In conversation, Whitney is exactly as she is on The Hills, at once poised and naïve. “I’m living in either midtown or the Gramercy area—I don’t really know, to be perfectly honest,” she tells me when asked about life in the city. “I’m in a tall building, way up high.” For Whitney, the biggest change between the two shows has been the fact that on The City, her private life will be made public. “It’s been a ha-uuuge adjustment,” she says. “From the beginning of The Hills, I was very career-oriented. I had had a boyfriend for the first year and a half, and I made a conscious effort to keep that to myself. I just didn’t want to be that vulnerable.” Her change-of-heart wasn’t so much a conscious decision as the inevitable result of this kind of exposure. She met her new boyfriend on-camera, in episode fourteen of this past season of The Hills, to be exact—a scene, Whitney is quick to clarify, that wasn’t a reenactment. “That was sort of the breaking point,” she explains. “I figured that if I like this guy and these feelings are real, then I’ll just go with it. Obviously, it’s difficult—I come with a lot of baggage. There’s a whole crew of people who approached him that night, and he had to, like, sign a waiver before he knew if he even wanted to know me.”
This points to the potentially complicating difference between The City and its predecessor—namely, that The City is being created in a post-Hills universe. To a certain type of young person—abnormally good-looking, independently wealthy, eager for attention—the success of The Hills has created a peculiar opportunity that didn’t exist even a few years ago: the chance to turn an instinct for self-exploitation into a career. The entire cast of The City has come into the project hyperaware of their potential: to be paid to drink where they normally drink, to be stalked by paparazzi, to be able to slap their names on a pair of sunglasses or designer jeans. “It seems like everyone I know suddenly wants to get on that show, or have their own show, or pretend to have a show in order to get on another show,” says Sean Glass, a 24-year-old Dalton grad and aspiring filmmaker whose social circle intersects with a few characters on The City. He is working on his own show about glamour-flecked twentysomethings in New York, as is his good friend Devorah Rose, the 26-year-old editor of Social Life magazine, who recently sold an idea (currently called Social Heights) to ABC about the lives of her and her close friends, the publicist Kristian Laliberte and diamond heiress Annabel Vartanian. The show’s original name? The City! Olivia Palermo met with ABC about being part of that show before ultimately deciding to do the MTV series. When asked by producers why she wanted to be on TV, she reportedly said, “Because I want to be a brand.”
Over a recent breakfast, Olivia is less blunt when talking about The City—though it’s clear she recognizes the potential in being cast, essentially, in the same role Whitney first played on The Hills. She uses words like “platform” and “exposure,” describing how she hopes to use the show to launch a career. “Like, maybe I’ll start a jewelry line,” she says. “It’s best to start with something small, right?” Similarly, when a friend of mine ran into Jay Lyon at the Beatrice Inn recently, he talked about how he hoped the show would help his band gain recognition.
Whitney fully understands that she has become the center of a massive branding vehicle—even she has a new clothing line, Eve & A, to promote. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity for all these kids,” she says of the show, as if she’s describing a job (which it is) as opposed to a life (which it also is). “It can be kind of weird,” she tells me. “I like to think people are friends with me because they like me, you know, and not because of what I can do for them…” She pauses for a moment, letting the thought linger. I find it impossible not to imagine a girl-power ballad starting to play in the background, quiet at first, then louder as the camera pans back to reveal a sparkling skyline, the whole effect turning her silence into a meditation on the mercurial nature of friendship and, ultimately, the realization that a young woman in the city has only herself to rely on.
Then Whitney breaks the reverie: “But of course it’s just part of the job, you know?”
That last line, of course, would be cut in the editing room.