Claire, Molly and Anna, pretty 16-year-old juniors from Libertyville, Ill., flew to New York City last month to visit NYU. “I wonder if we’ll see Whitney Port,” one said to another, because they totally watch her MTV reality show “The City,” and wouldn’t that be hilarious?
And when they wheeled their luggage into the W Times Square Hotel, there she was: Whitney Port, having a photo shoot in the lobby, looking like a fashionable, louche giraffe. She was in tight Current/Elliott jeans, rolled above strappy boots, and a gauzy, very L.A. top.
This was only five episodes into “The City’s” debut season.
The giraffe approached. “Oh, I looked at NYU!” Port told them. And, “Oh cool, my mom’s from Chicago.” Pictures were taken. “You’re such a nice role model,” one of their moms told Whitney.
Claire, Molly and Anna are the hard-core demographic for Port’s show -- and they even get parental approval.
“The City” is the latest of the sweeping, lushly shot reality shows: They are teen telenovelas with less chest-beating. It began with “Laguna Beach,” which made hay of the lives of Orange County high schoolers. A spinoff, “The Hills,” followed cast member Lauren Conrad to L.A., where the show became a clash of good girls (like Lauren’s co-worker Whitney) and evil schemers. (An MTV exec once described “The Hills” as “this generation’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities.’ ”) The form of the show morphed from allegedly documentary in nature to something more like a competition, like “Survivor.” The cast -- most notably Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt, who are in the evil schemer camp -- began playing within the show and in the press to win: though the prizes were unspecified, they’d take what they could get.
So when a new show was born, “The City,” starring our friend Whitney, about her new life after moving from Los Angeles to New York, Heidi and Spencer’s fabulous bon voyage gift was their method. Anyone who would want to be on the show as Port’s friend, lover or co-worker could be in it all for himself.
Port, 23, had just returned from Miami. MTV shot for two days in exchange for letting her stay three more without cameras. (It’s odd that she’d take a whole work week off, having recently started her on-camera job working for Diane von Furstenberg -- as opposed to her other job, which is being on TV.)
Then Port’s best friend since third grade came to New York from Chicago for job interviews, because she wants to move to New York to become a writer. She wouldn’t stay at Port’s place -- “I come with so much baggage, she doesn’t want to move in with me,” Whitney said, referring to camera crews. They’d been up till 1 in the morning because the friend had a birthday party at Stanton Social, a restaurant on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
This real Port eats at what she calls a “soup kitchen” near her apartment. The real Port was reading “The Celestine Prophecy.” She just bought an abalone shell dresser. “I’m into decorating my apartment right now,” Port said. “It’s all I know.”
“I have a whole ‘nother life that no one knows about,” she said -- none of which you’ll see on the reality show about her life.
“What we never got to see on ‘The Hills,’ ” said the shows’ creator Adam DiVello, “was Whitney’s personal life. She was dating someone for a long time that couldn’t be on camera.”
But no longer. So soon enough after her arrival in New York, someone -- Casting? Producers? Port? -- found her a romantic interest; he calls himself Jay Lyon. “I had to sacrifice my personal being, kind of,” Port said, to do this show all about her. “Which is difficult. It’s obviously very difficult to allow yourself to be that vulnerable and have a real relationship with however many cameras, microphones, people in vans listening. It’s not a natural situation. But when I met Jay, the fellow I’m doing this with, having the romantic relationship with on camera, we had just an instant chemistry and a natural reaction. It just worked.”
She had started to put “romantic relationship” in airquotes and then stopped.
So it is unclear what she means when she says “job” and “boyfriend.” And friends?
The show’s characters -- her friends -- sometimes receive talking points and dialogue from producers via text messages. There’s Olivia Palermo, a long-aspiring New York demisocialite who will be 23 this month and is on at least her second publicist. Olivia is a lady who apparently has never been texted a suggestion from a producer that she didn’t immediately follow -- except, according to a recent implausible Page Six item, instructions for fisticuffs with Port. But let us remember the lessons of Heidi and Spencer, and ask: Who phoned in that item to the New York Post’s Page Six?
Both real and TV Port are young, new in town and surrounded by crazies. Her job is to roll with unexpected punches from friends who are network marionettes -- or to cry on camera if, say, her boyfriend decides he gets the most fame or money from cheating on her. “There are just so many, like, intricate factors to this world that sometimes the truth is just so hard to find,” Port said, speaking of TV consumers and TV participants. “The world is so complicated! And everyone is so complicated. . . . It’s just hard when you don’t know who you can trust.”
The one thing viewers will never see on these shows is any sign of the stars’ actual fame -- though Port is a bona fide tabloid star, and the show has already been picked up for a second season. (“The City’s” audience is about half that of “The Hills,” but MTV is listening to its history: Ratings for “The Hills” grew over its first three seasons, before declining in its current, fourth season.)
“They want to show this struggling young girl moving to this big city and trying to make it,” Port said. “And that really is true! Whether it’s on the show or in my separate celebrity life -- whatever you want to call it. I really did move to New York knowing no one -- new job, new apartment. I think they just wanna keep that part of it out of it, because then people will get a little turned off by me.”
It’s hard to find an answer -- besides the obvious -- for why Port would star in this show, when it is clearly psychically and emotionally arduous. She really does want to design clothes and already has her own line -- and said she would devote her full attention to this if the show ended.
“For the young kids, it’s like, why wouldn’t they?” said Kelly Cutrone, owner of PR firm People’s Revolution, and a recurring character on “The City,” and on “The Hills.” “What do they have to lose? In the U.S., we don’t have royalty. . . . Our role models are celebrities.”
It may also be simply a public service. “I think in a way maybe it gives people an escape from all this detrimental reality. It’s just a form of entertainment,” Port said. “And I think people look at it as an escape. They can go home and turn off their brains -- just be stupid for half an hour and drown themselves in someone else’s drama. I know what the show is. I get it. You know what I mean? It’s MTV. It’s a reality show.”