California Girls

03.27.14

Living Like ‘The Hills’: Kristin Cavallari, Lauren Conrad, and the Phenomenon of Our Current ‘Tastemakers’

Kristin Cavallari hosts a new style show, Lauren Conrad covers ‘Allure’ this April, and Audrina Patridge regularly pops up on taxi cab TVs. Why are we still taking lifestyle advice from the former stars of ‘The Hills’?

I watched Laguna Beach, and both of its subsidiaries—The Hills and The City—religiously. My early high-school self wanted to be the perfect mix of Lauren, Whitney, and Lo—a cool, popular girl with some serious style. While I grew older and left my days of lingerie tanks, Abercrombie and Fitch, and denim mini-skirts with Uggs behind, the cast of my favorite shows seemed to stay the same; nearly a decade later, they are still capitalizing on their high-school fame.

Around ten years have passed since Lauren Conrad, Lo Bosworth, Whitney Port, Kristin Cavallari, and Audrina Patridge made their reality television debut, forever ingraining themselves in the minds of Millennials. Yet, regardless of their impact on our friendships, relationships, and yes, even style, way back when, it’s hard to actually see where these girls—my young teen idols—actually fall in the reality of, well, the real, grown-up world today.

On March 17, Cavallari embarked on her most recent career move, a hosting gig for E!’s latest fashion, beauty, and lifestyle series, The Fabulist. On air, Cavallari, alongside fashion designer Orly Shani, dishes on the season’s hottest trends—jumpsuits, white-on-white, and rainbow-colored hair. If it’s obvious, they’re probably talking about it, as their trends are referenced by “the point of view of the industry experts and red-hot tastemakers who are driving the trends.” But Cavallari isn’t really to blame for the transparency of the show. She’s just trying to turn her Hills fame into a more sustainable career—“I had been wanting to get into the hosting world, but it had to be the right job,” Cavallari told The Examiner. Rather, we have to ask ourselves: why do we give the iconic “mean girl” of reality show past the authority (and experience) to tell us what is (or isn’t) cool?

Cavallari isn’t the first of her reality show peers to set her sights on an unspecified career as a “tastemaker” or “lifestyle expert” following their teenage television success. Conrad, Port, Bosworth, and Partridge are also part of the club of self-described “American television personalities” who rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars for simply being themselves—it’s the Kardashian complex.

The ladies formerly of The Hills have collectively earned nearly 8.5 million followers on Twitter, 5.2 million on Instagram, and 2 million likes on Facebook. In 2009, it was reported that Cavallari received $90,000, Conrad $125,000, and Bosworth and Patridge $100,000 each, per episode of The Hills. Ever since, they have all raised their value as a “personality” or “tastemaker” as they have attempted to capitalize on their fame, lining up personal appearances, licensing deals, fashion lines, book contracts, and more, all based on the foundation that at one point in time, these girls were a big deal.

Lauren Conrad has arguably become the “most successful” following her 2009 departure from The Hills. But Conrad, like her fellow former cast mates, has built her personal brand on her ability to promote the obvious, say, how throw a chic dinner party (“having an accurate guest count is essential”) or how to wear crop tops (“wearing a boxy, cropped sweater might feel a little less scary than a skin-tight top”). Conrad runs a namesake website, where she and a slew of contributors dish on subjects like “How to Beat Spring Allergies”  or “Stylish Spring Sandals”. If there was anything Conrad was recognized for as a teen star, it was her style—so when audiences followed her to classes at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising and on her (overly-embellished) internship at Teen Vogue, “fashion” seemed like her most plausible career path.

But since then, she’s struggled to carve out her own identity and style. She’s bounced between relying on her youthful aesthetic from her days on The Hills (she just can’t get over her love of pearls and summery frocks) to being critiqued for “over-the-hill” style (some criticized that she had become too “grandma” with D.I.Y. videos and outfits that screamed “Sunday Best”). Sure, Conrad may have some successes on her resume—five bestsellers books, a clothing collaboration with Kohl’s—but it’s hard to see her teen novels and a low-level fashion line as decisions derived from anything more than a desire for self-promotion.

In 2010, Conrad was named the second highest-paid reality star behind Kim Kardashian. But, like Kardashian, most wonder why she is actually famous. Two years later, Jezebel asked, “Why is Lauren Conrad a Person We Talk About Again.” For some reason, the former-reality star is still fronting a ton of glossies (she covers the April issue of Allure). So, it’s hard not to ask the same question.

The other Hills stars aren’t much better. Conrad’s resident BFF, Lo Bosworth, has built a similar lifestyle brand, with a website, “The Lo Down”, where she shares tips on fashion, beauty, food, and décor. Bosworth credits the expansion and popularity of her namesake company to her fans from the show. “I especially noticed a huge response [on Twitter] when I shared makeup tips and my day-to-day schedule, and asked questions of my followers,” Bosworth told MTV in an interview. “I was inspired to create The Lo Down because of the fans—plain and simple. Their response to what I put out there is heartwarming, and I’m thrilled to be able to take my relationship [with them] to an even higher level with the website.” She’s also the co-founder of Revelry House, an online destination for “stylish entertaining,” that is seemingly an “extension of her personal style.” Sure, Bosworth may be currently enrolled in culinary school (she attends The International Culinary Center), but her audience began looking to her for advice way before she had any credibility in the lifestyle realm. Does enjoying parties directly equate to being an expert in hosting one?

The promise Whitney Port held was that, on television at least, she seemed to be building a solid career foundation—she interned at Teen Vogue, Diane von Furstenberg, and People’s Revolution—rather than living off of a silver spoon like Orange County’s finest. Yet, Port’s experience was unrealistic—jet-setting to Paris, one-on-ones with DVF herself—it was difficult for anyone who has actually interned in the fashion industry (including myself, who was an accessories intern at Teen Vogue) to accept Port’s fantasy as a reality. But Port does deserve some credit, as her fashion line, Whitney Eve, has garnered support by celebrities including Heidi Klum, Jessica Alba, Rihanna, and Alessandra Ambrosio. She exudes both a real work ethic (or as real as it can get on reality TV) and likability.   

Ditzy Audrina Patridge has had the foresight to capitalize on her looks—and reality show fame—enough to designate herself a “television personality.” After appearances on Dancing With the Stars and Audrina, her short-lived spin-off, Patridge scored herself a gig as the host of the NBC Lifestyle show 1st Look—replacing ex-Bachelorette Ali Fedotowsky—a food and destination adventures show that airs after Saturday Night Live on Saturday evenings. Even lesser-known Morgan Smith (nee Olsen), the religious, chubby-friend of Laguna Beach High’s popular clique, runs a lifestyle blog for “creative inspiration and colorful living,” called Smith, Here.

While it’s easy to snicker at Cavallari, Conrad, or Bosworth for their seemingly superficial career paths, it’s undeniable that the ladies who made names for themselves in their late teens on Laguna Beach and The Hills keep getting new gigs and endorsements, are raking in tons of money, and have achieved some degree of success as lifestyle authorities (as their mass amount of followers has proved). Which begs the question, how have they gained credibility as established tastemakers and lifestyle experts? As the generation of fans who eagerly watched their Abercrombie-wearing antics approaches their mid-to-late 20s, it’s hard to understand why we’re still obsessed with girls we related to a decade ago. For some reason, we seem to still be taking them seriously, or at the very least, continuing to be entertained by the TV personalities we fell in love with. At the end of the day, shouldn’t we really be asking: what is wrong with us?