On September 28, 2004, the first episode of a show called Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, aired on MTV and changed the landscape of reality TV for years to come. Following the lives of a handful of beautiful California teenagers attending Laguna Beach High School, the show blurred the lines between scripted situations and real emotions and relationships in an indulgently entertaining concoction that audiences around the world now absorb like second nature. The show focused on the classic Good Girl vs. Bad Girl dichotomy, pitting the wholesome senior Lauren Conrad against the fabulously villainous junior Kristin Cavallari in the battle for the show's resident Dream Boyfriend and alpha girl status.
My mother attended Laguna Beach High, and when the show first aired we sat down to watch together and compare it to her reality of a beach town adolescence in the 1970s. "This was... not quite it," she told me, and wandered off before the second commercial break. At 13 years old, I was naturally mesmerized, as I was ravenous for depictions of the high school experience that awaited me the next year. Confronted with the image of Cavallari lounging in her pool alone, talking on her cell phone in what was surely the most self-assured California girl drawl I'd ever heard, I was quickly pulled into the very appealing drama of the show, fake or not.
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When The Hills returned just a few years later with Conrad and new best frenemy Heidi Pratt (née Montag) at the center, audiences including myself were already more hip to what they were being sold. Keeping Up With the Kardashians would come on the air just a year later, turning reality TV into a viably lucrative career path, but first there was unfinished business of manufactured feuds to complete. Once again, Cavallari was called upon to play the Girl All the Bad Guys Want (and the good girls hate), reflecting a feminine binary that still somehow made sense in the waning years of the early aughts (her return episode was literally called "The Bitch Is Back"). The planet of young, hot LA kids intersected the Kardashian world with the addition of Brody Jenner, who Cavallari and Conrad were set up to fight over. When the series ended with the curtain being pulled back to reveal a literal Hollywood set, it was as shocking and surreal a revelation as any in TV finale history, if not because we truly thought it was real all along, but because we could never pretend to believe so again.
That still left Cavallari with nearly a decade's worth of branding as a mean party girl shadowing her every move. She pivoted right, moving to the Midwest with her new husband, NFL quarterback Jay Cutler, and quickly became a mother to three children and the designer of a jewelry line, Uncommon James. A recent return to reality television has her reflecting on the impact the format has had on her career and her own personal development. In a candid interview, PAPER caught up with Cavallari about her new show, Very Cavallari, which focuses on Cavallari's life now as she runs the Uncommon James flagship and raises a family, the scripted nature of reality and why being cast as the mean girl was all for the best:
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You were this prototypical LA girl who moved to the Midwest and became a wife and mother in the middle of your twenties. What was that transition like?
When I was becoming a mom, I really felt that I was doing the right thing for the first time in my life. I had Camden when I was 25 so I was very young, but I had done so much by that time and had gotten everything out of my system. Becoming a mom was truly the next natural step for me. I would've never thought in a million years that I would be the first one to have babies and get married, but it's been the best thing that has ever happened to me, truly.
A lot of people don't know this but I lived in a suburb in Chicago all throughout junior high and before that I was in Colorado. So, I would say I am more from the Midwest than I am from California. Moving back to Chicago was actually really nice because my mom was there along with all my cousins.
What's it been like to be back on the air with your life out to the public?
Right before we started filming, I had a moment where I wondered if I had made the right decision, but that quickly went away. The producing team that I'm working with are a dream because they appreciate my creative direction and they really look at me as someone who is on the same level. Sometimes people will just give you the executive producer credit that I have but won't actually include you in the creative conversations, but they really did and they treated me as if I were one of them.
I think that security blanket too, of having some control over things, was such a freeing feeling for me, coming from The Hills where I had no real say. I don't think I would've ever gone back to reality TV had I not had that, only because it's one thing when I was 17, 18, whatever and it was only me to look out for — but now I have three kids and I'm a wife. It's not just me anymore that I have to be responsible for, I have a whole family.
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Being creative on a reality show, what does that look like?
It's really deciding what stories are interesting. Right before we started filming, I sat down with all the producers and we just talked about everything I had going on in my life, and specifically what Jay and I were and weren't willing to put out there. You have a storyline; unless you're filming a show like Jersey Shore, you're not just shooting for hours on end hoping that you'll get something. With that being said, everything on the show is based on real emotions and real circumstances. Everything on Very Cavallari is from a real place and that's the first time I can really get behind the reality show that I am on and say that.
The beauty about Very Cavallari compared to Laguna Beach or The Hills is that there are interviews — which are pretty standard on most reality shows — where you can connect the dots from one scene to another. Laguna Beach didn't have them and so we were doing a lot of scenes that weren't really happening to try to connect those dots.
"The audience is so in-tune to authenticity now because there have been so many fake shows."
Audiences can mostly see through scenes like that now anyway.
The audience is so in-tune to authenticity now because there have been so many fake shows. E! was adamant about everything on the show being real and I was too. Because I came from a world of such heavily manufactured shows, I wanted this to be true. I think it's so easy for the audience to tell what's real and what isn't. It was a conscious decision that we made in the beginning, there was no other option really.
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Spencer [Pratt] famously compared himself and Heidi to the Kardashians, saying that they were an early version of that. Do you feel if social media had been around back then that would've been true for you?
I think the Kardashians are at a different level. I would never compare myself to them. If I could have just a little tiny bit of that success then by all means, sign me up. I think they're really different.
The tabloids used to cover your every move, but they've mostly been replaced by social media (and blogs). Do you think that's for better or for worse?
That was one thing I used to hate — the fake articles and the crap that they could just come up with. They would literally just make up stuff. So, do I miss that world? Hell no. Is it really nice to leave my house looking like shit and not having to think twice about paparazzi? Absolutely. I also love it though when I do go to L.A. I like to have my picture taken and put some thought into my outfit. But right before I met Jay, as The Hills was ending, and I was so exhausted. I couldn't leave my house without paparazzi catching it. I felt so trapped and hated that feeling.
How were you able to rise above negative things said about you?
When Laguna Beach first came out I was just 17. I would go on those chat rooms and people would talk about how they hated me. I was really upset about that. It definitely affected me, but because of that, at such an early age, I had to learn how to shrug it off and think, "It's just a show, these people don't actually know me."
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The person you were portraying on the show wasn't necessarily who you were anyway.
I was really upset when I saw the first episode of Laguna Beach because I had been edited in such a way to be the villain that I was just shocked. I was so young too, and we didn't really know what reality television was. Would I change anything now? No, I wouldn't change anything. Obviously, I eventually wrapped my head around it because I did another season of Laguna Beach and learned to embrace it. Though I don't remember ever making a conscious decision like, "Can I do season two?" I never even thought that I could walk away. I think we had a contract. But now in hindsight, I probably could have.
How were you able to separate that character from who you were becoming as a young adult?
My on-screen persona really made me look inward and really try to figure out who I was. At 17, you really don't know who the hell you are, but it made me grow up and realize, "I don't think I'm this girl on the show. I know I don't want to be this girl." I ultimately think the show made me a better person and helped me figure out who I was.
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Do you keep in touch with anyone from those shows?
I talk to a lot of people. I talk to Brody, Stephen, Audrina, Heidi and both Alex's from Laguna Beach. I definitely keep in touch with most people I would say.
Would you say you were playing even more of a character on The Hills? I don't know if it's just because you guys were older but it did have a more scripted feel, and then of course the infamous ending with the Hollywood sign being pulled back
With Very Cavallari that's 100% me on the show. I'm really happy and proud that I can stand by that. Before, with The Hills, I had my show life and show persona and then had a completely separate life off camera. The Hills was easy because we only filmed three days a week. We knew exactly what scenes we were going to be filming and what it was going to be about. I had fake fights and fake relationships. I was playing up the villain and was acting essentially. I had a really great experience. Then when the tabloids would write articles and judge me based off of what would happen on the show, I wouldn't get upset because I was so removed from it. It wasn't my actual life.
"At 17, you really don't know who the hell you are."
The people you were working with were also in your orbit socially. How did the show affect your relationships off-screen?
With The Hills, those people weren't really in my life until I joined the show. I had known a lot of them, but they really weren't in my circle of friends. It was very separate, which made it easy in that sense. Laguna Beach was tougher because Stephen [Colletti] was my real boyfriend, and then all the sudden we're being put in situations that we really wouldn't normally be in. That was really hard because you would see things on the show and then take it personally, and it would only make the problem bigger. When I did The Hills, I knew I had to keep things separate because it's very easy for the lines to get blurred and I didn't like that feeling.
I think now for me it's different because of a few things. I'm not in the middle of the girl drama anymore; that's not my life anymore and it's great. I'm executive producer, so I've seen the whole season and can have something taken out if I need to. We're not going to put anything out there that could potentially damage us, it is what it is.
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Would you ever do a different show like The Real Housewives or something, where you weren't in control?
No. I wouldn't only because I am too old for that shit. I don't want to have those catty girl fights, that's just so not my life anymore. I had to go back and watch clips from Laguna Beach and The Hills and it made me cringe because, ugh, that was my world! Fighting about the dumbest shit on the planet. Whether it was amplified or not, I was still doing it and I want no part of that anymore. So, would I do the Housewives? No. Will I watch it? Sure, but I want no part of it.
Are your kids on the show?
They're not. You'll see me talk about them a little bit and Facetiming them, but no. That was a conscious decision that Jay and I both made. They're so young, my oldest is about to turn six, and then they're four and two. We want them to make the decision when they're old enough to have their lives plastered everywhere, we don't want to make that decision for them.
If they came to you in 10 years and there was going to be a show like Laguna Beach at their school, would you let them be on it?
If they were under 18, no I wouldn't. It's hard enough to be a teenager, why put that added stress on them? I don't regret my decision to do it. I really had a great time and I would go back and do it again. I just think for my kids, they're so young and I just want them to focus on being kids. After they graduate high school and they want to do a reality show, okay then we can talk about it. As long as I can say no, I am going to say no.
"Very Cavallari" airs Sunday nights at 10|9c on E!.
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