“The whole first season was such an out of body experience for me. Way at the beginning it was very much like, we’re going to put you in real scenarios and not really tell you what’s going on, which is how I think they were able to get everybody to be themselves at first. Then you get to a certain point where things get boring, so the writers and producers had to start thinking about how to spice things up and make certain things more dramatic. I really did take my job at Teen Vogue seriously though. I showed up, I worked hard. To this day I do have this insecurity that people don’t take me seriously because I was on a reality show where people thought that I was like this version of myself. People viewed me as this kind of airhead blonde chick from L.A. that was along for the ride, and that’s not who I am.”
The Hills Are Alive
As MTV’s hit show readies for its comeback, former and current cast members reminisce about growing up, getting famous, and altering reality long before social media came on the scene.
Once upon a time, in a land not far from the corner of Wilshire and La Brea, two blondes on the cusp of a peculiar new kind of fame met by the pool and embraced. Lauren Conrad had just arrived at her new Los Angeles apartment complex, and her roommate Heidi Montag was already there, wearing a tiny green bikini and working on her tan. The young stars of The Hills had arrived, and reality would never be the same again. It was May 31st, 2006, and these were the first few frames of MTV’s follow-up to the popular reality series Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, which had constituted the network’s effort to capitalize on the massive success of the scripted Fox series The O.C., a sexy soap about privileged California teens behaving badly. Where Laguna Beach had followed Conrad and her friends (privileged California teens behaving only occasionally badly) for their final two years of high school, The Hills would follow Conrad’s transition to young adult life about an hour and a half up the 405: new friends, new boys, new drama. It was post–Sex and the City, pre–Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and smack in the middle of a Devil Wears Prada takeover of the zeitgeist. Thirteen years later, those California girls are all grown up, and several are back for more, set to star in The Hills: New Beginnings, a reboot of the show that first made them famous.
Conrad was the original narrator, and the character around whom the rest of the cast—Montag; their neighbor, Audrina Patridge; Conrad’s childhood best friend Lo Bosworth; Conrad’s work friend Whitney Port, and a slew of rotating male romantic interests and peripheral work associates—orbited. It was all set in a sun-drenched fantasy called Los Angeles, where everyone was good looking, but not improbably so, and things always got dramatic enough to be interesting, but nothing too serious ever happened. There were parties, celebrity cameos, flirting and fighting, toxic relationships, epic screaming matches, extended pregnant pauses, stressful workplace confrontations, and arguably television’s most famous single, mascara-filled tear. The show was a massive hit: during the series’ run, up to 4.8 million viewers were tuning in each week to join in on what producers later called a “fun, six-season trip to California”, and they were invested in the stories, the lifestyle, the jobs, and even the clothes they saw on screen. (This eventually translated to merch: Kitson, a West Hollywood boutique popular at the time with paparazzi targets like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Britney Spears, at one point sold T-shirts during The Hills’ run that read “Team Lauren” or “Team Heidi,” reflecting an on-screen friend breakup.)
There was also the fact of their glamorous—or glamour-adjacent—professional careers: Years before Vanderpump Rules won over audiences with its coverage of the tumultuous travails of West Hollywood-based restaurant staffers, Conrad and company made watching the inner lives and foibles of young people just starting out on the lower rungs of aspirational careers—as Teen Vogue interns, PR assistants, and record company and photo studio receptionists—a verifiable entertainment option. “This was on the heels of The Devil Wears Prada, and that’s what the producers wanted me to be,” Lisa Love (then Vogue and Teen Vogue’s West Coast Director) said of her role on the show, which was as a sort of chilly and intimidating headmistress-type boss, a character entirely at odds with Love’s real-life personality. This was but one of the ways that the show was not exactly up-front with its viewers about the role its writers and crew played in steering the series of events it depicted. While Laguna Beach reportedly opted to document its subjects’ lives rather than influence them, the “scripted reality” ethos behind The Hills “made the viewers always question ‘is it real or is it fake’ and changed the television landscape forever,” executive producer Liz Gateley told MTV. The network only lifted the curtain once, during the series finale in 2010—after an emotional street scene underneath the Hollywood sign, the camera pulls back to reveal a sound stage and camera crew—intended, the show’s creator Adam DiVello said later, as a meta-commentary “wink” at the audience. But most of the time, as with tans, or boobs, or handbags, for viewers, how much “fake” mattered was a matter of opinion.
MTV’s production team was there to gently steer the ship to rockier (and more interesting) waters, whether that meant being out with the cast until until 4:00 a.m. at Les Deux, or there at 9:00 a.m. the next morning in Love’s office. Conrad and Port worked side-by-side in a “fashion closet” Condé Nast helped MTV stage in L.A.; as interns, they assisted with the Teen Vogue Young Hollywood party and various shoots and fashion shows. For many viewers it was a view into the elusive world of fashion magazines, replete with the kind of dreamy last minute opportunities that typically only come from the mind of a Hollywood writer’s room, like when Love asked Conrad to spend the summer interning in the Vogue office in Paris. Conrad chose to stay behind to focus on then-boyfriend, Jason Wahler, instead, and was on the receiving end of one of the great lines of the reality genre to date: “She’ll always be known as the girl who didn’t go to Paris.” (Though uttered by Love, the sentiment was actually from Vogue Editor in Chief and Condé Nast Creative Director Anna Wintour: “Anna asked me what happened with ‘the girl who didn’t go to Paris,’ and the next time I saw Lauren, I just said it,” Love says: “The writers ran with it.”)
In the end, no one really went anywhere. Love and Port (“chosen” to go to Paris in Conrad’s stead) filmed a grand departure scene curbside at LAX, then turned around and went right back home. “That was so ridiculous,” Port remembers. “It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I thought, okay, this is good for me because I really was pursuing a career in fashion. I thought it showed that I was down and determined to do this. It was very Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs [from The Devil Wears Prada]. I got dressed up in an airport look and went for it.” After the end of the first season, as both Love and Teen Vogue then–editor in chief Amy Astley attest, hundreds of applications for internships were flooding in every day.
The Hills: New Beginnings will premiere this summer on MTV. Heidi is back, this time with her husband and fellow Hills alum and tabloid fixture, Spencer Pratt, and their 18-month-old son, Gunnar. ““Reality TV is kind of a career for Spencer and I at this point,” Pratt says; both appeared on programs like Marriage Bootcamp and Big Brother after The Hills, and have decorated their house with a combination of the energy-healing crystals they sell and magazine covers detailing even the most unflattering of their exploits. “I used to want to work in fashion. I did a year abroad in high school in Italy and met Ottavio Missoni. I had the opportunity to travel to Milan and meet the rest of the Missoni family and go to the fashion shows. And back in Colorado, I was the only one who kept Manolo Blahniks in my locker. It was a mountain town and no one wore heels,” Pratt says. “Then I did season one of The Hills and after studying at FIDM for a while, I started to really see the magic of it all. The world really opened up for me and I realized the possibilities this job could provide.”
Audrina Patridge, Whitney Port, Justin Bobby, and Stephanie Pratt, Spencer’s sister (who stars in Made in Chelsea, essentially a British version of The Hills), will all appear in the reboot. They will be joined by new cast members who mostly grew up watching them on MTV: Jason Wahler’s wife, Ashley Wahler; Kaitlynn Jenner, who is married to Brody Jenner; and Mischa Barton, the former star of the show that inspired it all, The O.C. The new plotlines will still center around the female stars—only this time they have more established careers, better real estate, and occasionally babies to contend with, alongside the same old drama. Mostly, the cast says, New Beginnings is about getting a real look inside their lives.
Lauren Conrad, around whom this entire universe once turned, is now an author and lifestyle blogger; she will not be participating in the reboot. Neither will Kristin Cavallari (currently starring in a reality series of her own on a different network), or Lo Bosworth. “I have found that being a known person makes me feel a little bit uncomfortable, especially in the context of reality T.V.,” says Bosworth, who launched a feminine hygiene and personal care company called Love Wellness in 2016. “It takes a certain personality type, and I just don’t have that in me.”
If The Hills was an exercise in how far faux-reality could go, New Beginnings is really a study in the aftermath. Times have changed; “influence” is now a bonafide career path. “Lauren and Whitney and the entire cast of the original show kind of prefigured what you see happening now with social media influencers like Leandra Medine or Arielle Charnas, or [Glossier CEO] Emily Weiss, who was once on The Hills” as a competitive fellow Teen Vogue intern posed as an arch-rival for Conrad. “There are millions now,” Amy Astley, former editor in chief of Teen Vogue and current editor in chief of Architectural Digest explains. “They paved the way . . . . I think that the show was a really interesting and significant moment in the trajectory of women as personalities and entrepreneurs. They were savvy to pick up on that.”