I hope Mario will read this all the way through without overreacting to the title; I know he reads my stuff and I've sent him words of encouragement from time to time, so I trust he will. And in truth this is less about Perez Hilton than it is about what he has come to represent, in both meanings of the phrase.
Long before my recent seeming defense of Perez Hilton on several issues (here
), I wrote a lot about the culture of negativity in celebrity journalism and the at times hatred the public feels toward its anointed stars, specifically throwing my hands up at the popularity of his site, which was built up as quickly as it could tear others down
. I did not always "get" Perez; I still am not so much a fan as I am an admirer, and there is a difference
. I used to resent his power (he steals ideas and images, he can't spell), but now I think I understand what fuels it and I do see his work as a whole, with its plusses (stars should not go unchallenged, he's funny, he's pro-gay) and minuses (that use of faggot was pretty stupid, who is he to act like the death photo of Jacko was beyond the pale compared to what he's done?). I can sometimes be a black-and-white, love-or-hate person, but I am nothing if not against irrational, unparsed stances.
Actually, the negativity of which I speak struck me before I'd ever heard of Perez, but I found it in the same place I found Perez—on the Internet. Make no mistake—I am a viper. I have joked about death, about maiming, about others' misfortunes. I have done it both out of a lack of sympathy depending on the subject, out of political competitiveness and for less dishonorable reasons, such as a desire to break the tension, gallows humor. I am capable of saying almost anything and thinking even worse. But even I was shocked at the things I saw on the Internet when it came into being because people—anonymously—began to make public forever the kinds of heinous comments that previously had rarely if ever been unleashed except in private. They were called trolls, but to me they were worse because trolls are imaginary.
The bile was aimed not only at celebrities, but the worst of it seemed to plague the famous, who if they were considered beautiful would be savagely criticized for every minor flaw, if they were considered elegant would be dragged through the mud. Even deaths were mocked before bodies were cold.
This should not have surprised me. Throughout entertainment history, there has been a cutthroat media thriving on negativity as well as positivity. The negativity didn't come out of nowhere; it was actually conjured up by the celebrities themselves, though without their knowledge.
In order to capitalize on a star in the biggest possible way—a necessity since stardom is based on commerce—all of their positive attributes had to be blown out of proportion by their promoters. This was resolved via a new invention: publicity. Which can mean spreading the beneficial truth (she donates to charity!) but more often has meant spreading bald-faced lies. Tell the people what they want to hear—he's not gay, she's not promiscuous, they're not divorcing, he never did drugs, there was nothing suspicious about her last husband's death—and they will love you for it.
And they do.
Until they hate you.
Because publicity is only about positivity, and stars' lives (they are, after all, just people) are not, publicity also unintentionally creates an incredible, almost sexual tension.
Most commonly, we think of this as "they build ya up so they can tear ya down." It is irritating on a one-on-one basis to know someone who seems perfect, but to have a perfect-seeming person shoved down your throat on TV, in the movies, in magazines, on the radio, on the Internet...it's beyond irritating—it's an animal-level provocation.
(I've loved Madonna in part for her uncanny ability to ride the razor's edge of that tension, though she's had her moments when she got cut.)
Also, not all publicity works for all people. When a star's PR works well, he or she is immensely adored, usually for one or two specific things (good actress, great mom; funny comedian, the essence of cool; amazing singer, even better dancer), but he or she will always have anti-fans, the ones for whom the PR just didn't work. And like Democrats vs. Republicans, the minority party is constantly working to persuade enough swing voters to vote the bums out of office or, in this case, public favor.
The first negative outlet that sprang up versus publicity was probably an underground network of superfans who would share with each other sordid facts picked up from friends in the industry, some of it true, some of it bullshit.
How fitting that superfans would take this position as anti-fans, because the entire premise of my theory of celebrity is based on a see-sawing expression of love and hate
. One of the most famous of these practitioners of PR-busting was probably Kenneth Anger (pictured), literally the first Perez Hilton, who loved stars enough to know every last detail about their private lives, much of it unspeakably sordid (guess who choked to death on her own vomit with her head in th commode?), and hated them enough to publish it in the book Hollywood Babylon.
(The New York Times
said of the book, "If a book such as this can be said to have charm, it lies in the fact that here is a book without one single redeeming merit." Sounds like it could have been written about PerezHilton.com today.)
Smug closet case, snide tattletale...which is worse?
There were also the shameless tabloids, like Confidential, which routinely blackmailed stars and employed spies and worked with studios who would trade the publication tidbits about lesser stars in order to protect more valuable ones. These gave birth to National Enquirer and Star and Globe.
More recently, magazines like Us Weekly and In Touch have been among the most prominent of the love/hate media. If Us seems harmless, recall that it's not exactly fun to be teasingly labeled a "manorexic," to have your every fashion faux pas lampooned, every romantic disappointment given a cover treatment and to feel obligated to work with magazines like this or like the more lop-sidedly love-oriented People when you get cancer—consider it a mandatory exit interview.
These magazines are not harmless, you're just used to them.
Britney Spears has probably challenged the media's self-governance more than anyone lately.
And don't get me started on the current crop of "celebrities—they're just like YOU!" features, which is tantamount to fighting words since we either see stars as so perfect the idea of being similar to them is pure sarcasm or as so imperfect the idea of being similar to them is offensive.
That love/hate media that's always existed alongside Hollywood publicity has served a useful purpose. After all, whether tabloid or talk show, the media should be cutting to the truth. If stars had arrest records or became embroiled in illegal activities, why shouldn't they be found out and suffer the same consequences as mere mortals?
But the entertainment news media, positive and negative, just like the movie or TV or music industry, are corporate, are driven by profits. There can be no balance when money is the object, so the love/hate media didn't just report reality, they began to needle stars in ways that were unconscionable, they blackmailed stars with information in order to get even better information and cooperation, they stalked them (Anita Ekberg was midwife to the first paparazzo), they made things up.
There is no balance just like there is no karma—how to explain karma to a starving child?—but there is an overall equilibrium that is almost instinctive coming from the rest of us, the audience. We are the ones to blame for the phony PR—we buy it wholesale when it's fresh. We are the ones to blame for the negative media—we buy that when we sour on the PR. And when that gets old, we tend to go back to Square One. And so the most interesting, flawed, larger-than-life celebrities go back and forth, swinging wildly from adored to despised. The trip is usually rough on them, leading to substance abuse, ego issues, plastic surgery, imprisonable offenses and personal trauma. And it's because we wouldn't have it any other way, because anything too consistent would not be entertaining.
This is not to suggest that each person is not responsible for his or her actions, but the overwhelming force of being in the public eye has to help/hurt them beyond certain control.
So with all this callous negativity, this love/hatred for stars already in place, what was unique about the Internet?
Anonymity—the opposite of stardom.
Anonymously, these commenters were able to go further than any publication—which had its creators' names on it, which had offices to flood with complaints, which could be sued—saying anything without limitation. The love/hate media had actually been acting as an artificial conscience, betting that people would be outraged if things ever went too far. It turned out that things had never gone quite far enough.
The birth of the Internet was the death of nuance.
When Perez Hilton came into prominence, I would argue that he was like one of those newsgroup trolls, capable of saying anything (almost like drag queens do), and that is his appeal—it is thrilling because he is something that's built on a history of similar somethings, but something that feels quite new. Because he was not identifying a trend and attempting to capitalize on it—but was instead a part of the trend itself organically—he was identifiable as authentic
. His disregard for PR bullshit mirrored the disrespect of the tabloids, but his invective had no limits, like that of the newsgroup trolls. He was a person of the same age as the bulk of the people reading him and a similar age as many of his most popular subjects (many of whom were new stars like Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Lindsay Lohan, so ridiculous in their personal lives that crucifying them was a newly invented form of humor) and unlike the other trolls, he was capable of one massive outrage that they were not—unexpurgated criticism, even ridicule, done without anonymity.
The Jonas Brothers sing happy birthday to Perez Hilton.
Over the years, Perez has himself become so popular that publicists and stars willingly work with him. He is, in his success, corporatist, too. He is his own brand. Money respects money. (How else to explain Donald Trump working with him? Or the Jonas Brothers? Or Disney? None of whose own brands work with him. The only thing they have in common is the money that an audience can bring.)
The title of my post has to do not with Mario Lavandeira, who I hope and expect will have a long and healthy life, but with his character, with Perez. As much as I have defended Perez Hilton on principle, I think he is in danger of disappearing. Though Perez is a member of the media, he is also a star, and as such is subject to that same swinging pendulum—love/hate, love/hate. For years, people have loved to hate him, but it is high time for a majority to hate to love him. There is no way to take Perez down via criticism—he is pre-emptively self-deprecating—so the only way to end his power is for him to become passé. And the only way for him to become passé is for what he does to become passé. And that is happening.
In my opinion, a confluence of events is making Perez unpopular (he was always unliked, but still patronized; I mean to say he is on the verge of becoming something worse that hated, ignored). After five or so years of relentless negativity (9/11 seemed to tone things down for a while; remember Graydon Carter's announcement of "the end of the age of irony?" It wasn't dead, it was just out of commission for a year or so. Then Us Weekly was revamped as vampiric and catty and Perez Hilton was its progeny.), I believe people are tiring of it. The events that I think are hurting Perez include his (well-intentioned and I would argue positive) part in the Carrie Prejean marriage-equality flap, his (IMHO justifiable if viewed alongside what else has been considered permissible) posting of Dustin Lance Black's private sex photos, his run-in with will.i.am and assault by the general manager of the Black Eyed Peas and the death of Michael Jackson.
For five years, we've endured Perez's withering, humiliating commentaries on stars, which can be as simply iconoclastic and juvenile as a badly drawn trickle of semen sliding down the face of a macho actor or as cutting as a heartless assessment of a celebrity's baby's need to count calories. But his character's success as a bit of a dumb bunny was undermined when he became a gay activist thanks to his marriage-equality question posed during Miss USA. See, because people hate stars, they hate when stars voice opinions that venture beyond their primary expertise. For Perez to begin debating gay rights on CNN was a big negative to his brand—his followers were turned off. Because toxicity is his schtick, even the people he was fighting for—the gays—rejected the evolving Perez because not only was he a star with an opinion, but he was becoming identified as a gay advocate which meant there was the danger that homophobes might decide he was the face of gay America. He'd done a good thing, a generous and even a brave thing, but it was, surprisingly, a step toward irrelevance.
Many gay readers, already embarrassed by Perez for his flamboyance and his unapologetic nastiness, found a more concrete and high-minded (if transparently hypocritical) reason to renounce him when he published on his site graphic private sex photos showing LGBT activist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Never mind that most of the same gay people who were outraged by this decision had gladly looked at all the other leaked sex photos in history without protesting, never mind that Perez was not the person who had sex with Black and leaked the photos nor was he the one launching a site in order to sell them; because Perez was already seen as a bad gay role model and Black deservedly as one of the best, it was an easy battle to decide.
(For the record, I'm not of the "if you're famous, them's the breaks" school—I'd be very interested in a legal explanation of how private sex photos are okay to distribute. But until they're not okay for anyone, they're just as okay for the cool celebs as they are for the uncool.)
Losing gay support is not inconsequential for Perez Hilton. Whether or not it's still true, people accept the canard that the gays are good indicators of what's cool. Moreover, if Perez presents himself as a gay male role model (which he rightfully does in his actions even while he calculatedly says he doesn't mean to) and yet a large number of gay men reject him, straight readers can also more easily reject him.
I've written extensively on the will.i.am run-in that led to Perez taking a fist to the face. Perez does not deserve violence in theory, but like Hedda Hopper (thanks to Ian Webster for this) and other great gossips and provocateurs before him, he is learning that even if the law might be on his side, public opinion is not. Kelly Clarkson said it best when she said "no one's going to pity you." The media, as the unreliable and fickle messenger of good and bad, is flat out hated. Celebrities are secretly hated, or love-hated. Perez is both, so it should come as no surprise that any bad things that befall him would be publicly cheered.
Worse, he called will.i.am a "faggot," ensuring that even more gay people would write him off for good, and that straight people would have an excellent point of reference when identifying him as a hypocrite and/or as completely off the deep end.
After a couple of ineffective statements following his assault, Perez posted a rather extraordinary apology entitled, "I'm Sorry." In it, he said:
"People make mistakes. I have made many in my life, but this past week I have made more than I can count on one hand. I am sorry. And I mean it...The 'F' word will never be uttered from my lips again. Just as others use the 'N' word to insult and hurt - or as part of their everyday speech - I challenge them to remove it from their vocabulary as well...I am apologizing to the gay community, to anyone who was hurt by my choice of words, and to all the people who have ever emailed me to thank me for all that I have done to fight for gay rights over the last few years...I will be donating any money collected from my lawsuit against Polo Molina, road manager for the Black Eyed Peas, to the Matthew Shepard Foundation."
Judy to Perez: 'Don't be triflin' with me, biyotch."
Perez's apologia further proved he was behaving as the star he is; when stars are down, they're often just one humble apology or admission away from being up, up, up. The public loves their see-saw. He was using publicity as a means by which to communicate with his followers. But not so fast—the Matthew Shepard Foundation rejected his offer, which I can't fault considering he was obviously using them to cover his ass and hadn't even reached out to them to give them notice of his plans. But incredibly, Judy Shepard actually issued a statement indicating that Perez's use of the word faggot "prompted" his assault. Prompted it. Does that word justify an assault? Does someone being gay—which, pssst, is really annoying to some irrational people out there—prompt their assault? Does a hot chick's barely-there mini-skirt prompt her assault? No matter; the point is that the contempt for Perez is thick. So thick that a previous post of his, in which he mentioned having read people praising the violence he suffered, was right on to note that people would have been even happier had he suffered more damage.
I'll go further—if Perez Hilton were murdered today, I believe a sizable percentage of respondents in a poll would express satisfaction with that result. And that's incredibly wrong, but people take their celebrities seriously. It's all love/hate, and it's all life/death. Perez hasn't robbed anyone of their life savings or killed anyone, but for his crime of being a member of the love/hate media and for taking it further by being the poster child for extreme negativity in the media (and for being a gay unpopular among gays, and for being a star), the antipathy toward him has approached lethal levels.
And finally, the death of Michael Jackson is a further nail in the coffin of the Perez
Hilton brand. Not because Perez cynically posted that Jackson's cardiac arrest might be a hoax to avoid having to do all those London shows (he did; and it was fine for him to do so—Jacko has pulled similar stunts before, legit articles have been written about the skepticism that he'd ever be able to perform and Perez had no way of knowing the crisis was real), though that didn't help (Pete Wentz—a star himself—bashed Perez over that), but because Michael Jackson, like Princess Diana, is a figure that much
To me, it seems obvious Michael Jackson was ruined as a child before superfame even hit and that the combination of pedophilia, eccentricity (mental disease?), drugs and unlimited funds was his undoing
. If it looks like a child molester, swims like a child molester and quacks like a child molester
, then it probably is a child molester.
But Jackson, in death, is forgiven his "minor" transgressions by most and I think the mood his passing produces is that being in the spotlight is poisonous. And Perez Hilton is a part of that spotlight. Unfortunately for him, he happens to be the brightest light among spotlights at the moment, so he will take the brunt of all the general contempt.
That might be one of Perez's biggest problems—like Liz Smith or any other productive columnist, I'm certain he has a staff (have you noticed how wildly the tone of his posts varies?) but Perez is seen as one single person. Unlike Confidential or National Enquirer, Perez is not just a brand but is also one person. That makes him a tempting scapegoat. Reject him and we can exorcise all of our own negativity.
Except there is always Dlisted
(which brutalizes the famous at least as aggressively as Perez) or WWTDD
(which recently gloated
about his rejection by the Shepard Foundation for using hate speech just a couple of posts away from "I'm no pc homo"
and praising a homophobic broadcast
—"If the word 'faggot' didn't exist, you would say it naturally, you would invent it listening to this motherfucker, like, you would just go, 'Shut the fuck up, faggot!'"—by Opie & Anthony reacting to Perez's blubbering video) or The Superficial
or Awful Plastic Surgery
to take up the slack. (And before you squawk, I could just as easily defend these sites as criticize them, just like Perez.)
Actually, Perez's biggest problem is that he enjoys being famous. The Superficial—a site as nasty as PerezHilton if not as infamous for it—snidely notes he is, "Just a guy who wants to be Britney."
He's been called a famewhore by the best of them, and his turning to Twitter during the Molina assault was one of the things for which he's been most strongly criticized. Wanting to be famous is like the worst thing you can ever do, even though everyone wants to be famous. Don't we all want to be famous? Don't we all think we could be famous and do it better than the others, control it, survive it? But to aggressively enjoy fame is considered to be extremely obnoxious, especially when you're not perceived as having paid your dues to get it. For this, Perez Hilton might be on the verge of a pop cultural death sentence.
Forget about a famous band's hyper-angry manager, the punch Perez could have waiting for him as the public collectively decides he is passé (if they do—his Twitter is growing by 5,000 a day despite a call to unfollow him) could be even more surprising and painful. It that happens, plenty of people will be happy, including a good number of his fans, who will decide they shouldn't have liked him in the first place anyway.
"We are all Perez?" Not exactly. But if you enjoy The Real Housewives of New Jersey, if you think beautiful women in magazines could lose 10 pounds and have been known to wonder why Sarah Jessica Parker gets away with being so ugly, if you laughed instead of feeling compassion when Britney Spears shaved her head and then purchased a ticket to her concert tour not knowing if she was really ready, you're Team Perez whether you want to be or not.
Carey Hart advocates getting "really physical" to make Perez "go away."
But if it happens, if Perez Hilton is rejected, it will really just be a remarkable exercise in futility, of lashing out at ourselves, an example of our complete inability to realize that popular culture is important because it is a macrocosm of who we are as individuals, and that we are all as good—and as bad—as it gets.
Perez can try to save himself in a number of ways—for example, he can issue new guidelines for his site that would amount to his being a still critical yet less balls-out version of himself (you can be a critic without taking potshots), re-inventing before he can be remaindered. Or he might simply outlast the latest attacks by virtue of his site's self-perpetuating size and reach. But if he continues on as he is, he has to realize nobody will have the slightest bit of true sympathy for him when he is attacked in print or with a fist or when bad things happen to him or when his site disappears because while I would argue that we need critics and that outrageous critics like Perez are completely understandable (and darkly entertaining), that doesn't mean he has no choice but to be nasty. He chooses to be nasty. And when you traffick in nastiness, you have to accept that you will never be offered the milk of human kindness, no matter how much of your nastiness is "true" or even richly deserved by its targets.
But rather than running Perez Hilton out of town on a rail, why don't we attack the problem at its root—reject entertainment media that is not critical and fair.
But that's too hard, right? It's too hard to give up the spoonfed celebrity pabulum and too hard to give up the ensuing tantrum when we tire of that meal.
So at the increasingly urgent request of celebrities sick of being ridiculed (and therefore completely biased), and after giving us exactly what we secretly want in too blatant a manner, Perez might indeed fade from popularity (or not)...but don't kid yourself into thinking we'd be completely doing away with any culture of negativity, or into thinking you're not in any way a part of it in the first place.