Looking beyond 'The Hills'

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"The Hills," the MTV reality series supposedly following the life and times of rich Californian Lauren Conrad, isn't so much about her as it is about "Lauren Conrad on 'The Hills.' "

The show's fifth season premieres tonight and marks the beginning of the end of Conrad's carefully orchestrated small-screen persona. The 23-year-old reality star, weary of living in front of cameras for the better part of five years, is after this season leaving the show that has showered her with pop culture fame.

"It's been a long time coming," she said. "I went through many phases when I thought I was done, but I'm at this point where I'm really ready."

Tonight, viewers will see Conrad deal with yet another surprise from friend-turned-foe Heidi Montag, who crashes her birthday party, again in search of reconciliation. While her life on "The Hills" seems to revolve around the onetime friendship that turned the show into water cooler conversation, her off-camera reality seems to have moved past all the television-driven drama.

Here's what you're not seeing: In Conrad's off-screen life, she celebrated her birthday in Las Vegas with her boyfriend, "My Boys" actor Kyle Howard, whom she's been seeing since last summer. ("I would never put a guy I really cared for on camera again," she said.) Her friendships appear to be stronger than ever -- she shares a Westwood apartment with friends she's had since high school, including "Hills" co-star Lauren Bosworth. ("We don't fight. It wouldn't be entertaining to watch.") She even wrote a novel, "L.A. Candy," which comes out June 16, and, contrary to reports that her eponymous fashion line was going under, is working on a new collection. ("Neither is part of my social life.")

Her strange trip into the land of reality television began in 2004 when she was cast as the girl next door in MTV's " Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County." MTV executives hoped audiences would identify with the Laguna Beach native, particularly as she journeyed north to pursue a career in the fashion world.

As she came of age before the cameras -- dating, partying and slogging away at an internship -- Conrad had a bitter falling out with Montag that transformed "The Hills" into a pop culture phenomenon. The sensation came thanks to a nightclub fight sparked by rumors -- possibly spread by Montag and her boyfriend, Spencer Pratt -- about a supposed sex tape involving Conrad.

The show's ratings immediately jumped, and suddenly Team Heidi and Team LC (Lauren Conrad) shirts were being sold. Though debates about its authenticity arose, the hot new soap opera seized on this template for drama and producers focused on betrayals like Montag's.

In more than one sense, "The Hills" became a victim of its own success. Celebrity news blogs and the tabloids developed an insatiable appetite for all things "The Hills." It got to the point where by the time an episode ran, its scenes were old news; a more comprehensive look at Conrad and the show had already been served up by other media sources.

"When we started the show, we got 100% of her life," series creator Adam DiVello said. "As the show got [more popular], the part we wanted to follow -- her relationships with the cast, the parts of her life unaffected by fame -- got smaller."

On-camera, Conrad would work through each heartache, while off-camera she went about establishing a life separate from the show's plotting -- a life that would help her deal with the one she had on "The Hills." She'd pursue her own projects, better friends and, eventually, romance.

"Finding happiness off the show" turned out to be the collateral damage, DiVello said. "But it's how she lasted as long as she did."

A victim of its own success

According to Conrad, she filtered out her romantic life after her breakup with Season 1 boyfriend Jason Wahler.

"The boys I dated after him on the show, I knew they weren't going to go anywhere," she said.

What she couldn't stop was the drama -- and many tears -- that followed between her and her girlfriends on the show. Whether they were staged or not, few who watch "The Hills" can doubt Conrad's deep emotions.

But the tumult made working with producers hired to shape her reality, well, awkward. Conrad called her relationship with DiVello "weird." After Montag showed up unannounced to the birthday party airing tonight, Conrad informed the producers she'd be taking a week off immediately as payback.

"He's a genius, and I have a lot of respect for the show he's created . . . but we've had a lot of arguments," she said. "They'd put us in situations we didn't want to be in. There were times I'd take my microphone off and just stop."

Conrad said she started looking at the show solely as a vehicle to promote her business opportunities. In that regard, she's scored several notable successes -- a fashion label, a side career writing teen fiction, spokeswoman gigs, even the occasional guest starring role as herself, though she admits, "I can't act at all! I'm so not interested."

For MTV, Conrad's exit leaves the network's top franchise in the lurch, and producers say they still haven't decided whether to continue the show without her. Montag and Pratt, ever willing to drum up drama as her adversaries, are pressing for more.

"I don't know that we need her," Montag told MTV News on Friday.

Audiences, quicker to find out news on "The Hills" in the tabloids than on the show, might also sense the story lines stretching thin. Though the series is still MTV's No. 1 show, ratings for the fourth season were down from the previous season's average of 3.9 million viewers to 2.9 million.

But that's of no concern to its ex-star now. Free of the pressure to emote weekly, Conrad said she's eager to lighten up. Her biggest post-show plans are drama-free.

"I'm excited to not have everything scheduled in advance," she said. "I can just call up a friend and grab lunch. I can wear white when I want to -- I could never do that on camera. I can go backless!"

"Yeah," she said, smiling. "I'm going to be real rebellious."

denise.martin@latimes.com

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