David Perel is stretched out on the couch in a conference room in the Manhattan headquarters of American Media Inc., the parent company of the celebrity magazine Star, where he’s just taken over as editor. It’s a rare slow news day for him, and he’s in a reflective mood (only natural, since, as he points out, he is lying on a couch talking about his life). He’s trying to explain how he became the consummate outsider that he’s been over his 30 years in journalism. It goes back to his childhood in Baltimore, he says, in a time and place where the topic of race dominated the national discussion—and his family’s kitchen table. His father worked in a meat-packing plant, his mother was a bookkeeper. “I grew up in a big civil-rights household,” he says. “Everyone in the extended family was part of that.”
Then a curious thing happens. He says, offhand, that he left home when he was only 17. But asked to elaborate, he becomes visibly uncomfortable and clams up. “I’m just not going to answer that,” he says. “I’ve been on my own a long time.” And with that, the analysis session is over.
If the tables were turned—if Perel were a former football star accused of murdering his ex-wife, a top talk radio host with a painkiller problem, or a presidential candidate with a hippie mistress and a love child—there is no question what he’d do. He’d send a team of reporters to Baltimore, have them spend months tracking down his family. He’d have photographers following himself. He’d spend thousands convincing reluctant sources to come forward, and commissioning psychological analyses of himself. He wouldn’t rest until he had the full story. But apparently even the former editor-in-chief of the National Enquirer has some secrets he’d rather keep out of the public eye.
When he was in school at the University of Maryland, Perel worked on the college newspaper, The Diamondback, with a young man named David Simon, who’d go on to become one of the icons of modern-day journalism as the former Baltimore Sun reporter behind HBO’s The Wire. Simon can be vicious about reporters and editors he doesn’t respect—the last season of The Wire featured characters who were thinly veiled representations of some of his old journalistic enemies. But when it comes to Perel, Simon has nothing but praise.
“Perel was one of the guys who did it right,” Simon says of their days together on the college paper. “He seemed to be cut out for newspapering.”
Some years later, when Perel was editing the Enquirer and Simon was at the Sun, the two reconnected by phone.
“When he told me he was the editor in chief of the Enquirer, I remember saying, ‘Dude, with the possible exception of Johnny Apple at The New York Times and whoever gets to write the page-one headlines at the New York Post, you have maybe the best job in journalism,’” Simon recalls, adding that Perel replied, “No shit.”
Perel has been beating even the biggest papers to stories for years now, but he really made his mark during the 2008 presidential race, when the Enquirer, under his leadership, broke the story that former senator and Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards had an extramarital affair and fathered an illegitimate child. Last week, Edwards was indicted on federal charges related to money allegedly paid to cover up that affair—charges that might never have been filed without the work of Perel’s team.
For getting the story that no one else could, and eventually forcing Edwards in to a confession, the Enquirer finally earned a begrudging measure of esteem from the rest of the media.
Perel claims not to care. “It’s all about breaking the story—it’s about breaking the story,” he insisted over lunch near his office last week.
That’s been his attitude for decades now. The National Enquirer may be the Rodney Dangerfield of newspapers—it gets no respect—but Perel had his chance to go mainstream. He preferred the Enquirer. After graduating college, he worked for a short time covering sports for The Washington Post and Gannett’s Florida Today. But he was seduced by the Enquirer and the seemingly unlimited resources it devoted to stories. After taking a year off to travel the world, he joined the Enquirer as a reporter in 1985. By 1996, when O.J. Simpson went on trial for murder, he’d worked his way up to senior editor. It was his coverage of the Simpson story—the Enquirer was the first to report on Simpson’s now-infamous Bruno Magli shoes and the knife he bought shortly before he allegedly stabbed his ex-wife and her friend Ron Goldman, and it was first to publish Nicole Brown Simpson’s diaries—that really brought him to the attention of David Pecker, the chairman, president and CEO of Enquirer parent AMI.
“David was the go-to guy,” Pecker says. “He was very aggressive. He lived on a kibbutz in Israel. He was at The Washington Post. He had that kind of inner creativity, aggressiveness. I also saw that he could manage.”
Pecker gave him more responsibilities, including the weight-loss magazine Looking Good Now and Bat Boy Lives!, a book based on the mutant creation of AMI’s Weekly World News.
In 2008, Pecker tapped Perel to head up Radar Online after AMI took it over and relaunched it as a gossip news site. His latest assignment, at Star, is the closest he’s come to the mainstream media—although he still sees himself as planted firmly in the outsider camp. “I like the small stuff,” he says.
Hunched over his computer in his Manhattan office, Perel is rumpled, shirt untucked—Simon remembers him as “look[ing] like one bong hit too many on a Saturday night. Real scruffy, eyes glazed, sleep deprivation and a stoner laugh.” But he’s alert, monitoring a steady stream of emails while contemplating a Paris Hilton photo feature for the upcoming issue of Star. Perel loves the spread, which depicts the heiress holding various exotic animals. He pronounces one image “a killer photo.” A burly, tattooed staffer swings by to report on his progress on a story. Today is slow; Perel’s phone has been silent for the past hour. Two years into running Radar, which he continues to oversee, he’s still adjusting to the round-the-clock demands of the Web. “I’m having so many days where I feel like the day’s never going to end,” he said.
And yet Perel made the transition to the Web better than most other print journalists have been able to. Within a year of taking over at Radar, the flailing, orphaned website left over from the failed Radar magazine, he’d remade it completely, establishing it as a promising challenger to the deep-pocketed TMZ, which is owned by Time Warner. Under Perel, Radar posted audiotapes of Mel Gibson’s angry, threatening rants to his ex-girlfriend, and broke juicy items about celebrities from Lindsay Lohan and Halle Berry to Charlie Sheen.
All the while, Perel’s earned praise from unlikely people, including Martin Singer, a lawyer to the stars who’s gotten the nickname “Mad Dog Marty” for the ferocious way in which he’s gone after the media on behalf of some of Hollywood’s biggest celebrities, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, and Demi Moore. “One of the things that’s remarkable is how quickly Radar has grown,” Singer says of his frequent verbal sparring partner. “He gets it right many times. He’s broken some huge, national stories.”
Now, Perel has got his hands full with Star. His appointment in April came at a critical time for AMI: Recently out of bankruptcy, the company had just moved into new offices in lower Manhattan and is now on firmer financial footing. But Star is well past its prime. The periodical soared when Bonnie Fuller turned it from a newspaper-stock tabloid into a glossy in 2004. But now it’s No. 3 in ad pages, behind People and Us Weekly in the crowded field of celebrity magazines, and its circulation has slid 40 percent in the past five years, to just under 930,000. Its readers’ median age, 38, is relatively old for the category. Like all weeklies, it has to fight to keep up with a torrent of Web coverage.
Star has become associated with covering gossip’s softer side. Like other celebrity magazines, it tends to shy away from going too hard after those it covers, but Perel’s game plan is to punch up the reporting while still staying celebrity-friendly. “I’d like to bring more oomph to it, put more celebrities on the record, make it red-hot,” he declares. “Star is going to prove, in this market, it has the best information, the most accurate information.”
That’s a lofty goal, but Perel might be Star’s best shot. When the Arnold Schwarzenegger love child scandal broke, for instance, he assembled a dozen staffers and laid out a challenge to them: Get the first photos of the mistress, Schwarzenegger’s former housekeeper. By 10 p.m. that same day, he had posted them on Radar, holding back some to appear in the next issue of Star. The blockbuster photos showed the governor squeezing the woman, who was dressed in a skimpy police costume.
The photographs got huge play on Entertainment Tonight and the Huffington Post. It was a big departure from the classic posed photos that Star typically published, but the issue sold an estimated 450,000 copies on the newsstand, making it one of Star’s best performances in weeks and putting it on the right track to catch up with rivals like Us Weekly and In Touch, which sell close to 700,000 on stands on a weekly basis.
Back in Florida, Perel has only a short time for another interview, this one conducted on the fly—he’s on his cell phone, calling from his car. The news has picked up. Perel has been awake since 7 a.m., sending his staff off on a number of stories, including a cross-country chase of a prominent figure whom he won’t name because he believes he has the story to himself. “All hell’s been breaking loose. Pure insanity,” he says.
Meanwhile, he’s still refusing to talk about his adolescence, reverting to the kinds of clichés for which he’d berate his writers.
“Uhhhh, just some stuff [that] I don’t like to talk about,” he says when pressed for details on why he left home at 17. “I had a happy childhood. But when I reached a certain age, I left home, situations changed. Every family has their stuff. Nothing cataclysmic, but once I got out, I got out.” He no longer speaks with his father, he’ll admit that, and he’ll say that he graduated high school early and worked his way through college with fast-food, carpentry, and slaughterhouse jobs. But that’s all he’ll say.
“I get the irony, I get the irony,” he says. “And you can accuse me of evading the question. I would definitely ask the questions, break you down until you answered me.”