A promo photo for NYC Prep's first (and only) season. Clockwise from left: Jessie Leavitt, PC Peterson, Sebastian Oppenheim, Camille Hughes, Taylor DiGiovanni and Kelli Tomashoff.
"I never used to believe in things like the moon landing being faked," Camille Hughes says over the phone, "but after being on a reality show, I wouldn't doubt it." Hughes was one of the six cast members of the short-lived, but extremely publicized reality show, NYC Prep, which premiered on Bravo in June of 2009. The heavily-criticized show only lasted one eight-episode season but has maintained a steady cult following since its brief run. The show followed the lives of six teenagers living and going to high school on Manhattan's Upper East Side -- a reality show cousin of Gossip Girl, as Laguna Beach was to The O.C. NYC Prep,however, was a far shrewder and darker take on modern teendom than Laguna Beach's, while not sacrificing the ghoulish awkwardness of high school.
It's almost impossible to narrow down the best moments from the show. There were the brutal and ridiculous bon mots from the eyeliner-wearing Chuck Bass clone, PC Peterson ("I don't want to see anyone anymore; I'm just kind of done with everyone," he said about dating at 18 and "I feel bad for the people that can't have that [money]," he opined in reference to castmate/Blair Waldorf stand-in Jessie Leavitt's charity event for Operation Smile). There were also heartthrob Sebastian Oppenheim's way-suave moves with the ladies like his succinct answer to the "Can we still be friends post break-up?" question: "I mean, we're not friends [hocks loogie]." Jessie's voice on the phone while being asked about her vacation in West Palm Beach ("It's good. I'm, like, on the terrace with my friends") will forever be seared in my brain and I'll never forget when the lone public schooler/token "poor person" Taylor DiGiovanni mused on future career possibilities by saying, "I don't know, [I might become] maybe, like, a philosopher or something." The list goes on.
But before any of these teens were dropping clueless soundbites on Bravo, they were doing what all modern high schoolers do: checking Facebook. Hughes, now a senior at College of William and Mary in Virginia, recalls the bizarre process of being cast after a Facebook post about the show started circulating among the NYC private school scene. Then a junior at the Nightingale-Bamford School -- the same school attended by Gossip Girl author Cecily von Ziegesar -- Hughes had been mentioned by numerous students as a fitting candidate to be interviewed for casting. Before she knew it, she and her friends found themselves in a "slightly sketchy" building downtown with lots of white walls, getting grilled by show producers about themselves. Soon after, she was picked as a lead on the show.
"I saw it like any other extracurricular activity," Hughes says, "Like, 'OK, so I'm going to do lacrosse, and also a TV show.'" She emphasizes how affected the show was, with each teen molded into an embodiment of various stereotypes about the Manhattan prep school scene; Hughes was made out to be the icy and ambitious brain, with a campaign to get into Harvard that began at birth. "They told and showed us nothing during and after filming," she says of the producers, who concocted everything between the cast members. Not only that, the castmates had virtually no knowledge of one another before filming started, giving everything a strange, science experiment quality that made the show both mesmerizing to watch and just plain weird.
Hughes then and now. (Photo on the right via Instagram)
"They would actually refer to us as characters between takes," Hughes remembers. "Before shooting, they'd tell us, 'OK, and then your character will say...'" The cast quickly adapted to the artifice and, as you might expect, viewers weren't exactly taken with the teens. "NYC Prep, with its privileged nobodies flaunting their self-perceived hotness and their my-perceived inarticulateness, is actively annoying," wrote Ken Tucker for Entertainment Weekly back in '09.
Over at A.V. Club, Scott Tobias wrote of the pilot episode:
The new Bravo series NYC Prep has been touted as the real-life Gossip Girl, an intimate look into the lives of privileged Upper East Side snobs with absentee parents, fake IDs, and limitless credit card accounts. But based on the dreary pilot episode, "Top Half Of One Percent," it's really more like The 'Lil Future Housewives Of New York, conforming so rigidly to the Bravo reality TV formula that the six kids chronicled are more like castmates than anything approximating real teenagers. And that's at least part of the reason they come off like monsters: It's bad enough that they do the terrible things that any narcissistic teenager with money would do, but the show goes to great lengths to keep from suggesting they have any interior life. They're preening stereotypes of spoiled, snooty rich kids, served up for viewers to hate on sight."The producers took the most ridiculous stuff I said," Oppenheim says in defense. "So of course I came off negatively." He's good-natured about it, though. "I was 16, and playing a role," he said, reflecting on the absurdity and glibness of being a teenager -- the only difference was he just got filmed being one. Oppenheim says this Bravo-created image of him has stuck since the show's end, even now, as a student at the College of Charleston, where he majors in international studies and is hoping to someday move into broadcast journalism. Both he and Hughes tell me about experiencing "long stares" from people on their respective campuses from time to time. Oppenheim seems to have some fun with it, explaining how open he is to answering questions people have about whether he is really like the "Sebastian" from the show. "I think after a few minutes, they realize I'm not that person," he says, laughing.
Made out to be the lothario of the group, most of Oppenheim's scenes featured his famous hair flip (apparently irresistible to females in all five boroughs) and him constantly reminding viewers of how many girls he was currently "hooking up" with (hooking up = shaky, slow-motion make-outs on street corners). His love triangle with two of his fellow castmates, Kelli and Taylor, became a central source of plotline for the show's only season. As cringe-inducing as they were, the stilted, mumbling conversations between Oppenheim and the girls were some of the most on-then-nose representations of teens exploring "adult" relationships seen on reality TV. "The romances you saw were as real as it gets in 10th grade," Oppenheim says. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get Kelli or Taylor's take on the three-way romance as they, along with Oppenheim and Hughes' other NYC Prep co-stars, were unavailable to comment.
(Even though the other NYC Prep-ers didn't participate in this piece, through focused Internet stalking and word of mouth, I was able to find out a little. PC appears to be a student -- or recent graduate -- of Rollins College and has interned at MOMA, where he worked in cataloguing works and developing shows, including one for the German artist Sigmar Polke. Jessie's stayed true to her dream of working in fashion, interning for designer Carmen Marc Valvo and currently getting her degree at F.I.T. Kelli's kept at it with her singing career, even making some music videos like this one and performing around Meatpacking venues in NYC and at Sundance. Unfortunately I could not track down Taylor, but I can only hope she is doing great things at philosophy school.)
Oppenheim then and now. (Photo on the right by K. Cooper Ray for Social Primer clothing.)
While Sebastian's aftershocks have been fairly manageable, Hughes endured a Scarlet Letter-like fallout from being on the show. The administration and alumni at her alma mater, as well as the school's parents, became outraged over her appearance on the show, asserting that it "lowered" the Nightingale-Bamford's prestige. "They sent out a school-wide email about me," Hughes says, recalling the pain of being scrutinized so harshly in such a formerly safe haven. After a gossip columnist from the Wall Street Journal released an article citing the email the school's head had sent, the backlash intensified. Hughes describes media camping outside her family's Manhattan home, as well as harassing phone calls from alumni and angry parents of friends and classmates, who blamed her for their children's Ivy League chances possibly being hindered by her television stint. Even though Hughes had never worn any attire indicating where she attended school, nor even mentioned it, the school wanted her to write a letter of apology. Rather than apologizing for something she didn't feel she had done, Hughes transferred to the famous Professional Children's School for her senior year. It was a good decision. Thanks to spontaneous, Fame-esque sing-a-longs and lunchtime dance parties in the cafeteria, Hughes says her year there was one of the best school years of her life.
I can see why these two were picked to be on TV. Even over the phone, Hughes and Oppenheim ooze charm and impress/intimidate me with their articulateness. They say they've embraced their experience on the show for better or for worse. And half a decade after its sudden admittance into reality show afterlife, the fascination with NYC Prep lives on. With the show now immortalized on Netflix (where I've already watched it several times), Oppenheim says he's seen a resurgence of "Aren't you that guy from that show?" questions from strangers. Camille's Twitter bio bluntly answers these burning questions: "Yes, I am that Camille from Bravo's NYC Prep. No, I didn't go to Harvard. Yes, I know the show is on Netflix."
Both castmates describe falling out of touch with each other almost immediately after filming, due in part to wanting to distance themselves from the show. Nevertheless, they each mention the pang of sentimentality they feel whenever they run into one another around the city. All drama and cattiness (whether staged or not) aside, there's a clear enduring bond between these former reality stars. "We kind of became a little team," Oppenheim says.
Soar high into the midnight mauve, NYC Prep, high above Manhattan's orange glow. We miss you.