Not too long ago, Perez Hilton was the most successful celebrity journalist in the world.
He broke news of ‘Brangelina’, partied with Miley Cyrus (pictured), and charged brands $9,000 a week to advertise on his blog.
Today, he sells $10 bags of CBD gummies.
“I launched a new CBD brand,” he tells me over a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “Which people are loving. I’m very happy about that.”
Hilton is arguably still the world’s best-known showbiz reporter (he’s even been on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK). And he’s certainly not the only media entrepreneur to have diversified his revenues since the financial crisis.
But there’s no denying his blogging business has suffered a decline in recent years. At his noughties peak, Hilton claimed his website could attract as many as 14m hits in a single day. Perezhilton.com nowadays generates around 2m page views per month, according to SimilarWeb.
And for a free website, less traffic means less advertising income.
“I mean, unless you’re an A-lister, most everybody I know isn’t making what they were making in 2007,” Hilton says when I ask how far his revenues have fallen over the past 14 years.
“Not even the paparazzi are making that much. There’s just been an explosion of content. So everybody’s trying to create content and do it cheaper.
“Talkshow hosts – everybody with the exception of the top, top tier – everybody is making less than they used to.
“So that’s one of the reasons that I still do work as hard as I do. Because I have to. Because I don’t have F-U money in the bank, as they say. I don’t have enough money in my savings to never have to work again.
“I’m a working influencer. I’m a working creator. I’m like everybody else out there.”
Becoming Hollywood’s ‘most hated’
Born to Cuban parents, Hilton’s given name was Mario Lavandeira. He has not legally changed his name and says that some people still call him Mario.
“It depends who – but some do, some don’t. I love Perez Hilton though. It’s not easy being Perez Hilton. But I live a blessed life – very privileged, and very grateful.”
He launched his blog, and Paris Hilton-inspired brand, in September 2004.
“I put a lot of thought into the name,” he says. “The Perez is me – the outsider, the Latino, the gay. And Hilton is the mainstream – the Hollywood. So it’s the outsider’s perspective on showbiz and doing things differently than how they were done before.”
Hilton started his blog (known as PageSixSixSix.com before a New York Post trademark lawsuit) as a hobby and says it took him about a year before he “really started making any money from it”.
Asked if he had a specific breakthrough moment, Hilton lists two.
First, in early 2005, a TV show dubbed his website the “most hated” in Hollywood.
Second, Hilton – who tried his hand at acting before moving into journalism – was relieved of his duties at Star magazine.
“I got fired, but thankfully I was there long enough that I was able to collect unemployment,” he says.
“Getting fired from that job at Star magazine was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Because, by that point, I had already begun my blog, and had I not gotten fired, things may not have taken off the way that they did.”
‘A lot of it I look back on now and I cringe’
Helped by the nascent state of online journalism, Hilton broke some big stories – including the romance of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. (Hilton claims to have invented their shared name, Brangelina.)
Despite its many showbiz scoops, the Perezhilton.com of this era is best remembered for the wrong reasons. Hilton became infamous for “outing” gay celebrities. He dubbed Britney Spears an “unfit mother”. He allegedly shared a fake up-skirt photo of Miley Cyrus.
Today, the blogger says he looks back on many of his antics with regret. He suggests this behaviour was not in keeping with his own personality.
“I used to hide more behind this character of Perez Hilton,” he says. “But I’ve dropped the mask, as they say. Because that narrative that I used to tell myself… to disassociate myself from my behaviour, a lot of it I look back on now and I cringe.”
What does he cringe about specifically, I ask.
“I mean, just the way I spoke about people. It’s absolutely fine to have an opinion. It’s even fine to have a critical opinion. But it’s totally unnecessary and not productive to have a cruel opinion.
“And not everybody agrees with what I just said, especially young people. Some young people think any opinion that’s critical is bullying, and that’s just not true. But I just didn’t need to be cruel.”
Naturally, Hilton became unpopular with many in Hollywood. Khloe Kardashian described Hilton as her “personal bully”. Mila Kunis has suggested he was “the first person that created ugly news” and trolling.
Hilton recalls how another female celebrity “said that she wanted to kidnap me, take me to her farm, say that I was trespassing, and then shoot me and kill me. That was pretty wild.”
‘Back then I was posting a lot of wild content, which I don’t do anymore’
Hilton says that in late 2010 he made a conscious effort to tone down his scathing coverage of Hollywood.
Asked why, he cites a “health journey” that he’d embarked upon.
“But I was afraid to act on those thoughts of doing things in a different way because, by 2008 and 2009, I had already been doing things a certain way for so long.
“I had established my brand. And I was afraid of people not being receptive to that change and losing everything that I had worked so hard for.
“But there did come that tipping point, that breaking point, where I said: ‘I don’t care if I lose everything – this needs to happen.’”
Did traffic to Perezhilton.com decline as a result?
“Yeah, it did decline,” he says. “And it’s okay. I understand. Back then, I was posting a lot of wild content, which I don’t do anymore. Content that people will seek out that’s inappropriate. Some outlets might still do things like that, but I realised that’s not for me.”
Presumably, advertising revenues suffered as a result of this?
“Yeah,” says Hilton. “But thankfully, by that point, I’d already started diversifying.”
Today, as well as selling CBD gummies, Hilton also has a podcast and is an active YouTuber.
Despite its decline, Hilton would argue that his site still punches above its weight. “I have like a skeletal staff,” says Hilton. “I definitely have help because I’m doing so many different things.”
As well as employing his sister, who is “kind of like my COO, I would say,” Hilton says he has people who help him with social media, writing and tech. “It’s still small, especially compared with a TMZ. And that’s good, because if it were too big I may not be around anymore.”
The blog remains Hilton’s primary focus. “Because I’m still so blessed and grateful that people are reading it and sharing it and I’m able to support my family through it.
“But I have pivoted throughout my career and it’s very important to diversify. And I’ve done that historically since 2007. Whether that be getting into acting again, starting a YouTube channel – and now I have two YouTube channels – starting a podcast, doing reality television. I launched a new CBD brand, which people are loving – I’m very happy about that.
“And also I’m very fortunate to be bigger than my little blog.”
‘The word “influencer” didn’t exist… I would say I was the first, if not one of the first’
Reflecting on the early days of his business, Hilton now thinks of himself as the original celebrity influencer.
“The word ‘influencer’ didn’t exist [then],” he says. “I didn’t see anybody then doing what I do now, or what a lot of other creators do. I would say I was the first, if not one of the first.”
Ironically, Hilton recently fell foul of modern influencer culture when TikTok permanently deleted his account following a campaign that was apparently orchestrated by fans of Charli D’Amelio, one of the app’s most-followed personalities.
“That specific thing only ended up helping me because I got a ridiculous amount of press,” says Hilton now.
“So, you know, 17 years later, to still be talked about as much as I am – it’s wild. I get talked about more often than some celebrities that are very famous.”
Why is that, I ask.
“I think the reason I’m so talked about is because I’m so hungry and transparent and thirsty. And I say yes to everything. And I know how to milk things.
“It’s also – and I was talking about this to my therapist – it’s probably also one of the reasons why some people only view me in a negative light. Because even though I’ve matured, evolved and grown, I still engage in behaviour that’s not the norm.
“Meaning, if I get negative comments, I don’t delete them. In fact, I’ll take it a step further. I’ll pin negative comments on my Instagram, I’ll retweet negative comments on my Twitter.”
No matter what you think of Perez Hilton, it’s difficult to deny that he was a blogging pioneer who changed the US showbiz journalism industry.
When I ask what effect he thinks he had on celebrity culture in the United States, Hilton offers a surprisingly prosaic response.
“I would say that I really helped change consumption and production as well,” he says. “I was able to share with my audience things happening almost in real-time. Prior to me, that just wasn’t happening. Prior to me, people just weren’t talking about celebrities online.”
Magazines like People and Us Weekly, he says, used their websites as landing pages to promote magazine subscriptions.
“Now the whole model has flipped,” he adds. “They’re breaking all their news on the website, and the magazines are just bonus or supplemental. I would not take credit for it, but I was part of changing the way people consume and share media.”
Is it also fair to say that Perez Hilton made celebrity journalism and Hollywood a nastier place?
“Yes,” says Hilton after a lengthy pause for thought. “Clearly it wasn’t just me. But I was part of the problem, for sure.”
Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images