He needs to hit the gym in an hour.
But HughE Dillon is eating a cheeseburger and fries — it’s one of his favorite dishes at the Fairmount Little Pete’s, on the ground floor of the condo tower where he lives. In the end, his heavy order doesn’t make a difference; he only gets down a few bites before he’s off to meet his trainer — he’s too busy talking. He loves telling stories. He’s built a career of it.
Dubbed “Philly’s lone paparazzo” by Philadelphia magazine in 2010, Dillon is much more than a snap-and-go celeb photographer. Sure, he feeds pics to wire services, but over the past several years he’s parlayed his access into columns in Philly Mag, the Philadelphia Business Journal, Philly.com and Metro Philly, plus he’s on TV (Fox 29) and the radio (Ben FM). Add up his social numbers — 23.3k followers on Twitter, 14.8k on Instagram. If something’s going on in this city, there’s a good chance Dillon knows about it. By extension, tens of thousands of others do too.
Since 2007, he’s run his own blog, Philly Chit Chat, where he chronicles all kinds of goings on about town from celeb sightings to charity events. On Tuesday, he’ll finally launch a new version of the site — created by agencies 2one5 and Chatterblast Media — after years of friends and coworkers begging him to give it an updated look.
“I don’t like change, but they’re dragging me into the 21st century,” Dillon says.
“HughE isn’t exactly a reporter, and I don’t think he wants to be,” says Fox29 Morning Show co-host Alex Holley, who considers Dillon a close friend. “He’s like that best pal you wish you had, the one who goes everywhere and knows everyone and then tells you how it went and what happened. He tells you everything you want to know.”
When Holley landed in Philadelphia just under two years ago, she was warned about the city’s reputation as a tough town. “I don’t remember exactly where I met him, but HughE was the opposite of that,” she says. “He had such a warmth to him. He was so welcoming. He took me places, showed me things, introduced me to people. He really loves Philly and wants everyone else to love it, too.”
Greeting cards at City Hall
Dillon has always loved Philadelphia. Before he got into shooting people’s pictures, when he had a full-time job as a paralegal at Center City law firm Kohn, Swift & Graf, he spent his spare time photographing the city. Landmarks, skylines, sunsets and vistas — if it was Philly looking good, HughE wanted to capture it. He was so voracious about photographing these scenes — often zipping through 10 rolls of film at a time — that a coworker suggested he put them on cards and try to sell them.
He started making a line of greeting cards. This was in the ‘90s, before the days of ubiquitous high-quality inkjet printers, so he’d have the photos printed at Mid-City Camera (where he got a special volume discount), then slip the best ones into the slots at the front of pre-folded cards. He hit the pavement and persuaded various shops to carry them. The first to sign on was a souvenir shop in Liberty Place, followed by the General Store — a popular curiosity shop that used to be on 20th near Rittenhouse Square. Dillon was especially thrilled when he convinced the shop in City Hall to put them on display and they became a favorite among visiting tourists and municipal officials alike. Then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham was a big fan, and used to scoop up an assortment every season.
HughE heard all this from his store contacts; he actually never met Abraham then, because he hadn’t yet developed a hankering for personal contact and telling people’s stories. He was just into the photography side of it, but he was into it bigtime. Even though the greeting cards didn’t make him a lot of money as a side business — he cleared something like 25 or 50 cents a card — he’d go to what seemed like absurd effort to get great shots.
If he met someone and found out they lived in one of the city’s tall buildings, he’d immediately ask if they could get him roof access. He once spent nine hours on the top of the Metropolitan Apartments at 15th and Arch because he was determined to capture the sun setting on City Hall in every hue imaginable. He was only using a little hand-held camera, but he was good at it, and photography became his outlet, his new fascination, the thing that kept him going.
“I went from one addiction to another,” he says.
The addictions he had before he got sucked into chasing rainbows and sunsets were much less sanguine. In his 20s, he was a serious alcoholic, and had a bad drug habit — not super-hard stuff like cocaine or heroin, but pills. That was something he’d learned from his mom.
‘I’m putting my head in the oven’
Born in 1964, Dillon grew up in Cherry Hill as the second-oldest of seven children. His father, Dr. Hugh J. Dillon, was a successful OB-GYN and his mother, Maria, was an OR nurse. Maria was addicted to pills before they even got married, HughE later found out — “although my father always blamed himself,” he says — and the couple split in an acrimonious divorce when he was five years old.
Although it was very rare in the late ‘60s, his father was awarded full custody. His mother, however, didn’t want to let go. She had visiting rights, and often swept HughE and his siblings along with her on various escapades. Her boyfriends were in and out of jail, and she’d take the kids to visit them. During the ages of eight to 12, Dillon remembers spending a lot of time in a specific South Jersey dive bar, playing shuffleboard while his mom drank with friends. She fell in with the Warlocks motorcycle gang, and he lived with the fear he would be kidnapped.
Maria waged a constant campaign to get her kids back. She dragged them in front of a custody judge on a regular basis, having guilt-tripped them into saying they wanted to live with her, instead of in the nice stable house with their rich dad.
“Thank God the judge could see we were being pressured and disagreed,” Dillon says. These were no softball guilt trips; Maria regularly threatened suicide. “We’d be on the phone with her and she’d say, ‘You didn’t say I love you! I’m putting my head in the oven.’ Maybe that’s why I thought of suicide as the easy way out.”
As he revealed last year in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dillon tried to commit suicide several times. He says he told his story of being saved by the kindness of others because he wanted to let other people in despair know that it could happen to anyone, but that accepting help and going on to live happily was possible. At its fall 2015 gala, the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention honored him with its Lifesaver Award.
It wasn’t just the issues with his mother that turned Dillon suicidal. In high school, he never fit in, and was bullied for being from a wealthy family that lived in a six-bedroom home.
“My sisters were OK in school, they figured it out,” he says, “and my brother was good-looking and played basketball, so he didn’t have a problem. But I was heavy, I wasn’t athletic, I just wasn’t able to get it together.”
He started smoking pot, and then graduated to LSD and ‘shrooms. “I couldn’t even fit in with the cool drug kids — I had to fit in with the misfit drug kids. It wouldn’t be unusual to find me in cemetery talking to a tombstone in the middle of the night in February.”
Dillon tried college after graduation. He flunked out after one semester because “I majored in drinking.” After returning home, he realized he was gay, and in 1983 he came out. He was just 19 years old, but his father and step-mother asked him to leave their home.
“It was the stigma — what would the Joneses think? They were Catholic and they still had five other kids,” he says. “Being gay had only recently been removed from being classified as a mental illness, plus AIDS was connected to it — no one really knew how it was contracted yet.”
HughE was on his own.
Falling in love and getting clean
These days, HughE and his husband, Mike Toub, have a great relationship with the Dillon family, though both his mother and father have since died.
“I feel like I have a large extended family via HughE,” says Toub, a Northeast Philly native who recently lost his own mother. “They’re a big Italian Catholic family and I love them.”
The pair met in 1994 at a mutual friend’s graduation party, and started dating almost immediately. They were very different — Toub was a serious 25-year-old systems analyst with a degree from Drexel; Dillon was a gossipy 30-year-old paralegal who spent all his time snapping photos — but they clicked. Even though Dillon “was seriously looking for a husband” and Toub wasn’t, they’ve been together ever since.
Dillon had moved to the city a few years prior. After leaving his parents house, he moved from job to job — waiting tables, pumping gas, working at a racetrack. On the off-season, racetrack employees were given unemployment, and one year they were given a civil service test that supposedly evaluated each of their strong points. Dillon’s came back saying paralegal would be a great job for him, so in 1988 he enrolled in a program to become certified.
During the 18-month program, he got a job as a file clerk at the Camden City Attorney’s office, and was eventually hired. A few months later, he moved to the Gayborhood in Philadelphia because it was more conducive to the partying he was doing — he was spending up to $800 a month on booze and going out all night.
“I was such a mess, I had no money, if I was thinner I would have turned tricks,” he says. He tried commuting on PATCO, but soon realized it would be much more convenient to work in the city. He applied to Kohn, Swift & Graf, and was hired in 1991. That August, he was robbed at gunpoint while leaving Woody’s bar. When one of the robbers pointed a gun at him, pulled the trigger, and nothing happened, Dillon took it as a sign. He enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous, got clean, met Toub, reconciled with his parents and started looking toward the future instead of trying to bury his past.
Making a mint on eBay
In the late ‘90s, HughE discovered the internet.
In addition to his photo greeting card business, he made a side project of Dumpster diving and selling his finds on eBay under the name “Eclectic Things.” It wasn’t hugely profitable, but he made good money on occasion, like when the 2000 Republican National Convention came to town. The headquarters were in the same building as his law offices, and Dillon scooped up many discarded items, including a raft of commemorative medals made for delegates.
Montana Governor Marc Racicot was one of the names on the trashed medallions, and when his staff happened on the eBay auction, he wrote Dillon a note. “I don’t know how you got my medal…” the email began. Dillon explained that it had been thrown out, and offered to stop the auction and send it out west, but the governor declined. “I’m glad someone will get it and enjoy it,” Racicot said. Someone did: Dillon made $300 from RNC leftovers, and took Toub on a cruise to Alaska.
The other big seller on Eclectic Things was celebrity memorabilia. Dillon would rifle through stacks of old magazines at yard sales and shops like Robin’s Books in Center City, find issues featuring people who weren’t famous when the issue was published, but had become stars in the interim, and put them up for sale.
He wasn’t just doing it for the money; he was fascinated by celebrities. So, in 2004, when his law firm asked him to be lead paralegal on a big case playing out in New York City, he was thrilled. Instead of commuting on Amtrak, he picked up and moved to the Big Apple.
‘Information is currency’
In New York, Dillon worked hard on the court case, often putting in 12-hour days or longer. He was living in cheap apartments he found on Craigslist, but he rarely was in them. Every lunch hour and 15-minute break was spent online, reading the New York Post’s Page Six, and the NY Daily News gossip column, and each night after getting done his paralegal duties, he would head out to spot celebrities. He considered himself a fan — not of any particular person, but just the idea of fame.
Dillon also enjoyed reading about charity galas at sites like BizBash and the New York Social Diary, and he discovered that buried in those society pages were tidbits about celebrities that other fans — and the photographers who chased them — didn’t know. Back then, not many people took advantage of the internet to follow gossip (Perez Hilton and TMZ were only just getting started), and HughE began trading in tips. He gave other photographers info about where stars might show up, and they taught him how to run backwards and capture the best shots.
“That’s when I learned information was currency,” he says.
He became a regular on the circuit, toting his camera to red carpet events and film premieres, then emailing the pics to a growing list of coworkers and friends. He also provided some of his best images to Gawker and Perez Hilton, not for money but for the satisfaction of knowing so many people would see his work. (The most popular Dillon photo Gawker published wasn’t even of someone famous — it was a shot of two people clearly having sex in the back of a taxi cab on Fifth Avenue.)
In late 2005, Toub — who also gave HughE the idea for the unique spelling of his name — suggested that Dillon “start something called a blog.” “What?” Dillon asked, appalled. “You mean put my photos on the internet where somebody could steal them?” But his urge to share was stronger than fear of intellectual property theft, and so in January 2006, he started a daily blog called Confessions of a Paparazzi.
His audience grew steadily but slowly, until he wrote about Reese Witherspoon’s fight with then-husband Ryan Phillippe. The Hollywood couple would get divorced a few weeks later, but no one was aware there was trouble brewing until Dillon’s piece. He’d followed them to an after-party at the Tribeca Hotel, where they got into an argument and left in a huff. Dillon hesitated to publish the details of the tiff, because he didn’t want to scoop the “real” paparazzi (he was still an amateur), but after a couple of days, no one else had put up a story, so he did. It got picked up by the national media — MTV, Entertainment Tonight, Perez Hilton — and his little blog started blowing up.
National photo agencies took notice, and started contacting Dillon, asking him to turn pro. He repeatedly refused. The NYC trial was over, and he was preparing to head back to Philadelphia, where Toub and his regular paralegal job were waiting.
There was a possible compromise, though. As one photo agent put it, “There must be some celebrities in Philly, right?”
‘Can I take your picture?’
There aren’t as many celebrities in Philly as in New York, of course, but Dillon’s view of celebrity is different from the norm. He covers movie stars and pop divas and big politicians, sure, but he also enjoys highlighting regular people who do great things — from Main Line socialites to local artists to anyone who attends their charity parties. And over the years, by regularly posting peoples’ photos and telling their stories, he’s created several “philebrities” of his own.
Heard of Maria Papadakis? Sabrina Tamburino? Just a couple of the people Dillon turned into household names by sheer force of will.
It all started on July 7, 2007, when he launched Philly Chit Chat.
After he moved back, Dillon tried making weekly trips up to New York and posting on Confessions of a Paparazzi, but he quickly found Philadelphians weren’t all that interested in what was going on 90 miles north. Instead, he turned his focus to local happenings.
Dan Gross, the former Philadelphia Daily News gossip columnist who now runs a consulting firm, remembers Dillon emailing him a photo of some celebrity out of the blue, with a note that said something like, “Hey, I really like your column. If you want to use this pic, would you mind crediting my blog.” Gross did, and Dillon started sending him photos for publication. He also sent photos to Michael Klein for use in the Inquirer‘s quasi-gossip-and-goings-on column, Inqlings.
“HughE struck me as a very hard-working guy, kind of crazy,” Gross says. “He had a day job, and then he was out every night. He would cover things that wouldn’t have been an item for me — beautiful people at a charity gala — but he made a name for himself, and started to get invited to all kinds of events.”
The one criticism he has of Dillon is that he’s too nice. “He’ll go up to a celebrity and say, ‘Excuse me, I’m HughE, can I take your picture?’” says Gross, laughing. “WTF is the matter with you, just take the picture, the stars are used to it!”
Dillon, however, prefers to err on the side of caution and courtesy. In 2008, Demi Moore was in town making a movie called “Happy Tears,” and early in the shoot, Dillon made a deal with her. If she let him snap the one photo he wanted right then and there, he would leave her alone for the rest of the month. Even though he got plenty of tips about her whereabouts after that, he honored his agreement.
Taking the high road has worked. Over the course of 2008, Philly Chit Chat racked up 187,000 visits. In 2009, the number jumped to 626,000, and since then, the site has averaged around a million views a year, Dillon says.
‘Why can’t we celebrate Philadelphia?’
In 2010, Dillon was laid off from his paralegal job after 19 years. Even though he was deep into blogging by that time, he still expected to keep his law firm position. “I don’t like change, I would have stayed there forever,” he says.
But technology and computers had obsoleted a lot of the tasks he performed there, so he was cut loose. He was going to look for another job, but Toub suggested that he try doing photography and blogging full time. “I’ll support you for a year,” Toub told his partner, “so you can see if it works.”
HughE dove headfirst into his new career. He began writing a column at Philadelphia magazine. In 2011 he added regular appearances on Fox 29. In late 2012, he became a regular contributor to Philly.com. In 2014 he got his work into Metro Philly and also began a column for the Philadelphia Business Journal. Last year he added Ben FM radio spots to his roster.
With his name and photos and writing in all those outlets, his fervent embrace of social media, and his regular appearance as the hired photographer at galas — from which he derives around 50 percent of his income — Dillon became something of a mini celebrity himself.
“I’ve given up on power walking with him for exercise,” says Toub, who officially wed Dillon in a 2015 televised ceremony right after gay marriage became legal here. “Because every 15 feet someone stops him to say hi, or compliment his blog, or say how much they love his photos.”
“Are there people out there who don’t love HughE?” asks Kory Aversa, local PR pro and Dillon’s “BFF.” “Maybe some people don’t understand his motivation — this is Philly after all, people are skeptical — but he really is a big cheerleader for this city.”
“People always ask my why did I start blogging,” Dillon says. “It’s because I love people — what they do, how they interact and what they’re all about. I especially love promoting any charity cause. Why can’t we celebrate Philadelphia and its people?”