Heidi, Audrina and Spencer discuss what was actually real on The Hills
To celebrate the show's 15 year anniversary, relive the chaos with this oral history.
Images of Audrina, Jason and Lauren, and Brody and Frankie via WireImage. All other images from The Hills.
Amid early 2000s tabloid culture and before reality television had truly come into its own, the first episode of The Hills aired 15 years ago on 31 May 2006. Created by Adam DiVello, the series served as a spin-off to MTV’s 2003 hit, Laguna Beach. Despite literally all central Laguna Beach cast members leaving the show after its second season — having been replaced by a fresh instalment of high schoolers — it wasn’t the last that viewers would see of their faves. Almost immediately, MTV followed then-bffs Lauren Conrad (“LC”) and Heidi Montag to LA, documenting their lives as they pursued careers in the fashion industry and navigated coming of age, a series of relationships and an ungodly amount of chaos.
Following MTV’s early success of reality programming like The Real World (widely credited for the birth of reality TV as a whole) the creation of The Hills as a Laguna Beach spin-off skyrocketed the cast members to celebrity status. Across six seasons, the show never fell short of dramatic moments — from Lauren’s much-memed teardrop scene to the tense fight between Audrina Patridge and Kristin Cavallari over the notorious Justin “combat boots on the beach” Bobby. Not to mention the rollercoaster relationship saga that was Speidi — the now-married Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag, to the uninitiated.
Airing a year before Keeping Up with the Kardashians even began, the success of The Hills originally rested in its documentary-style following of a friend group growing up. The relationships had carried over from Laguna Beach or formed on other shows, including Spencer Pratt’s friendship with Brody Jenner on Fox’s short-lived 2005 series, The Princes of Malibu, and Frankie Delgado’s role on MTV’s Twentyfourseven. The wide-spanning impact of The Hills retrospectively did wonders for the careers of those even in minor roles — notably Glossier founder Emily Weiss, who interned with Lauren at Teen Vogue.
However, by season six of The Hills in 2010, a lot had changed. Lauren had departed from her role as the show’s primary focus and was subsequently replaced by the aforementioned Kristin. Producers had also amped up the dramatised storylines and fight scenes in an attempt to keep viewers interested among a sea of similar shows — leading to the widely discussed final episode.
During the last ever scene of The Hills, Brody Jenner said goodbye to Kristin, his ex-girlfriend, before she moved away. Kristin dramatically departed in a limousine, with an exit montage set to Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten”. As Brody watched Kristin leave, the Hollywood sign looming over them from the hills in the distance, it was abruptly revealed that the backdrop was fake. They were on a studio lot. The out of character breaking of the fourth wall was a nod to the much-speculated theory that the show was scripted. Today, over a decade since the finale aired, viewers on TikTok are still dissecting scenes and questioning whether anything was ever real on The Hills.
Although the franchise’s current iteration, The Hills: New Beginnings, is still very much on air, as is often the case, the original reigns supreme. To celebrate 15 whole years of The Hills, i-D invites OG cast members Heidi Montag, Spencer Pratt, Frankie Delgado, Audrina Partridge and Jason Wahler; MTV boss Nina Diaz; Dani Kwateng from Teen Vogue, where Lauren Conrad famously interned; and the Insta-expert in all things 00s nostalgia @popculturediedin2009, to share their memories of the spin-off that started it all.
THE ORIGIN STORY
Frankie Delgado, an actor and club promoter who first appeared in season two: I went to the VMAs with twentyfourseven and Laguna Beach was there too, so I became friends with Talan. He became like a little brother to me, and he wanted to move to LA. That’s kind of how I got introduced to Lauren, Kristin, Lo Bosworth and that whole group of friends. I was good friends with Heidi as well. Brian [Drolet] and I were called to see if we wanted to be a part of the show, but I was still on twentyfourseven. Two seasons into it, Lauren was like, “Hey, we’re filming at this little cafe. I know now your boy Brody’s on it, so why don’t you come on?” It just happened organically.
Heidi Montag, a series regular and Lauren Conrad’s original roommate: Lauren and I were best friends, and we moved up together. Then we just met Whitney and Audrina. I hung out with Audrina a lot because Lauren was with Jason at the time.
Audrina Patridge, a friend of Heidi and Lauren who lived at the Hillside Villas: I was already out by the pool with my roommates, and Adam DiVello was there scouting the apartment complex for Heidi and Lauren. I had never watched Laguna Beach, but he liked the fact that I was [already] living in LA.
Spencer Pratt, Heidi’s boyfriend (now husband) and Brody’s friend from The Princes of Malibu: Adam definitely did not want me on the show and did everything he could to not have me on. The only thing Adam liked was me bringing Brody. I think that was once Adam was more down.
Audrina: I went in to meet with a casting director and talk to everyone on camera. We started filming within two weeks, so I was one of Lauren and Heidi’s first LA friends. They didn’t want us to meet off-camera. We were not allowed to go to our pool area or lobby for two weeks. Then, during my lunch break, I ran home, put a bathing suit on, and Heidi was out by the pool. They filmed our first meeting. Heidi and I became friends immediately. She was so funny.
Heidi: I loved our elopement. That was so fun. I mean, that wasn’t how we eloped or where it was, but just as a nostalgic moment. I love the beginning too. Season one was just so special. It was just getting into LA, really being on a show, it was such a miracle and a dream come true. Even though it may have seemed like we had ups and downs, I loved season two — integrating Spencer into that world and having him there.
Audrina: We were so young, right out of high school. We were going out normally, doing things that we would be doing whether the cameras were there or not. It wasn’t super guided at that point. It’s like, “Oh, this is where we’re going to Les Deux, or we’re going here.” It slowly evolved, I think, as the show got more popular.
Frankie: In the original series, we took a trip to Costa Rica. It was just magical. We also went to Hawaii. Those trips will always mean a lot to me — you bond differently with everyone.
Heidi: There were a lot of real emotions going on. Spencer and I already had a semi-relationship and kind of split up but didn’t. We had a past when we started seeing each other. Spencer just came from a producing background, so he was like, “We could just produce more of this.” Season one, I would say, was pretty real. There were a few setups — I didn’t crash Lauren’s Vogue party or certain things like that. In general, the relationships were pretty authentic.
Dani Kwateng, executive editor of Teen Vogue: “The girl who didn't go to Paris” is probably embedded in my mind forever. I was 19 at the time and just starting to get interested in journalism and I remember thinking, I never want to derail my entire career for a guy like Lauren did to rent a summer house with her boyfriend (who she ended up breaking up with). For a lot of young women, this was a pivotal moment in history of seeing a failed career decision in real(ish) time. There's this notion that when you're young, you can make mistakes and redeem yourself later on — but seeing Lauren's Paris misstep gave me a ton of perspective on early life choices.
Audrina: I was moving out. I wanted my own house. You know, that was an emotional scene. That was so real between Lauren and me, those tears were real. You kind of forget about the cameras. Whenever you have to watch it, relive it and go through those emotions again… it's a lot to take in at times.
Heidi: When [Spencer] came around and was like, “Let’s just script this and script that,” it was fun. Sometimes I would be like, “No, we’re setting something up with the Playmates and the picnic.” Then, I would get drunk and get upset about it, so it was tricky.
Spencer: I didn’t have a problem with LC until she did an interview with Us Weekly. She sourced quotes, saying, “Spencer’s a loser and he has no friends in LA.” Keep in mind, I’m literally from LA — went to school, kindergarten through 12th grade, in LA. She’s literally from Laguna Beach and had four friends that were on her cast. I definitely took that as, “Oh, it’s on now”.
Heidi: I think it was inevitable.
THE FINAL EPISODE
Frankie: Brody grabbed me and said, “Hey bro, the ending’s going to be epic. It’s going to be something you wouldn’t ever imagine. I can’t tell you because I want you to be surprised.” We were all together watching the finale. I think it was a perfect ending to something that meant everybody kept asking us, every day of our lives, “Is it fake?” This is just another thing to remember the show for.
Audrina: It was kind of tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think anyone will ever know what was real and fake because it’s such a mixture of scenarios and emotion. There’s real emotion, but there were scenes that were set up.
@popculturediedin2009, a social media account sharing celebrity culture from the 00s: Unlike any other reality show, The Hills never made an attempt to mirror the cast’s reality — the girls were on the covers of every magazine, being chased by paparazzi, but nary a flashbulb nor acknowledgment of their exterior celebrity ever made it to television. The references that do sneak through are so vague, so thin, that you barely catch them: In the second season, when Lauren meets Brody Jenner, she mentions him dating “Nicole” — that being his ex-girlfriend, Nicole Richie. The undisputed queen of reality TV. But in this fantastical and insular world of the show, one of the most famous people in America is just another chick on the LA club scene. And it’s a testament to the show’s brilliance that we buy into it. That, to this day, we still sigh and groan and shed tears over what Heidi said to Lauren, or Lauren to Audrina, as if any of it was steeped in reality, as if every conversation mightn’t as well have been filmed on a soundstage in Burbank.
Audrina: Everything has changed. I see clips and oh my gosh, I look like a baby. What was I wearing? My eyebrows are too thin. Why did I have light pink lipstick on? Like whoa, but that was ‘in’ then. I haven’t sat through the entire show. Maybe one day I will. It’s just, with my daughter now; I don’t want her to sit and watch it with me. She’s so young. My main focus is on being present and in the moment and moving forward.
Heidi: I think for me, I definitely wouldn’t have had my family on. That was hard for me. The producers told me that was the only storyline I could have. They wound my mom up and manipulated her. That’s affected our relationship, so I think that’s my biggest regret.
Audrina: Now we have the confessional, which is nice because you have the chance to explain what you were feeling at that moment.
Spencer: Sometimes, it almost makes you madder, like “Why wouldn’t you say that to my face?” As much as I used to think I loved testimonials, I didn’t get it’s a way for people to be little snakes.
THE CULTURAL RESET
Jason Wahler, a Laguna Beach alum who crossed over for season one: The Hills revolutionised reality TV and pop culture in general. It had a tremendous influence on the lives of those who were a part of it, and those who watched it.
@popculturediedin2009: It helped normalise the treatment of reality TV stars as being stars like any other. When the show first aired in 2006, the cover of Us Weekly was still a sacred place and the only reality stars that could land it were normally contestants on high-profile competition shows like American Idol or Survivor — primetime stuff pulling in tens of millions of viewers. Reality stars — being stars conceived as public figures strictly through their reality show, as opposed to the Paris Hilton or Osbourne types who were already famous beforehand — weren’t really cover fodder. But during The Hills’ run, Lauren, Heidi and Spencer appeared on covers almost weekly, and by the last season, the celebrity media landscape had changed so much that traditional movie and TV stars were almost completely eclipsed in supermarket tabloids, brushed aside for everyone from teen moms to broke housewives from New Jersey.
Nina Diaz, MTV’s President of Content and Chief Creative Officer: From The Hills to New Beginnings, this seminal docu-series franchise continues to be a cultural touchstone for our fanbase that has grown up with this group of friends. Audiences feel a deep connection to The Hills cast members — their life challenges and successes resonate and reflect an aspirational millennial experience.
THE LASTING IMPACT
Heidi: It has been the best production company with Alex Baskin. Every time I get to talk to him about reality TV, I feel smarter.
Spencer: The best advice he’s ever given me — and I wish somebody had [told me this] when I started reality TV — he’s like: “Just have fun.” He’s dead serious. “If you’re not having fun, nobody’s going to want to watch it. People know when people aren’t having fun.”
Frankie: There are two people that I got close to in some sort of way I never expected. Jason Wahler and I really bonded. He was always checking up on me. He’s a great friend. Spencer has been, as well, a person who has had my back through all the drama. He’s a good person to talk to, and I didn’t have that in the past with him.
Jason: It’s beautiful to see that as the cast has evolved and developed, the show has naturally evolved and developed along with us — even 10 years later. The topics, issues and real life struggles you will see on the show today may be different from the original show, but they are equally as relevant, relatable and influential in today’s society and pop culture.
Dani: The Hills — although vapid, dramatised and very white — put a lens on the experience of millennials in a rapidly evolving world. The cast's relationships with career, love, friendships, and social perception were an interesting balance and subconsciously served as cautionary tales on mistakes I never wanted to make entering my twenties.
@popculturediedin2009: Nostalgia is cyclical. We just came out of a decade-long 90s revival. It was only a matter of time before the aughts came creeping back.