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In 2003, a TV producer named Liz Gateley, three weeks into her new job at MTV, approached her bosses with an idea for a reality series. She pitched it using non-reality references: Dawson’s Creek meets 90210 meets Heathers. The show would be set in Orange County, a place that had captured the nation’s interest that year via Fox’s The O.C., which itself owed a lot of its genetic material to 90210. Gateley’s show was going to be about beautiful teens, young love, and popular girls — a perennial interest for film and television (cf. Carrie, Gossip Girl, Mean Girls, even 2019’s ultra-progressive Euphoria was not above a slo-mo sequence of cheerleaders moving through a cafeteria). Gateley’s proposed show was going to be reality TV, yes, but a new breed. Unlike its grainy, poorly lit predecessors The Real World and Big Brother, this would view like a drama, eschewing “confessionals” (cast members in booths breaking the fourth wall) and made with the high production value of a scripted show, with complicated lighting setups and high definition camerawork.
MTV was hesitant. Confessionals were a cornerstone of reality TV, an opportunity for producers to redirect cast members to particular plot lines, to stoke conflict or romance. Without them, higher-ups fretted, it would be difficult to sustain a coherent plot. They also worried that they would not be able to find seven sufficiently beautiful teens. A concern to which Gateley, herself an attractive blonde from Orange County, rejoined: “Then you haven’t been to Southern California.”
For any drama about teens, the obvious milieu is high school, with its closed-system stressors (adults don’t typically break up with romantic partners and then continue to see them every day, along with their new love interests). High school, by virtue of its annual structure, is punctuated with perfect narrative beats: homecoming, winter formal, spring break, prom (when characters are forced to double-down on vague romantic situations by choosing a date), and graduation. Gateley particularly liked the idea of filming the cast talking at their lockers. With a green light from MTV, in early 2004 she and her team began scouting locations. They set up booths in high school quads and cafeterias, and kids who wanted to be considered could come up and fill out an application. It wasn’t completely clear what the show was going to be at that point. Cast members have said they thought they were auditioning for True Life, MTV’s erstwhile docudrama, perhaps “True Life: I Live in the O.C.” From the producers’ perspective, attractive teens who lived near a beach were necessary but not sufficient. They were looking for a compelling story of a particular kind: a love triangle. Dawson’s Creek had Joey choosing between Dawson and Pacey, 90210 had Brenda-Dylan-Kelly. What Gateley had ordered specifically was a “good girl, a bad girl, and a cute boy.”
One afternoon, at Laguna Beach High School, the only public school for an idyllic beach community some 50 miles south of Los Angeles, development producer Adam DiVello and his colleague, done for the day, decided to head home. On their way out they heard a car alarm going off in the parking lot. As they approached, the volume steadily increasing, they were confronted by the ur-image of the series to come: two beautiful high school-aged girls, both blue-eyed, with blonde hair flowing past their shoulders, like a clear-
complexioned two-headed hydra. Incredibly, they were both named Lauren.
One of the Laurens had set off the car alarm, and the keys had fallen on the ground, and they were yelling to make themselves heard over the blaring horn. DiVello understood that what he saw before him was what they’d been looking for, and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County was born.
To distinguish between these two primary Laurens, the best friends became “Lo” (Lauren Bosworth), the pithy sidekick, and “LC” (Lauren Conrad), the show’s main character, the “good girl.” In the school library, producers spotted Stephen Colletti, a pillowy-lipped surfer with liquid brown eyes. “That’s our Dylan,” someone said, referring to Luke Perry’s character on 90210.
Luckily for MTV, Stephen and LC were childhood best friends with a long-simmering attraction. Stephen had spent most of high school dating another girl, Kristin Cavallari, but during a break from that relationship had “hooked up” with LC. Now he was back-together-ish with Kristin, but tensions between the three teens were high. It was as if Liz Gateley had manifested a love triangle out of thin air. The only caveat: Kristin was not on campus. As befits a wealthy teen in January, she was skiing. In her absence, her classmates had described her as “hot” and “bitchy.”
This was the early 2000s, before social media democratized teen interests, and MTV was king. I watched TRL religiously every day after high school, as if the daily ranking of the nation’s most requested videos was of urgent importance. Producers did not hesitate to call Cavallari and ask her to cut her trip short. She returned, auditioned, and was cast. Given how perfectly the love triangle met MTV’s expectations, I suspect that they would have cast Cavallari even if she had been much less charismatic than she was (after all, Lauren Conrad has the onscreen presence of a water bottle). But in fact MTV got very lucky with Kristin — without her I doubt Laguna Beach would have captured the cultural interest the way it did.
In 2020, Kristin Cavallari is a muzzled lifestyle brand and mother of three, but in 2004 she was a funny, hot, fearless teen, ruthless in pursuit of her goals: having the most fun, meeting the cutest boys, and maintaining her position as alpha girl. Like a general in a halter-top bikini, she had an innate sense of who to crush and who to fleetingly ally herself with in order to maintain her power. She was Gone Girl’s “cool girl” personified, holding all the Laguna Beach High boys in her thrall. In a season one scene, Stephen ruefully explains why he just can’t seem to walk away, giving voice to the show’s consensus on Kristin. “Kristin’s like a really good girl to hook up with and have fun with,” he says, morosely.
In any case, MTV had found their good girl, their bad girl, and their cute boy. They cast some additional surfers, Talan and Trey, and perhaps as a counterpoint, two brunettes, Morgan and Christina, whose wholesome story lines (both were Christian intentional virgins) would wash away as effortlessly as the surf and sand in the show’s opening credits. Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County was slated to start filming later that spring. Two days later, Janet Jackson’s nipple revealed itself at the Super Bowl Halftime show. The show had been produced by MTV, and suddenly Laguna Beach High School no longer wanted to be associated with the network. Their contract was revoked. There would be no locker-adjacent talk, no slow-motion hallway processionals. They would have to film after school hours, and on the weekends.
The change has an interesting, not entirely deleterious effect on the footage. Without the anchor of school, the cast cycles through an endless loop of leisure activities, they’re either: 1) at the beach 2) planning parties 3) eating sushi 4) getting ready to go out — the series loves its shots of two girls staring into a mirror, applying makeup 5) shopping 6) engaging in “drama,” while professing to be avoiding drama, too mature for drama, or relieved to be finally past the drama.
The general consensus of the cast (now almost all married with children and above-average Instagram followings) is that the Kristin-Stephen-LC love triangle did exist, but that the LC-Stephen arm of it was exaggerated for the purposes of the show. The mechanics of the triangle were this: Stephen loves Kristin, who mostly loves him back but is occasionally distracted by other, non-Stephen suitors (like the previously mentioned
Talan, and Sam, a handsome blond surfer). Kristin expertly diagnoses Stephen’s issue: “Any time I’m not like all over him, he gets upset.” When Stephen gets moody, he turns to LC, who, to the extent that she is able to convey emotion, does seem to love Stephen; certainly, she is sympathetic to his cause. The LC-Stephen dynamic also owes considerable thanks to Lo (the second Lauren), who props up the anemic story line by doggedly asking LC, “So what’s up with you and Stephen?” at regular intervals. Long, meaningful looks are the lingua franca of Laguna Beach, and pop music is carefully chosen to telegraph a character’s feelings. The use of music, artful editing and some early reality TV chicanery — Kristin has said that producers fed her “wild lines” to record as audio, telling her that if they didn’t “feel right” they wouldn’t use them — proved more than compensatory for the confessionals MTV was so worried about removing. It is abundantly clear, at all times, what everyone is feeling.
Outside of its central plot, Laguna Beach has relatively few interests. The cast is wealthy, and attention is paid to that, but there is no critical examination of class. The show does diligently document how much things cost (S1Ep1’s titular “Black and White Affair” takes place in a $700/night hotel suite) and never passes up an opportunity to film a fancy beachside mansion (Lauren shows Stephen her clothes closet and her shoe-and-purse closet). In one bizarre scene, a cast member is served a quesadilla in her bedroom by a housekeeper wearing a black-and-white maid’s uniform. Beyond this, Laguna Beach doesn’t ask difficult questions. It avoids creating too large a gulf between viewer and cast, because it wants us to like them, to worry along with them about whether they’ll get asked to prom or buy the same bikini as someone else. In an interview, Adam DiVello referred to shows like Laguna Beach as “aspirational.” Like in Gossip Girl, the show’s relationship to its cast’s wealth is one of admiration and envy, which is also a tone the Laguna Beachers sometimes have about themselves. As one minor character says in season two: “It sucks when like the girl you hate, you walk in and the house is like amazing.”
If the show is not particular about its depiction of wealth, it does offer, perhaps inadvertently, a nuanced portrait of gender and social dynamics among the cast. And though it peddles teenage sex, it offers an otherwise socially conservative message. This plays out in how it presents its young female leads — the kind of girls they are, and the kind of women they would eventually become. Early in season one, Kristin and her friend Jessica make dinner for their boyfriends, Stephen and Dieter. They have modest goals: pasta with chicken in alfredo sauce and cake from a boxed mix. But it turns out that the blind are leading the blind (“Should I say ‘a half a pound of chicken’?” whispers an uncharacteristically unsure Kristin at the meat counter) and everything comes out really bad — the pasta, in Kristin’s own words, “tastes like feet” and the cake is liquid in the center. Stephen is sulking because Kristin’s flip phone is buzzing with texts from other boys. Unconcerned, Kristin leaves dinner early after taking a call from Sam, saying she’s tired and Stephen’s being annoying. She is not pictured doing any dishes.
Later in the season, we are given a very different approach to Stephen’s needs. All of Laguna has decamped to Cabo San Lucas, a near-mythic land of no parents, no curfews, easy access to alcohol, and nightclubs outfitted with stripper poles (the O.C. version of Chekhov’s gun). In the episode, “What Happens in Cabo…” Kristin, visibly intoxicated and not one to disappoint, does a mildly sexy but entirely PG-13 dance on top of the bar, makes out with Sam, and endures a histrionic Stephen, who, beside himself, repeatedly screams, “Slut!”
The next day at breakfast LC weighs in on Kristin’s behavior with a matter-of-fact, traditionalist view: “She’s wearing a skirt and a little thong and she’s up there like on the pole. She knows that’s slutty.” Stephen, correctly identifying an uncritical harbor, sits next to LC at dinner, telling her he’ll stay in with her (she has a cold) and watch a movie. He steals bits of food from Lauren’s plate, prompting some playful wrist-slapping and fake protest until finally Lauren, clearly feeling like the odds are finally in her favor, tells Stephen in explicitly maternal terms, “I’m going to make you a little plate.” Across the weirdly L-shaped table, Kristin rolls her eyes.
The competition between Lauren and Kristin keeps this dynamic between slut and housewife in view. In season two, LC makes Stephen crepes, following a night that MTV tries to suggest they spent together. She is the perfect hostess, moving assuredly around her parents’ large Tuscan kitchen with its view of their infinity pool, infinity hot tub, and the ocean. When
Stephen declines whipped cream, she gently insists: “It’s really good with it. You want me to put a little bit?”
In comparison, Kristin is shown failing almost every test of proper womanly behavior. In season one, Kristin proved to be an ungracious host, in season two she is an ungracious guest. With Stephen off at college, Talan thinks he may be able to move from understudy to leading man, and he cooks Kristin an elaborate dinner at his house, including shrimp cocktail served in martini glasses with hearts of romaine, and a meat item he is seen expertly flipping on the grill (“I’m Italian,” he says, by way of explanation). Kristin arrives wearing a sweatshirt and pronounces the meal “intense.”
Despite Kristin’s obvious superiority to LC in almost every way, Laguna Beach can’t disguise who it’s rooting for. The show works hard to keep the Stephen-Lauren romance alive, and even tries to suggest that LC is the ultimate victor. In the last moments of season one’s finale, she arrives in San Francisco to start college, and who is waiting to pick her up? Stephen, in one of the more obvious bits of producer meddling. I can’t imagine who was fooled. You just have to watch Stephen’s interview for the DVD box-set extra features: “I realized that I liked being with Kristin so much more than I [liked being] with Lauren.”
Still the show insists that LC is the one. She provides voice-over narration for the first season, recapping the previous episode and setting up the next. Producers refer to her as the show’s “protagonist” and Liz Gateley talks about how she is the show’s most relatable character. They stuck with her, too, later producing The Hills. For her part, Cavallari has been open in
interviews about feeling manipulated and misrepresented by the show’s adult producers, in ways that changed how she related to friends and romantic partners alike. “I didn’t know that they were going to make me the bitch,” she said. When the first episode aired, she said, she cried for hours. When filming began Cavallari had just turned 17, and she felt (probably rightly) that producers were effectively sabotaging the real, two-and-a-half-year relationship that she had with Stephen. She draws a clear distinction between Laguna Beach and her subsequent appearance on The Hills, which, she says, she treated like an acting job.
When Laguna Beach first aired in September 2004, I had just started college in New York City. I’d chosen a dorm that only had single rooms, no roommates, which at the time seemed somehow cooler and more sophisticated but in reality was just more depressing. Waking up in my tiny room on the 11th floor, eating microwaveable foods, coming home to no one at the end of the day, I felt like no one would know if I was alive or dead. I was homesick for my sunny California hometown, and spent a lot of time listening to mix-CDs my high school friends had made me, the discs Sharpie-d with inside jokes. Having always thought of myself as more of a cosmopolitan type, I was embarrassed to find that I missed driving in my car, and that I was uncontrollably drawn to the complex on Columbus Circle at 72nd Street, whose climate-controlled interiors, big shiny J. Crew and mega-Whole Foods was the closest thing to a suburban mall that Manhattan had to offer. In December, I cried while telling my academic advisor that the plates in the cafeteria were always hot and wet and had leftover pieces of food stuck to them. By February, I had sunk into a major depression and taken a leave of absence, returning home to sit on my parents’ couch and terrorize them with my “does life have any meaning”–type questions. During this time, I watched a lot of TV. It was then that I encountered, in reruns, the show billing itself as “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.” It was a comfort I did not anticipate, and watching it, I could retreat into a version of my former self.
Now I am 34, and in order to write this essay I watched 24 episodes of Laguna Beach sequestered in my bedroom wearing headphones, so that the babysitter I hired to watch my toddler would not get the wrong impression about my “work.” Occasionally when I could not find my headphones, I watched it on silent with subtitles. Watching the show for the first time in over a decade inspired different thoughts and feelings. Early aughts fashion, for example, seems particularly problematic from this vantage point. The female cast is perpetually hiking up their low-rise jeans and adjusting their tube tops. They attempt to sit gracefully in their handkerchief-sized Abercrombie & Fitch denim skirts (something I can empathize with as a former A&F employee circa 2002–2003, back when this was a Very Cool Job To Have. I was “scouted” while working my previous mall job at Godiva Chocolate). The guys look more comfortable than the girls, but also very schlubby. Also notable is the complete absence of social media (some cast members have said that they did have MySpace at the time), an inextricable piece of any cultural conversation about teens today.
The central love triangle feels lower stakes that I remembered, perhaps because it’s more apparent how humble a prize Stephen is. Today, Cavallari and Conrad are both successful businesswomen, with solid positions in the entertainment and retail worlds, whereas Stephen, despite a robust six-season run on The CW’s One Tree Hill, has largely faded from the public eye. Rewatching these three feels just like a high school relationship — life or death at the time, in retrospect a little embarrassing, with a strong sense of not being sure what all the fuss was about.
I was also surprised by how much screentime is devoted to the cast’s graduation, and the big emotions surrounding it. Because the show wasn’t allowed to film on campus, the ceremony is stitched together from home videos shot by cast parents on camcorders, giving it a homey, un-produced feel. The teens, in the lead-up and aftermath, struggle to make sense of this major life event; it’s clear that they know something big is happening but lack the life experience to understand just how big. Kristin and a sidekick have a conversation post-ceremony about a speech in which someone called the moment “the end of the beginning.” In the scene it is clear that neither girl understands what that means, despite Kristin professing to “love that phrase,” but the phrase is apt — this is the end of their childhoods — and even if they can’t understand the actual words they can intuitively grasp the weight of the sentiment. Even Kristin becomes an emotional wreck saying goodbye to her friend Jessica. “You can still call me,” says one girl to her weeping friend. “But it won’t be the same,” she replies. There are many similar goodbye scenes, and a certain sweetness to how the show chooses to linger on these moments. It’s hard to imagine current reality TV viewers, used to their steady diets of cat fights and infidelity, having the patience for it now.
I hope it’s not just because of my current stage of life, but the scene I found most moving during my rewatch was an odd moment in season one, when Kristin’s dad and LC’s dad get together for a chat. Kristin has since confirmed that their dads really were friends and “probably got dinner and stuff.” Both dads appear periodically on the show, as do other parents. None of these are executive-producer-Kardashian type parents, nor implausibly attractive Gossip Girl–type parents, or table-flipping Housewives — these are just normal parents, though unusually wealthy and reasonably attractive. But they serve their proper role as supporting cast to their teens: grounding them for bad grades, asking to meet their dates, taking an unreasonable number of photographs before prom. In the scene, Kristin’s dad, a real estate developer, and LC’s dad, an architect, are chatting in an office (the natural habitat of dads!) while their daughters give each other mean looks in Cabo. Jim Conrad talks about how he asked Lauren to do him just one favor in Mexico: to “trade off being Mom” with the other kids. His philosophy is that when she’s 18, she’s an adult; she’ll make her own decisions. Dennis Cavallari says ruefully that he’s “still trying to reel [his] daughter back in.” It’s a friendly, strange moment between two real estate professionals and dads of girls who hate each other.
To insert it here, immediately following Kristin’s pole dance and LC’s ungenerous post-mortem, highlights the well-known obliviousness of dads, and may create some dramatic irony, but it doesn’t really advance the plot of the show. Are they trying to suggest that the world is larger than high school? To remind us that LC, Kristin, and Stephen, no matter how badly behaved, are someone’s children? I think it’s possible that the appeal of Laguna Beach (if it has an appeal; I certainly could not in good faith recommend that anyone start watching it now for the first time) can be located in the disconnect between the dads’ understanding of the Cabo episode and their daughters’. It’s as though the producers can’t decide whether they want to manipulate these teens or parent them, to view them as resources or as children. The show is a document of a more innocent time in the history of reality TV, the genre’s own transitional moment, a graduation from the first-wave sloppiness of The Real World but not yet arriving at the deranged, maximum drama-per-minute Bravo universe of today.
But the general viewing public is probably not interested in the evolution of reality TV, so it’s unlikely that this is what accounts for the show’s longevity. It seems that that is actually a result of the Lauren versus Kristin dynamic. Something about their conflict really stayed with people. As recently as 2018 (but also in 2016 and ’17), almost two decades after the show initially aired, the two were asked in interviews about the current status of their feud. Cavallari, now a much savvier media player, was polite. “I haven’t seen or spoken to [Lauren] in a while,” she said. “But if I saw her I would give her a big hug.”
Sara Davis is a writer from California. Her debut novel, The Scapegoat, is forthcoming from FSG in 2021.