Love to keep up with the Kardashians? You’ve got Harvey Levin to thank.
Though popular lore has it that Kim Kardashian’s fame is the product of a sex tape with rapper Ray J, the founder of TMZ says a few guys working at the upstart celebrity site “became obsessed” with the girl who was making the rounds in the Hollywood party scene.
“They saw her with Paris Hilton, strutting past Tara Reid, who couldn’t get into the club,” Levin said Tuesday at The Wrap’s media and entertainment industry convention, TheGrill. “So we started putting her up on the site.”
“Wait, so you’re saying you helped create Kim Kardashian?” asked Sharon Waxman, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of TheWrap.com.
“Well … we did,” Levin said.
Levin and his crew also created the villainous version of Mel Gibson in 2006 when they broke the news of his DUI arrest and subsequent anti-semitic tirade. But don’t think for a second that Levin thinks the jury is in on who’s wearing the black hat in the ongoing battle between “Mad Max” and former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva.
“This is what we do best: He just seems guilty as hell,” Levin said. “Then you start looking at it and say, ‘Well who did she tell? What did she do?’ She just told the story to this wacky dentist … she went to a pediatrician to take X-rays that didn’t show anything. And there was this mediation where she threatened him to pay her $15 million or she was going to file a lawsuit. And look at this in past relationships.”
In other words, there’s more nuance in the story than it would seem when you’re listening to Gibson’s freakishly threatening rants.
“Is this as clear as it was when it was just a headline?”
It would be easy to accuse TMZ of headline-grabbing, or to assume that the indisputable champ of breaking celebrity news was guilty of paying sources and other shady dealings. But as he has a thousand times before, Levin dismissed that notion, insisting that TMZ pays only for photos and video, with an occasional tip fee where it’s warranted.
“But that’s very, very rare,” he said.
The rest is just old-fashioned reporting and a little bit of right-place, right-time.
“We have deep sources on all sides of that story,” Levin said. “Our sources go from extremely powerful people to people who have peripheral connections in Hollywood.
“You know how we got the original (DUI) story?” he offered. “Somebody in my office had a friend who worked at (the Malibu restaurant) Moonshadows as a waiter. One of the PA’s in the office got a call." From there, Levin worked the phones, hammering on the police who at first insisted that there was nothing unusual about the arrest.
Another notion that Levin would like to dismiss: that TMZ somehow creates headaches for publicists.
“Let me try to change this up a little bit,” he said. “If you knew how many people at their level or higher work with us all the time -- they have information that they want to get out. They use the media. They use me. I’m used. All the time.
“The way Hollywood used to be managed,” he continued, “where a publicist could dictate how a person was covered, is gone. We want to be authentic.”
Even if that means taking a little bit of the heat off Mel Gibson.
“It is interesting that someone as reviled a he was four months ago is coming out better than her on the site,” Levin said, “and suddenly you put it in a broader context. I’m saying that you can't look at these tapes as the beginning and the end of the story. … Most of these cases have strengths and weaknesses, and it always goes back and forth.”