The City, like The Hills, is constructed around the most archetypical of television conventions: the ingenue trying to find love and success in the big city. But it’s a difficult story line to maintain. While the network continues to portray Lauren as a kind of universal Everygirl on The Hills—currently filming its fifth season—the reality is that she now leads a life few of her fans can relate to. She earns an estimated $1.5 million a year, only a fraction of which comes from her reported $75,000 episode fee. The rest is made through endorsing products, working the club-appearance-and-speaking-engagement circuit, designing a clothing line, and writing a series of young-adult novels about an ordinary American teen who becomes a reality-TV star. Liz Gately, an executive producer of both shows and senior vice-president of series development and programming at MTV, admits that it has become increasingly difficult to edit these developments out of the show. “It’s harder for us,” she says, “to find those moments when she’s the Lauren going through more universal and relatable experiences.” Which explains the appeal of creating a new show around Whitney. Her personality is almost identical to Lauren’s: ambitious in her career, generous with her friends, easily smitten with charming boys (though she is less of a crier than Lauren). And as the most private and unexplored character on The Hills—for the first three seasons, Whitney’s personal life stayed off-camera—she remains a slate so blank that viewers can project onto her life any fantasy they choose.
That said, The City is not the brainchild of MTV executives hungry to extend a brand so much as the accidental creation of a New York fashion publicist named Kelly Cutrone. After making a cameo in the first season of The Hills, Cutrone became a regular character midway through season three when she hired Whitney and Lauren to work at her firm, People’s Revolution, which has offices on both coasts. It was through Cutrone that Whitney first started coming to New York to work on fashion shows; it was through Cutrone that Whitney met the male model who would eventually take her to the club where she first spotted current love interest Jay; and, finally, it was through Cutrone that Whitney learned about the opening at DVF. New city, new boys, new job: All MTV had to do was show up, get some papers signed, and turn on the cameras.
“No, no, no! It wasn’t like I did all that for Whitney thinking she’d get her own show,” insists Cutrone, who in person is far warmer than the brash she-devil she’s made out to be on The Hills. “I’m always introducing my girls to cute boys—only because I’m too old to date them.” She’s also adamant that she wasn’t thinking about the potential of future airtime—for Whitney or herself or Von Furstenberg—when she told Whitney about the job. “It’s not like I’m in secret cahoots with DVF here. I mean, I don’t even represent her,” she continues, addressing the fact that being on The City is a marketing coup for the designer, who gets to reach an audience of young girls with malleable fashion sensibilities. But it’s not as if Cutrone is unaware of the branding opportunities offered by reality television: She’s currently pitching a show about her own life (working title: Kell on Earth) with Magical Elves, the production team responsible for Project Runway and Top Chef, an effort no doubt made smoother by the fact that she’ll make a number of appearances on The City. “My office has always been a place where old employees stop by,” she says. And then, perhaps alluding to future plot points: “Sometimes they come by just to hang out, and sometimes they come to have a place to cry.”
Ever since The City was announced back in October, there’s been online speculation about the deal that was struck between MTV and DVF and what, exactly, Whitney’s “job” would entail. The presumption was that the network and the designer must have hammered out a mutually beneficial arrangement: fake job in exchange for product placement. But Cutrone tells me that Whitney was “a very real employee” at People’s Revolution who was paid a normal salary and showed up every day, even when she wasn’t being filmed. “The way it all happened is exactly how you saw it on the show,” she says, referring to episode eighteen of the last season of The Hills, where Cutrone is seen sitting Whitney down in her L.A. office to tell her about the DVF opening. Like many of the show’s scenes, there’s a stilted, surreal quality to the exchange, as if Whitney already knew she’d get the job and move to New York and star in her own TV show but has to feign surprise for the cameras. While Gately admits that the producers occasionally prompt the cast to discuss something important that wasn’t caught on film—in a way, of course, that seems spontaneous—the show’s creator, Adam Divello, says that no such thing happened in this case. “The truth is that Whitney was really in the dark,” he explains. “She didn’t know she’d be in New York, and neither did we.”