Run for the Hills

Whitney Port and Jay Lyon outside the offices of Diane Von Furstenberg.Photo: Tom Meinelt-Jackson Lee/Splash News/

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.

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.”

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.

Dramatis Personae
The crop of cast mates hoping to capitalize on the Hills franchise.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

1. Whitney Port
Star of The City; former sidekick to Lauren Conrad on The Hills; promoting a new clothing line.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

2. Diane Von Furstenberg
The designer who, after a brief foray into reality TV on last season’s Project Runway, will now serve as Whitney’s employer.

Photo: INF Photo

3. Jay Lyon
The scruffy singer of the Australian surf-rock band Tamarama, which will get lots of airtime because Jay is also Whitney’s boyfriend.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

4. Kelly Cutrone
Whitney’s former boss at People’s Revolution; currently shopping her own show, Kell on Earth.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

5. Erin Lucas
Whitney’s friend from L.A. who shows her the ropes in New York; previously hosted a fashion podcast called Style Lounge.

Photo: Patrick McMullan

6. Olivia Palermo
The socialite who wants to be a brand; was in talks with another reality program before signing on to be Whitney’s co-worker.

Run for the Hills