Perez Hilton is still poking fun at celebrities. But as a blogger, radio host, author and now highly publicized advocate of gay rights, he's also become one -- and not just as a famous person, but a powerful and wide-reaching brand.
Still, Hilton, whose recent 31st birthday party drew the likes of the Jonas Brothers and Christina Aguilera, seems uneasy with the C-word.
His preferred title: Entertainer.
"I don't consider myself a celebrity because for every two people that like me, there's probably 3 1/2 that don't," he said by phone from Los Angeles. "And I don't care if you don't like me -- I just care if you still read my Web site."
And Hilton clearly likes to stir the pot: As if being asked to judge the April 18 Miss USA pageant wasn't enough to raise his profile, Hilton went for a bigger media blitz by asking Miss California Carrie Prejean about same sex marriage. Prejean's response -- that "marriage should be between a man and a woman" -- became one of the hottest topics on the talk-show circuit.
Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, made the rounds on CNN's "Larry King," NBC's "Today" and other major outlets. He defended his question as fair and relevant. Prejean stands by her remarks; meanwhile, Hilton stands by his, which include calling the beauty queen a B-word.
Their beef launched dozens of online video responses and was spoofed in a skit on Jimmy Fallon's talk show, ending with Fallon brokering a peace treaty between stand-ins for Prejean and Perez.
"I said she was a dumb (bleep)," he said. "Well, you know what? What she said to me in that answer was that I am a second-class citizen that doesn't deserve full equality under the law."
Hilton's blog has decried Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in his home state of California, and revealed the sexual preference of several celebrities who eventually announced they are gay.
"I've always considered myself an activist -- even when I was outing people, I did it because I believe in equality. ... If I'm gonna talk about a heterosexual celebrity that's having a secret relationship with someone else, I should do the same thing with a homosexual celebrity," he avowed.
But he's not the spokesman for the gay community, he said. He's just doing what he knows best: Being Perez.
The strategy has served him well: His over-the-top alter ego and celeb-mocking have resulted in an explosion of page views. Love him or loathe him, Hilton emerged as heavy competition for major news organizations, and paved the way for celeb-driven sites like TMZ.
"His blog captured the mood of the world -- which is a little snarky, a little cynical, a little provocative, a little tongue-in-cheek," said Howard Bragman, Hollywood publicist and author of "Where's My Fifteen Minutes?: Get Your Company, Your Cause, or Yourself the Recognition You Deserve."
Bragman said Hilton nailed the "right tone at the right time -- his instincts were very, very good. And a lot of those things that people were feeling, he was able to put online."
PerezHilton.com attracted 2.2 million unique visitors in the U.S. and 3.9 million globally last month, according to tracking firm comScore Inc. Henry Copeland, who runs advertising for Hilton, won't comment on his earnings. But he said that when advertisers take over the site -- like promoters of the Anne Hathaway-Kate Hudson film "Bride Wars" did recently -- the self-described "Queen of All Media" could potentially make tens of thousands of dollars per day.
"It all is a blessing because I didn't expect any of this," Hilton said. "I started my blog for fun. I didn't think you could make money from it."
Hilton, who insists money is a low priority, has aimed to expand his brand from the start. He wakes before dawn each morning to do his syndicated radio show, which airs in more than 75 markets. He released a book this year called "Red Carpet Suicide: A Survival Guide on Keeping Up With the Hiltons." He appears in numerous TV spots, and would like to get his own show.
More than anything, he loves music, often adding plugs for music artists he likes. He has hosted concerts in New York, Liverpool, U.K., Toronto and, most recently, Austin, Texas, where he lured the star power of Kanye West to perform at his party at the South By Southwest festival.
Hilton is also an avid user of Twitter, and has amassed nearly 700,000 followers on the micro-blogging site. Last week he tweeted about Lady Gaga -- someone he said he caught onto long ago -- and her "MIND-BLOWING acoustic" version of her song "Paparazzi."
For all his pursuits, Hilton keeps his goal simple: Media domination.
"I want to be like Oprah, only bigger," he said, without a trace of irony.
Hilton, who ranks No. 1 on Forbes' list of the 25 most famous Web celebs for the second year in a row, admires the rise of Ryan Seacrest, who leveraged his hosting gig on "American Idol" to build an entertainment empire, and desires the same for himself. And like Seacrest, he keeps a busy schedule: "I work really really hard -- I work harder than anyone I know. It could have been really easy for me to get lazy or coast."
Bragman said Hilton could live out his ambition "by being authentic, by not selling out, by being real -- because people have amazing authenticity detectors in this world. ... We know what's real and we know what's not, and we can smell sellouts. And as long as he sticks to what he does and what got him there and what he believes, and he expands in a controlled way and doesn't try to do too much too soon."
Does Hilton worry about keeping his brand afloat -- say, amid a crippling recession?
"It definitely is affecting me for sure -- but I don't care! I have a business manager," he said. "I let him handle all the finances and all that stuff. I'm too busy working to be worried about any of those things. Plus, I still don't do it for the money."