They’re back! And so is the bingeable drama that defined the early aughts. Back then, Whitney, Heidi, Audrina, and Mischa—our April cover stars—launched a different kind of celebrity: one who looked like us, talked like us, and cried like us. But times have changed, and so have they.
Of course, not everything has changed. Today, for example, we’re sitting at The Ivy in Los Angeles, discussing nip slips and tattoos.
The girls are crowded around a table at the legendary restaurant, which is known for its paparazzi-friendly outdoor seating. For decades, paps have loitered across the street to capture photos of its patrons, who are typically an eclectic mix of famous people, people who used to be famous, and people who would very much like to be famous.
“I’ve had a nipple slip at The Ivy before,” Whitney Port, 34, says with a sly smile. “I remember when nip slips were the most embarrassing thing ever. I had one here and one in Miami. And now it’s like, whatever. It’s a fucking nipple.” Heidi Pratt, 32, nods in agreement.
Audrina Patridge, 33, says that the last time she was here, she ran into Ashlee Simpson.
“I haven’t hung out with Ashlee since, like, 10 years ago,” Mischa Barton, 33, offers. “I have a couple of funny stories about her. One time, we were waiting for her at dinner and I texted her, and she was like, ‘I just stopped off to get a tattoo.’ Just a quick before-dinner tattoo! I was like, ‘Okay, I don’t think you’re going to make it to dinner.’”
We all laugh. It’s so Ashlee.
Seeing these girls together again feels eerily familiar—and so right that I practically hear Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” playing in the background as each of them enters the restaurant. I can picture their full names written below their faces.
The four are getting ready to promote The Hills’ long-awaited reboot, a sequel of sorts called The Hills: New Beginnings. The series—originally scheduled to premiere in April, as of Cosmopolitan’s press time, but now slated to launch this summer—includes this crew and other memorable faces from the previous franchises, like Brody Jenner, Stephanie Pratt, Frankie Delgado, Justin (Bobby) Brescia, and Jason Wahler.
Notably missing are semi-villain Kristin Cavallari—she has her own reality show on E! called Very Cavallari (Heidi is actually a big fan)—and OG Laguna Beach veteran Lauren Conrad, who parlayed her reality-TV fame into a full-on lifestyle brand of beachy dresses, chia-pudding recipes, and millennial-pink bedding.
The current cast members seem more than happy to leave LC and Kristin in the past. “They’re not part of the story line,” Whitney says succinctly.
Lauren and Kristin’s absence makes sense given the reboot’s vibe, anyway. New Beginnings is supposed to be a real depiction of this group of old friends, and the women assembled at The Ivy today just don’t hang out with them anymore. After Lauren dramatically confronted Heidi on camera years ago, claiming she was spreading rumors of an LC sex tape (“You know what you did!”), the two never reconciled. “Sometimes things happen that will change how you feel about people, and sometimes it’s very permanent,” says Heidi, with a shrug. “I thought with Lauren and me, we would’ve been friends again.” She seems sad, resigned, and a little surprised.
While the group shares a well-documented history, the news that Mischa was joining the show surprised die-hard Hills fans. But her character on The O.C., Marissa, was the literal inspiration for Laguna Beach in the first place. And [Editor’s note: Skip to the next paragraph if you have somehow not yet watched The O.C.]
Marissa’s iconic death on the show was only slightly less iconic than her real-life role in the legendary early-2000s L.A. nightlife scene, when she partied with the likes of Nicole Richie, Paris Hilton, and Lindsay Lohan. (Mischa has not watched Lindsay’s new reality series: “I’m so afraid,” she says. “I think it might send me into a tailspin.”)
According to Mischa, she’s very much done with that life. And her decision to join a reality show was not an easy one. “I was approached by a million different people for a long period of time,” she says. But after talking to MTV and seeing the Hills girls at the VMAs on TV, she finally gave in to the idea of it all.
“It’s weird because I remember going out with Nicole Richie and people at the time, and we would come by set when they were filming The Hills,” Mischa recounts, as the other girls perk up. “She would drag me to the producer van to see what you guys had been up to all day. All these years later…it sounds corny, but it felt like this was supposed to happen.”
Still, her casting brings up questions: Will the addition of a professional actress make the show seem even less…organic? And why has everyone always been so obsessed with trying to figure out if The Hills is actually real, anyway?
The show itself always toyed with that question. Its story lines were believable, but with all the consistent drama and the soaring, cinematic shots, it felt like there was no way it wasn’t a bit produced. Viewers would obsess over the details: Was Whitney really an intern at Teen Vogue? (Yes—the only reason she was cast, she says, is because she started about the same time as Lauren.) Did Audrina really work as a receptionist at that Quixote Studios?
(Yes, she says. In fact, they always wanted to fire her because she wasn’t productive enough with the cameras around.) Did that uncomfortable confrontation between Heidi and her mother about Heidi’s plastic surgery really happen just as we saw it on TV? (Yes, says Heidi, and that’s the only thing she’d change looking back. She’s on good terms with her family now, but it took her a long time.)
All that reality aside, the girls admit that some scenes were straight-up staged. “Toward the end of The Hills, Spencer and I had a lot of scripted fights and things like that,” Heidi admits.
But these days, Audrina, Whitney, and Heidi have more than enough drama to bring to the table on their own. All three are new moms, which means the bulk of stress, chaos, and insecurity you’ll see onscreen is probably the real deal. Ironically, while motherhood is the most important thing to all three right now, it won’t be featured prominently on the show aside from, perhaps, 18-month-old Gunner Pratt, who’s more than ready for his close-up. (“He’s so comfortable with the cameras,” says Audrina. “Even on the red carpet at the VMAs, I was amazed.”) Maybe MTV thinks the mom stuff is too real for fans of the franchise.
Luckily, it’s not too real for lunch at The Ivy.
“I’m what they call an attachment parent,” says Heidi. Whitney and Audrina laugh knowingly.
“You would be proud of me,” Audrina says to Heidi.
“I met with a nanny last week. Did you have yours sign an NDA or anything?”
“I’ve been contemplating it,” says Heidi. Her nanny, Abby, knows that she works for two reality stars, but she’s too young to have watched The Hills. Abby’s parents, however, are big fans.
“She’s so young, and she was there while we were filming, listening, asking a million questions,” Audrina explains about the nanny candidate she’s considering. “She’s a Hills fan too, I guess.” Whitney and Heidi shake their heads in empathy. Mischa looks like she’s texting someone.
“Maybe you should rethink hiring her then,” says Whitney. Her son, Sonny Sanford, is 20 months old. “I have a nanny who’s close to 70. I took a picture of something randomly and she was like, ‘Will that go on social media?’” She laughs.
“If she was a fan of The Hills, it might not be the best,” adds Mischa, finally looking up from her phone. Apparently she’d been listening all along.
I’m nodding like crazy and suddenly realize: I’m having just as good a time watching them discuss nanny NDAs as I did watching Audrina accuse Lauren of hooking up with Justin Bobby.
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But sadly, lunch must, like all good things, come to an end. As we get ready to leave, Heidi answers a call from Spencer while poking at her apple-blackberry crumble. Audrina has an appointment, Mischa has a call with her lawyer, and Whitney needs to get in some Sonny time before dinner with her sisters.
I almost expect the hazy L.A. sky to go black and cut to commercial, but I get into my Lyft and realize that all of us are about to sit in the same 4 p.m. traffic. There couldn’t be anything more real than that.
A few days later, I chat with Mischa on the phone. She’d been a little guarded at the group get-together, as if she didn’t want to risk saying anything too salacious. After all, her chance for a personal reboot relies on the world taking her seriously as an actress. I get a sense that she felt like an outsider during filming, not just because she’s reading scripts on the side but also because her personal life doesn’t look much like theirs.
“I sometimes get in over my head,” she tells me. “I didn’t really consider the fact that they’re all such close friends. They’re family girls. They all have husbands or ex-husbands and babies.”
But she says they welcomed her with open arms. And the Hills women’s shared history actually made things easier for Mischa in the end.
“I was afraid that, obviously, the drama would land on me because I don’t have babies,” she says. “But the bulk of the drama comes from the history they have.”
And a decade later, fans of the show are still talking about that history, whether it’s tossing a mascara-tear GIF into group chats, screaming “You know what you did!” during rowdy bachelorette parties, or making a solemn vow to ourselves that we’ll never choose a boy over Paris.
Back at lunch, the girls are feeling the nostalgia too. Les Deux, their old hangout, has been replaced by The Peppermint Club. Nicole Richie has moved on from production vans to TV screens. Even The Ivy, which used to have a months-long wait list, is easy to book on OpenTable these days. Most importantly, camera phones and Instagram now make it impossible to get away with the bad behavior that defined their 20s. In 2019, even when reality crews aren’t filming, a party girl has to watch her back.
“We could keep secrets back then,” Whitney says. The group seems to become collectively misty-eyed.
Audrina agrees. “That was the best generation.”