His open-closet policy

Times Staff Writer

THE white-hot center of the celebrity gossip world is currently a back table at a heavily trafficked Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard, just west of Fairfax. There, Perez Hilton, a slightly pudgy, recently blonded 28-year-old Cuban American blogger, has leveraged his reign as "queen of all media" to become a one-man celebrity outing operation, doing his best to uncloset as many gay celebrities as he can, because, as he sees it, they have forfeited their right to privacy on that point.

"In American culture, a lot of people still think that being gay is bad, and that being gay will hurt your career. I generally don't think that," said Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira. He began using his made-up Web moniker full time after getting death threats from Clay Aiken fans who didn't appreciate Hilton's calling the singer Clay Gay-kin. (Aiken has denied being gay.)

Styling himself a "gossip gangsta," Hilton picks heroes and villains (Angelina Jolie = good, Jennifer Aniston = bad), elevates obscure figures to fame (the bodaciously endowed British model Jordan) and never tires of ragging on Lindsay Lohan, of whom he delights in posting vulgar photographs.

But it is the absolutely brutal way he demands that gay actors avow their sexuality, coupled with the huge readership of his site, that is something of a departure, even in the rough-and-tumble world of celebrity blogs.

"I am not some safe, cookie cutter, queer-eye-for-the-straight-guy homo," said Hilton, who pings between comedy and gross vulgarity on his site. "I am dangerous. I am gonna push the envelope. I am gonna be who I am: a loud, gay Latino that has opinions and in my own way, subserviently, I am trying to make the world a better place."

It is true that Hilton does not take credit for the recent spate of revelations by the actors Neil Patrick Harris and T.R. Knight and the former 'N Sync band member Lance Bass. But, at least with Bass and Harris, Hilton kept up a drumbeat about their sexual orientation. Some think the relentless attention may have played a part in their decisions. He agreed, up to a point.

"I am never gonna take ownership of someone's coming out -- that's their moment, and their decision," Hilton said Tuesday evening, twisting his baseball cap around as he sat at his "desk" in the Coffee Bean with his indispensable laptop and pink Sidekick. "I will say that I may be leading the conversation, and I might grease the wheel and make it easier for them."

Even serious-minded thinkers on the subject do not disagree. "Nowadays, it's the blogs that get it going," said USC professor Larry Gross, author of "Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing." "In the previous round of outing in the early '90's, everybody wanted to be first to be second. No one wanted to take the heat for starting it, but the blog phenomenon has changed that by lowering the threshold to the point that other media can't avoid it. What we are now seeing is Outing 2.0"

This year, Hilton practically trilled, "there have been six -- well, 5 1/2 if you count Ted Haggard -- notable people that have come out as gay or lesbian, by choice or not." In addition to Knight, Harris and Bass, he cites ex-Florida Rep. Mark Foley and a TV actress who has not publicly acknowledged she is gay.

In 2004, Hilton added, there was only one notable gay person who stepped out of the closet: James McGreevey, who resigned as governor of New Jersey when he came out. "It's gone from one to 5 1/2 ," said Hilton. "Wow, wow, wow. That's progress, whether we like it or not."

With more than 2.5 million hits a day on the site, Hilton wields tremendous power. "I don't want to sound full of myself, but if I had not been talking about Lance Bass as much as I was before he came out, there is no way he would have gotten the cover of People magazine. He would have gone about it the traditional way, coming out on the cover of the Advocate, which is read by 70,000 people instead of the 3.4 million who read People every week. So I offered him this silver platter, you could say."

Still, in the arena of true breakthroughs, said Gross, the gay world is still waiting for its Jackie Robinson equivalent, an A-lister who would make it OK for others to come out. In that regard, he said, Hilton's efforts are "salutary, because we are still living in a double-standard world ... where there is something shameful about sexuality. The fact that someone is gay only will become neutral information when it's treated that way, not as a bombshell revelation or a dirty story."

Hilton already operates as though that is the case. He wishes that gay celebrities who don't want to talk about their private lives could just say, "Yes, I am gay and I don't want to talk about my private life."

He does not own a TV or read books and has no Internet at home. He is a voracious consumer of magazines, though, and has a network of trusted friends and tipsters who, he said, have yet to lead him astray.

He starts work around 6:30 a.m., sometimes posting 30 times a day, a far more prodigious output than many fully staffed sites. By sheer energy and personality, his site and he are rapidly evolving into a brand. He is in demand by radio and TV outlets as a celebrity commentator. He recently taught a Learning Annex class, "How to Blog Your Way to Fame and Fortune." ("I inspired myself!" he said.)

Collaborating with the production company World of Wonder, Hilton will star in his own reality show. He is the subject of a four-page layout in December's GQ, will co-host MTV's New Year's Eve special, will appear on the cover of the Advocate next month and was just named to a list of 25 powerful Latinos by the New York Post, which sued him in May 2005 for trademark dilution, among other things, prompting him to rechristen his original website, Pagesixsixsix (it's now called perezhilton .com). "I guess they didn't find the name funny," said Hilton.

Hilton is also smart enough to know that his current good fortune could be fleeting and is working 19 hours a day to make sure it stays. After all, it was only last year that this lower-middle-class, Jesuit-schooled kid from Miami was unemployed, $60,000 in debt, in bankruptcy and deeply depressed. Today, he said, he earns six figures. He has agents, a lawyer, a manager and a public that, despite its craving for the content he provides, can be vicious toward him in comments on his site. Which he loves. "Every time they leave a comment, it's a page view," he said. "I'm laughing all the way to the bank."

He moved to Los Angeles full time in 2002, after graduating from New York University, where he studied acting. While looking in vain for acting gigs, he was hired as a publicist, but didn't like the clients. "The last straw was this 40-year-old single mother who came out with a mermaid bikini calendar. It was her in a mermaid tail, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, this lady is like too old for this. But hey, I was resourceful.... I booked her at Long Beach aquarium!"

He was hired by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, overseeing newsletters and annual reports. "I don't think I am their favorite person right now," he said.

A spokesman for GLAAD was diplomatic. "Media speculation about a celebrity's orientation is not something we support and it can be problematic," said Damon Romine. "Whether you are a celebrity or not, coming out is ultimately a personal process."

After Hilton left GLAAD, he freelanced for gay publications and found work at the Star briefly before being fired. Combining his three failed occupations -- actor, publicist, journalist -- he has struck gold.

"Next year will be one of two things," he said. "I am gonna fall or it'll be even bigger and better and crazier than this amazing year has been. I am hoping bigger and better, but I'm prepared for the other one too."

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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