Sultan of Sleaze
THE OPERATOR Levin works the phones at his Hollywood office
Levin, who shares a home in Los Angeles with his boyfriend, a chiropractor, seems an odd choice to run a catty online news operation devoted to the comings and goings of people barely old enough to drink. At 57, he could almost be the grandfather of Perez Hilton, the celebrity blogger whom TMZ executives cite as one of their top competitors. Levin's staff of 25 reporters and videographers, which has now grown to roughly 80 with the launch of the TV show, is mostly made up of twentysomethings. He credits them with keeping him up-to-date, but gripes that when he brought up Bob Newhart at a recent staff meeting, he was met with blank stares.
When he's on camera, explaining, say, the finer points of Bahamian family law to MSNBC's Dan Abrams, Levin comes across as a sort of concerned uncle to the stars. Off-camera, he has a manic bearing, a caustic sense of humor, and, for a short Jew in late middle-age, a surprisingly bulky frame, which he hones daily at the gym and likes to show off in fitted shirts. "Harvey's a lot of fun," says a friend. "He's always got a great gossipy story."
Levin is a tireless worker, and he demands the same from his team. TMZ's daily staff meetings take place at 6:30 a.m. "I don't know when he sleeps," says a friend. Employees who don't measure up are quickly replaced. "After the launch," says one who was fired, "We went from 34 people to 17 in a month. People were disappearing left and right. He's old-school Hollywood that way."
Indeed, Levin has a decidedly dinosaur-media background for an Internet star. He realized he wanted to be a TV reporter in the mid-'70s,
"A lot of his stories were astonishingly cheesy," says a friend of Levin's. "They all involved Harvey in preposterous disguises. It was like Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run."
Before TMZ, Levin's labor of love was Celebrity Justice, a now-defunct syndicated program that chronicled the legal entanglements of the stars. It took him seven years to get the show—which made use of contacts he'd developed in L.A.'s law enforcement and justice system as a legal reporter—on the air in 2002. After languishing in the ratings for three years, it was canceled. In 2005, Paratore, then president of Telepictures, the Time Warner division that produced Celebrity Justice, came to Levin with the idea for a website that would cover Hollywood in a more bitchy and aggressive way than the tabloid weeklies. "I told him to go screw himself," says Levin, who was insulted at the perceived demotion from TV to the Internet. "Then I went to Mexico and started drinking. And kind of in an altered state, I started thinking about the Internet. Celebrity Justice was so difficult because we had horrible time periods. But there's no such thing as a time period on a website. So you can break stories. You can beat everybody."
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Levin insists that TMZ covers the "real" Hollywood, and contrasts it with what he calls the "wax figures on a red carpet" approach of ET, Access Hollywood, et al. He likes to say that TMZ covers Britney Spears the way NBC News covers George W. Bush, and accuses his competitors of being hamstrung by the need for access. "Ultimately, publicists don't control us the way they control traditional media," he told a gathering of television critics at a promotional event for the TV show prior to our interview. "If you're doing a traditional entertainment show and you want an interview with Tom Cruise, when the publicist calls you up and says, 'If you do that story, we're not going to give you Tom Cruise,' it means something. We don't want the interview with Tom Cruise."
The incorruptible attitude is not shtick; it's genuine. And it's part of a refreshing, if occasionally tough to swallow, moralism that pops up when Levin talks shop: The former lawyer who shunned the ethical free-for-all of the legal world has reached the top of one of the few seedier professions&mdashcelebrity journalism—and he's trying to do it in a way that would make his mother proud. We don't kowtow to publicists, he says; we don't let our videographers chase their targets; we don't pay for stories.
Except when he does: Though Levin has repeatedly claimed that TMZ doesn't pay for information, he acknowledges to me that it has "paid for tips before," albeit only when its reporters can "independently verify" the story.
Photograph by Blake Little