It has been fascinating, to put it mildly, to watch the self-serving cycle of apologies and faux humility that has emerged in the aftermath of the documentary Framing Britney Spears. Almost 14 years since the singer suffered a painful public breakdown that became tabloid fodder and pop culture jokes by the ton, a whole lot of people who profited from her suffering are suddenly saying, ‘My bad.’ Granted, most of them are cloaking their vague modesty in the justification that ‘we were all responsible’ for what happened to Spears, as if the teenage fan reading Us Weekly was just as much to blame for the misogynistic smears as the people who wrote and published them. Justin Timberlake released the prerequisite Notes App apology on Instagram, while magazines like Glamour admitted their role in the barrage of shame, albeit while downplaying how actively complicit they were in perpetuating such darkness. And now, joining the fray may be the most pathetic example of the entire sorry PR clean-up.
Mario Armando Lavandeira Jr., a.k.a. Perez Hilton, is far and away one of the most toxic figures in 21st-century entertainment media. His eponymous gossip blog was at its peak in the early to mid-2000s, driven by his ceaseless misogyny, cackling cruelty, and total lack of ethics. In an interview with Good Morning Britain (the show hosted by like-minded bully, Piers Morgan), he said ‘I regret a lot or most of what I said about Britney […] Thankfully, hopefully, many of us get older and wiser.’
Side note, but it’s especially hilarious to hear Hilton make claims about being older and wiser given that, only a couple of months ago, Hilton was sobbing about having been banned from TikTok for violating community guidelines. Hilton is 42.
Hilton’s blogging career exploded into infamy almost immediately. Initially named PageSixSixSix.com, his site was named ‘Hollywood’s Most-Hated Website’ by The Insider a mere six months after its launch. Hilton would later claim that a normal day of traffic in mid-2007 was around 8.8 million views, a claim that sites like Gawker disputed. Regardless of the tangible numbers, PerezHilton.com became impossible to avoid, as did its self-styled villainous star-sucking editor. Hilton was a strange blend of gossip blogger: a shameless wannabe celebrity who seemed to hold most famous people (usually young women) in disdain. With his MS Paint scrawls over deliberately unflattering images, Hilton was somewhere between a court jester and a garden variety schoolyard bully. He claimed to be punching up with his targets but that did little to justify how staggeringly cruel he could be.
His favored targets were typically young women, like child stars Vanessa Hudgens and Miley Cyrus. In 2010 he posted a Twitter message linking to an upskirt shot of Cyrus, who was still underage at the time. He delighted in calling women ‘dumb’ and ‘b*tch’. LeAnn Rimes was called a ‘homewrecking ho’ while Rumer Willis was nicknamed ‘Potato Head.’ Hilton was also notorious for outing LGBTQ+ celebrities against their will, something he claimed was a positive thing and not rooted in cruelty because he himself is gay.
And then, of course, there was Britney Spears. The singer was treated similarly to other troubled women of the era, like Lindsay Lohan, by Hilton, usually through derogatory insults, old-school sexism, and a goading tone designed to push these women to their limit. Hilton breathlessly covered every aspect of Spears’s life and troubles, and always in the nastiest way he could think of. He called her a bad mother, criticized her appearance, and made repeated jokes about her mental health. Most infamously, he sold t-shirts on his website in the aftermath of Heath Ledger’s death showing the actor in Brokeback Mountain alongside the message. ‘Why couldn’t it be Britney?’ Curiously, during her Circus tour, Spears hired Hilton to play the evil queen in a recorded introduction to her show, and even brought him on-stage during a performance in 2014, although given what we know about the puppet-masters pulling Spears’s strings as part of her conservatorship, even this moment of seeming magnanimity feels rather suspicious.
Questionable if this is even a celebrity, but @PerezHilton tried selling T-Shirts when Heath Ledger died that said "Why Couldn't it Be Britney?" and called her an unfit parent. pic.twitter.com/Dkqx0PmubW— Britney Fan 🌹 (@BritneyHiatus) June 28, 2020
Looking back on that strange period of the internet and gossip culture, it’s hard to remember why Hilton was so powerful and how widely accepted his blatant bullsh*t was by the media masses. He was a twisted pioneer of sorts, a shot across the waters by the internet towards the traditional spheres of entertainment journalism. That liminal period that preceded the domination of social media saw the beginning of the decline of tabloid power, at least in America. Granted, it’s not as if magazines like People have ever gone away or lost their purpose in the grand scheme of fame as an industry, but they no longer command the clout that they did even 15 years ago. It was a time when people feverishly picked up magazines to find out the latest news on some of the biggest stars on the planet, from Brad and Angelina to Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. This was also the era where a new brand of celebrity began to dominate the scene: the reality stars and first-generation internet sensations who seemed to offer a more proudly shameless approach to fame that A-Listers eschewed. Hilton was right at home in this ecosystem, especially since a sharp streak of cruelty bound together much of this coverage.
Whether it was Pink’s in-hindsight smarmily nasty video for ‘Stupid Girls’ or David Letterman asking Lindsay Lohan which famous men she’d had sex with, there was a strange sense of open season on a specific brand of celebrity: white, skinny women who toed the line towards ‘trainwreck’ status. They became the public faces of a certain strain of societally acceptable misogyny, the notion that it was totally OK to attack women if they were ‘letting the gender down’ or ‘acting like stupid whores.’ Spears faced this by the bucketload and had done so since her teens. It was an era of hating the player and not the game, to put it bluntly, and people like Hilton became the leaders of the bear-baiting mob. Hilton merely verbalized society’s worst views on troubled women: they’re ‘asking for it.’
Hilton has tried to reinvent himself as a kinder gossip hound, a grown-up father of three who is down with the kids and newly imbued with a sense of empathy. It’s never been a believable image for him given that he snaps and sobs and lashes out with familiar regularity whenever he’s called out. The celebrity market is different now. I wouldn’t say it’s any kinder — have you ever spent time on Twitter? — but there’s a more considerate nature at play. I’m not sure a struggling young woman going through what Britney did would be reported on in 2021 as callously as it was in 2007. Of course, we need only look to the treatment of women like Meghan Markle, Megan Thee Stallion, Diane Abbott, and Brie Larson for proof against that optimism. Still, there’s a reason Hilton isn’t as horrid as he was in his heyday. It’s not so good for business. Readers want more layered, contextual, and emotionally centered coverage of celebrities (or, at least, that’s been my experience as someone who writes about this for a living.) Moreover, we want justice for women like Spears, and Hilton’s mealy-mouthed non-apology just isn’t going to cut it. Frankly, I’m not sure any amount of sad selfies or regretful statements will be enough to undo the damage he did. The rot still runs deep from the cruelty for profit he bombarded us with for years. He was but one cog in the machine, but that machine wouldn’t have worked had he excused himself.
So, Mr. Hilton, you can shove your apology right where the sun doesn’t shine.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.