This marks the tenth anniversary of the debut of MTV’s reality show The Hills, the mid-2000s’ most addictive narcotic. It followed young white people trying to “make it” in L.A., which translated to working minimally as an intern at Teen Vogue, an assistant at a PR firm, or the front desk girl at Epic Records. The show was compelling despite its lugubrious pacing, the relative triviality of its stars’ never-ending “drama,” and its hatefully bland star, Lauren Conrad. Some of this has to do with the tension between the characters’ on-screen activities and the way they were achieving real success in Hollywood, inherent to the show but invisible. The show also captured the intersection of several Hollywoods: a place dreamed of, a place portrayed, and, finally, a place lived. The Hills’ Los Angeles is, as Conrad dubiously calls it in the first episode, “the only city where they say dreams come true."
Much of that city has disappeared since 2006. Most of the iconic nightspots that hosted the series’ most interesting moments—Les Deux, Area, Teddy’s—have permanently closed. This is probably to be expected. The show served more or less as an ad agency, developing promotions for many kinds of institutions: nightclubs and restaurants, yes, but also Teen Vogue, the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, the PR firm Bolthouse Productions. It also arose from a surge of interest in the nightly activities of a particularly profligate subset of “young Hollywood,” the heirs of old money like Paris and Nicky Hilton, Brandon Davis, Stavros Niarchos, and Casey Johnson, and rock and roll wealth like Nicole Richie, Kimberly Stewart, and Cisco Adler. The only members of this world who were employed in a traditional sense were actresses Lindsay Lohan and Mischa Barton.
“I invented getting paid to party,” Paris Hilton has said. She didn’t invent it, but she was the first to do it in the age of the internet, when tabloid sites like PerezHilton.com, founded in 2004, and TMZ, founded in 2005, initiated something of a gossip boom, and a cynical post-9/11 America was into oligarchy. Nightclubs sprang up, catering to these professional partiers and their symbiotic organisms, the tabloids. The Hills was a sign of the times, serving up the mid-2000s’ greatest source of entertainment: rich kids drinking. Shortly after its last episode aired, in 2010, many of its stars’ favorite nightclubs closed.
But The Hills’ L.A. has also disappeared because it was never really there in the first place. To begin with, until the third season, when Lauren moved to a condo in the Hollywood Hills, the show did not take place in any Hills, either Hollywood or Beverly. Lauren lived and worked in the Miracle Mile, sharing an apartment with Heidi in Park La Brea, one of the largest apartment complexes in the country. The caption on-screen identified their apartment as being in “The Villas Apartments” in West Hollywood, California, where it was, demonstrably, not. Most of the show’s favored nightclubs were in the heart of Hollywood, a neighborhood they made look beautiful, cool, and upscale.
It helps that most of these scenes were shot at night. Hollywood somehow manages to be both a family-friendly tourist trap and the seediest neighborhood in LA, whose landmarks other than the Walk of Fame include an Arby’s with a giant sign. Like most places in L.A., it is a psychotically mixed neighborhood, with glamorous destinations right by cigarette shops and adult bookstores. Like most places in L.A., its primary architectural feature is the strip mall.
My first nights in L.A. I stayed in two different cheap 1960s motels on Hollywood Boulevard. I moved there without ever having visited. I was perplexed at the divergence between this Hollywood and the only experience I had of L.A., from Clueless and MTV. I looked out on the people tweaking at the bus stops, the tattoo shops with hand-painted signs, the crowded parking lot at the Denny’s, and asked myself, “Is this neighborhood kind of…crappy?” I waxed my legs on the crusty green tile of my hotel bathroom. As I built my life in L.A., I avoided Hollywood. I had no money to go to clubs, and who would want to wait in line? The only Hollywood buzz bar I’ve ever been to is the one that they tricked out to look like a grandma’s basement in 1972.
The Hills lifestyle is unrealistic and undesirable for almost everyone who lives in L.A., which, despite its popular image, is mostly a constellation of working class ethnic enclaves. L.A. is difficult to depict because of its diversity, racially and in the feel of its neighborhoods and in economic sector from street to street, block to block, business to business. But there are also people invested in promoting this unreal vision of the city—thanks to the entertainment industry, Los Angeles is able to author itself.
The Hills was less interested in Hollywood the place than Hollywood as in “young Hollywood.” It was about wealth and fame, the dream that there is a place where everyone is young and beautiful and it’s always 72 degrees and sunny. This is what most of us mean when we say “Hollywood”: the entertainment industry as the height of American success. This makes The Hills maybe the first show ever to be set in a metonym.
Not that this conceptual Hollywood is not real. There is for everyone in L.A. a suffocating proximity to fame, the creeping sense that you are living next to people who are living very far from you. In a way it is a shared delusion, a sense that the city encloses a secret. You catch it in hints: the Maserati that cuts you off on the 405, the billboards that advertise a TV show or movie “for your consideration.” I used to keep a list on my phone of the celebrities I glimpsed, and it grew and grew: Susan Sarandon eating at an outdoor café, RuPaul leaving a boutique, Leif Garrett skateboarding through Koreatown.
This so-close-you-can-taste-it existence is too much for some to bear. Aspiration shaded into pathology for the Bling Ring, a group of San Fernando Valley teenagers who googled their favorite celebrities’ addresses and headed for the Hills, stealing over $3 million in cash, clothing, and jewelry from celebrity homes. Many of their targets were tabloid party girls like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, whose decadent lifestyles were their main source of fame. They also targeted Audrina Patridge from The Hills, which was one of their favorite shows. Their ringleader, Rachel Lee, wanted to study at FIDM because it was promoted on the show. There is debate about whether an all-consuming celebrity culture or regular greed and sociopathy caused Bling Ring’s crimes. But the mid-2000s’ new way of monetizing fame, using the paparazzi, reality TV, and burgeoning social media, was about intimacy and access, making fans feel like they could have a piece of their favorite celebrities. And, it turns out, they could.
The Bling Ring is a very L.A. story, encompassing suburban boredom, get-rich-quick schemes, and a belief that reality is negotiable. The Hills is an L.A. story too, but only when we take the long view, encompassing all the show’s “realities.” Laguna Beach, the show where Conrad got her start, was billed as “The Real Orange County,” a reference to the scripted TV show The OC. In this way the reality genre positioned itself as somewhere between fiction and journalism. But The Hills got more and more fictional as it went along, showing not merely staged scenes but staged lives. Kristin Cavallari, who was hired to replace Conrad, has said that all of her relationships on the show were invented for the cameras. “I’m glad I went back to [reality TV] because this time I looked at it strictly as a job, and I knew the character they wanted me to play,” she told Us Weekly recently. The Hills’ last shot showed the cameras pulling away from Cavallari to reveal that she was on a soundstage, as the show addressed a Hollywood that was implied but never shown, revealing finally that it was all a dream.