Outside the Cutting Room, a music venue on West 24th Street, people are milling about in shivery clusters and standing where the producers have asked them to stand so as not to interfere with the cameras and possibly ruin The Moment. The dozen or so loiterers pretend not to be staring at the taxi that’s approaching at a curiously slow speed. There have been a handful of false alarms—like the jet-black Town Car that pulled up a few minutes ago and deposited some random leggy blonde, as opposed to the random leggy blonde. That would be Whitney Port, one of the sorta-stars of The Hills, MTV’s wildly popular sorta-real show about twentysomethings in Los Angeles. For the past few months, she has been in New York filming The City, a spinoff about her move east to sorta-work for Diane Von Furstenberg. As the taxi inches closer, a producer steps into the street, motioning like an air-traffic controller to ensure the cab is positioned in such a way that the cameras—there are two crews, with two more waiting inside—will be able to capture the three seconds it takes for Whitney to scamper into the club.
But let’s freeze the frame right there for a second. Because if you’re not among the many dedicated followers of The Hills—with an average of 3 million viewers, the show is currently the No. 1 cable program among the 12-to-34-year-old demographic—some context is necessary to understand why something as banal as girl going from cab to club merits such attention. Premiering in 2006, The Hills was itself a spinoff of Laguna Beach, a show about a group of privileged, sun-kissed high-school kids in Orange County that positioned itself as a “real” version of The O.C., then a massive hit for Fox on which actors played privileged, sun-kissed high-school kids in Orange County. Part of the appeal of Laguna was that it looked a lot more like a scripted show than like a reality knockoff: MTV used a buttery, cinematic style of shooting that turned the most mundane of plotlines (breakups, makeups, feuding friends) into genuinely (if queasily) addictive programming. This technique was perfected on The Hills, an immediate sensation that was born when MTV decided to follow Lauren Conrad, a button-nosed blonde from the Laguna cast, as she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in fashion. For the first three seasons, Lauren interned at Teen Vogue in L.A., which is where she met Whitney, a recent graduate of USC who happened to apply for an internship when MTV was looking to cast a pretty young thing as Lauren’s co-worker. And now, thanks to a little luck and MTV wizardry, Whitney is set to become The Next Lauren when The City debuts December 29.
Doe-eyed, ruby-cheeked, dressed head-to-toe in designer clothing, Whitney enters the club with two of her new cast mates. There’s Erin Lucas, a friend from Los Angeles and NYU alumna who, judging from the trailer that has been viewed some 160,000 times on MTV’s Website since being released a month ago, will play Whitney’s friend from back home. Behind her is Olivia Palermo, a svelte 22-year-old society princess—and the only native New Yorker on the show—who now also sorta-works alongside Whitney in the publicity department at DVF. Onstage, an Australian surf-rock band called Tamarama is performing, and a camera has been positioned on a tripod behind the rhythm guitarist to capture the girls’ displays of semi-authentic enthusiasm as they order Champagne and gawk at the singer, a shaggy-haired 24-year-old named Jay Lyon whom Whitney began dating a few months ago, around the same time MTV asked if he’d be interested in being a regular on The City.
It’s an odd scene to witness, at once totally genuine and ridiculously contrived, which is to say it feels like any episode of The Hills. The show’s glittery production values are such that no one can watch without thinking it is entirely staged, yet from what I can gather, the fake reality is more real than you might think. During the three hours of filming, nothing particularly dramatic happens. The girls drink, the boys drink, the girls giggle, the boys giggle—then, eventually, there’s a flurry of air-kisses and everyone leaves. No tears, no explosive catfights, no misty epiphanies about frayed friendships, not even the vacant pouts that serve as the main form of communication on The Hills. Yet it’s easy to see how, in the editing room, the night could be finessed into one fraught with a number of quasi-real tensions.
Olivia, for instance, leaves a few minutes early. What’s up with that? Is she some kind of snob? (From the trailer: “She calls herself, like, a social,” says Whitney.) And at one point I notice a camera getting a shot of Jay talking to a fan wearing tight, low-slung jeans and a cleavage-intensifying top, while another zooms in on Whitney, standing a few feet away and staring blankly into the distance. It’s a look she’s honed on The Hills that can mean anything from “I’m happy” to “I’m distraught.” She doesn’t really seem distraught, but splice the two shots together, add an emo-rock anthem and a melancholy voice-over, and you’ve got the seeds for enough audience speculation about what happened to mask the fact that nothing actually happened.