Truth And Time Tells All

This weekend sees an anniversary edition of The Hills, ten years since it was first broadcast. Helen Archer on the first structured reality TV show.

The Hills

“Hi, I’m Lauren. I grew up in Laguna Beach — a small town with big drama. But now, it’s time for me to move on. I got an apartment with my good friend Heidi, I’m going to fashion school and I scored an interview for a killer internship with ‘Teen Vogue.’ This is my chance to make it happen – in the one city where they say dreams come true.”

– Lauren Conrad, The Hills

Human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

– T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, The Four Quartets


I was first introduced to The Hills back in 2007. I’d just returned to Glasgow, having spent Christmas and new year in the Florida Keys. Slumped on the sofa in a cold, dark flat in the dead of winter, low on a jet-lagged comedown, contemplating a return to work and my own reality, I switched on MTV, which just happened to be screening a weekend-long marathon of the first series. Hours later, as day turned to night, Saturday to Sunday, I lay there, huddled under a duvet, deep in escapism, ignoring my phone, unable – unwilling – to switch off.

I wasn’t alone. Watching Lauren Conrad and her friends live it up in naughties Hollywood against a backdrop of fashion, music, and general glamour proved to be one of MTV’s most highly addictive televisual drugs. The Hills became a phenomenon which kick-started a genre, and is held in deep affection even now, ten years after it first aired.

But the show had deeper cultural connotations. Emblematic of a particular moment in recent pop cultural history, its legacy has outlived its six-season run. It came to represent, within its short lifespan, both the peak and the nadir of a new type of reality television. Its ultimate demise was brought about by factors which tell the story of a zeitgeist and the nature of modern day celebrity – rumours of a sex tape, the involvement of Kim Kardashian’s stepbrother, a damaging addiction to plastic surgery, and a certain type of toxic masculinity – which would come to dominate and destroy the programme’s nascent innocence.

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Created by Adam DiVello and Liz Gateley, The Hills blended a kind of aspirational drama with the ‘real lives’ of its protagonists, creating a genre not seen before, the precursor of TOWIE and Made in Chelsea. Cut seamlessly together, with no acknowledgement of the cameras (and therefore the audience), no breaking of the fourth wall, and no need for supplementary narrative outside of an introductory voiceover, it was shot with long lenses from faraway cameras, maintaining the intimacy between the characters while organically creating diegesis. There were full-season story arcs, mixed with shorter ones – a fashion show or video shoot – which lent it its strong narrative drive. It was, of course, highly edited, with cutaway shots of the backs of peoples’ heads as explanatory questions were asked and answered, and separating tableaux of the glittering lights of the buildings of LA from the dark surrounding hills. While many of the shorter plots clearly had the hand of the production team in them, the longer storylines – of faltering friendships and burgeoning romances – were tales which were sculpted from the clay of real lives.

To understand the phenomenon of The Hills you have to go back a bit, to Liz Gateley’s previous show, Laguna Beach, which aired from 2004-2006. Subtitled ‘The Real Orange County’, it was created to tell the ‘real story’ behind Josh Schwartz’s hit teen drama The OC, which had premiered in 2003 and ran for four seasons, making stars of actors Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody, who played the highly privileged teen progeny of the inhabitants of the small part of California coastline on which it was set.

Laguna Beach lasted three series. The first was narrated by Lauren Conrad, one of a group of kids who went to Laguna Beach High. The show followed her as she hung out on the beaches of the OC with her friends during her senior year of high school, drinking beers around bonfires, going to school proms, hiring out hotel rooms for fairly tame parties, and putting on fashion shows for charity, like Cher from Clueless come to life. Much of Lauren’s series of Laguna revolved around the ‘love triangle’ between Lauren, her crush Stephen Colletti, and his on/off girlfriend Kristin Cavallari, all of whom would go on to appear on The Hills.

The programme faltered when Lauren graduated and went off to San Francisco to start studying fashion design, leaving the production team to concentrate on her younger schoolmates. It would come to life again when she returned for summer, bringing with her a friend she had made upcoast, Heidi Montag. When Lauren announced she would be heading to Hollywood to study at FIDM in LA, the producers, knowing she was ratings gold, with her expressive face and her inability to hide a single emotion as it occurred, were keen to follow. The Hills was born.

Heidi was a shoo-in for co-star. The small-town girl from Crested Butte, Colorado (pop 1,487) seemed worlds away from Lauren’s haut monde, but she quickly adapted and was ready to try her luck in Hollywood. It was decided that the pair would share an apartment in the modest Hillside Villas apartment complex, and it was while scoping for locations there that the production crew met Audrina Patridge. The aspiring model/actress/whatever would befriend Lauren and Heidi seemingly organically, and take a leading part in the series. Whitney Port, meanwhile, unaware that all this was going on, had independently secured herself an internship at Teen Vogue, and would share an office with Lauren, working there part time under Lisa Love. With her long legs, pure Hollywood lineage, and sometimes dubious fashion choices, Whitney quickly became a fan favourite and would go on to star in her own spin-off reality show, The City.

And so the scene was set for a series featuring sun-kissed girls in halter neck  tops and oversized sunglasses, hanging out by the side of the rooftop pool of the Roosevelt Hotel, sipping weak cocktails and gossiping about their inner circle. They were living pre-Instagram Instagram lifestyles, and giving birth to memes before memes were even a thing. The ‘real’ jobs they had secured acted as a cover for their actual TV star roles, and had the added bonus of allowing them backstage at fashion shows and music gigs (Audrina was put to work at Epic Records, while Heidi worked for Bolthouse, a PR firm which seemed to represent most of the hip, high-end clubs in the area).

But it was the souring of Heidi and Lauren’s relationship, instigated by the arrival on the scene of Spencer Pratt, which would become the biggest plot line in the early days of the series, and ultimately lay The Hills low. Pratt’s presence in the show saw a low-level misogyny infiltrate the female sphere, which would have long-lasting repercussions on Heidi (reader, she married him), and on the structured reality genre as a whole.

Spencer Pratt was – and remains – one of the first in a long line of cynical reality TV show manipulators. First appearing on The Hills in 2007, he had long before set his sights on securing a piece of its success. At the time, he was best friends with Brody Jenner, the son of Bruce/Caitlin Jenner and Bruce’s first wife, the actress Linda Thomson, a one-time lover of Elvis Presley. Brody is now better known as the former stepbrother of those other reality stars, Khloe, Kim and Kourtney Kardashian, and half brother of Kendall and Kylie Jenner, but back then he was living in the Malibu compound of super-rich music producer David Foster, whom Linda was married to at the time. (David Foster himself would go on to appear regularly in The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, as Yolanda Foster’s husband, stepfather to Bella and Gigi Hadid.)

In 2005, Spencer was living in the Fosters’ pool house, a kind of real-life Ryan from The OC, except for the fact that Spencer came from an affluent Santa Barbara family. After watching The Osbournes, Spencer’s Machiavellian brain started working in overdrive, figuring that if that family could make a series just because of the money they had and the place they lived, he too could become a Hollywood player by making some reality TV on the back of the Fosters’ wealth.

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Pratt pitched The Princes of Malibu, a short-lived series which was pulled after six episodes. The programme, which a handful of people saw, featured Brody and Spencer yukking it up on the handouts of the charisma-lite Foster, and not much else. After the show’s cancellation, Spencer was on the lookout for a new way ‘in’ to the Hollywood fame scene, and, seeing a producer buddy’s name on the credits of an early Hills episode, he called and asked him for a part. Told it was impossible, Spencer resolved to get in through the back door by hitting the clubs in which they were filming, making Brody spend a small fortune on Dom Perignon, and partying at tables near to the cameras in places like Area and Les Deux.

At the start, Spencer targeted most of the Hills girls, making jokes about his plans to bed all of them, though he didn’t get far until he was introduced to Heidi. Somehow Spencer, with his shark-like grin and his blank yet calculating pale blue eyes, became a major player in what had previously been a fairly sweet and innocuous TV programme about female friendships and concerns.

The testosterone he exerted from his first appearances gradually infected the whole show. Lauren couldn’t stand him, and pretty soon her relationship with her erstwhile flatmate Heidi hit a rocky patch. What happened to estrange them completely revolved around rumours of a sex tape featuring Lauren and her ex-boyfriend Jason Wahler; rumours Spencer himself had planted with gossip guru Perez Hilton. Heidi and Lauren’s friendship was blown apart – tellingly – by the attempted slut-shaming of Lauren.

The sex tape rumours functioned in much the same way as the rest of the outside world did in The Hills. Despite the raging success of the show, which had turned its stars into America’s sweethearts, meaning they were raking in the big bucks through sponsorship deals, going out on the red carpet several nights a week, and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, they were still required to maintain the fiction that they were interning, or manning the reception of a record company. The dissonance between what was shown on screen and what was happening off it became a greater and greater. While the paparazzi waited for the gang outside the clubs they frequented, the viewers pretended, along with the cast, that they were having an ordinary, semi-attainable girls’ night out.

Likewise, the sex tape rumours were not explicitly addressed on the show as the reason for the break in Heidi and Lauren’s friendship, and the bitter arguments which followed. While Lauren was shouting ‘You know what you did’ at Heidi in the smoking area of Les Deux, the viewer had to maintain the illusion of innocence, pretending to the show and themselves that they were unaware of Spencer and Heidi’s burgeoning friendship with Perez, and their attempted manipulation of the media via gossip sites like TMZ.

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By season three, it became more and more clear that Speidi, as Spencer and Heidi had branded themselves, were attempting to control the show in much the same way as they attempted to control the media. There was a dubious-seeming pregnancy scare, fake break-ups and reconciliations, and the pair could barely keep the smirks from their faces as their facade intermittently slipped. It all seemed designed to get them as much airtime as possible, eating into the storylines of Lauren meeting her hero Marc Jacobs or being driven around nighttime Paris on the back of a motorcycle after working at the Crillon Ball. The tug-of-war between the forces of good (Lauren) and the forces of evil (Speidi) was being played out in episodes, as they battled for influence in the show and the plotlines. Gradually, Lauren was sidelined, and, refusing to take part in the charade or spend any airtime on the Speidi situation, she left the series after making one last appearance at Speidi’s wedding special at the end of the fourth season.

The Hills would continue for two more series, but it became a much darker programme. As with Laguna Beach, the show felt Lauren’s absence. Kristin Cavallari, insincerity seeping from every pore, took her place, and the storylines became more heavily manipulated. Many still watched for the increasingly desperate, bizarre and ultimately heartbreaking escapades of Speidi, who appeared to be constructing their own, slightly deranged, ‘reality’ on-screen.

Spencer created a disastrous career for himself as Heidi’s Svengali. The pair sank most of what they earned from the show into launching an ill-advised pop career for Heidi, who Spencer legitimately seemed to believe could be the new Britney. It made them both a laughing stock. By this time, Perez Hilton had turned on the comments in his blog, and the posters were not kind. Heidi would read remarks about her looks, and it took its toll on her self-esteem. In 2010, she took the drastic decision to have ten plastic surgery procedures in one day, becoming – in her words – a human barbie doll.

Heidi spent much of her recovery time incapacitated and in severe pain. One episode features her returning to Crested Butte to visit her family post-surgery. Her mother opens the door to her and immediately tears up. The camera pans round the family photos in the living room, which show Heidi as the viewer first knew her, on her arrival in at Hillside Villas, fresh-faced and smiling; happy. Her mother, an addiction counsellor, sits Heidi down and explains that she feels she has lost a daughter. At a dinner at her stepfather’s restaurant (which the family later lost in the recession), Heidi, with her immobile face, complains she can’t chew because of her jaw reduction, and her mother suggests blending the hamburger up for her to drink down. Heidi left Crested Butte and didn’t see or speak to her family again for several years, despite their increasingly desperate public appeals through the media. The estrangement would finally end on the set of a different reality TV show, The Mother/Daughter Experience.

Selling her story to magazines, revealing how much she regretted her extensive surgery, Heidi came to be seen as low-rent, a wannabe who had ruined her chances at fame and friendship, a loser who was increasingly isolated, spending weeks at a time completely housebound, with only Spencer and her dogs for company. Spencer, meanwhile, casting himself in the role of super-villain, had put on weight, grown an unkempt beard (long before beards were the hipster accessory of choice), and got increasingly into the healing power of crystals (he is said to have spent tens of thousands of dollars on them). With rumours abounding that the pair were meth-heads, the Hollywood dream turned nightmare, with echoes of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, itself a reference to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

It’s easy to cast the brunette, ‘classy’, ever-careful Lauren against villainous blonde nemeses. While Lauren was able to navigate the Hollywood scene due in part to her level-headedness – a result of the gilded lifestyle in which she grew up – what happened to Heidi is emblematic of the ‘poor girl’s’ journey to Hollywood, and the nature of much modern-day celebrity. It’s an age-old story of the way in which an uncaring Hollywood can seduce and corrupt young ingenues, such an obvious take as to be a cliché.

The Hills ended in 2010, with a controversially meta reveal. As Kristin drives away after saying goodbye to Brody, a set is pulled away, revealing it had been filmed on a lot, and that the backdrop of the Hollywood sign is fake. The implication that everything had been staged was a nod to the rumours that the reality had been scripted and heavily produced all along. Viewers felt cheated, and it created a conversation about the authenticity of the ‘reality’ show.

The Hills left us there, but the ripples it made in the waters of popular culture linger. The intersections of the programme with contemporary reality output are ubiquitous, a never-ending continuum of spiderweb connections. Speidi went on to appear in other, more generic reality TV shows, including Celebrity Big Brother UK, I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and Marriage Boot Camp. Spencer’s sister Stephanie, a sporadic presence in The Hills, is benefitting from the fruit of her brother’s labour, with a part as American troublemaker in Made in Chelsea, upsetting the balance of the cast of upper-crust Londoners. She, too, has appeared in UK Celebrity Big Brother, where she was wooed, unsuccessfully, by George from Gogglebox. Whitney Port went on to marry the man who, as a producer on her spin-off show The City, would arrange men for her to date. Audrina, after being targeted for robberies by the ‘Bling Ring’ (along with Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Rachel Bilson – one of the stars of the aforementioned OC) would appear in Sofia Coppola’s film based on the Vanity Fair article which examined the rationale behind the crimes. Audrina gave permission to film in the house she was living at the time of the robberies – a glass and concrete structure on a darkened hillside, the occupants visible like a fish in an aquarium. Coppola’s film would directly reference the phenomenon of The Hills in its opening scenes, the envy of the lifestyles portrayed in the show alluded to as a motive behind the crimes. “I just have to graduate so I can go to FIDM. Fashion Institute of Design. It’s where all the Hills girls went,” one character explains. “And then intern at Teen Vogue?” “Totes. And then have my own line and frangrance. Host my own show.”

Audrina’s house was burgled while The Hills was still filming, on 22 February 2009 – Oscars night. The ‘Bling Ring’ were well aware which party she would be attending – it was announced on TMZ. Lamenting the fact that they stole her great-grandmother’s jewellery along with her passport and other items, Audrina sadly concludes that they also took “jeans made to fit my body to my perfect shape.” Though baffling to her, this was the currency, and, perhaps, the legacy of The Hills. Viewers coveted a life which didn’t fit – a life which didn’t even, really, exist. The fantasy peddled was like a designer drug, a feel-good narcotic, which, over time, has retained its potency even as the decades turn and the symptoms of withdrawal become ever more pronounced.

The Hills: That Was Then, This Is Now airs at 8pm this Sunday on MTV UK. It is preceded by a weekend-long The Hills marathon, starting at 9am on Saturday.

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