When Reality-TV Fame Runs Dry
Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag—the whoriest of the famewhores, the most promotional of the promosexuals, the couple that took Paris Hilton’s famous-for-nothing vocation and turned it into a winking, nonstop enterprise—are careful to say that they have no regrets. Living a fake life for the sake of cameras worked for them for years.
Until it didn’t. They’re broke and living at Spencer’s parents’ beach house in Santa Barbara because of the free rent; Heidi’s body and face are forever changed from plastic surgeries she now wishes she had not gotten; their relationships with friends and family are severely damaged; and they have found themselves largely unemployable, both on camera and off.
We discussed these issues over lunch recently at the couple’s favorite restaurant, Don Antonio’s in West L.A., where I had interviewed them three years earlier when they were at the top of their game with MTV’s docusoap The Hills, working every lever of the celebrity industrial-machine to their advantage.
Things have changed. Spencer spoke definitively: “What we learned is: You can be too famous.”
They first acquired fame in 2006, when The Hills began as a continuation of the channel’s phenomenally successful reality-ish show, Laguna Beach. Heidi was (and played) the roommate of the franchise’s star Lauren Conrad, whom she met at freshman orientation at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University in 2004. Beginning in The Hills’s second season, Spencer was (and played) Heidi’s duplicitous, overbearing, combative, Lauren-hating boyfriend, whom Heidi had met off-camera after season one. They definitely stole the show, with Spencer’s villainy, Heidi’s sad eyes, and Lauren’s fruitless entreaties to keep her friend and get rid of her enemy driving The Hills’s plot.
The glossy celebrity magazines, led by their favorite outlet, Us Weekly, and gossip sites (PerezHilton.com, TMZ, etc.) were interested in the whole cast, but Heidi and Spencer, or “Speidi” as they were also called, milked their fame like none before them. They were photographed everywhere, from the Kentucky Derby to the White House Correspondents Dinner to nightclubs that paid them tens of thousands of dollars to make appearances. Their fighting, breakups, and will-they-or-won’t-they-get-married storyline played out on the show and in Us Weekly (they ended up marrying twice—once in elopement, and once in a big church ceremony on The Hills). But viewers did get the sense that everything was entirely fictional.
(And now that’s confirmed. Did you ever break up? Spencer: “No.” Heidi: “No.” Spencer: “Not for one minute.” Heidi: “We’ve never even been apart.” Which raises a larger point: Everything in this article that could be fact-checked through multiple independent sources, has been.)
Plenty of people, perhaps even a large majority, hated Speidi, their antics, and the Doomsday celebrity culture they embodied. They didn’t care; they clowned their way to the bank, posing wherever they saw, or had set up, a camera.
But what seemed like good fun—staged paparazzi photographs at the supermarket, in Sarah Palin T shirts, dressing up as fellow fame-mongers Jon and Kate Gosselin, and so on—turned dark as The Hills wound down. By the end of 2009 (and the show’s fifth season), their lives seemed insane. Instead of riding bikes, Spencer was holding guns. Heidi’s plastic surgeries gave her a distorted quality, but she vowed to have more. Spencer grew a thick beard, became obsessed with crystals, and was eventually told to leave the series. There were daily updates on gossip sites about them “living in squalor,” publicly feuding with their families, and attacking The Hills producers (or claiming The Hills producers attacked them). By the time they announced they were (fake) splitting, followed by Spencer threatening to release various sex tapes, and Heidi (fake) filing for divorce, it seemed like they had ventured into, at best, Joaquin Phoenix-like, life-as-performance-art notoriety and, at worst, truly bleak Star 80 territory that could end with one or both of them dead.
“We were all getting paid to be people we weren’t for so long that you stop—there’s no line,” Spencer said. “The gauge is gone. The gray area is gone.”
He continued. “We got so deep with how many storylines we had to do to continue the machine.”
“So what was one more fake breakup?” Heidi asked rhetorically.
“At that point, we were pulling our last cards,” Spencer said. “We felt the hot-air balloon losing its gas. And at that stage, our income would be selling the photo that would go along with the divorce.” (But their once-lucrative side business was yielding around $300 per photo in 2010, rather than the $3,000 they used to get.)
What the hell happened? What were they thinking? And where did all the money go?
“We never had any!” said Spencer in response to the money question. Meaning, it went out as quickly as it came in. Spencer estimated they spent $2 million on Heidi’s ill-fated pop-music career, hiring writers, producers, and engineers who worked with Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Lady Gaga. There were lots of clothes, too. “I probably spent a million dollars on suits and fancy clothes,” Spencer said. “My whole million-dollar wardrobe—I would never wear that again. They’re props. Everything we were doing, we were buying props. I bought a big blue monster truck just to drive it on The Hills for an episode. Never drove it again.”
Spencer—who previously appeared on 2005’s short-lived reality series The Princes of Malibu—grew up with privilege and private schools in Los Angeles; Heidi was raised in tiny Crested Butte, Colo., with little money and lots of church. “I should have known growing up and not having any money ever that I should have kept every dollar that I had,” Heidi said. “I thought I was investing in myself and my brand. Like Kim.” As in Kardashian, who came up often during the interview. Heidi continued: “When she buys these clothes, she’s investing in herself. Because she is a big brand and is likeable. I thought I had that potential. My ego got too big. To think I could be someone like that when I was the most hated girl ever.”
Spencer is, for sure, hated by many. And Heidi-and-Spencer together are often hated. But Heidi alone didn’t seem to have the same effect. It’s more likely that people questioned her decision making, which was most conspicuously odd during her plastic-surgery deluge. When The Hills had been on for less than a year, in April 2007, Heidi got breast implants, rhinoplasty, and collagen injections in her lips (and landed on the cover of Us Weekly). That was nothing. Two and a half years later, she had 10 procedures done in one day: a chin reduction, a brow lift, buttock augmentation, another nose job, another boob job, and more (that time, she was on People’s cover, accompanied by the headline “Addicted to Plastic Surgery”).
“Obviously I wish I didn’t do it,” Heidi said. “I would go back and not have any surgery. It doesn’t help. I got too caught up in Hollywood, being so into myself and my image. I don’t regret anything, but if I could go back, I wouldn’t do it.”
She went on. “I made a lot of wrong decisions too quickly. So many wrong rights and lefts and then you’re just off the road. Things happened so quickly.”
As Heidi recovered from her painful surgeries in November 2009, Spencer was growing increasingly angry at The Hills. He felt they had been mistreated for years. “We were banned from the premieres, banned from the finale parties. If you’re banned from your own show that you’re supposedly getting on Perez five times a day, it really gives you this feeling of inadequacy,” Spencer said. Heidi, who would film with other castmates, such as Audrina Patridge, said she, too, noticed a difference. “I would film with Spencer and then I would film with Audrina. She would get treated like Meryl Streep and we would get treated like the trash,” she said. (Through his publicist, Adam DiVello, the creator of The Hills, declined to comment for this story.)
Two days after the fifth season of The Hills came to a close, Jersey Shore premiered on MTV. The loud, steroidal, orange, drunk, cloudy-looking, joyful Shore looked like it was portraying a different species from the lustrous, staged, slow-moving Hills. Spencer saw the end was near and tried, in his way, to rally the cast as season six began filming in January 2010.
“I was always, like, ‘Audrina, you hate Kristin [Cavallari]! You guys were just screaming at each other before the cameras turned on! The second the camera turns on, you guys are hugging and being all civil! If you guys just were real, we’d have the No. 1 show on TV!’ The producers would go, ‘Spencer, leave them alone! You can’t do that to the talent!’ ‘Talent? These girls are actresses that are bad actresses! What are you talking about?’” Spencer recalled of one of his pep talks.
His strategy backfired, he said. “It got to the point where producers said, ‘Spencer, you’re not allowed to talk to any of the castmembers anymore about stepping it up and trying to be more entertaining.’”
MTV announced in March 2010 that the sixth season of The Hills would be its last. But it was already over for Spencer. He had gotten into a huge fight with a producer named Sara Mast, whom he said tried to get him to cause his fellow castmember and sister, Stephanie, who has had on-again, off-again alcohol and drug problems, to “hit rock bottom.” In his version, Mast tried to get him to punch Stephanie. “Her exact quote: ‘That Snooki effect,’” Spencer said, referring to a Jersey Shore episode in which castmember Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi was hit by a fellow bar patron.
“That’s when I snapped,” Spencer said. “To the point when I said—and this is when the producers got scared of me—‘You want me to punch my sister in the face? Are you trying to get me to kill you?’ I didn’t say, ‘I’m killing you.’ If I did, MTV would have had me arrested.”
A source close to production who requested anonymity, and is no friend of Spencer’s, confirmed his version of what caused the fight, but also added that Spencer was, in fact, quite scary about it. Through her agent, Sara Mast declined to comment for this story. Creator DiVello’s PR representative was told specifically about this claim and did not respond. MTV would not comment either.
As their good sense and livelihoods degenerated, Heidi and Spencer weren’t able to stop each other’s missteps.
“We were living each other’s mistakes—everything we were doing, in retrospect, was a mistake. The second we continued on our quest for fame was a mistake.” Spencer said. “This isn’t a business. That was the big thing I didn’t get: Reality TV is not a career. Anyone who says, ‘Oh, you can have a career in reality’—that is a lie.”
Paris Hilton’s recent bomb of a reality series, The World According to Paris, proves this theory, according to them.
Heidi said, “We thought it’d be huge!”
Spencer said: “Paris Hilton created fame for nothing. The fact that only 400,000 people tuned into her premiere? We’re Paris Hilton fans.” He continued: “She didn’t make all these surgery mistakes, or crystal mistakes. She didn’t do any of that. But here she is. Her career stopped.”
As have theirs, for the most part. Heidi, who was in her late teens when she was cast on The Hills and will turn 25 in September, has been appearing on VH1’s Famous Food, a reality competition in which celebrities compete to become a partner in a restaurant. When those sorts of opportunities come around, she said, “I’m there.” She also still gets invited to host Las Vegas parties sometimes. “I have the most fun ever.”
Spencer, soon to turn 28, is more at sea. He applied for a job as a reality TV agent and was told he would “polarize the talent;” he’s toyed with going back to USC to finish his political science degree, but, “What real job—what political world—would want Spencer Pratt, with the stigma I’ve attached to my name?” Still, he would basically do anything for money: “If they called me right now and said, ‘We want you to be on Jersey Shore and be a bully, and we’ll bring your paycheck back,’ I’d say, ‘Get me on a plane to Italy.’ ”
In Santa Barbara, Spencer said, “It’s like what 70-year-olds do. We’re reading a lot of books.” And: “Now all we eat are tacos and burritos. Whereas we used to eat at Cut.”
“We’re watching movies,” Heidi said. “I do a lot of laundry. A lot of laundry. We’re training our dogs, so I’m cleaning up less poop inside, which is great.”
They can’t really go out, they said. “The new thing is to take a picture of someone just to tweet it—even if they hate me. Like, ‘Look at this idiot I just saw,’ ” Spencer said. And Heidi has cut herself off from her family, particularly her mother, since The Hills. “I don’t even want to talk about that,” she said. “I have Spencer and my puppies. That’s my support system.”
As for what the future brings, Heidi and Spencer have no idea. “I have a lot of crystal balls,” Spencer said. “And they don’t tell me anything.”
“I didn’t see,” he continued. “I thought when this was all over, I could get on an interview and say, ‘It was all entertainment.’ I thought I was the Wizard of Oz, like, I’m the guy behind the curtain.”
But it seemed like you did have control over it, I said—you weren’t wrong.
“We were!” Heidi said, sounding almost enthusiastic.
“I was! Totally wrong,” Spencer agreed.
“We were wrong,” Heidi repeated.
“Very wrong,” Spencer said, one last time as they laughed together.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story stated that Heidi Montag attended a megachurch in Crested Butte, Colo. There is no megachurch in the town.