The last days of The Hills are upon us. Say what you will about the show — it's superficial, it's annoying, the characters talk about nothing — but for six years, the half-hour television reality program defined Los Angeles nightlife. The central plotline is simple, classic: Its star, 19-year-old Lauren Conrad, moves to big-city Los Angeles from Orange County, small-city Laguna Beach. She gets a job at Teen Vogue. She has a best friend named Heidi, some boyfriends and friends. They're all gorgeous, and they fight, they love, they cry, they laugh. But mostly they go out. A lot.
The best-known of The Hills' nightclubs is a place called Les Deux on Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood. Here, a whirl of gnats circles lazily in a shaft of sunlight. A squirrel scampers across the patio. Like an aging starlet without makeup, Les Deux doesn't look like much in daylight.
But looks are deceptive. The place has good bones, and manages to pull itself together at night when candles are lit and the red walls glow and champagne flows. “I guess you could say it's like a Skybar now,” says owner Sylvain Bitton. “Just a cool bar.”
Bitton was friends with Conrad and Heidi Montag before The Hills began airing. They came first to his nearby restaurant, Bella. Then to Les Deux, a once-drowsy little café that Bitton and his partners in the Dolce Group purchased, rehabbed and reopened as a nightclub lounge in the summer of 2006. He was 26, Conrad was 20 and Montag was 19.
“From the night we opened we had the biggest, most powerful celebrities. It wasn't normal celebrities,” he says.
Les Deux's nightly guest list reads like the IMDB catalog: Mischa Barton, Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Tom Hanks, Donald Trump, Mick Jagger, Sting, Leonardo DiCaprio, and on and on. “It's where normal people felt like celebrities, and celebrities felt like normal people,” Bitton likes to say.
MTV lugged its cameras in a few months after the club opened. “Every kid in Iowa or Kentucky or Nebraska that watched The Hills wanted to come to Les Deux,” he remembers. “For those kids to come here, they'd feel like they had a piece of it.”
Teenybopper girls arrived in droves during the day to take pictures. But at night, forget it. Les Deux ran the tightest door in town.
“Why are all these people here?” Bitton asks, with something close to awe. “There's nothing special about this place. Les Deux is in the middle of a parking lot. It's an old house. So it's a house party, it's a European house party right in the middle of Hollywood. There's no sign, no red carpet, no smoke or fog, no moving lights. It's just a home away from home, a way to get out and leave your problems at the door.”
The truism that personal relationships are the most valuable currency in business is never truer than in the Hollywood nightclub sector. Bitton recently threw a 30th-birthday party for himself. He invited Conrad, Montag, Audrina Patridge, Spencer Pratt, Brody Jenner and the rest of the Hills cast: “I said I'm going to throw a very cool party, if you guys want to come. They said, 'Of course, we would love to.' ” And voilà, MTV filmed his birthday.
It was a private affair, with 400 of Bitton's closest friends and a couple of tigers prowling the patio. Montag also celebrated her birthday there. So did Conrad. So did Adam DiVello, the show's creator. “I always say, behind every great victory is a weapon, and our weapon here is our personal relationships,” Bitton says. Doing time in the trenches of the clubs was like having gone to war.
He doesn't pay or receive pay to be featured on The Hills. “We let them use the space, and we get the exposure,” he says. “They helped us, but we helped The Hills, too, tit for tat. We had nights where there were princes from different countries here. So it put the show at a different caliber.”
The Hills and Les Deux made their names together. “Our heyday was when the Lindsay Lohans, Paris Hiltons, Olsen twins and the Duff sisters were going out religiously. All of those girls would be here three or four nights a week,” Bitton recalls.
Those were great times for celebrity implosion. Montag fell in love with the “evil” Spencer Pratt. She and Conrad stopped being BFFs, splintering the blogosphere into Team Lauren and Team Heidi. Paris Hilton went to jail. Britney entered her trouble time. She shaved her head. She asked for a job application to work at Les Deux.
Smelling blood in the water, the paparazzi circled. Celebs began to stay home. Then, the economy tanked.
Times are different now. There has been a slowing down, a sense of moving on. Gone are the days when the only way to guarantee entrance to Les Deux was to purchase a table for $1,500 to $5,000. “Now, you'll see people that might not have been able to get in three years ago,” Bitton says. “All the hedge-fund guys buying expensive bottles of champagne, spending 10 grand a night easy, they don't really do it like they used to.”
In Bitton's experience, clubs in L.A. have a five- to 10-month shelf life. “That's good crowd-wise. They stay open for longer, of course. Les Deux held a good crowd for two-and-a-half years. It still does. We've been here for four years, which is an eternity for nightclubs.”
In a minute, a delivery man arrives with three cases of Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon and Dom Perignon. Bitton signs for the lot.
“I don't want to portray this as a snobby place,” he adds, pocketing the receipt. “At the time it was very hard to get in, but if a girl's dressed up nice, whether they were some Hills fan from the Midwest, or London or Africa or wherever, if they played the part and lived up to Les Deux's expectations, they were getting in.”
Drinks were on the house, but only if MTV was filming. If cast members came in on their own, they paid out of pocket. Well, the guys paid out of pocket. It seemed impossible that a girl living on a Teen Vogue internship budget could finance a respectable nightlife, as Conrad was, theoretically, if you ignored the money she made from being on The Hills.
And she couldn't. Pretty girls don't pay for their own drinks, much less pretty girls on hit reality-TV series. “If Lauren was coming in, she'd be joining a table where someone was spending $1,500,” Bitton explains. “But that's too detailed. That's too much of a gray area, that kind of stuff, who's paying.”
You gauge the money at the door, he goes on, despite himself. “If we see they've only got $400, we might say okay. If we see they have a lot of money, it might be $2,500. We're just selling,” he says. “It's real estate. Out there on the patio is a lot more expensive than inside.” You buy coolness on a sliding scale.
The Hills girls and their revolving door of boyfriends occupied some of the club's priciest real estate: the upstairs terrace, or the red corner booth on the patio that regulars called “the playpen.” Walking around in the daytime, you can almost feel the ghosts of dramas past.
Is Bitton worried about The Hills ending? He shrugs. “I don't think that far ahead. It was a successful show. What else could you want? It can't go on forever,” he says in a matter-of-fact way.
Lunchtime, on a balmy day in Beverly Hills, vice president of real estate Behzad Souferian, marketing director Erin Shaffer and publicist Robbie McKay are having drinks at one of the hotels owned by their boss, nightlife mogul Sam Nazarian. Nazarian's company, SBE, runs many of the clubs and restaurants frequented by The Hills characters. For a time, Nazarian even dated actress Kristin Cavallari, who replaced Conrad in the final two seasons of the series.
The show turns out to be an excellent way to sell nightlife. As people debated whether the series was scripted or unscripted, whether Montag's breasts (and lips, nose, cheeks, chin and ears) are fake or genuine, the setting became the most real character on the show. Where venue was concerned, what you saw on TV was what you got.
“One of the things people get fascinated with is, is it art imitating life or life imitating art?” says Souferian. “The show blurred that line. There is this fascination with what is real and what is not. People say, well, it can't be real. That's one of the draws of the show. It created buzz. Did this really happen? And is that a real place? Yes, it is. Those are our properties, and those are our patrons in the background.”
Souferian is at pains to convey the seamlessness of the SBE experience. Their hotels and restaurants and bars and clubs provided ample opportunities for the cast to live out their lives. Breakfast at Tres. Lunch at Katsuya. Dinner at XIV. Drinks at Hyde. A dip in the pool on the roof of the SLS Hotel. The locations are camera-ready at all times, always with new and interesting amusements: Jell-O shots shaped like sushi. An indoor-outdoor lounge modeled after a Hamptons summer beach club. A burger bar inside a nightclub.
The pseudoreality of reality television is nothing new, of course, but The Hills articulated it in ever more exquisite and profound ways. The SBE venues, Shaffer explains, allowed the stars to have as much privacy or exposure as they wanted, depending on whether they were coming in “as a guest themselves or as a character on the show.” There was your real self, and your doppelgänger reality self.
“Our venues, our brands were already part of their daily interactions, their dinners or whatnot,” she continues. “And it became very natural for them to integrate that within the show.”
Venue or character, chicken or egg, which came first? Neither. In the twilight of reality celebrity, there is no beginning or end. It's all a kind of seamless middle. The beautiful people will go where they've always gone.
“The show gave us more awareness in regards to people across the nation. In terms of who our clientele is, that hasn't changed,” says Souferian. Theirs is not so much a demographic, as a psychographic. “It's people that want to live this type of lifestyle,” he says. “If you frequent our places, we want to make you feel like you've come into my living room and I'm the host. The experience we want people to walk away with is being very catered to.”
Asked if they watch The Hills, Souferian, Shaffer and McKay suddenly get very occupied with their drinks.
“I haven't watched it much this year,” McKay says sheepishly.
“I don't get a lot of time. I'm working,” says Souferian.
“I travel a lot,” says Shaffer.
Though, she sometimes watches episodes on DVD on the plane. The Hills is apparently the show that everyone has seen but no one admits to watching.
“What Sex and the City did for New York, The Hills did for L.A.,” Shaffer says. “I wonder if there's a Hills tour. Like if you go to New York, you can go see where Carrie lived. I wonder if there's one for The Hills?”
“There's gotta be,” says McKay. “If there isn't, I'll partner with you on it.”
“Done,” jokes Shaffer. “I'll get the buses.”
“I'll drive,” says McKay.
The exposure they've gotten from The Hills has been invaluable. “It's hard for entrepreneurs from out of town to establish a foothold in nightlife industry,” Souferian says, straightening his pinstripe blazer. “It's a different animal here.”
“When we first came to L.A., it was hard to get into places. You can't just show up with cameras and surprise the owners of the restaurant,” says series creator DiVello in his office at MTV's West Coast base of operations, in Santa Monica.
To this day he remembers Geisha House, the first place they filmed. Conrad, Montag and the two boys they were dating were having dinner there. “The owner stood right next to us the whole time, and they were antsy as hell for us to get out of there. They didn't really get it,” DiVello recalls. Most reality shows shoot with buzzy, in-your-face handhelds, but The Hills shot with cameras on sticks; they could be tucked discreetly away. Unless you recognized the stars, you wouldn't know who they were shooting.
“Once the show started airing and people saw that we were making the places look beautiful, a lot more doors opened to us,” he says.
Good thing, because The Hills is location-heavy. Every argument, every romantic moment, every tearful reconciliation required a different setting. They shot in places that had never let cameras in before, much less reality-TV cameras — fancy boutiques; crowded nightclubs; brand-new, impossible-to-get-into restaurants. They shot four days a week, at nine or 10 different places.
A location — Conrad's Hillside Villas apartment — even led to the casting of one of the show's main characters. “We looked at a lot of places. We wanted a swimming pool with a lot of younger kids that lived there. It was perfect, because that's where I found Audrina,” DiVello says.
He was there checking on the paint color one afternoon. On his way out he spotted a sexy brunette lounging by the pool. It was Audrina Patridge, a 20-year-old film-studio receptionist. DiVello brought her onboard for Season 1. “She befriended Heidi and just rolled right into becoming friends with Lauren.”
When Conrad moved to Los Angeles from Orange County, the sun-drenched palette of her first reality show, Laguna Beach, gave way to cooler blues of the big city. “We wanted to make it seem a little more daunting, a little more ominous. But at the same time, cut against them laying out in the sun,” DiVello says. “You have these kids with these very relatable lives and problems — dating, work — but it's all done in this idyllic, beautiful setting.”
The approach fell right in line with the schizophrenic nature of the city, where ugly and beautiful, heaven and hell are next-door neighbors. Even toxic smog is gorgeous on The Hills. It makes the late-afternoon sky blaze in shades of orange, pink and purple.
If the days were delicious, the nights were even more so. “I like to say that we gave people an all-access VIP pass to L.A. nightlife,” DiVello says. “Viewers at home felt like they were getting dressed with these kids, going out with them. You had that feeling that you were in the car with them driving to the club with the excitement. Girls love to see what the kids are wearing. Boys like to see who else is in the club, what do girls in L.A. look like when they're out clubbing.”
There are still locations that DiVello wants to get that he just can't get, and it kills him. Simple things, like where the girls go shopping. Talking about that thwarted desire, DiVello sounds almost like a documentary filmmaker. “As odd as it sounds, it's really hard to shoot at, like, Barneys on Wilshire, or Neiman Marcus,” he says. “Those big department stores are incredible architecturally, and would look great on camera. But it's hard to get permission. Because they're big corporations, there's a lot more red tape.”
What about shooting it guerrilla style?
“Oh, God, no. Everything has to be signed off on. All the people in the background sign releases.”
As it is, reality must wait. When Justin Brescia and Patridge broke up, they had to delay their sadness for several days while the producers struggled to get permission to shoot on the pier. “We scouted and spent some time working on getting that location and it played beautifully,” DiVello remembers.
Strangely, the place he's most proud of filming is the one place everyone has access to: the airport. “We have shots of planes at LAX that most people don't have,” he says. “To me it makes the show feel so big.”
If The Hills' Los Angeles isn't exactly the life that everyone in the city lives, it is a Los Angeles that most Angelenos recognize, even if only from a distance. It is a city with a pool at the heart of every apartment complex, a camera hidden behind every tree. DiVello hears often enough from people (who hear from people) about fans of the show who move to Los Angeles to live the Hills lifestyle. “The show has a lot of wish fulfillment to it,” he admits.
As for their disappointment at finding the place not what they wished it to be, that's something you'll never see on the series. There are things DiVello just won't show.
“Traffic,” he says. “We don't show a lot of traffic. But we have a lot of traffic.”
It's true. Cars are always moving in The Hills, the ultimate Los Angeles fantasy. “We don't want to show people waiting to go to work in the morning,” he continues. “We don't want to show lines at Starbucks. That's not fun. It all exists, but I don't want to see it.”
So much of The Hills was a dream. “These kids, they do go where we would want them to go. They go to the newest places. They know exactly where to buy the best handbags, the best shoes, the best coffee. They tell us,” says DiVello, who'd then go out and get it on tape.
Conrad buys her coffee — organic, heirloom, low-acidity, fair-trade, Ugandan, gorilla-friendly — at Urth Caffé downtown. She comes in for salad, bagged coffee, and for the “secret” Spanish granita, says owner Shallom Berkman.
He apologizes that he has never watched The Hills, but he is aware that its stars frequent his restaurant. The waitstaff let him know whenever Conrad stops by. One of the servers comes over then and mumbles something in Berkman's ear. Berkman nods solemnly. “I've been told that they also order boba drinks,” he says.
It's a Saturday and the paparazzi are camped outside the café's entrance, waiting to see what celebrities the day will bring.
DiVello believes that his larger-than-life cast could never be upstaged by the setting. Pick up any tabloid rag to see evidence of that. But when people look back on The Hills, when they miss it, or hate it, or miss hating it, they won't remember exactly what Spencer said to Brody about Lauren who mentioned it to Heidi who told Audrina or any of that crazy drama. They'll remember where it happened.