There's Laguna, and Then There's MTV's 'Laguna'

Times Staff Writer

Whenever he sees MTV crews in Laguna Beach, Derek Ostensen walks over and stands in front of a camera. He's not seeking stardom but rather to stop the filming -- for a few minutes at least. Ostensen, 24, who was born in Laguna the year MTV launched, believes the network is stealing his town's soul with its phenomenally popular teen reality soap, "Laguna Beach: The Real O.C."

"We are a community that has stood for solid, meaningful principles ... art, culture, the environment, quality of life, education," said Ostensen, an environmental consultant. "By contrast, MTV glorifies violence, drug abuse, the objectification of women as sexual objects, alcohol abuse, superficiality and a raft of other negative issues."

He and other critics had some initial success. After producers scouted for cast members at Laguna Beach High School in fall 2003, the school board, responding to parents' fears that the school would become more deeply involved with the show, refused to allow MTV to film on campus.

But city officials rolled out the red carpet, and "Laguna Beach," with its beautiful, rich, confused, confident, sexy, hurt and hurtful young cast members who cavort among lime-colored palms and tangerine sunsets, shop at Veronica M. and eat at Pomodoro's, now averages 3.1 million viewers nationwide, closing in on MTV's mainstay, "The Real World."

With season two ending on Nov. 14 and new faces for season three currently being cast, "Laguna Beach" has not only brought the city of 25,000 to the world, it has also brought the world to its shores, shops and schools. Shopkeepers are swamped with tourists and callers wanting to track down the stars. "I've spent the last two years saying 'Stephen doesn't work here,' " said Thalia Street Surf Shop owner Pam Cocores.

The tourist bureau has issued a self-guided tour of the show's locales. EBay is offering paraphernalia, including a real prom photo of cast members: asking price $400.

And while school officials say an increased enrollment had been expected, rumors are circulating that starry-eyed out-of-towners hoping to be cast in the show have caused a surge in the freshman class. This fall it numbers 300, the highest in a decade.

Some original cast members -- including Kristin Cavallari, Stephen Colletti, Lauren Conrad and Dieter Schmitz -- whose every searching look has been lovingly photographed in close-up and heightened with background music -- have moved to Los Angeles, where they are bona fide celebrities, some working on acting careers. "We've been hanging at clubs with Paris [Hilton]," Schmitz said. Many have their own publicists; they appear in national magazines and gossip columns.

But if anyone's been used, some say it's MTV.

"You can look at MTV as an adversary or an opportunity for getting the word out as to whatever your agenda is," said Donna Schuller, wife of Robert A. Schuller, co-chairman of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries. The Schullers, who moved to South Laguna three years ago, appeared in season one along with daughter Christina.. "Our ministry is an outreach ministry. We pay millions to get the message out. They came to our church and filmed. Many people who never saw a church get to see a church over and over," Donna Schuller said.

Being on the show "is going to be great" for Christina, now a student at USC, who wants a career in film, Schuller said. She thinks her son Anthony has a good chance to be cast in season three, "if they don't think he's too boring or not controversial enough."

Even some critics concede that they had already been losing the cultural battle before the film crews arrived. Some residents remember Laguna Beach as a modest and eclectic mix of people who started their own schools, chained themselves to bulldozers to protest development and pursued surfing or art. Shifting economics have raised the average home price in the "art colony" to $1.5 million. "Laguna Beach: The Real O.C." only accentuated and accelerated the reality that Laguna has become a town of wealth, glamour and celebrity culture, said Howard Hills, 53, a lawyer, former Laguna Beach High student body president and self-described watchdog "making sure the school board keeps its promise to keep MTV out of the public schools."

As Hills puts it, "MTV fits with where Laguna seems to be going. The old Laguna seems to be on its way to extinction."

At first, MTV was vague about the premise, and most kids thought it would be a documentary, said Lauren Conrad, now 19, the fashionable "L.C." and Jacuzzi party hostess. According to a transcript provided by a parent, Principal Nancy Blade announced to parents in a broadcast phone message that students would have a "positive opportunity" to appear on an MTV program that would focus on "getting into college, working, family life and activities such as surfing or music lessons."

"Laguna Beach" executive producer Liz Gateley said her idea was to create a reality version of "Beverly Hills 90210." Gateley, 38, said she sought to replicate her own experience growing up in Palos Verdes and wanted to show the workings of an upscale alpha clique. Laguna Beach was her second choice after Beverly Hills didn't pan out.

Gateley and co-executive producer Tony DiSanto also wanted to add something new to the reality genre: a narrative feature style. To avoid the documentary look of most reality shows, they established a guide for lenses and music, tightly editing from film shot over six to eight months. Through interviews with applicants, the members of the dominant social group became apparent; but it was pure luck that a romantic triangle had just formed among three good-looking students willing to be filmed: Colletti, a charismatic athlete; Conrad, a wealthy "good girl"; and Cavallari, a sexy power player.

"They came at the right time," said Conrad, who, like the others, sounded just like her TV persona. "The thing with Stephen and Kristin was just happening. Me and Kristin really hated each other. We didn't know he was involved with both of us."

Despite persistent skepticism by some viewers and critics, producers said nothing, including dialogue, is made up. Still, many wonder how far MTV and the producers go to encourage the drama. "There are times when something big goes down the night before and we'll ask, 'Can you wait until the camera's there to talk about it?' " Gateley said. They may suggest a restaurant that will allow filming, and they help pay for dinners. The cast receives "a nominal fee," but no residuals, DiSanto said.

The cast members are never shown doing homework, and only rarely interact on camera with parents. (None of the parents contacted for this article returned phone calls.)

That some cast members appear intoxicated when they're shown partying is a realistic result of their own actions, DiSanto said. "Obviously, we never provide the kids with alcohol. If they happen to be drinking or appear intoxicated, we try to edit around it, but we sometimes can't. High schoolers do what high schoolers do. Our policy is that we do not show it, do not provide it, and do not make it a part of the story."

Though sex is implied in scenes in hotels and cast members' homes, with couples retreating behind closed doors, DiSanto said "this show doesn't go there." The intention is "more subtle suggestion," he said. "Sure the characters talk about it, but there's no need to see it."

The backlash started in February 2004, right after MTV came under fire for the Janet Jackson Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction." "Parents were absolutely furious" about their kids being associated with MTV, Ostensen said.

As school board Assistant Supt. Steven Keller sees it, since MTV would have proceeded regardless of the school's participation, some involvement may have helped matters. "I am confident -- almost certain -- the show would have been more focused on the academic pursuits of an eclectic student body if the school district and MTV were partners in this endeavor," he said, adding that he did not mean the district should have approved such a partnership.

"My assumption is, the current show has turned out to be racier than what was originally discussed," Keller said.

Fame on these terms has come with a price for some of the cast. In October, Cavallari, now a student at USC, was pictured in a Playboy-style photo in Rolling Stone along with unflattering copy describing her as a talentless blond with a "sneering mouth and a nearly incomprehensible Valley Girl drawl, which is all to the good since most of the time she's not saying much anyway." Back in town, cast members deal regularly with hostility. "Reactions are tough down there," said Colletti, who posed for Teen Vogue in September. But Schmitz said he was also grateful. "I don't know where I'd be without the show," he said. He said he has started an annual charity event, Running Home 4 Teens, that raises money for teens suffering from depression, suicidal tendencies or substance abuse. "I get notes from kids that I've saved their lives."

The next generation of cast members will have a tougher time, Colletti said, simply by virtue of knowing in advance that they are appearing in a soap opera drama.

Shooting will begin again in a few weeks, earlier than the other seasons, in order to gather even more footage this time.

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