Now releasing a children’s book, The Boy With the Pink Hair, the new man behind the controversial brand explains why he’s a great role model for kids — even if he’ll never be Neil Patrick Harris.
By Brandon Voss
“He was born that way,” begins The Boy With Pink Hair, Perez Hilton’s debut children’s book — available Wednesday on Penguin’s Celebra imprint — about a kid who loves the candy-colored locks that make him unique. Almost a year since the polarizing blogger and media mogul appeared on Ellen to publicly announce that he was becoming a kinder, more positive person, Mario Lavandeira, the real man beneath Perez’s mask, maintains that he was born to make the world a better place. He also wants gay men to know that he’s slim, single, and emotionally ready for “super-kids” of his own.
The Advocate: Even from the so-called Queen of All Media, I never expected a children’s book.
Mario Lavandeira: I didn’t either, to be honest. It was nothing I ever wanted to do. In fact, in the past I’ve made fun of celebrities for writing children’s books. But I was at a book event, talking about my celebrity-related second book, and Mario Lopez was there promoting his children’s book. Teasing him, I flippantly said, “Well, I should write a children’s book too — and it should be about a boy with pink hair!” After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The story formed so quickly in my brain, and I was so in love with it that I felt compelled to make it happen. Then there was the whole rash of gay teenagers committing suicide, so I thought it had a great message to get out there for young people. It’s also a great message and a great read for people of all ages.
Now that you have your own version of The English Roses, do you feel differently toward celebrity authors of children’s books?
Everybody approaches it with a different intention. My intention was to create something very positive for the universe, as cheesy as that may sound. I had a really beautiful story that I wanted to share, and I had the ability to do it, so why not? The great thing about my career trajectory is that I’ve been able to do a bunch of different things, and this is something I haven’t done before. It may not make sense, but if people read the book or give it to a kid, hopefully they’ll love it. I love it. Out of everything I’ve ever done, it’s one of the things I’m proudest of.
How did your own childhood inspire The Boy With Pink Hair?
A lot of me is in the book, but I think it’s relatable to everybody. It’s about being born different. It’s about friendship, acceptance, finding what makes you special and sharing it with the world. I’ve always considered myself a freak, an outsider, and a bit of an interloper. I never really fit in with any groups, so I just did my own thing. After I became an adult, I still felt like an outsider. Then I became Perez, and I felt like even more of an outsider. I literally had my hair pink for a while. Figuratively, I’m still pink on the inside.
To what extent were you bullied for being different as a kid?
I got bullied just as much if not more for being fat than for being clearly gay and in the closet. I went to an all-boys Jesuit school in Miami from sixth through 12th grade. Thankfully, I never contemplated suicide, and I wasn’t so miserable that I wanted to leave school. Actually, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
You’ve often been described as a cyber-bully. Because history has a way of repeating, how much do you think your being bullied manifested into your own bullying ways?
Not that much. It had more to do with the nature of the Internet and how that beast has morphed over the years. In the real world and in my real life, I’ve always been a really nice person. But I adopted this character and this persona that was not so nice all the time. So one of the many things that I’ve been doing over the past year — it’s been almost 12 months now — is taking this mask off and showing the world more of the real me.
Doesn’t dropping that professional mask make you susceptible to attacks on a more personal level?
I’ve put a lot of thought into this. Unlike a lot of other people in the public eye, I still genuinely don’t care about being liked. What matters to me now is that people don’t perceive me as someone who’s a negative influence on culture and the world. I don’t want gay people to be ashamed of me or to think I’m a stigma on the community. Gay people don’t have to like me, as long as they aren’t embarrassed that I’m one of them. Not everyone likes Suze Orman or Rosie O’Donnell, but I don’t think anyone’s saying that they’re making the world a worse place. That’s what matters to me: I don’t want people thinking I’m making the world a worse place.
So as long as no one thinks you’re a complete monster, you can tune out what people say about you? You’re totally unfazed by vicious, catty comments?
When I was unhappier, what people said didn’t bother me because I could hide behind the mask of Perez. Now I feel happier than I’ve ever been in my whole life, so it still doesn’t bother me. I turned 33, the year of Christ, the double prime — it’s a powerful number and a powerful year — and I’m taking steps in the right direction in every part of my life, professionally and personally. These last 12 months of growth have been the most cathartic of my whole life. I even started therapy. I’ve been putting the work into myself, making myself better, happier, healthier, and hopefully that reflects itself in my websites and in everything else that I do.
Do you see your children’s book as part of the master plan to be a kinder, gentler person?
No. Well, it’s a step in that direction, but the idea first came to me before I made that change.
You’re still a controversial figure who has been involved in some very adult scandals in the past. Are you worried that parents will be hesitant to buy their children a book written by the notorious Perez Hilton?
I didn’t think of it that much — I just thought it was such a cool idea — but at first my publisher didn’t want to do the book, and probably for those exact reasons. Thankfully, after enough convincing and time passing, the publisher saw my vision and how sincere I was about my intentions. I’m aware that there’s going to be skepticism, but I also think I’m the perfect person to write a children’s book. I’m walking the walk, I’m living by my word, and I’m hopefully setting a good example for children: I’m a guy who was behaving in a certain way, I realized I was wrong, I recognized changes that needed to be made, and I made those changes. Now I’m trying to do a lot of good in the world, which includes stepping up my charity efforts. This year I’ve been dedicated to [the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network] and raising as much money for them as I can. I’m actually donating a portion of the book’s proceeds to GLSEN.
Your young hero has pink hair, obviously, and loves to cook pink foods, but there’s no evidence of his being attracted to the other little boys. Were you careful not to sexualize him in any way?
I also was careful not to give him a name, because I wanted everyone to imagine that they were him. But yeah, in my mind he’s like 6 years old, and you’re not sexual at 6.
Talk to me about the book’s beautiful illustrations.
I’m so proud of the illustrations. The illustrator, Jen Hill, has never done a children’s book before, and I’m so excited to share and promote new talent. I went through a lot of illustrators before we found her because I was very specific with how I wanted the book to look. I wanted it to have a hand-drawn feel and to evoke an air of nostalgia and a sense of sweetness, and the illustrations communicate that so wonderfully.
You also scored quotes from some high-profile celebrities for the back cover.
It’s really blown my mind the people who gave us quotes. Ricky Martin, Gaga, Dolly Parton, Cher, Selena Gomez, and Gloria Estefan all gave me a quote. They all loved it; they were happy to share their thoughts and encourage people to pick it up.
I expected a quote from Gaga, but I didn’t know you were on such good terms with Cher.
I’m one of the only people that Cher follows on Twitter — it’s so crazy to me. I just asked them for a quote and they all said yes. They all wanted to read it first, but it’s a quick read. Yeah, I still can’t believe I got those six different people to give me a quote for my book.
You dedicate the book, “For my future children. Hope to see you soon.” How serious are you about starting a family?
I am emotionally ready now, but I’m just not ready in terms of having enough time. Hopefully I’ll learn to expand and delegate a bit more in the future so that I can make the time to be a present parent. When I make the decision to have a child, I plan to be very involved and hands-on. I can’t be an absentee father.
Besides loving and accepting themselves, which other qualities will you instill in your children?
My children will be super-kids. They will each play multiple instruments, play multiple sports, and speak multiple languages. And I hope they cure cancer. But what’s really most important to me are the simple things, like always saying “please” and “thank you,” appreciating everything they have, and working as hard as I did. I’m not really a Hilton, so nothing in my life was ever handed to me. I come from a very poor family — I went to my all-boys school and NYU on full scholarships — so I’ve gotten to where I am with luck but mainly a lot of hard work. I put in 16 hours a day, and I have no life, which is why I don’t have kids yet. I just want my kids to be nice — and to stay away from drugs and alcohol. I’m going to be that crazy parent who randomly drug-tests his children. I’ll also monitor their Internet to make sure they’re not looking at porn.
Do you want to find a partner first, or are you willing to raise a child as a single parent?
I don’t think I need a partner, but I’m open to it. It’s one of the many things I’ve been discussing in therapy: timing. What if I want a kid in a year or two years? Should I wait until I have a partner to have one? I just need to do what feels right for me and not worry about variables that I can’t control. Having children is something I can control — I can adopt or have a donor and a carrier — but I can’t control having a partner. I wish I could, because life would be easier. But then I look at someone like Angelina Jolie, one of my inspirations in life, who went ahead and adopted Maddox and then found Brad Pitt later. So it would be great to have a kid first and then find someone who wanted us both.
Has your dating life improved since you’ve gotten into better shape?
I’ve lost 80 pounds, so I’m learning to be more comfortable in my new body, because I look and feel like a new person. Over the last 12 months, I’ve been trying to have more of a social life on weekends, trying to find balance. I’m on OKCupid and I’m dating more. I’m learning to be more assertive, because some people might be intimidated to come up to me, or they may have preconceived notions about me. I’m taking more risks, giving more people chances, because I know someone needs to take a chance on me too. I went through a funk earlier this year when I was dating someone for about three months. It was not working, so I was filled with all these doubts and insecurities. I kept asking myself, “Why can’t I just be Neil Patrick Harris? Everybody loves Neil Patrick Harris.” Finally, I snapped out of it and said, “Nothing you can do will ever make you Neil Patrick Harris!” I need to appreciate everything I have and remember that many people would be happy to be in my position. Nobody, not even Neil Patrick Harris, has it all. But I’m still very single, so I’m trying to get the message out there to the gays that I’m really not a douchebag.