THE cattiness started immediately on the third season of the MTV docu-soap "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County."
"And then there were the popular girls," says Tessa, the season's teenage narrator. "There's Cami, the Queen of Mean. She went out of her way to make my life miserable.... That is Kyndra, the leader of the popular clique. We used to be friends, but she turned her back on me when I needed her most."
Those are fighting words in the hermetically sealed bubble of beachside affluence that is home to the calculating teenagers of "Laguna Beach." To employ one of their favorite phrases: So much drama.
But now that the show has slipped a bit in the ratings, and it has become clear that the new cast may not have the zing of its predecessors, several of whom have broken out on their own, will so much drama be enough? And, in the way of reality shows gone stale, is "Laguna Beach" in danger of losing its freshness because its cast learned how to portray teenagers by watching ... "Laguna Beach"?
When the show made its debut in 2004, it broke new ground in the reality genre and was an instant hit with MTV's coveted 12- to 24-year-old demographic. It was not a contest like "Survivor," nor a contrived situation like "The Real World." Instead, it was an attempt to document -- using narrative techniques, lush cinematography and suggestions from producers -- the supercharged social lives of a clique of overprivileged schoolmates.
For two seasons -- in hot tubs, bistros, bedrooms, boutiques and Baja resorts -- cameras followed the core cast of "characters," making a coherent narrative of the extracurricular ups and downs of their junior and senior years.
The show was a stunning success for MTV, with ratings that put it at the top of its time period against both cable and network shows. It spawned copycats, such as Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Orange County" and the flash-in-the-pan CBS show "Tuesday Night Book Club."
'Reality' spawns celebrity
IT also made minor celebrities of its protagonists, Lauren, Kristin and Stephen, who, luckily for the show's producers, happened to be caught up in a love triangle as shooting began. Lauren Conrad went on to star in "The Hills," an MTV spinoff show that portrays her life as an intern at Teen Vogue. Kristin Cavallari has become a spokesperson for Bongo, the clothing company, and has had an assortment of oddball acting jobs and magazine layouts. Cutie pie Stephen Colletti dropped out of San Francisco State, appears on MTV's "Total Request Live" and is trying to act.
"Laguna Beach," which airs at 10:30 p.m. Tuesdays, is just past the halfway point of the season. Its producers are making decisions about how to proceed with the fourth season, which begins shooting in December. Viewership, while still strong, has declined, which the show's creator said is to be expected. "It's sort of like if you recast '[Beverly Hills] 90210,' " said Liz Gateley, who is also the executive producer. Viewers, she said, have to make "a whole new investment" in the cast. This is where the delicate chemistry of a reality show can get thrown out of whack.
How can you keep acting like a high school kid when you know that a hit MTV show can pretty much derail your college plans and turn you into someone people recognize on the street? The current "Laguna Beach" kids are conscious of the template provided by their predecessors.
Take Cami Edwards, now a 17-year-old senior. She is miffed about being dubbed "the Queen of Mean" by Tessa Keller, but is aware that hyperbole makes for better television. The show has exploited a rivalry between Tessa and Kyndra, playing up a short-lived love triangle between them and a boy named Cameron who, despite an awesome six-pack, just doesn't have the awkward sex appeal of boys from the previous two seasons.
Cami admitted she never felt much antipathy toward Tessa and Raquel before, but "the more they started filming, the more it started turning into a rivalry, just because of the filming, I think."
Now that she's been on TV and in magazines, Cami, who takes advanced placement economics and hopes to attend USC next year, isn't so sure she wants to go to law school. She was a junior when this season was shot, and doesn't hesitate when asked if being on this show can change her life: "I think it will if I push myself to go out and get a publicist. That's what Kristin did. She had the personality on the show to let her do that. Her and Lauren, they moved to L.A. and got publicists who do all that stuff for them -- put them in magazines, go to red carpet events. I think Kristin is taking it as far as she possibly can. She's, like, famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton and stuff."
Kristin had the good fortune to be bright, telegenic and, best of all, the female equivalent of a player -- manipulative, independent, romantically elusive and sexy. Lauren was not just beautiful and sweet, but weirdly, watchably sweet and in complete denial about Stephen's addiction to Kristin.
Dealing with notoriety
WITH Cami and her best friend Kyndra Mayo, there's a less flattering dynamic at work, which, at least in Cami's case, has raised uncomfortable questions. What if you can't stand the way you're portrayed on the show? She knows that the producers have to whittle down a massive amount of footage for each week's show. Still, is being portrayed as one of the biatches of "Laguna Beach" worth it?
This is something that Cami seemed to be struggling with during a recent interview at the Heidelberg Cafe, a modest coffee and snack spot on Pacific Coast Highway where some of "Laguna Beach" has been shot. She wore tight black pants, a gray sweater over a camisole and revealed decolletage that would have gotten her sent to the principal's office in a not-so-distant era.
For the next hour and a half, as she fiddled with her hair extensions and waited for Kyndra, who arrived very late and looked very hair-extended, she explained why it is so annoying to be depicted as one of "Laguna Beach's" resident meanies.
Unlike for Kyndra, who in person exuded an air of 17-going-on-45, it has perhaps not sunk in for Cami that on a cast full of duds, including the narrator Tessa and her soggily sentimental best friend, Raquel, she is basically the wittiest and most polarizing cast member, and therefore the spice girl among the milquetoasts. (And as someone who describes herself as "a quarter black and three quarters white," she is also one of the few vaguely ethnic cast members besides the occasional uniformed housekeeper.) So she rails, a million miles a minute, against her fate.
"I never thought the little things I say, like, 'Oh Tessa's annoying,' would be turned into 'Cami and Kyndra are mean girls,' " she complained. "When I was younger, I was snotty, but who wasn't? Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a mean girl. I mean, everybody my age, if there's some girl who walks by in some outfit, you'd go, 'Whoa, that's a weird outfit.' Everybody says those little things. I mean, they're stupid and they're rude and, of course, we regret saying all that stuff now."
Some of the choicer snippets that have been broadcast to date:
Kyndra tells Cami she has invited her old friend Tessa to a barbecue.
Cami: That's super random. Why'd you do that?
Kyndra: 'Cause we used to be friends a long time ago.
Cami: Is she gonna bring her little friend Rack-well with her?
Kyndra: That'd be weird 'cause she isn't invited.
When Tessa shows up at Kyndra's party with Raquel in tow, Kyndra can't believe her eyes.
Kyndra: There's about to be a girl fight. Excuse me, I don't think so, someone's here I do not want here....
Cami: Tessa is sooo annoying.
The best friends dish.
Cami: I think Cameron has always had a thing for you.
Kyndra: Are he and Jessica still together?
Cami: Doesn't matter.
Kyndra: Does she still like him? 'Cause if she does, it makes it more fun.
Kyndra and Cami wait for Kyndra's Range Rover at the car wash, a day after they abruptly left a surprise party for Tessa at Raquel's house as guests sang "Happy Birthday":
Kyndra: I was glad we left when we did. It was getting super stupid. The funnest part of Raquel's was leaving.
Cami: I know. Raquel, like some of her wardrobe choices. Do you not own a mirror?
Unlike Cami, Kyndra, who is home schooled, doesn't seem perturbed by how people perceive her. "If everyone played the little nice girl, then no one's gonna watch the show," she said. "So I'd rather draw people into watching the show."
In person, Kyndra could barely contain her boredom, announcing as she flounced into the cafe in a short brown dress and flip-flops that she had to leave soon for a doctor's appointment. She'd had her appendix out the previous week and needed to be checked before getting on a plane the next day for New York, where she was being put up for free in exchange for an appearance -- possibly at a club -- that she didn't want to talk about.
'A double whammy'
KYNDRA answered questions in a distracted tone, stared out the cafe window and was snippy when asked what she felt were repetitive questions about the show. "I think I already answered that," she said, when asked whether she agreed with yet another comment from Cami about the show portraying them in an unflattering light. "And I don't really care," she added. "I feel like I am repeating myself." Later, she refused to step onto the beach to pose for a photograph, insisting instead that she stay on the staircase above the sand. (Two MTV publicity executives called later to apologize for Kyndra's behavior; Gateley also apologized.)
Gateley, who said she is happy with this season's cast and considers Tessa a sympathetic character to whom young viewers can relate, seemed a bit surprised by Cami's objection to her portrayal on the show. "I think we portray characters the way that they are. I wouldn't call them mean girls, but I would say mean things come out of their mouths. Mean things come out of everyone's mouth. With Kyndra and Cami, you get a double whammy."
Although Tessa's narration this season seems a bit forced -- would a 17-year-old really describe a peer as "the Queen of Mean," which was coined for Leona Helmsley -- Gateley said she didn't recall who thought up the phrase. "We basically write down what the narration needs to be in terms of catching people up on what's happened," said Gateley, by phone from New York. "I spoke to Tessa about this, and said, anything you are uncomfortable saying, let us know." (Tessa was not interviewed for this story. She had a minor car accident the day she was to be interviewed, and, despite requests, did not make herself available by phone.)
The current cast will be followed into Season 4, said Gateley, probably with some additions.
Cami is looking forward to next season for her own reasons. "I want to be on the fourth season just to clean things up," she said. "Not that I wouldn't be myself, but I would go out of my way to ... I don't know. It just really, really, really sucks. Tessa seems like this goody two-shoes on TV, and I am just sitting there watching it, going, 'If you only knew.' "