The New Reality of The Hills
When The Hills premiered back in 2006, its cast was composed of relative unknowns. As the series’ popularity increased, these photogenic twentysomethings were increasingly featured in paparazzi photos and tabloid reports. However, the cast’s newfound celebrity was never addressed within the diegesis of the show. In an August 2008 interview, Lauren Conrad describes how the show’s producers worked to keep her status as a reality TV star separate from her non-famous Hills persona: “We’ll be filming at a restaurant and it will be us at a table, three cameras, and then a row of photographers behind the cameras.” Here Lauren’s celebrity is pushed, literally, to the borders of the television frame. Executive producer Tony DiSanto explained the reason for this disavowal in an August 2007 interview, “We want viewers to watch Lauren and the girls as the characters we know instead of in a show about being the stars of The Hills.”
This illusion of anonymity was rigorously maintained for the first five seasons of the series. But by season six it became clear that something had changed. For example, in the first few minutes of the season six premiere, “Put on a Happy Face,” a defeated-looking Stephanie Pratt sits down for lunch with Lauren “Lo” Bosworth and launches into a frank discussion about her time in a rehab facility. She concludes, ”I’m only 23 and I’ve been to jail twice? I mean, that’s not normal.” Later in that same episode, Heidi Montag, still physically and emotionally fragile from her ten plastic surgery procedures, flies to Colorado to visit her mother, Darlene Egelhoff. Upon seeing her daughter’s altered visage for the first time, with its artificially raised brows and swollen lips, Darlene begins to cry. “No one in the world could have looked like Heidi Montag,” her mother tells her, clearly mourning the loss of the daughter she once knew. In these two scenes, the extradiegetic world has penetrated the formerly impermeable borders of The Hills’ diegetic world — cast members are admitting to mistakes they made outside of the world of the show and crying real tears.
In the past I would have been cynical about these “confessions” and “emotions.” After all, Spencer Pratt has stated in interviews that his job is to perform the role of “Spencer,” referring to himself and Heidi as “improv TV personalities.” But it appears that in season six the world inside The Hills has effectively merged with the world outside The Hills. This is not to say that the show is no longer scripted, but its narrative has clearly shifted. The Hills has become, as DiSanto feared it would, a show about what it’s like being the stars of The Hills. Being “a star of The Hills” means: drinking too much, investing thousands of dollars in healing crystals, and disfiguring your body as a ploy to stay in the tabloid spotlight.
Indeed, the most tragic story of the season is Heidi, the poster child for the potentially deleterious effects of the reality TV machine. Since embarking on her love affair with Spencer Pratt, Heidi has been the willing pawn in a series of bizarre publicity stunts, ranging from earnest, poorly choreographed music videos to fake marriages to extreme plastic surgery. The latter has provided Heidi (and by extension, Spencer), with several tabloid covers and is by far one of the most compelling story lines in the current season of The Hills. Heidi has become a kind of reality TV Frankenstein’s monster: an uncanny hodgepodge of cartoonish female body parts stitched together for the benefit of the show’s probing cameras. As Anne Petersen puts it in a recent blog post, “the ideological work of celebrity is physically mapped on [Heidi’s] body in the form of plastic surgery so drastic that it has made her back bow.”
Thus, in its final season The Hills has morphed into a treatise on the “reality” of reality TV “stardom,” a reality crafted by the rewards and labors of a life of constant surveillance and confession. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that this season can also serve as an allegory of the current cultural moment—in which we are starting to take stock of the high costs of self-exposure. For this jaded fan, The Hills is once again must-see TV.