digital reporter

If Perez Hilton plays nice, he could name his price

Perez Hilton is getting fit. That's evident enough if you're one of the millions of mostly twentysomething females who make his salacious salon for celebrity gossip a daily destination. Slowly but surely, a slicker, trimmer Perez is replacing the bloated, scruffy version that rose to fame as Hollywood's favorite online gadfly. "This summer I want to frickin' jog shirtless in Malibu by the Fourth of July," he pronounced in a video on PerezHilton.com.

But Hilton, whose real name is Mario Lavandeira, is whipping more than just his body into shape; his brand also seems to be undergoing a subtle transformation.

He made his jogging goal public on a recently added video component to his site, which began running advertising this week. Hilton also has been logging plenty of TV time lately, making his debut on MTV's "TRL" on Monday; he also has his own occasional series of branded specials on sister network VH1.

And then there's the tone of his blog, notorious for scatalogical scrawlings superimposed on unflattering celebrity snapshots. While white marks connoting cocaine use are still occasionally dotted under the noses of this or that starlet, there's been a discernible dialing down of the blog's nastiness, featuring more rah-rah posts of his pet favorites ranging from Madonna to Kylie Minogue. His tastemaker bona fides have been confirmed by reported negotiations with Warner Bros. Records to get his own imprint.

There's little doubt the self-proclaimed "gay Latino Oprah" is cleaning up his act. My guess is he's gussying himself up in hopes of selling his mini-empire to the highest bidder but with his hand on the helm intact.

Henry Copeland, CEO of BlogAds, the advertising network that handles PerezHilton.com, isn't about to spill the beans on Hilton's next move. But he believes his client has just begun tapping his potential in the media marketplace. "When you've got this incredibly loyal core audience, of course you're asking yourself, 'How do you extend the brand?' "

The Oprah comparison certainly smacks of delusional grandeur, and yet it's not so easy to dismiss, either. As for overcoming his original sleazy incarnation, it's worth noting that Winfrey didn't exactly start out as squeaky as she currently is, trafficking in the same kind of talk-show shenanigans as Jerry Springer earlier in her own career.

But the sleazy-to-squeaky transition is the trickiest part. Hilton became an Internet sensation precisely because of his tasteless 'tude. If he whitewashes his celebrity coverage in order to curry favor with potential buyers, he risks diluting the very brand essence that got him to where he is.

As popular as PerezHilton.com is, it gets less than half the traffic of the reigning celebrity-gossip sites: Time Warner's TMZ.com and NBC Universal-Yahoo joint venture OMG.com. Then again, that's not really an accurate comparison given the latter sites are much bigger operations that churn out paparazzi product. Hilton's site is more of a boutique to big-box alternatives.

Yahoo entertainment GM Karin Gilford welcomes his presence as a competitor. "It's so hard to convince agencies and traditional advertisers to try something new and risky," she says. "He's pushing some of them over because if their wives or kids are looking at these sites, they want to be there, too."

Hilton's foray into video is interesting given his public spat in December, in which he pulled his video offerings from YouTube after scoring more than 25 million views in three months. Now he is turning his own blog into a video destination, though it's unclear what creative direction he's headed.

Some of the more popular videos feature such celebrities as Paris Hilton and Heidi Montag, while others are just Perez Hilton talking about the minutiae of his own life. Therein lies the tension for the future of the Hilton brand: Is his appeal strictly defined by dishing and dissing the stars, or is he a star in his own right?
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