In the series finale of The Hills in 2010, Brody Jenner looked on wistfully as Kristin Cavallari drove away from their on-again, off-again relationship. The California backdrop was suddenly wheeled away, revealing a Hollywood backlot. Cavallari ran out of her stationary car nearby, and the two embraced in a post-show hug. It was a wrap on the reality show that defined the late aughts, in a winking reference to the simulated authenticity that it had become known for.
This week, the era defining 2000s reality show celebrates fifteen years, while its reboot, The Hills: New Beginnings airs its sophomore season. The reboot, which attempted to replace Lauren Conrad with fellow ‘00s queen Mischa Barton in the first season, now sees Cavallari back as another iteration of its main gal. “I kind of feel like, in a weird way, I was on The Hills, even though I’d never seen it,” Barton said in an interview with Vogue about her role in the reboot. “My whole life was publicized in a fake way and everything about me was made up while I was on The O.C., which ran simultaneously with The Hills.” Such was the grasp Barton, Conrad and their proto-influencer ilk had on pop culture at the time. It felt like if you missed an episode of their shows or an issue of In Touch, you yourself were out of touch. When The Hills, itself a spinoff of Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, premiered in 2006, reality television was on the cusp of ballooning into the dominant genre of entertainment that it is today, and the women at the forefront of the show went from second tier stars to A-listers in a matter of months. At the height of the tabloid craze, I followed their every move. And unlike the easily accessible celebrities and social media stars of today, their moves were a perfect mix of sensational and elusive. I couldn’t get enough.
At the centre of The Hills hype was Conrad, a freshly minted Angeleno who donned thick, gaudy plastic headbands and unblended eyeliner to her internship at Teen Vogue with her friend Whitney Port. Conrad was neighbours with Audrina Patridge in a shitty apartment complex (at least in comparison to the Spanish villa style digs the two moved into with Lo Bosworth in later seasons). Conrad’s roommate, Heidi Montag, almost immediately quit the Fashion Institute of Design that she’d moved to L.A. to attend in favour of an “I didn’t know if it was full time or part time” job at Bolthouse event company.
The show gave us many iconic Conrad moments, from her being “the girl who didn’t go to Paris,” instead choosing to spend the summer with Jason Wahler at the end of season one, to her yelling “you know what you did!” at Montag in the season three opener. And it was in her emotionally resonant ones that the show excelled. Its loyal viewers could all relate to friendship breakups or being torn between love and career advancement (On that note, Conrad really should have joined the ranks of pop culture girls who’ve gone to Paris). Underneath all the It bags and LA hotspots and “drama drama drama,” as Cavallari would say, the show was rooted in Conrad’s emotional journey. When The Hills deviated from that, as with the final season and the reboot in which it’s clear that none of these people like each other or hang out in real life, that it began to fail. For as vanilla as Conrad was, the beginning of the end of The Hills was telegraphed when she left the show halfway through its fifth season in 2009.
The Hills ballooned into a cultural phenomenon in its second and third seasons. Conrad graduated from making collages on her couch and getting schooled by Emily Weiss in what a chinoiserie is before Pinterest and Glossier were things. Her braids, winged eyeliner and nameplate ring (both a nod to Carrie Bradshaw’s nameplate necklace and the cultural appropriation of it), the gang’s boho style and Port’s cool girl vibe allowed the cast to blend into the Hollywood scene that they were, by then, very much a part of. They imprinted themselves on my consciousness from frenzied afternoons bingeing the show in my bedroom and wanting everything they had like I imagine short-lived reality star Alexis Neiers and co. doing. (The only difference is, my envy didn’t fester into crime as it did for the group known as The Bling Ring who stole from The Hills cast and were portrayed in the Sofia Coppola film of the same name.)
In navigating their newfound fame, the cast was forced to grow up a bit (but not enough to jeopardize the insular storylines reminiscent of their Laguna Beach high-school). The Hills was one of the biggest examples of the aforementioned reality TV-to-celebrity pipeline, perhaps second only to Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It existed in a meta reality where the paparazzi hounded its stars, resulting in tabloid photo spreads of them attending the red carpet events that Montag and Patridge were portrayed on the show as having to work in their jobs in event and talent management on the show. How’s that for a mindfuck?
Even though Conrad and Port didn’t have to work at Teen Vogue and, later, People’s Revolution public relations company, The Hills’ portrayal of them doing so was perhaps the last frontier of “scripted reality” TV. There was a disconnect that came with not having 24-hour social media access to the stars back then, which allowed us to give into the fantasy. It didn’t last long though: Even as Jersey Shore premiered in late 2009, society had collectively peeled back the curtain to wholeheartedly understand that the jobs reality stars undertook on the titular tourist strip were nothing more than a farce for the camera. We had an inkling when Teen Vogue put their intern on the cover in 2006, and the Kardashians helped bust that illusion a year later.
By the time we bid farewell to The Hills in 2010, Twitter was already on the rise and Instagram would debut later that year. The celebrity conglomerate we knew and held in various degrees of affection was about to change for good. Influencers, which is what Conrad et al were before we had a term for them, now cultivate their images via social media rather than relying on the edits of TV producers. The Hills cast has jumped on board, as is evidenced by a quick glance at their accounts and the brand partnerships they’ve migrated to the show (Port’s schilling for Crest White Strips, anyone?!), but I’m still pondering how this translates to a reboot consisting of the least interesting members of Conrad’s entourage and a bunch of other randos in proximity to Hollywood, such as Barton and Pamela Anderson’s son Brandon Lee. Without Conrad’s basic je ne sais quoi and Cavallari’s bad girl facade the rest of the has-beens that made up the cast dredging up the same “problems” from fifteen years ago is a bit tragic.
Everyone from the original cast are now parents, as are many of the people who watched The Hills in its heyday. Conrad, Cavallari and Port are momfluencers. Does the Gen Z audience MTV is presumably flirting with by bringing in Lee and his rotating cast of influencer girlfriends even know who they are and what they meant to us in all their problematic and materialistic 2000s glory?
In a recent Cosmopolitan interview with the young cast of the new Gossip Girl reboot, they gushed over the original GG—a spiritual, East Coast, and blatantly scripted twin to The Hills. So I guess Gen Z does have an appreciation for the nostalgia of millennials’ youth.
It’s a common theory that nostalgia cycles around roughly every twenty years. With the acceleration of our daily lives aided by smart devices and the collapse of the work-home divide, coupled with a want-it-now consumer culture, it’s no surprise that nostalgia for The Hills is coming back around again fifteen years after it first dropped and changed the game. For some of us, it never went away.
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