From Heidi’s first music video, “Higher,” filmed and directed by her boyfriend, Spencer Pratt.

Perez Hilton interviewed Heidi and Spencer in early February 2008.

Staged photograph from the February 25th issue of US Weekly.

“I cried myself to sleep that first night after my video came out…”

Heidi and Spencer regularly stage photographs with US Weekly. This one was for Easter.

Heidi and Spencer “celebrate” Independence Day 2008 with US Weekly’s photographers.

Heidi and Spencer have been called “fameosexuals.”

Heidi and Spencer disrupt the insularity of The Hills’ narrative with frequent “spoilers.”

Website’s like MTV’s Remote Control encourage multi-platform engagement.

Lauren uses MySpace to further shape her image and to “edit” information circulating about her in the tabloids.

The Lauren Conrad collection, Spring 2008.

The Heidiwood line was sold in Anchor Blue stores in spring of 2008 but has since been dropped.

Heidi models her own line.

"So the day I was there we were working on the Sass and Bide show..."

Lauren’s success is based upon her willingness to expose her personal traumas to a community of anonymous observers.


Postmodern marketing

Furthermore, it is unnecessary for The Hills cast to mention the MTV cameras and paparazzi lenses hovering just outside the borders of the television frame[12][open endnotes in new window] because the producers know that their target audience is in fact reading the tabloids (or the Internet gossip sites or the show’s discussion boards).  The argument between Lauren and Heidi, in which the accusation proper (“You spread the rumor that I made a sex tape!”) is absent, can be easily reconstructed by the “engaged” Hills viewer.  In this way, tabloid stories, both in print and online, conveniently function as a seamless narrative bridge from season to season and even from episode to episode. Brian Graden, the president of entertainment at MTV describes the phenomenon this way:

“We have this six-month commercial for the show that doesn't give away the narrative in full. It's a kind of postmodern marketing. We're living in an age of TMZ and Perez Hilton  —  The Hills indulges that” (qtd. in Armstrong).

This so-called “postmodern” marketing practice became even more pronounced after the finale of Season Three when the camera-ready relationship between Heidi and Spencer became a regular feature in US Weekly, Perez Hilton, and other print and online gossip sources. For example, in the weeks leading up to the premiere of the second half of Season Three on March 26th, US Weekly printed several cover stories about the Hills’ cast. During the week of March 17th, for example, the magazine featured an exclusive interview with Heidi and her allegedly ex-fiancé entitled “I was Betrayed by Spencer.” Rather than a steamy tell-all with the young starlet, the article is a dissection of a trailer for the upcoming Hills premiere and the couple’s reaction to it. Although it is not unusual for magazines to interview television stars about their upcoming projects, it is unusual for the stars to discuss themselves and their real lives as a television series. For example, when US Weekly asked Heidi how angry she was at Spencer, on a scale of one to ten, she replied,

“A seven or an eight. I mean, you see my reaction in the trailer” (qtd. in Reinstein 56)

Here, it is difficult for Heidi to describe her own emotions, separate from their documentation on television. Later in the interview Heidi is asked if she overreacted to Spencer’s alleged cheating:

“We have different definitions of relationship boundaries. The viewers will have to see who they agree with” (qtd. in Reinstein 57).

Again, Heidi’s responses are calibrated to and defined by their eventual broadcast to a television audience.

While Lauren is also frequently featured in the tabloids, these pieces are usually lifestyle-oriented: Lauren offers her fans diet and dating tips, or models seasonal fashions. However, Heidi and Spencer, perhaps in a bid to secure their roles on the show (since Lauren reportedly wanted both of them kicked off), have deftly used the media to their advantage by propagating several compelling narratives during the long weeks between seasons of The Hills: Heidi’s attempts to become a pop singer, Heidi’s reactions to the fan’s reactions to her attempts to become a pop singer, Heidi’s grotesque plastic surgery, Heidi’s reactions to the fan’s reactions to her grotesque plastic surgery, and of course, the couple’s on again/off again relationship. For example, after the music video for Heidi’s pop single, “Higher,” was “leaked” online in January 2008 fans and critics were appropriately delighted by its awfulness. When the video was posted on the gossip site PerezHilton.com it received over 2,000 comments. The video was dissected endlessly by pop culture recap shows like Best Week Ever and The Soup and spawned countless parodies on You Tube.  Heidi’s initial response to this intensely negative fan feedback was accepting: “You really have to have a lot of passion and thought to write any comment. So thank you for any comment” she told Perez Hilton in an interview in early February. By the end of the month, however, Heidi had changed her story, perhaps correctly surmising that maturity does not generate tabloid headlines.

In a February 25th issue of US Weekly, complete with staged photographs of Heidi crying while clutching a CD (presumably hers) the aspiring pop star admitted,

“I cried myself to sleep that first night after my video came out…I just couldn't understand why people I didn't even know felt the need to be so cruel and hurtful toward me… I am just a 21-year-old from a small town in Colorado trying to follow her dreams” (qtd. in Guarente 73).

This cover story afforded the couple an opportunity not just to plug Heidi’s singing career and the next season of The Hills, which would premiere in a month, but also the feuding couple’s storyline on the show. When asked, “So are you two good now after calling off your engagement in December?” Heidi responded,

“Spencer and I are just starting over with our relationship, as you will see in the upcoming episodes of The Hills” (qtd. in Guarente 75).

 As a result of their unabashed courting of the media, Heidi and Spencer have built an offscreen (or should I say an onscreen offscreen?) career out of being “Heidi and Spencer” from The Hills. Spencer directly addressed the couple’s approach to self promotion in an L.A. Times interview:

“Janice Min at Us Weekly is like a family member to us…We love her. If my mom and her are e-mailing me at the same time, I'm like, ‘Uh, Janice or my mom?’” (qtd. in Arthur).

Spencer and Heidi not only admit to the fakeness of The Hills in these interviews, they also admit to the fakeness of their offscreen lives — the part of their lives that we presume to be more “real” than that other less real (but purportedly real) world of The Hills. There is no attempt to uphold the illusion of some form of “reality” in the face of the audience. Spencer and, to a lesser extent, Heidi, freely admit that they are putting on a show. Spencer, who has referred to himself and Heidi as a “brand” and as “improv TV personalities” (qtd. in Arthur) sees his existence as a never ending performance for whichever camera — that of The Hills crew, the paparazzi, or the interviewer — might be present at any given moment. Therefore it is not surprising that Spencer, just after he eloped with Heidi in November of 2008, described his wedding[12a] in this way:

“…when I saw Heidi walk down the aisle, it really hit me. I was like, This is real, she is so beautiful…It was like I was dreaming, to be honest. I’ll have to watch the video to have it sink in” (qtd. in O’Leary 50).

Like Heidi, Spencer conceives of his life in terms of its televisual documentation. Events that he has experienced become real to him only after he has consumed them as recorded images.

Spencer and Heidi’s approach to television stardom leads to a strong cognitive dissonance on the part of The Hills fan. If the viewer wishes to buy into the fantasy of the show — to see the diegetic narratives as coherent and real and the extradiegetic narratives as coherent and real (and even to believe that there is a distinction between the diegetic and the extradiegetic in The Hills world) — then s/he is straddled with an impossible task. After seeing images of Spencer embracing Heidi as she weeps over the poor reception of her “Higher” single on the pages of US Weekly in February, it is pointless to wonder whether they will get back together within the diegesis of the show (filmed months prior). In many ways then, Speidi’s tabloid antics act as the ultimate “spoiler” for the show — they revealed the conclusion to their own character arcs months before The Hills’ season finale. This practice serves as a marked contrast from other reality programs — like Survivor or The Bachelor — which demand that participants sign non-disclosure agreements ensuring that they will not reveal the final results of the competition in the interim between the end of filming and the airing of the show. Few people would want to watch The Bachelor if they knew from the beginning which lucky lady the bachelor ultimately chose. Yet no such muzzle is put on Heidi and Spencer — they are free to speak to the media whenever and wherever they like. Thus, The Hills has the peculiar effect of becoming more and more incoherent as the viewer becomes more “engaged” in the show and its alternative content platforms.

This multiplatform strategy again highlights the unique viewing experience of The Hills. Its media savvy audience is likely aware of the characters’ offscreen lives and yet they continue to tune in (in record numbers) to see what transpires onscreen each week. In fact, this drive to see these characters, rather than to see “what happens next,” is actively cultivated by MTV with its Remote Control website. This site describes itself as:

“… MTV's official TV blog. We are the people you see on MTV, the producers of the shows and the fans. Exclusive photos, interviews, videos and recaps of all our favorite television shows are here for you in a matter of clicks.”

Here viewers can see the Hills’ cast members (and the casts of other MTV reality shows) in their various talk show interviews, media appearances and photo opportunities.

Viewers are not turning into The Hills merely for the 30 minute narrative; rather they tune in for “The Hills experience,” which includes reading about the cast in the tabloids, watching their “candid” interviews on talk shows ranging from The David Letterman Show to Tyra to Regis & Kelly, reading their personal pages on MySpace,[13] discussing the show with fellow fans on MTV.com and other sites, listening to Heidi’s music and yes, even wearing the clothing designed by Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag. Indeed, Lauren’s agent, Max Stubblefield, describes his client as a “global brand,” citing her endorsement deals with Mark cosmetics, AT&T, a book deal and a possible production company (Stack 30). The Hills series is simply one venue for consuming the Lauren Conrad brand.

Generation Y and the workplace

Beyond this expansive multiplatform engagement, I believe that viewers are tuning into The Hills for another reason: It plays into the kind of worldview that has been cultivated in Generation Y since birth, namely that success is available to everyone, no matter their skill level or work ethic. Lauren, Whitney, Audrina and Heidi have limited educations and poorly articulated life goals, yet they are famous, wealthy and involved in exciting careers in fashion design, styling, music production/promotion and event planning. Growing up in the so-called “culture of praise,” in which every milestone was documented on film and every accomplishment, however small, was commemorated with a trophy, Generation Y must surely find some validation in the effortless success experienced by The Hills’ young, photogenic cast. Social critics argue that Generation Y was insulated from criticism and disappointment at early age by anxious Baby Boomer parents who wanted their children’s academic and extracurricular experiences to be collaborative rather than exclusionary, positive rather than ego-bruising:

“From their early days of shared rewards, constant media stimulation, and technology savvy, they have become a generation accustomed to quick answers, a constant flow of information and new ideas and immediate gratification” (Rikleen).

Indeed, a prevailing belief among today’s employers is that Generation Y, cultivated to be the ultimate “me generation,” have been imbued with a “false self-confidence” (Erickson). According to a CNN report, 87% percent of hiring managers and human resources professionals say Generation Y exhibits a sense of entitlement that older generations do not (Balderrama).

Although today’s youth were raised during the greatest period of wealth creation in modern history, they will have to struggle even more than their parents did to pay for college tuition, housing and health insurance. They face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, reduced salaries and benefits, degree inflation and rising unemployment (Conlin 32). And yet there is a false confidence cultivated among Generation Y that wealth and fame are available to everyone who is willing to place himself or herself before the camera’s eager but indiscriminate lens. David Morrison, of the Philadelphia-based research firm Twentysomething Inc, explains the phenomenon in this way:

“People being themselves can be incredibly famous and get sponsorship deals, and they can become celebrities…It's a completely new development in entertainment, and it's having a crossover effect on attitudes and behavior” (qtd. in Jayson).

One Newsweek reporter, Jennie Yabroff, dubbed Generation Y the “Look at Me Generation” because of their utter unselfconsciousness when faced with the probing camera of the documentary filmmaker and their willingness to post the most intimate details of their daily lives on blogs and social networking sites.

Indeed, psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled  —  and More Miserable than Ever Before, a study of generational differences based on data culled from 1.3 million Americans over the course of 14 years, found that the gap between expectation and reality is far greater for today’s youth than it has been for previous generations. After years of being told that simply “believing in yourself” was all that was needed to succeed, Generation Y has, in general, unrealistic expectations about what it can achieve and it what it will take to achieve it. While these hypotheses are likely exaggerated by the media, this paper argues that there is a link between the success of The Hills and its reliance on narratives which appear, on the surface, to mirror the fantasies of its target youth demographic. Namely, this generation fantasizes that an exciting, lucrative career in the field of one’s choice is attained, not so much through hard work and perseverance (the American Dream), but through the vocalization of desire (the Millennial American Dream).

For example, during Season 3, after one year of working at Bolthouse Productions (a job she obtained without the benefit of a college degree or any real world experience), Heidi decided to apply for the newly available events director position. She is called into the office of her boss, Brent Bolthouse, and the following interview (recounted below in its entirety) takes place:

"Well, I feel like I’ve been here a long time and I’ve worked really hard and I’d definitely be up to the task if I’d be able to be considered." "It’s a lot bigger of a position."
"Yeah. I know." "Well, interesting idea. Let me think about it."

According to the show’s narrative Heidi is awarded the position over Elodie, a co-worker who has been at the company twice as long, based solely on this “interview.” Furthermore, the viewer is not privy to Bolthouse’s decision-making process — the next time the audience sees Heidi she is already seated at her desk in her new office. Here, The Hills effectively mystifies the entire process of interviewing and vetting a candidate for a new job. Heidi merely needed to vocalize her desire for the job in order to acquire it.

Similarly, when Whitney — who is depicted as being the most capable and hard-working of The Hills cast — decides that she would like to leave her current position at Teen Vogue in order to pursue “styling,” the move is effortless. Once again the audience is privy to Whitney’s interview — this time at the People’s Revolution, a “full service branding company” for designers. As in Heidi’s interview, the exchange between employer, Kelly Cutrone, and prospective employee, Whitney, is brief and vague:

Kelly: Why do you want to work on this side of [the fashion industry]?
Whitney: I think that the more opportunities I have and the more opportunities I put myself out there for, I should take advantage. I just think that working at Vogue was an unbelievable experience, I just wanted a job that, ummm, I could do more.
Kelly: What are your strengths? Why should I let you come work here?
Whitney: I could probably be very helpful in terms of whether, you know, its stylists who come in here and pulling for photo shoots or styling for look books, or styling for runway shows.

In an interview situation, Whitney, like Heidi, is only capable of articulating her desires for upward mobility. She wants to “do more,” to have better “opportunities” with her vaguely defined skill set. Whitney knows that she is capable of “styling” things, but she neither offers specifics nor is requested to be more specific in describing her abilities. Nevertheless, as soon as Whitney finishes speaking, Cutrone offers her the job. While it is likely that both Heidi and Whitney’s interviews were edited down for time and interest, they are presented to the viewer as complete events. In other words, there are no ellipses in the editing to indicate that story time has somehow exceeded screen time. This tactic creates the impression that both young women were awarded their new jobs based on the proclamation of their desires before a present camera.

In this way The Hills functions to promote aspirational lifestyle models to its viewers, creating a world in which minimal effort combined with strong consumer desires yields impressive and glamorous career rewards. In other television series which depict young, professional female protagonists, like the title characters in Mary Tyler Moore Show, Ally McBeal or even the female leads of Sex and the City,[14] winning a promotion is depicted as a challenge that must be surmounted by the eager, determined heroine. We value the protagonists’ achievements in the workplace because they labored to attain them. Furthermore, because they are women we understand that they are likely facing a gender bias that must be overcome. By contrast, in The Hills winning a promotion at work or obtaining a new job boils down to little more than the applicant’s enthusiasm for the position.[15]

Finally, in the world of The Hills work looks very similar partying: Heidi literally works at parties. Likewise, in the luminescent offices of Teen Vogue, Whitney and Lauren tap listlessly on their pristine Macintoshes, steam racks of candy-colored dresses, and have one-sided conversations about Lauren’s love life. This illusion of work — in which successfully picking up a pair of shoes from a top French design house earns the girls heaps of praise from their successful, hardworking boss, Lisa Love,[16] plays into Generation Y’s presumed fantasies about the workplace. For example, after Whitney begins her position at The People’s Revolution, she meets Lauren for a lunch date. In a reversal of Hills conventions, it is Lauren who acts as “monologue catcher” while Whitney describes her new job for the benefit of The Hills’ audience:

"So fun! Wait did you get to work backstage… " "My job during the show was to, uh, call the models, like, Kelly would be like 'Okay next model out' and I’d be like 'Go go go!'”
"That’s like my ideal job…" “I know. I mean while I was doing it I was thinking ‘Lauren would be loving this right now.’”
"Yeah." Egg: Whitney appears uncomfortable.
Egg: Lauren clearly wants a job like Whitney’s. The scene immediately cuts to the opening credits.

Beyond learning that both Lauren’s and Whitney’s dream job can be described as telling models to “go go go” at a runway show, this scene also offers our heroine a new object of desire: a job at The People’s Revolution. This teaser segment, which occurs just before the show’s credit sequence, is ostensibly about Whitney and her new job, but it becomes, like everything else in the show, about Lauren and her desires. The scene closes on an egg or rather a series of eggs: a medium close up of Whitney reveals that she is uncomfortable with Lauren’s overt envy followed by a reverse shot of Lauren, offering one of her signature looks of dismay. Here again it is not necessary for Lauren to vocalize her desires (i.e., “I really want a job identical to your job, Whitney”). Rather, her wistful expression, which occurs just before the show’s title song begins to play, indicates as much. In the world of The Hills, characters do not even need to engage in the work emoting; the audience does that work for them.

As viewers have learned from previous Hills viewing experiences, Lauren’s ambitions will likely bear sweet fruit. Indeed, by the end of the episode Kelly Cutrone has offered Lauren a position with The People’s Revolution. What is especially interesting about this particular plotline, however, is Lauren’s desire and assumption that she should continue to work alongside her friend, Whitney. According to a research conducted by the consulting firm, Deloitte (to investigate why so many of their young employees left the firm), Generation Y workers will often choose a job based on whether or not they have a friend working there (Trunk), an employment expectation that would have appeared unnecessary or indulgent to previous generations. The Hills thus tweaks the already destructive American Dream even further by telling its youthful audience that hard work and determination are no longer a prerequisite for success in the workplace. Simply having the wherewithal to decide definitively what you would like to do with your career is enough. Furthermore, upon obtaining their dream jobs, The Hills cast members get to chat with their friends, attend glamorous parties and receive glowing praise for their minimal efforts.[16b]

Despite the fact that this generation will have to struggle even more than their parents did to pay for college tuition, housing and health insurance, The Hills offers young women misleading models of success and happiness based on unrealistic expectations of continuous validation and a willingness to expose one’s personal traumas to a community of anonymous observers.[17] Furthermore, the show’s replication and encouragement of the audience’s complex relationship with the increasingly collapsed world of entertainment, news and product consumption offers a simulacrum for their current experiences of the world.  Viewers are encouraged to engage with the program both on screen and within their daily lives as they surf the Internet, read a magazine, or go shopping for low-end party clothes. As a result, The Hills bridges the gap between advertising content and narrative content, effectively rendering these scripts interchangeable.

Go to Notes page

To topPrint versionJC 51 Jump Cut home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.