The TABLOID world -- led by the magazine Us Weekly, along with the paradigm-exploding websites TMZ and Perezhilton.com -- is simultaneously bursting and flat.
Bursting, in the sense that these media spill over with several dozen characters whose ongoing stories are meticulously and minutely dispensed to readers in the same lurid and addicting manner that a 19th century Penny Dreadful once was. The unbalance of Britney Spears, the growing pains of Miley Cyrus and the druggy tailspin of Amy Winehouse -- to name a few favorite plots -- add up over the hours to grand Flaubertian narratives about femininity, drugs, mental health, motherhood, legal proceedings, controlling parents and violence.
But it's flat in that every story seems just as important as every other, and the monster needs feeding. That's what tabloid fame is now: Weekly, and sometimes hourly, we must have stories; the lives of the chosen people must appear to move forward. Into the breach between supply and demand have stepped Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, the villainous couple from MTV's docu-soap "The Hills" -- while they may not be the most famous, they are definitely the most fame-ish. Creatures of the game in every way, they have mastered the new realities of celebrity culture.
The two know what commodity they're selling and what its value is. "There's only so much gossip," as Heidi said over lunch recently.
"We're always the juicier story," Spencer said. Switching to the third person, he added, "And when Heidi and Spencer are gossip machines, it's like, 'What did Heidi and Spencer do?' "
Heidi and Spencer. "Speidi" for short. He's 24, went to Crossroads School and then USC, having grown up in Santa Monica and the Palisades. She's 21 and was raised in Crested Butte, Colo., which she referred to as "the smallest place in the world." She came to Los Angeles in August 1985 after a miserable fashion-school year in San Francisco where she met Lauren Conrad, late of MTV's "Laguna Beach," whose move to L.A. was to become the raison d'etre for "The Hills."
TMZ calls them "celebutards." Perez Hilton calls them "famewhores" and "promosexuals." Spencer's response: "Anybody who wants to promote our brand, negative or positive, give me a call."
A steady drip stokes the spotlight
Over quesadillas recently at Don Antonio’s -- the West L.A. restaurant that is Speidi's version of mecca -- they were both polite and, in suspicious contrast with the spectacular pugilism that is one of their major gossip assets, happy-seeming. The disparities don't stop there: On the phenomenally popular "Hills," which ends its third season Monday and averages 3.3 million young adult viewers per week with millions more on MTV.com, Spencer is Heidi's boyfriend/former fiance/Svengali, and he's taken her away from her friends. In real life, their romantic relationship appears solid, and he's her manager (Heidi is embarking on a singing career and has a fashion line, Heidiwood).
Together, they have leveraged many bits of their lives -- Heidi's plastic surgery (nose job, breast implants), her real and continuous falling out with Lauren, the possibly faked ups and downs of their relationship and the cruel public mockery of Heidi's popstar aspirations -- to fit the 24-hour news cycle. They have retained a publicist, Cindy Guagenti of BWR Public Relations, but she seems to have a hands-off approach to their full-on courting of the press. Often, staged-looking paparazzi shots accompany their doings: It's Easter, and Heidi and Spencer have bunny ears on! Spencer comforts a crying Heidi after people are mean about her music video for "Higher" on the Internet!
So, Heidi and Spencer, what would happen if some media person texted you, trolling for some gossip, while we're having a perfectly calm conversation at Don Antonio's?
Heidi, with a sly look, said: "Obviously we're entertainers. We are trying to entertain in every aspect of our lives. Whether it's on the show or in the tabloids."
Harvey Levin, the TMZ guru, said this fakeness factor actually adds to the fun: "They are so lame, and so staged and canned, that it makes it almost entertaining and fun to poke fun at. The secret for them is that they get the joke."
And Hilton, whose lawless blog has caused frequent earthquakes that shake the publicist-driven and fawning Celebrity Industrial Complex, mused over the setups and fictions in a telephone interview. "Genius and pathetic at the same time," he said. "But more genius than pathetic."
Thus their celebrity has gone far beyond "The Hills," which somewhat inexplicably shows almost none of these important parts of their lives, such as Heidi's musical ambitions. (Adam DiVello, the creator of "The Hills," missed an interview appointment to answer questions for this story, then did not make himself available again.) Either Heidi alone or the two of them have been on "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Live With Regis and Kelly," "The Tyra Banks Show" and "Late Show With David Letterman." They frequently call in to Ryan Seacrest’s KIIS-FM radio show, and they attended the White House Correspondents Assn. dinner. They have a reciprocal relationship with the mainstream tabloid press and the blogosphere. For an entertainment journalist, to listen to Spencer talk knowingly about how it all works is more than a little chilling.
"Every hour," he said. "Every different magazine, every blog texts, like, 'We heard this, we heard this.' Most of the time, people are just making things up, trying to get you to give a source quote. Or give one line just so they can build something. On every site, in every magazine, they need content. It's the most competitive industry in the world, I would say, the pop culture media game."
'Bad guy' ups the jeopardy
Janice MIN, the editor of Us Weekly and one of the game's chieftains, said she became aware of the allure of Heidi and Spencer while in a staff meeting during the second season of "The Hills" when several editors couldn't stop talking about Heidi's new boyfriend on the show. " 'Oh, he's loathsome, he's so awful, I want to make him go away,' " Min recalled recently. "And then they talked about hating him for quite awhile."
Indeed, Season 2 was when "The Hills" changed -- because Spencer changed it. He and Heidi, who was Lauren's television roommate and sidekick, had met off-camera after the first season and started dating. Sort of. First, they had to overcome that age-old obstacle of whether he was using her because she was on an MTV reality show. Spencer, after all, had a history that included his own unscripted ambitions as an executive producer and costar of Fox's failed "Princes of Malibu" in 2005.
"The Hills" needed some evil, Spencer figured. "I saw a clip of the show, and everyone was so nice," he said mockingly. "Friendly," he added with disgust. So yes, he wanted to "cause drama" and "get my own show."
Viewers loved to hate him for it, as Min saw. What those people didn't see in Season 2 and still don't see as Season 3 closes, Spencer said, was him falling in love with Heidi. "I was -- and am -- so in love with Heidi, and that stuff stops mattering. Our real world is right here." He gestured at the space between them.
The show only became more popular, and got more attention for all of its stars. And when Heidi and Lauren's friendship ended -- over allegations about a sex tape that has been covered seemingly as ceaselessly as the coming presidential election -- the feuding spun pageview-gold for Us' online business. Min said: "The number of comments, the amount of traffic generated -- it was pretty huge for us. That's when I thought, 'You know what? Let's just take a risk on these people.' "
Spencer said, "We were all of a sudden in pages next to Brad and Angelina and TomKat."
Maintaining that position is of paramount importance, so they bend over backward to accommodate. "Janice Min at Us Weekly is like a family member to us," Spencer said. "We love her. If my mom and her are e-mailing me at the same time, I'm like, 'Uh, Janice or my mom?' "
Their accessibility coupled with their ambition will lead, they hope, to opportunities for Heidi's music. Heidi said, "I want to be as big as Britney Spears and Madonna." There are also future television possibilities -- such as their own rumored MTV series -- as well as their current financial bread and butter: bookings for club appearances. According to Spencer, they "make up to $50,000 for two hours in club appearances -- each."
To ensure their place, they pose [see accompanying story]. "We have done story after story poking fun at them, and in some cases just trashing them for their ridiculously staged conduct," Levin said. And yet, he ran into them recently "and they hugged me!"
They do embrace the haters, which, from experience, Hilton sees as a key part of their strategy. "At the end of the day -- and I think this is part of their appeal -- Heidi and Spencer love being famous."
The criticism of Paris Hilton was once that she was famous for doing nothing, which, though it was never actually true, had a certain sting. But what Heidi and Spencer do -- and there are others with their kind of fame, such as E! celebutante Kim Kardashian -- can't possibly be called nothing, since using reality television as a starting point is now so entrenched. Not to mention competitive -- in their view, generating the material, on "The Hills" and in the real world, is the hardest work of all.
"No celebrity does anything, really," Spencer said. "Unless you're a famous athlete who actually physically does something, like, how much work is reading lines from a script? We're improv TV personalities. That's way harder."
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The Timeline: unspooling the Speidi web
Speidi pundits assume the couple will soon get their own spinoff series on MTV -- maybe based on planning their wedding? Said Trent Vanegas of the pop culture website Pink Is the New Blog: "They're far too smart not to have that happen."
Heidi and Spencer -- who were seemingly engaged and then just as seemingly called it off, say they would never get married on "The Hills" because they wouldn't want their nuptials narrated by their bete noire, Lauren Conrad, whose voice-over opens each episode. "Obviously, we get tired of being narrated by somebody," Heidi said. While MTV wouldn't confirm anything about a show devoted to them, Spencer said: "Oh, we're definitely in talks. But 'The Hills' is a No. 1 hit show."
You may ask yourself: Well, how did we get here?
May 31, 2006: "The Hills" premieres...
. . . and Heidi is Lauren's roommate. "I got paid nothing for the first season," Heidi said. "Like, I would have gotten paid more working at McDonald's. They wanted to make sure I was the struggling one. I had to pay rent! Lauren didn't pay rent the first season and I had to."
Jan. 15, 2007: Season 2 begins; Heidi has met Spencer and is dating him.
"You have to become an intricate part of the story line, and all of the story line was off of our drama," Heidi said. "For so long, I never thought he really liked me -- even when we started dating. The season finale, in my head, was going to be him breaking up with me."
Sept. 26, 2007: Heidi graces the Us Weekly cover for the first time, next to the headline 'Revenge plastic surgery.'
"We approached them," Us Weekly's Janice Min said. "And she said yes. . . . The interview was one of those rare incredibly candid interviews you get with someone. A celebrity of any caliber is rarely that candid. It's part of their appeal." According to Min, Heidi's second cover, "Why I Called Off My Wedding," outsold People that week.
Feb. 4, 2008: Heidi's video for "Higher" -- directed by Spencer -- goes viral . . .
. . . and the Internet nearly explodes with nasty comments on various message boards. But no problem! Spencer: "These people care enough about our lives to put a comment on us, thank you." Heidi: "It's almost better to be hated sometimes than loved because people notice you more." TMZ's Harvey Levin: "She'll be a singer when I play for the NBA. Ain't gonna happen. But her trying to be a singer is going to get her somewhere."
"I'm definitely, I would say, on the path to Rupert Murdoch/Sumner Redstone that I want to be on," Spencer said. "My heroes are Mother Teresa and Princess Diana," Heidi said. Wait . . . what kind of couple would Rupert Murdoch and Mother Teresa make? "More like Bill and Melinda Gates," Spencer said quickly.
-- Kate Aurthur
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Just how cozy with the cameras are they?
Heidi and Spencer love the cameras, both on "The Hills" and on the streets. But do they profit from paparazzi pix? Have they struck a deal with an agency, an allegation Perez Hilton has leveled against them? "I wish!" Spencer said. Pacific Coast News, the agency that snaps the most pictures of the couple, didn't return calls -- but we asked our panel to weigh in on the question.
HARVEY LEVIN - NO!
"They go to places they know the paparazzi already are. They love Robertson Boulevard -- Robertson Boulevard is their Disneyland. . . . It's not like they're going to some hot dog stand in Woodland Hills that nobody would know about."
JANICE MIN - DOUBTFUL!
"They're not hiding in a cave in Afghanistan, they're walking down Robertson Boulevard or they're on the beach in Malibu. I think the hamminess might lead people to believe that there is a higher level of cooperation than there actually is . . . If they did have some kind of deal, which I have no knowledge of and I would kind of doubt actually, they certainly wouldn't be the first . . ."
PEREZ HILTON - YES!
"It's pretty obvious to anyone. When you look at who has the exclusive pictures of Spencer and Heidi, it's always Pacific Coast News. . . . I know that lots of agencies are in bed with lots of celebrities, and the majority of the time, they get paid. Here's a better way to phrase it for you: If Spencer is not getting paid for those pictures, then he is stupid. And Spencer Pratt is not stupid."
-- Kate Aurthur