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.”