Runyon Canyon is a peculiar place. It is ruggedly wild, a natural, gaping scar that slices through part of the Hollywood Hills, yet its close proximity to the heart of Los Angeles also makes it distinctly urban, with expansive views of the city’s skyscrapers and grid-like streets. It is rarely quiet on summer days, with body-conscious hikers and dog walkers jostling for space on its trails, burning calories in the blistering heat, glistening pectoral muscles and barely covered cleavages on prominent display.
It is an appropriate place to interview Perez Hilton, the Hollywood gossip blogger who turned his coverage of celebrities into a burgeoning media empire. “I love listening to other people’s conversations here,” he giggles conspiratorially, after a loud-talking couple march past us as we set off down the canyon trail. He tells me there is even a website dedicated to Runyon snippets, which includes gems such as “How can you live with yourself knowing that thing on your face is called a handlebar moustache?” and “Online dating is like my second job right now.”
The buff Hilton, today wearing a white running vest, shorts and toe shoes (they are supposedly better for your joints and back, he explains), does not look out of place among the toned hordes. He recently lost 80lbs and has become exercise obsessed – one of many changes he has made since 2010, when he shocked his fans by vowing to stop being mean to the people he wrote about. The change in tone does not seem to have hurt business: the gossip blog he started from a coffee shop eight years ago has grown into an entertainment news empire spanning five websites and attracting a combined 12 million visitors a month. His audience avidly tracks him on Twitter, where he has more than 5 million followers; he also has two radio shows, a music management company and does stints as a TV presenter, where he has interviewed the likes of Lady Gaga for the E! channel.
Born Mario Lavandeira, Hilton, now 34, burst into Hollywood at the end of 2004 when he launched his blog with his own slant on celebrity news. He renamed himself in tribute to Paris Hilton, the heiress who has been tabloid fodder for much of the past decade, and published news snippets and pictures of celebrities annotated with his own amusing and unflattering observations. In March 2005, the blog took off like a rocket after The Insider, one of several entertainment TV news shows that dominate the US airwaves, named it “Hollywood’s most hated website”.
The people who hated his website were the celebrities he was writing about. Hilton, who at the time wrote his blog from the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf café on Sunset Boulevard – “I would use the free WiFi” – recalls the conversation with the producers of The Insider as we trudge down the canyon from the entrance on Mulholland Drive. “I said: ‘I don’t think I’m the most hated but if you’re going to put me on TV, then sure.’”
His site was a big hit because of its immediacy and its acerbic take on celebrity culture: it was Hilton who coined the “Brangelina” moniker given to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and he was one of the first to publish pictures of the pair together as a couple. He often used photos without authorisation, which landed him in trouble with the big photo agencies. “It was a twofold thing,” he says. “It was just a layer of entertainment and it was great branding. Someone downloaded a photo and put it on Facebook or wherever – people would know it came from my site.” Now he says he has changed his ways and pays for every single photo that he uses. “I got into major trouble and became a big boy without even meaning to. When you’re a big boy you have to play by the big boy rules.”
His willingness to publish news whenever he got it quickly won him readers – and admirers. Hilton has reportedly fielded several takeover offers over the years, with one reportedly valuing his blog at more than $30m, but he has, to date, remained independent. His approach to celebrity news was also a wake-up call for US tabloid magazines such as People, which had been slow to take the plunge into online publishing. “When I started blogging eight years ago, there were no other gossip blogs and the celebrity magazines would just use their websites to get subscriptions. Now, they’re pretty much breaking the news on their sites. It’s instant and people don’t have to wait a long time.”
But Hilton didn’t always hit the mark. In the summer of 2007 this child of Cuban immigrants almost caused an international incident when he reported that Fidel Castro had died. The setback failed to derail his site’s rapid growth but, while gossip lovers lapped up his scoops, his snarky tone did not endear him to the people he wrote about.
This spilled into the open in autumn 2010 when he made a video aimed at bullied gay teens for a series of films called It Gets Better, the brainchild of the journalist Dan Savage. Public figures, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Ellen DeGeneres have also posted video messages. Hilton then asked Khloe Kardashian, a member of the infamous reality TV family and a target of Hilton prior to 2010, to do a video for the campaign. After some hesitation she released her message supporting the project, but specifically highlighted Hilton as her “personal bully”.
“It was a big wake-up call,” Hilton admits. “It’s very easy to get lost in the centre of your own universe and I had lost touch with reality. In my mind, everyone who mattered read my website… they understood who I really was. That’s what I would tell myself, anyway. What I realised was: gosh, the majority of the world thinks you’re a douche bag and you’re making it a worse place.” Hilton changed after this: gone were the withering critiques of celebrities, replaced by a cuddlier, friendlier Perez dedicated to writing more positive stories.
We are making our way down the canyon, walking into the sun, and I say that it must have been a risk to abandon the very thing that made him a success. He says he agonised about the change. “I would tell myself that I had built my brand to be a certain thing and had been doing it for so long, that I could alienate my audience if I did a 180 [degree turn].”
His web operation is now broader in scope and, according to Hilton, more popular than before he stopped writing mean things about celebrities. He has dedicated sites for fashion, fitness and families: even his dog, Teddy Hilton, has his own site. “The business has grown and my brand has changed. I’m more than just a blogger now. I’m Perez who does all these other things.”
It is unclear if the celebrities he used to skewer have forgiven him, but dropping the bitchiness has won him powerful new friends. Oprah Winfrey hailed his “deep spiritual awakening” when she invited him on to her show alongside New Age guru Deepak Chopra to talk about how he reinvented himself. But not all of his audience loved the change in tone. Many of his loyal readers – most of whom are women – wrote to him imploring him to take the site back to the way it was. He refused to budge. “I was the bitchy blogger,” he sighs. “But there’s no going back. People grow and change… it wouldn’t have been honest to not have that reflected in the website.”
Hilton talks a lot about “personal growth” and “energy” and I begin to wonder if he has been in southern California too long. He has lived in the state for most of the past decade, moving here to pursue an acting career after scoring some small parts in New York, including a minor role in an episode of The Sopranos. But Hollywood success didn’t happen, he says, “the way it doesn’t happen for most people”. So he – briefly – returned to New York, where he landed a job writing for Star, a tabloid magazine.
“I hated it with a passion,” he says, emphatically. “I started blogging [about celebrities] because I was a fan. And working there I felt like a stalker.” Hilton was raised in Miami and speaks fluent Spanish, so the magazine sent him undercover to speak to Latino workers at a hotel where Russell Crowe was staying. But Hilton got caught. “I had to scream: ‘Please don’t arrest me! I was just doing my job!’” After being asked to spy on the actress Renée Zellweger, he decided he’d had enough. “They transitioned me to boring stuff. I was the guy who had to talk to ‘experts’, like the weight loss expert to see if he would say that Nicole Richie was too skinny.” Eventually, “mercifully”, he was fired. Yet he had worked there long enough to qualify for unemployment benefit, which meant he could devote his time to his fledgling web operation.
We have reached the bottom of the hill, with several dozen other people who are preparing to hike or run back up. A tattooed young man with red hair approaches us and asks if I would snap a picture of him with Hilton, who obliges, smiling sweetly while I take the shot. “Oh Perez, you’re so awesome!” he squeals as he scampers off when I’ve finished. Hilton takes it in his stride and then we’re off, back up the hill. The going is much steeper than coming down and it is not long before I am sweating profusely and breathing heavily. Hilton has barely broken sweat. As I gulp in air, I ask him about his position in the gay community. He refers again to the It Gets Better video. “A lot of gay people viewed me as someone to be ashamed of. But I was never trying to represent the gay community, just like I’m not trying to represent the Latino community. I was just being me.”
Gay marriage is a hot political topic in California, with opponents trying to reinstate a ban overturned by a 2010 court ruling. “We call it same-sex marriage,” Hilton says, curtly, “because there is no difference between gay marriage and straight marriage.” I splutter an apology and ask if he thinks same-sex marriage will eventually be legalised. He says it is “inevitable”. “I, being an Aries, am impatient and would prefer it to happen sooner or later. But it’s just one issue and the most visible one. Look at adoption – gay parents can’t adopt in many US states. There are so many inequalities in this country – it’s not just ‘woe is me, I’m gay.’ The inequalities are across the board.”
Since we are talking about gay rights, I ask about another of the contentious aspects of his site pre-2010: his willingness to “out” closeted gay celebrities. “I don’t do that anymore,” he says firmly. “I wanted to set the right example.” What about celebrities who behave badly or get themselves into trouble, I say. Are they fair game? “I think celebrities are more aware now. They are more careful and they know that there is much less privacy for them these days. But sometimes the more things change, the more they stay the same. You have people like Lindsay Lohan that keep repeating mistakes over and over again. And things like Twitter get people into trouble.”
We have almost reached the top of the canyon, passing into some shadow that offers respite from the heat. Hilton seemed to have such a good time when he was getting under the skin of the celebrities he was writing about that I wonder if he enjoys his work less now he is in nice mode. Is it as fun as it was? He laughs. “I still love what I do. I think of it as like being a surfer. There are no two days alike: some days you have big waves, some days you have small waves… it’s just about loving surfing and getting out there and enjoying the ride.”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s LA correspondent