Every day after I came home from high school, I’d run to my bedroom, turn on my enormous, whirring black Dell desktop, and read Perez Hilton — the up-to-the-minute celebrity gossip blog — for hours. Paparazzi hunting young famous women and bloggers updating their whereabouts by the second created the feeling that every It girl in Los Angeles was publicly spiraling. And Hilton was there to capitalize on it. Daily, sometimes multiple times a day, he would share salacious details about Paris Hilton’s sex tape or Lindsay Lohan’s love life with a gleeful viciousness. “Let’s Get The pAArty Started!” Hilton wrote in a 2007 headline about Lohan. The post, which detailed nothing more sordid than Lohan’s return to New York City, was accompanied by a photo of Lohan with Hilton’s signature white scrawl over the top of it: “Need crack!” I’m sure that 16-year-old me found this very funny. I was always delighted by his brutal cruelty, the grotesque doodles of ejaculating dicks he’d draw on the faces of rich, famous, beautiful women. I suppose I enjoyed seeing them taken down from their pedestals.
At the time, it felt like the entire world was doing much of the same — in July 2007, less than three years after it started, PerezHilton.com reported that the site hit a record of 8.82 million pageviews in 24 hours. “It was just an ordinary day,” Hilton wrote at the time. “No one was arrested or going in to rehab.” At the height of the site’s success in 2007, its most expensive ad package cost $45,000, and though blog stats at the time were notoriously unreliable, it also claimed millions upon millions of views per month.
For a few gleaming years there, Perez Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira Jr., was the most talked-about celebrity blogger in the world, but by 2014, his site’s view count had taken a big hit. Unsurprisingly, his readership started to dive around the time he no longer seemed interested in calling Mischa Barton “Mushy Fartone” or Jennifer Aniston “MANiston.” Hilton, now 43, has continued to run his blog, but with a much more mundane tone — he still loves to use ALL CAPS IN A HEADLINE, but now he’s just recapping social media posts or repeating news originally broken by Us Weekly or TMZ.
Regardless, his mean-spirited reputation has always followed him, as it did earlier this year with the release of Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary about Spears’ public struggles and eventual conservatorship. Predictably, a big part of the documentary was about her relationship with the paparazzi and an increasingly hostile press, which was always happy to follow and mock her. Hilton wasn’t mentioned in the documentary, but around the time of its release, his old posts about Spears began resurfacing on Twitter. One, titled “Britney’s Breakdown,” ends with, “Take her children away!!!!!!” repeated five times in bold. After Heath Ledger died, Hilton sold a T-shirt with a photo from Brokeback Mountain on it that said, “Why couldn’t it be Britney?”
Almost ritualistically, Hilton has had to apologize because of how frequently his old posts reappear and remind the public that he was once the leader in blog-era cruelty. “I’ve apologized countless times,” Hilton, who lives in Los Angeles with his mother and three children, told me in a Zoom interview in late March. “A lot of what I did during that time was reprehensible and toxic. But that wasn’t everything. I wasn’t just nasty and mean and cruel and hurtful. I was also positive and supportive.”
Elaine “Lainey” Lui, the longtime blogger who runs Lainey Gossip, is similarly trying to make amends for her old posts. Last summer, noted Meghan Markle bestie Jessica Mulroney, a stylist and television presenter, whose husband is also among Lui’s colleagues on the Canadian entertainment show etalk, was caught in a minor scandal. Mulroney had been called out by Toronto blogger and influencer Sasha Exeter, a Black woman, who claimed Mulroney tried to threaten her livelihood and cut her off from brand deals. In a post about the scandal, Lainey suggested that it was Mulroney’s positioning as a white woman that made her think she could speak to Exeter the way she did: “This is what makes white privilege so intimidating: it’s wrong and strong; white privilege can be STRONGER when it’s wrong,” Lui wrote. “My complacency has made me complicit in the endorsement of white privilege, allowing white privilege to flourish and damage.”
On its face, this was a notable moment of unprompted self-reflection. But Lui hasn’t always been such a thoughtful cultural analyst, and many of her past posts began to resurface on social media after she wrote about Mulroney: She once titled a post about Jada Pinkett Smith “The Daily Dyke,” referred to Tom Cruise as a “gay midget dwarf,” and called Janet Jackson “Ghetto Tits.” In response to her old posts going viral, Lui posted on Lainey Gossip last June about her own racism. “Not that you need this explained, but the shame must be named. My shame must be named,” Lui wrote. “‘Ghetto’ is a racist term for describing Black people. Also, I was body-shaming Janet Jackson when in fact that was my shame.”
Hilton’s and Lui’s blog posts exemplified the tenor of many gossip sites in the 2000s — mean, caustic, and occasionally funny. But in recent years, as public reconsiderations of the way the media has treated young female celebrities have gathered steam, the tone of Hilton’s and Lui’s blogs has changed dramatically. The cruel jokes that once made these bloggers popular now make them cancellable, and they’re both addressing their audiences in drastically different ways. Lui is in the thick of reforming her website into commentary that no longer relies on anti-gay slurs or sexist body-shaming, while Hilton’s newfound tone is, frankly, boring — there’s no longer anything that sets him apart from any other entertainment network, blogger, or aggregator.
Celebrity blogs aren’t as directly unkind as they used to be. It is far less acceptable, for example, for a blogger to post an upskirt photo of a teenager today than it was back when Hilton and other bloggers of his ilk would post those photos of Miley Cyrus as she gets out of her car. The public discourse around mental health and drug addiction continues to become more nuanced. This isn’t to say that slut-shaming, racism, and misogyny don’t exist on gossip sites — just that such comments are more likely to come from the followers of gossip accounts (now usually on Instagram) rather than the gossip sites themselves. It’s a change that mid-aughts gossip bloggers like Hilton and Lui have to navigate. But what kind of career revamp can you really have when, once upon a time, cruelty was your raison d’être? Lui, for one, is thinking a lot about how to make that shift. “If there’s one time to be a little self-involved,” Lui told me over the phone in late March, “it’s to be self-involved in your shame.”
Lui’s blog launched in 2003, when she was 30, originally as a newsletter she’d send to her friends. This was a pretty common trajectory for gossip blogs of that era — no wonder reading them always felt a little conspiratorial, like you were listening in on girls confirming rumors in the bathrooms at school. “I wanted to be taken seriously, and I took it very seriously,” Lui told me. “I knew that it was an opportunity. It felt exciting to be part of something new. In the early 2000s, even the word blog, or blogging as a profession or an activity, as an act in and of itself, was new.”
When she watched Framing Britney Spears, Lui saw herself and her work in the documentary, even if it wasn’t directly referenced. The night Spears was taken to the hospital on a stretcher in 2008, which resulted in a psychiatric hold and the beginning of her conservatorship woes, felt like the most important day thus far for gossip blogs. Lui stayed up late, knowing her readers would want her take on the events the next day. “When I look back on that through the eyes of now, I think to myself, that’s a news reporter following a story about a fire or a national disaster. For a lot of people, including me, that was the same approach that we were making, but for a human being.”
Lui’s past missteps started resurfacing more last summer, but she said she was taking steps to rectify what she had put into the world more than a decade prior. “I really don’t have an awakening moment — it was a gradual process,” she said. But around 2007 or 2008, one of her mentors lent her a book: How Race Is Lived in America, a compilation of articles from writers at the New York Times. “It made me think differently about race and how different experiences shape you, and I also started to think of myself as a person, how my experience with racism is so different. It’s been shitty and it’s been painful — not to play oppression olympics — but even though I have been a victim of racism, I can never appreciate what it’s like to be Black in America,” she said. “As I was reading that book, I was thinking about my own writing.”
Another big part of Lui’s evolution, rather improbably, is how affected she was by the 2012 story about Kristen Stewart having an affair with Rupert Sanders, her married director, while she was dating Robert Pattinson: “I remember she issued an apology, and part of her apology [to Pattinson] was, ‘I love him, I love him, I love him.’ It was so much,” Lui said. “From there, my thought process about her apologizing became, ‘Are we talking about the right thing here when we’re talking about her cheating on him, and what is that conversation about? Is there misogyny here?’” she said. “Then I started noticing things I wouldn’t have been bothered by four years ago. There was a New York Post cover calling her a trampire!” Lui has never been a pun-maker, but that kind of critique — one where a young woman was the target rather than the much older married man she was working for — was indeed something a younger Lui might’ve written. “That was so ugly to me,” she said. “If you had presented that same thing to me 10 years before that...shit, I don’t know if I would’ve had that same reaction.”
“I try to tell myself this is a very human response — you should feel this way regarding these things you did.”
In the ensuing years, Lui and her team have started to add disclaimers to old posts that are racist, anti-gay, anti-trans, sexist, or otherwise offensive. The Jada Pinkett Smith post, for example, now sports a highlighted banner: “This article was posted during an early period of the site when some of the writing was extremely offensive. Since then our site has grown and evolved. We have apologised, continue to take accountability, and documented our changes.” The disclaimer links to an FAQ page with a lengthy apology. “I am sorry for my past sins,” it says. “I understand that accountability is not temporary and must be ongoing. I also understand that forgiveness is not guaranteed.” Other posts have been completely deleted, like the Janet Jackson one. “They’re just so bad, it’s mostly to protect people from hurt,” Lui said.
Lainey Gossip has since morphed into an anthropological, lowbrow/highbrow study on fame and celebrity. These days, you visit Lainey to find out what’s really going on. In 2016, when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were divorcing, Lui was able to keenly dissect the statements they were offering up to the gossip rags, why they picked the magazines they did, and what they were actually trying to say. And in 2018, when Jennifer Aniston did a splashy Architectural Digest feature of her then-home with her soon-to-be-ex Justin Theroux, Lui wondered if it might be because they were divorcing. (They were.)
But she still has to face the humiliation sparked by her old work. “The feeling of shame is exactly the same feeling of embarrassment that I can accurately remember, molecularly feeling the same way in high school, when something embarrassing happened,” Lui said. Looking back on her old posts brings her back to that feeling; the difference is that Lui is now 47, and hiding in her locker isn’t really an option. “I think it would be worse to not change,” she said. “I try to tell myself this is a very human response — you should feel this way regarding these things you did.”
“I don’t want to be seen as covering myself,” Lui said. “I’m not trying to sound like, yeah, I’m so brave, I eat shit. Like, then what? You shut it down, you wait for it to go away, it is still just going to follow you. You might as well eat the shit.”
Like Lui, Hilton eventually realized he didn’t want to write the same way anymore. In hindsight, he compares himself to “a hardcore drug addict.” “Attention was my drug. A drug addict, in the moment, knows what they’re doing is wrong. Most of them wish they weren’t using, but they’re doing it anyway,” he said. “Part of me wishes that I could have claimed ignorance. But I’m very honest. I knew at the time what I was doing was wrong. I just didn’t care.” For Hilton, the change in his work is reflective of a change in his mental health. “Only recently, after getting back into therapy, have I realized that for the entirety of my life, I never mourned, properly grieved, and healed from my dad’s death,” he said. “Thankfully, I grew the fuck up,” he said. “And not everybody does that. Look at Donald Trump.”
Still, it’s hard to read any of Hilton’s current work without considering how he once covered the very same celebrities. In January, he wrote a glowing post about Lily Allen’s discussion of her addictions, saying that he “applaud[s] the star for being so open and honest about her struggles.” Yet in 2007, Hilton repeatedly wrote posts about Allen’s breasts or nipples accidentally being exposed, offering to his readers “a good hunk of boob.” Hilton never apologized to Allen, nor has he really made any amends for all the upskirt posts, the nip-slip photo reels, the times he called Allen a “twat.” Unlike Lui, he has posted no mea culpa post on his blog, no banner asking for forgiveness and explaining how he has reformed.
Among the worst posts in Hilton’s oeuvre were his attempts to out famous men as gay, namely Lance Bass, Neil Patrick Harris, and Dustin Lance Black. “Two years before I came out, I was really bullied on the internet by bloggers, that’s when Perez Hilton just started and was just really malicious against me,” Bass said in 2007, adding that the extra attention on his sexuality meant he knew he’d be outed with or without his involvement. In 2009, in a post that has since been removed, Hilton published photos of Black having sex with an ex-boyfriend, promising that a sex tape would be coming too. Hilton’s attempts to out celebrities attracted criticism from the Advocate and AfterEllen.com. (A few days after Hilton’s post about Black, GLAAD would chastise him for using anti-gay slurs.) “I’ve apologized for [outing gay men] as a whole,” Hilton told me. “Not everybody has forgiven me or has been gracious about it, and that’s fine,” he said, adding that Harris is now a casual acquaintance. “He included me in his book, [he] asked me to write something in it. I apologized in his book. So that was very nice of him. That was very noble of him.”
“I knew at the time what I was doing was wrong. I just didn’t care.”
Lui mentioned that part of the discomfort of admitting that some of your old coverage failed is that it may also wash away some of your successes. Maybe this is true — Hilton did promote queer artists and musicians on his blog, and he participated in the It Gets Better campaign as a way to reach out to queer young people. But the public will always remember your most bombastic acts first. In 2007, when he encouraged his readership to support a then-unknown Feist, he did it in a post about boycotting Britney Spears. “Britney is a frequent and habitual user of drugs and buying her song is just feeding her addictions,” he wrote. “Support Feist!”
There always seems to be another shoe to drop with Hilton. Last December, TikTok permanently banned him for violating community guidelines. It’s unclear why he was banned, but he has made a few strange and sometimes inappropriate comments about underage kids on the app. On one Charli D’Amelio video, he commented, “Anyone else think it’s inappropriate for a 15-year-old to dance to this?” On a 16-year-old’s page, he wrote, “All these videos are getting me hard.” In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a TikTok spokesperson said, “We are deeply committed to maintaining a welcoming and supportive community environment. Our Community Guidelines apply to everyone and everything shared on TikTok, and we removed accounts that repeatedly violate our policies.”
Shortly after the ban, Hilton posted a weepy video on YouTube, begging to be reinstated. But in our interview a little over three months later, he was glib about the ban. “I’m thankful! I thank them. Everything happens for a reason,” he told me. “Because I’m cancel-proof, I will be around forever. You can’t cancel somebody that’s already been canceled 100 times.”
The celebrity gossip machine has changed quite a bit in the last 10 to 15 years. Social media, for all its ills, has made it impossible for a blogger’s worst work to go unchallenged. On Instagram, accounts like deuxmoi (852,000 followers) and the Shade Room (23 million) are now the places to go for by-the-minute updates about celebrities.
Deuxmoi, an account run anonymously, posts Instagram stories of anonymous or anonymized blind items sent in by followers, thereby cutting down on any reader noise or feedback, unlike Perez Hilton and Lainey Gossip, where most readers repost and talk about the latest news on Twitter. The Shade Room, meanwhile, will dissect the comments of a celebrity’s Instagram post so that you don’t have to, putting together a narrative of who’s friends with who, who hates who, and who isn’t even speaking to who. But like celebrity blogs before it, the Shade Room has its own brand of toxicity. Instead of Hilton-type editorializing, the Shade Room team does little more than repost videos and screenshots with the 👀 emoji and let the comments do the work for them; anti-gay and anti-trans remarks flourish there with little to no actual moderation. The comments on last month’s elevator footage of Quavo and Saweetie getting in a fight in an elevator are plentiful and awful.
“I think the media as a whole has gotten better, but has the general public gotten better?” Hilton asked me. “Kanye West went through some very public episodes, mental-health-related, much like Britney Spears, and yet I would say more people on social media were not leading with empathy and compassion towards Kanye West.” He’s not wrong. It’s now no longer necessary for bloggers to do the heavy lifting of tearing public figures down.
As the nature of celebrity changes — thanks to the internet — influencers have also become subjects of gossip. But instead of showing up on People.com or Dlisted, there are YouTube “tea spillers” or “drama channels.” Drama channel host Rich Lux, who has nearly half a million subscribers on YouTube, makes daily videos, mostly about beauty “creators.” In a typical video, he talks about that day’s influencer gossip, with a full beat, a sparkly crown, and a fan in his hand for dramatic effect. Lux is friendly with a lot of the people he talks about — including Shane Dawson and Jeffree Star, two of the most polarizing YouTubers in the makeup scene. His content often reflects that; rarely does he take a real run at someone, on the off chance they might run into each other at a Morphe store. “I’ve met James Charles and Jeffree Star, and I kind of tend to humanize them,” he said. “You meet them, and you feel for them.”
Lux is one of very few YouTube tea spillers who speak to the camera, talking-head style. Many of his competitors are anonymous, faceless YouTubers, often with usernames like “Tea Spill” or “Teasurfaced.” Their videos are spliced edits of other people’s footage, overlaid with royalty-free music and saucy, snippy captions criticizing their targets. Rarely do you see a face, never mind a real name. “A lot of [gossip] creators are so scared to get canceled,” Lux said. “If you become a popular tea channel, people want to dig stuff on you. I want to spill the tea; I don’t want it to spill on me.” Gossiping about an influencer feels so intimate, like talking shit about someone you know — and the relatively recent phenomenon of stan culture, with its immediate and high-volume fan responses on social media, means the possibility of retribution feels higher than before. Deuxmoi is completely anonymous. The Shade Room has a staff, but you don’t necessarily know who wrote which Instagram post.
“If I were to die today, unexpectedly, if I were to be murdered, or died of cancer and I kept it a secret, most people would celebrate.”
But bloggers like Lui and Hilton were and are the faces of their websites. Other similarly savage bloggers, like the ones behind popular and still active ’00s gossip blogs Oh No They Didn’t and Dlisted (which still uses the tagline “Be Very Afraid”), haven’t had to reckon with their old posts, because they are largely nameless. Lui can’t hide from her past, but she can evolve from it, and now co-anchors two Canadian TV shows, The Social and etalk. (Neither show has publicly disciplined her over her past posts.) Hilton runs his websites, appears on reality shows like Celebrity Big Brother, and currently hosts The Perez Hilton Show, a weekly live chat on the video app Triller, where he has a little more than 6,000 followers. “It’d be great if I was on a panel show, and I could show people who I am today,” Hilton said.
I asked both Hilton and Lui what restorative justice might look like, not just for the people they insulted but for the communities they maligned. It’s not like they just wrote their blogs in a vacuum: Millions of people read their words. “For me, part of restorative justice is making contrition an ongoing process,” Lui said. “I don’t ever plan to get to a point where I say, ‘I don’t want to talk about this anymore.’ I’ll talk about it as much as anyone wants me to talk about it. I don’t think an apology is a one-and-done thing.” Lui said she’s also taken private meetings with people she knows in both personal and professional capacities to apologize directly. “It’s scary,” Lui said. “It’s shitty. Nothing is fun. But I think it makes so much more sense than just pushing it away. I’m trying to be much more aware of not benefitting but also taking responsibility — but not being praised for taking responsibility. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be.”
Hilton, meanwhile, is convinced that his current demonization is punishment enough for his past sins. “If I were to die today, unexpectedly, if I were to be murdered, or died of cancer and I kept it a secret, most people would celebrate. The majority of the world would be happy that I was dead, even if I leave behind three small children,” he said. “Thank god, we finally got rid of him, what took so long. That’s a bitter pill for me to accept, and I accept it.”
Near the end of our interview, I asked if he wanted to give one last apology for his old work. “I am sorry. I am deeply sorry,” he said. I started to wrap up our call, but he interjected one last time. “I guess maybe it’s like, I’m exhausted of saying I’m sorry, though,” Hilton said. “It’s like, I’ve said it. Haven’t I already said I’m sorry?” ●