2006 might not have been the most artistically productive year for Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. But thanks in large part to their after-hours antics, this was a huge year for celebrity-based Web sites, where their adventures and misadventures were put on view for all to see -- whether they were going out, going wild, or just going panty-less.
"From the day we turned our lights on, Britney Spears was like crack to an addict," says Harvey Levin of TMZ.com. "Bar none, the biggest celebrity we have on our Web site from day one."
Web sites like TMZ are the bleeding edge of a technological revolution, offering constant video coverage of the notorious, captured on digicams or camera phones, and posted on the Web. "What we've learned this year," says Levin, "[is that] there's plenty of material."
Just ask "Seinfeld's" Michael Richards, who dropped the "n"-word while onstage at a comedy club. Hours later, it was on the Internet. "The Michael Richards video was something that a friend of somebody on my staff had a friend who was at the club," Levin says. "He pulled out the camera and he started shooting. At midnight, we were launched."
Backed by Time Warner, TMZ has staff shooting and posting its own video of the famous in action. But what does it say about our values that the well-known are now subject to such non-stop video scrutiny?
"For all practical purposes, privacy has ceased to exist -- at least if you're a public figure." So says Allan Mayer, whose PR firm, 42 West works with celebrities to prevent PR meltdowns.
"Every time you step out of your house, no matter whether you're going to a restaurant, a private dinner party, a club, the men's room at the Exxon station on the freeway, you run the risk of being exposed to the world. And the ability of people not only to take those pictures, but to get them circulated, is astonishing."
No one knows that better than Mario Lavandeira. Because once he fires up his laptop and gets online, he is Mario no more. Instead, he is Perez Hilton of the Web site perezhilton.com -- one of the most widely-read and snarkily influential celebrity blogs on the Internet today. "Almost four million people a day come to my Web site," he says. "That's more people in one day than read US Weekly, Star magazine, and In Touch, in a week combined."
Each morning, "Perez" posts celebrity item after item, all of them based around an image of some kind. He often draws disparaging things on the photos to suggest a star is on drugs or is having sex. "You know, I'm not People magazine, which is very well read but kind of boring," he says. "I'm dangerous."
Up close, Lavandeira says, that's not the case. "I've had Nicole Richie come up to me at the coffee shop that I work at every day and scream, 'Call me anorexic to my face!'" So what did he do? He laughs. "I didn't call her anorexic to her face; I said let's hug it out," he says laughing. "I love drama, but not in my real life."
After a sensational year in celebrity video, Levin sees the public reacting against the glossy, impersonal perfection of the famous. "The stories where you get the most hits are when they don't look beautiful," he notes. "It's when they look haggard, worried or troubled, that their psyche kind of emerges. I mean, enough of the posed pictures with the perfect hair and the perfect makeup."
Of course, that's how they became stars in the first place. So what's a fun-loving pop diva to do? She could start by taking this expert advice from Mayer: "Well, the first thing I would recommend," he says, "is that you wear underwear."