Entertainment

04.23.14

The Surreal Genius of Bravo’s Rich Kids Docudrama ‘NYC Prep’

With its eye-roll-worthy forced dialogue, awkward interactions, and actually adolescent stars, NYC Prep ploddingly, painfully, approaches something Gossip Girl never could—reality.

In 2009, a group of New York prep school kids brought their teen drama to the small screen for one magical season, proving that you don’t have to be a grown-up to play in the docudrama big leagues. Jessie, PC, Sebastian, Camille, Taylor and Kelli made up Bravo’s NYC Prep. With their man-scarves, classy cardigans, and expert blowouts, the crew was clearly styled to resemble the cast of Gossip Girl, their fictional CW counterpart. NYC Prep was like Gossip Girl’s overeager little sister, trying on her makeup and begging her for an invitation to the upcoming Operation Smile Gala.

Where Gossip Girl was polished and chic, NYC Prep was awkward and forced. One show featured some of the hottest twentysomething actors in the world posing as prep school kids; the other chronicled actual high schoolers’ attempts to look, act, and catfight like Gossip Girl characters. While Gossip Girl makes for a great Netflix binge—unsubstantial, glitzy, and highly addictive, NYC Prep is something else entirely. With its eye-roll-worthy forced dialogue, awkward interactions, and actually adolescent stars, NYC Prep ploddingly, painfully, approaches something Gossip Girl never could—reality.

NYC Prep worked by shoving real-life rich kids into the shiny shells of reality television stars. This novel Russian nesting doll effect was meant to infuse the lives of the Upper East Side mini-elite with tried and true reality television magic. Before NYC Prep, reality TV stars were sources of entertainment, but never objects of envy or adulation. This was the pre-Kim K era, when docudrama divas (and divos?) were essentially toy monkeys, dancing and mashing their parts together for our amusement. Reality TV was a dark, seedy, crass place, and a source of constant shame for those of us who couldn’t look away. But while reality television’s roots are essentially the monetization of the reason why we slow down to stare at a car accident, the producers behind NYC Prep had bigger plans for the much-derided genre.

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Americans have been obsessed with wealth and fascinated by the 1 percent since before Jay Gatsby bought his first sherbet-colored polo. There’s nothing more tantalizing than the idea of a window into the hallowed halls of the haughty—and what’s more highbrow than NYC elites? Of course, the innate watchability of these socialites is matched only by their elusiveness. The unavoidable Catch-22 is that we envy these men and women because they are above us, residing in a comically elevated stratum of wealth and social capital. We want their attention, not the other way around. Old money congregates in the quiet back rooms of The Harvard Club; it doesn’t let Andy Cohen put its dirty laundry out to hang on national television.

The genius of NYC Prep, then, was the way that it managed to squirrel its way into this world—to buy itself access to a realm of privilege where exposure and braggart behavior is largely frowned upon. In other words, its ability to sink reality television’s dirty fingers into the gilded lives of the previously untouchable elite. NYC Prep accomplished this, naturally, in a particularly underhanded way—by targeting kids who were unlikely to know any better, and who themselves were attracted and accustomed to the loud drama of reality television, its shock-and-awe approach as well as its capacity for producing insta-celebrities.

“Literally the night before, I had hosted a huge house party that Sebastian was actually at, and we were up until like four in the morning doing stupid shit and drinking and whatever.”

One such teen was Camille Hughes, a 17-year-old student at NYC’s esteemed Nightingale-Bamford School. Camille wasn’t an aspiring actress or singer—for her, NYC Prep was just “kind of a fun thing we did after school.” Over the phone, she tells me how NYC Prep was sold to her and her similarly privileged peers as a docudrama. Like any teenager, Camille was intrigued by a room full of adults telling her how interesting her life was—so interesting that they were prepared to pay her to capture it on camera. She explains, “It was definitely the why-not aspect—also money. The money was not bad.” Her castmate Sebastian Oppenheim verifies that NYC Prep was advertised as a fun extra-curricular—not as resume-building as volunteer work, maybe, but way more glamorous than student newspaper or JV lacrosse.

The NYC Prep production vibe, according to Sebastian, was fun and young: “The people involved in it were wonderful—you could tell they loved their jobs and what they we’re doing.” But despite their enthusiasm for their “docudrama,” the producers behind NYC Prep weren’t above prompting their young cast “to form a coherent story”—like reality, but juicier. Camille explains, “So they were selling it to us as a documentary basically, and I guess the ‘docudrama’ part is that it’s not really a documentary. Obviously things that we did and said were taken out of context…and they didn’t follow our lives so much as tell us where to be… So they would basically just tell us where to be and we would be there. And we would sit down and talk randomly with whoever we were with for a little bit, and then maybe ten minutes after we started talking a producer would come in and say ‘Why don’t you guys focus on this topic?’ or ‘Why don’t you focus on this?’ Or sometimes they would pull us apart if we were doing a one-on-one meeting and they’d be like, ‘Oh, Camille, aren’t you so mad at X Y or Z for doing that thing? Why don’t you talk about that.’ So then you act mad and shit.”

On one level, the producers were simply attempting to replicate reality show tropes: the love triangle (Sebastian, Kelli, and Taylor, anyone?) the bitchy girl fight (Jessie vs. everyone). On another, they were trying to compress their young, three-dimensional stars into compact distillations—characters or caricatures, depending on how tolerant you feel toward media manipulation. Sebastian says that despite their youth, the cast was extremely aware of the roles they were cast to play, and of the manufactured rift between their off-screen selves and on-screen personas. “I think we all sort of knew that we were going to be playing a specific character…The character they portrayed me as was sort of a lothario. They would ask me specific questions to fulfill the character.” While he insisted that the producers’ prompting was “never malicious,” “there was definitely some ignorance. I was young, and I was playing into the character…stuff is going to come out of any 16-year-old’s mouth that’s absolutely ridiculous, especially when that’s the whole point of the character on one of those shows.”

Camille, whose character was portrayed as an Ivy League-obsessed Upper East Side control freak, seems less convinced of NYC Prep’s good intentions. Perhaps this is due to the effect that her fast fame as a prep school kid had on her actual prep school experience. After Camille chose to participate in the show, Nightingale-Bamford’s headmistress sent an email out to the school community, writing, “The decision to participate in the show was made by the student and her parents without consulting Nightingale’s administrators. We counsel our girls to avoid such exposure.” Nightingale-Bamford parents would personally approach Camille to yell at her and berate her for her decision, which they believed reflected poorly on the school as a whole. Camille was also pressured by her school to write an apology letter, despite the fact that she never named Nightingale-Bamford on NYC Prep, or even attempted to film on school premises. Lack of support from her prep school community eventually led Camille to finish high school at NYC’s Professional Children’s School.

Still, Camille agrees that she was aware of the character she was playing and the role she was filling. Like a true reality TV vet, she acknowledges, “You don’t want to watch a well-rounded person. Like mildly funny, mildly smart, mildly whatever, just middle of the road, like a normal fucking person—you don’t want to watch that on TV. You want to watch people who are insane, who you’d never ever want to be friends with in real life.” Of course, this reality television prerequisite has had the unfortunate result of causing absolute strangers to believe that Camille has a huge stick up her ass—a stick that she believes was created and carefully inserted by prompting, editing, and de-contextualization.

But Camille is no bitter former Bravo pawn. In fact, she’s pretty convinced that in the long run she actually pulled a fast one on the producers, who she describes as “bigger gossipers than we were.” When she was prompted on camera to say what she had done the night before, the safe bet was always to pledge that she’d stayed in and worked, preserving her valedictorian image. Little did the producers know that the real Wolf of Wall Street Jr. revelry that they had set out to capture was actually occurring—just not during the filmed parties and contrived dinners that they caught on camera.

The artificiality of the TV show, when paired with the growing intimacy between the cast members, was often jarringly surreal.  Camille describes a morning when she and Sebastian were dragged out of bed to film a scene at an art gallery downtown. The producers were looking to start a fight between the laid-back Sebastian and Camille, his uptight counterpart. They weren’t aware that, in Camille’s words, “literally the night before, I had hosted a huge house party that Sebastian was actually at, and we were up until like four in the morning doing stupid shit and drinking and whatever. It was just so funny because we were like incredibly hungover, like the producers would have had a fucking field day if they had known that I had a party and he was there.” But Camille had to play her part—so she got mad at Sebastian on camera, trying not to giggle through the scene. Of course, she got the last laugh; she and her co-stars lived a secret version of NYC Prep that Bravo would have killed to get its hands on, smiling for the camera and cashing their docudrama checks all the while.

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When NYC Prep premiered, it got a lot of flak for the sheer gall of its unreality. Critics argued that throwing together a handful of adolescents who barely knew each other felt inherently false (despite the fact that both Sebastian and Camille insist that the cast got incredibly close over the course of the season). One particularly cringeworthy NYC Prep device was Sebastian’s “dates.” While Seb says that he was genuinely interested in the women he wined and dined on television, these sit-down dinners were often suggested and set up by the producers, who would then film the pseudo-adult interactions in all their awkward glory. This lack of awareness on behalf of the producers, who didn’t understand that a 16-year-old would be more likely to ask a girl over to smoke a joint than pay for her filet mignon, was accompanied by a startling amount of self-awareness amongst the young cast.

When PC, the spoiled, cruel, scarf-wearing Chuck Bass caricature, spat out lines like “That’s what New York is: money is power,” and Seb flipped his hair at the camera and declared that instead of settling down, he’d rather “hook up with as many girls as I want,” it became extremely clear that these kids had seen more than a few episodes of The Real Housewives. The New York Times review of NYC Prep bemoaned that the show’s moments of real human interaction were buried by its tendency to revert “to the Gossip Girl playbook.” But to dismiss NYC Prep as artificial is to forget that adolescence is, itself, a form of acting; these teenagers, like all teenagers, are children mirroring adult behavior—prep school kids adopting the dramatic mannerisms of reality TV stars. The visible strain behind the cast’s constant efforts to play wealth, confidence, and maturity is what ends up making NYC Prep ring so true.

In the five years since NYC Prep first aired, its adolescent stars have finally reached a level of maturity that their child star selves only dreamed of. Camille is a neuroscience major who’s approaching her upcoming graduation from William & Mary with an open mind and level head. Sebastian, who’s currently a junior at the University of Charleston, is looking to pursue a career in broadcast journalism. They both credit NYC Prep as a learning experience that forced them to mature and develop a thick skin at a young age. While they’ve endured lingering looks from strangers and good-natured ribbing from friends, they seem to have largely evaded the textbook reality TV star stigma. If anything, Camille notes, having NYC Prep on her resume always ensures her at least an in-person interview with curious potential employers.

For the most part, Sebastian and Camille haven’t kept in touch with their co-stars, though they wish them nothing but the best. As far as we know, PC attended Rollins College in Florida, while Jessie pursued her fashion dreams at NYC’s F.I.T. and as an intern for Carmen Marc Valvo. Kelli is still trying to become a world famous pop star, and if this music video is any indication, she’s well on her way. Taylor, aka “the token public school kid,” is totally off the grid, but we’d like to think she’s making a name for herself somewhere as a philosopher/gymnast/playgirl extraordinaire.

While this generation of prepsters has gone their separate ways, more or less shedding their reality TV fame along the way, the true stars of NYC Prep, wealth and adolescence, are still at large. We can rest assured that right now, in some Madison Avenue apartment, a group of uber-rich teenagers are probably mimicking the drama, pettiness, and awkwardness of the original NYC Prep crew. If nothing else, this Bravo baby taught us that, aside from the insane privilege of being utterly unaware of your extreme privilege, teenagedom is eerily universal.