As the hit MTV show returns, Nicole LaPorte exclusively uncovers payday drama: Kristin makes $90,000 per episode compared to Spencer's $65,000 and Audrina's $100,000. Plus, Spencer spills on his co-stars and view our gallery of reality TV salaries.
As of Tuesday, as any tween worth their Juicy Couture jeans will tell you, “The bitch is back”—i.e., Kristin Cavallari is joining the MTV docusoap The Hills as its resident diva. She’s replacing Lauren Conrad, who’s been the good-girl star of the series until she started complaining of Hills fatigue and decided, after five seasons, to leave.
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It won’t be Cavallari’s first reality-TV stint (hence, why she’s “back.”). Her fangs were first bared on Laguna Beach, the precursor to The Hills, which followed Conrad and her posse of hot and fabulous friends when they were “regular” high-school students in a town that makes Malibu look like the slums.
The Hills, which debuted in 2006, caught up with Conrad when she moved to Los Angeles and found a new group of hot and fabulous friends—including the infamous, and beyond blond, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, aka “Speidi,” as the tabloids have anointed the couple—whose lives are just as surreal: Despite entry-level jobs in fashion and media, they all live in opulent apartments, drive fancy cars, and eat out at chic restaurants. Oh—and they can afford plastic surgery. (Think Sex and the City for the barely legal.)
The show has catapulted its stars into the limelight, to the point that Montag and Pratt authored the about-to-be-published book How to Be Famous, for which, Pratt said: “I lived the research.”
In response to a recent speech President Obama delivered to schoolkids, saying, “I know that sometimes you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work,” Pratt said, referring to his book: “Well, guess what, Obama? We have made it quite easier!”
After Laguna Beach ended, Cavallari tried to leverage her own 15 minutes into something more: becoming a “real” actress. But that didn’t pan out as planned—most of the roles she landed were in direct-to-DVD releases, such as Van Wilder: Freshman Year— and so now she’s returning to reality TV. Through her publicist, Cavallari declined to comment.
The move may seem counterintuitive, or like a kind of consolation prize. But that’s hardly the case, considering that MTV is so desperate to keep The Hills— its highest-rated show by a mile—alive and thriving that it’s shelling out major dough to the cast, marking a paradigm shift in the business: Reality TV as the cheap alternative to scripted programming? Not anymore.
Cavallari is being paid $90,000 an episode, which is almost as much as Conrad was making: $125,000 an episode (or $2.5 million a year), according to a person with knowledge of the show’s contracts. Conrad’s deal stipulated that no other star’s salary could match hers while she was on The Hills, but those of supporting cast members Audrina Patridge, Lauren “Lo” Bosworth, and Montag come close: $100,000 a show. As for Pratt, his rate is a slightly less at $65,000 per show, because he only joined as a regular in 2008. (In comparison, the stars of The Real Housewives series receive a reported $30,000 a show.) In the case of Brody Jenner, Conrad’s BFFWB (Best Friend Forever With Benefits), he takes in $45,000.
And that’s just what they get paid for doing their day job. The Hills and its stars have become such a name brand—in certain circles—that Cavallari and Co. receive between $20,000 and $25,000 for personal appearances—which last no more than two hours—at events such as club and gallery openings, according to Mike Esterman, a celebrity booking agent. When Speidi showed up at a Valentine’s Day gala in Las Vegas, Pratt and Montag each took home $30,000. And Montag’s recent Playboy cover shoot—she graced the September issue of the magazine—earned her $375,000 plus a generous chunk of royalties, despite the fact that she didn’t take it all off.
Then there are the fashion lines, (both Conrad and Patridge have one); book deals (Conrad’s young-adult novel, L.A. Candy, is a New York Times bestseller); million-dollar licensing deals (Conrad is the face of Avon’s Mark line of cosmetics, and appears in an AT&T spot with Jenner; Patridge miraculously turned a Carl’s Jr. ad into what looks like a Victoria’s Secret photo shoot); and music ventures (Montag has released two singles and is working on an album).
There’s also the potential for more shows. Former Hills star Whitney Port has become the Lauren Conrad of The City, about her travails as a cub fashionista in New York City. Jenner got his shot with the short-lived Bromance. And Speidi appeared on NBC’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, though after two days in the Costa Rican jungle, the L.A. creatures really did get out of there—“We had post-traumatic syndrome for a month” after walking off the show, Pratt said. “People have no idea.”
In other ways, too, life outside The Hills is not always as glamorous as the show. Montag and Pratt will likely lose money on Montag’s album, which they are self-financing. And though a source close to Conrad says she’s making more than $3 million a year, she nonetheless made Forbes' "8 Celebrity Business Bombs” list after her first, eponymous fashion collection sputtered. In October, she is launching a new, more affordable, line she designed for Kohl’s.
In the beginning, being on The Hills wasn’t quite this kind of jackpot, but as the show became more popular—during Season 3, a (false) rumor about a sex tape Conrad had made with an ex-boyfriend was splashed all over tabloids and gossip Web sites, caused a ratings spike—cast members demanded bigger paydays. And because, like scripted series, The Hills is so dependent on a returning roster of personalities, whom fans have grown to love, MTV was willing to accommodate. By Season 5, paydays had crossed the $100,000-per-episode mark.
The cast also became more valuable as reality stars have become increasingly embraced by fabloids like Us Weekly and gossip sites such as PerezHilton.com, as much as mainstream celebrities like Brangelina.
MTV would not comment on salaries, but The Hills creator and executive producer Adam DiVello said that the show’s cast “has a value to our fans. Kids thinks of [the cast] as their own friends... It’s been a long ride with these characters, and as you go along, you get more and more invested.”
The same goes for MTV, which needs The Hills not just to survive, but to revive. Last season, ratings of its most treasured half-hour of TV fell from a high of 5 million down to 3 million viewers.
The hope is that the introduction of Cavallari—a major Veronica to Conrad’s Betty—will do the trick, and MTV has been aggressively hyping her vampy qualities in its advertising campaign.
According to Pratt, the network is not overstating the case. “She says she’s just playing a character, she’s just playing the bitch, when she’s really just a bitch!” he told The Daily Beast. “She was just made for reality TV,” he said, adding that, in his estimation, Conrad was not.
“When Lauren Conrad was on the show—she’s quite boring,” Pratt said bluntly. “Audiences do not, in the Twitter age, have the attention span for Lauren pulling on her hair, looking at her kitty cat… Especially when you’ve got me, you know, holding it down!”
Indeed. The nonstop drama provided by the recently married (of course, on camera) Pratt and Montag—whose self-awareness about being walking poster children for the dumb blond stereotype, and whose willingness to flaunt it, despite the drubbing they routinely take in the media, make them, if not wholly, then at least a little, complex—has emerged as a major focus of The Hills. It seems only a matter of time before MTV gives them a spinoff show of their own.
When this is suggested to Pratt, he seems nonplussed. After all, he’s already got it made, which he knows all too well.
“No offense to G.I. Joe, but Speidi crashed the red carpet to that premiere,” Pratt said, referring to himself and Montag in the third person, as he tends to do. “There were thousands of people in the streets, and the difference between the screaming for Hollywood’s biggest star and Hollywood’s biggest reality couple—you can’t even compare!”
Granted, G.I. Joe did not star George Clooney, or any A-list stars, really, but Pratt’s point is well taken, as he points out that much of the love fans feel toward reality-TV stars is due to their accessibility. In a reversal of the Us Weekly mantra—“Stars: They’re Just like Us!”—reality stars are “like us,” only they’re stars.
“Heidi and I got married on the show. You know as much about us as anyone. We tell people everything. No one is more honest than Heidi and Spencer. When you see us, it’s like seeing a cousin or a step-brother you might not like, but you’re gonna say ‘hi’ to.
At the premiere, Pratt said, “none of the movie stars were talking to anyone, they all went into the theater. They’re people you don’t even feel you can touch. But you know that you can walk up to Spencer Pratt and take a picture and he’s gonna smile!”
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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.