysterically as he watches a gross-out online video of four naked girls defecating on each other and playing with the turds in their mouths.
But for this take, Perez is in a somber mood. He has just learned actor Patrick Swayze has terminal cancer. With the camera lens focused on his round, pasty face, he informs his fans about a fixation. "I think about death way too much," he says. "That is because I have had a lot of it in my life and it is not a pretty thing."
He reveals he thinks about growing old alone. His eyes fill with tears. "If you are watching this and you are not healthy right now, I just, um, want to give you a big hug," he continues. And for a moment, the person talking to the camera is no longer Perez Hilton, but Mario Lavandeira Jr. "A week after my grandfather died, my dad died very unexpectedly," he tells viewers. "To say that sucked is putting it mildly. I am kind-of reminded of that every single day, and it really affected me."
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He concludes by telling his audience to go out and have a blast: "Life is too short," he says. "Make it fun."
The following day, during another self-shoot, Perez is back to his usual fun, cool self. He has just arrived in Sin City, where he is attending the grand-opening fete for a hair salon inside the famous Las Vegas Mirage Hotel.
"The weekend is here," he says. "It's time to party."