For Editorialist fashion and beauty editor Cortne Bonilla, the memory is so distinct. She came home from school, tossed her backpack on a chair and went straight to the television in the family living room. It was his time. It was his zen. MTV The hills was on.
The Los Angeles-based reality show only lasted four years (2006 to 2010), but its influence lives on. Produced by Adam DiVello, who went on to create Laguna Beach and executive produced Netflix’s runaway real estate success Selling the sunset—it averaged 2.7 million viewers in its final season, according to data shared by MTV. Many of them also watched the New York-centric spinoffs, The citywhich premiered with an audience of 1.6 million viewers.
The shows, which followed a team of young white women trying to “figure it all out” in the dreamy settings of Southern California and shimmering Manhattan, were visually appealing and culturally intriguing. For suburban teenagers who grew up outside the electric social bubbles of either place, especially people of color, they also provided insight into a world of fashion that in an earlier era to social media, was not easy to access.
Growing up in suburban Atlanta, Bonilla had no direct line to the industry, and she knew access control was rampant. “But at the same time, The hills made me think, ‘Well, I can make jeans like that. I can layer my tank top and hang the bottom hem. I can look like those girls,” she says, referring to the show’s main cast of Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag, Audrina Partridge and Whitney Port. until they entered their careers – it made them more real, adding to the allure of it all. “
Essence Contributing Style Editor Shelton Boyd-Griffith feels the same way. “It was almost a whole personality trait,” he says. “And it was completely disconnected from my own experience [in St. Louis]. I didn’t know any girls who looked like those girls on TV. It was so interesting to see how the 1% lived. And seeing the opportunities they had, I thought it was magic! Like, oh my God, you can work the? But later in life you find out that the opportunities for white people aren’t the same for black people.”
Of course, the show’s whiteness was glaringly obvious to anyone black or brown in the audience. Often, the only people of color featured were the catwalk models who paraded in the fashion shows. Nowadays, the lack of diversity would be greeted with repression and derision, but The hills belonged to another era. The dream of being part of the perfectly imperfect fashion industry was so appealing and so hard to find elsewhere that some fans were willing to ignore the inequalities.
Fashion has always been about fantasy, and her foray into reality TV was no different. Most actual magazine interns didn’t contribute to cover shoots, rub shoulders with celebrities, or have weekly appointments with the editor. Both Conrad and Partridge have defended that the series is, for the most part, an accurate portrayal of their lives at the time. “I think the story they told was not dishonest,” Conrad said. Seduce in 2012. Partridge claimed that at the start the show was “very real, [and] very raw”, with storylines becoming more contrived as the seasons progressed. What didn’t need to be manipulated, however, was the lack of on-screen diversity. In a way, that was perhaps the most honest take the series had to offer.
According to Paper Fashion Editor Mario Abad, industry representation on The city wasn’t that far from the truth. “I didn’t even think about whether [The City] was scripted or fake or not. For me, that was the closest thing to what my future would look like if I could get a magazine job in New York,” says Abad, a native of Fort Worth, Texas. “When I did my internship, I remember not seeing a single patch of melanin anywhere in the fashion closet. The assistants, the directors, everyone was just white. Maybe it wasn’t a shock to me because I had seen the shows. I knew it was a very white environment just by seeing the movers and industry players.”
Whiteness wasn’t the only topic on the show that tended to go unmentioned. Financial privilege also played a major role. Much of the show’s appeal was built on the location: West Hollywood condominiums and sexy bars along Sunset Boulevard and charming Soho lofts. The stars drove Range Rovers and Hummers; they always had Chanel bags draped casually over their shoulders.
“It’s completely unrealistic to have the amount of money they’ve made working as interns or in entry-level positions in Los Angeles or New York,” Bonilla says. “They were already rich kids, probably richer than most rich or middle-class people their age. And they had cars! It wasn’t a question of ‘How are you going to get to your internship? ‘ When I was interned, my whole family asked me: ‘Are you going to eat? And I said, ‘No, but I’m just going to find a solution.'”
“These girls were driving to school. They could go to Paris, no doubt. They had their Louis Vuitton luggage ready. They all had their fancy bags,” she adds. “That’s probably what made the show so fun until you realize it’s a lot easier to break into an industry when you have resources like that.”
But show how The hills and The city – and even other reality shows beside fashion like America’s Next Top Model and The Rachel Zoe Project — offered some sort of access. With the exception of Facebook, this was a time before social media dominance. There were no editors or industry insiders offering curated insights into their professional and personal lives. That was before you could browse a sea of photos from the same show on Instagram and feel like you were there too.
‘When I look at the girls in The city, I think of being a young teenager, living in Central America and thinking, ‘I want to go to New York’ or ‘I want to go to LA, I want to go to Paris. I want to work in a magazine!” Boyd-Griffith said. “And the thing is, for a lot of black and brown kids, shows like that did open ourselves to what else was possible in the world. They showed us how other people lived and what we could achieve.”
While series like Project track and make the cut still exist, they focus more on the design side of the industry than media, and they focus on competitions rather than acting. Now that the public is aware of the dangers of reality TV, people in the industry no longer want to be truly unfiltered on camera. Instead, they tend to offer curated versions of their lives on Instagram, which means that in some ways the doors of fashion have started to close again.
“Even though a lot of those shows were problematic, I give them credit for building my love for fashion. And I’m kind of sad that this generation doesn’t have more of a behind-the-scenes look at a magazine. or a PR firm or a design studio,” says Abad. “Today, with social media, we only see the pretty and shiny aspects of working in fashion and that’s not always realistic.”
Yes, The hills and The city weren’t one hundred percent real, but they were telling. Not only did they capture a bygone era of the industry (for better and for worse), but they also paved the way for young adults who knew they wanted to work in fashion but didn’t know how to get there. They challenged a generation to try their luck and not be afraid to fail. Bonilla describes it best: “Sometimes you need a little illusion to follow your dreams.”
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