I was unhealthily preoccupied with The Hills when it debuted in 2006. Weirdly, I did not watch Laguna Beach, but as a girl transitioning out of her early and into her mid-20s, this show about what a typical twentysomething in LA did fascinated me to no end, in part because I actually was a twentysomething in LA for a while. In grad school, in-between seminars, my friend Leah and I would break down the newest episode like film students break down Citizen Kane. I taught pieces of the show in my Introduction to Interpersonal Communication class to discuss how American females perform friendship by having these “big talks” where they talk about who is the better friend, who hurt each other worse, and eventually apologize after crying. Lots of crying.
I needed more than a single word to describe my fascination with the show’s star, Lauren Conrad, who took the girl-next-door concept to a new level by never being the prettiest, the smartest, the most successful, or the nicest person. Girls seemed to flock to her because she was so accessible because everything about her seemed so plain.
There was another word for it though, I just didn’t know it at the time. Lauren Conrad and her massive sideswept bangs were…
Humorously enough, the girl who used to eat Pinkberry on the regular, wore nothing but oversized tunics and leggings for a good two years, and inadvertently starred in 14 Natasha Bedingfield music videos took offense to Allure calling her basic. Eventually though, she realized the very plain, boring, scarf-loving truth: she is the queen bee of basic bitches.
Perhaps that realization helps explain the ten-year Hills reunion, which opted to focus solely on Lauren and not interview Heidi and Spencer, Audrina, Brody, Justin Bobby, and my personal Hills hero, the sassy and hilarious Lo Bosworth. Instead, we got an hour ode to Conrad’s lifestyle brand in a seemingly behind-the-scenes carefully cultivated representation of her life both in the present day and on the show.
About ten minutes in, I realized Conrad has Taylor Swift-levels of brand management happening and that brand is as basic as it comes. Throughout the hour, Conrad discusses how she is not particularly bright (she barely managed a C-average in high school), was so naive she believed she actually earned her internship at Teen Vogue, and had a “problem” of being too candid on camera. The moment of peak hysterical “aw schucks, lil old me?” hijinx came when she earnestly proclaimed New York City “too fancy” for a girl like her. She simply wasn’t trendy enough to keep up. She said this in a limo on her way to a fashion design awards ceremony wearing this absolutely insane lipstick:
It was then I realized Lauren Conrad isn’t basic and accessible–she is aspirationally basic. For girls who want to believe their plain nature and obsession with Pinterest will pay off, they need look no further than this starlet-turned-fashionista who is now married to former Something Corporate guitarist-turned-lawyer William Tell. If you told me all I had to do was keep my nails pretty, rock some thorough highlights, down 45 pumpkin spice lattes, and sing the praises of inoffensive things like kittens, Harry Potter, pool days, and white wine, I would get to spend my life with a guy partially responsible for Konstantine, I would be all about it. Sign me up!
Conrad realizes this, there is no question, and in this hour, she spins the perfect vision of aiming-for-the-middle, basic success. Her testimonials take place on not one, but two cream-colored couches and, in both, she wears a breezy but crisp outfit with immaculate white pants. In both, she also elects to be barefoot. The message? Look! How relaxed I am in my own skin, even though I’ve been in hair, make-up, and styling for over two hours. Sorry, Lauren, I read my middlebrow fashion mags and I am well-aware of the InStyle-patented casual-designer-clothes-barefoot-on-a-couch photo shoot. Aniston was rocking this basic tableau while Friends was still on the air, convincing women far and wide she was accessible and down to Earth.
While some of Conrad’s aspirationally basic choices are timeless, others see her adapting as the trends of the basic evolve. Instead of a bare face and all the mascara of her Hills days, she now wears minimal make-up and enough eyeliner to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Look! How relaxed I am with my carefully tended to face, boosted by a 17-step skin regime. This bronzer is practically invisible, which means I can get away with wearing excessively cat-eye eyeliner and claiming I’m “fun” and “fashion forward”.
What remains unclear is whether Conrad believes she is actually pulling the wool over her audience’s eyes at her “accesible” lifestyle or if she understands that the beauty of her baseness is how obviously coiffed and cultivated it is. What may have just been the result of being a boring teenager is now an active choice, styled like a Teen Vogue photo shoot.
An educated guess is Conrad is in on her conspicuous basic consumption. There was a moment in the reunion in which she gushes about her husband and she tells the camera, “The best thing about William is he didn’t know me when I was on the show.”
Time out here for a brief aside. Your husband is a lawyer, who went to USC (Fight On!) and was a part of one of the defining emo bands of a generation and the best thing you can think to say about him is he didn’t know you when you were 22 and awful? Come the eff on!
Moving on, she tells an anecdote of her husband stumbling on an episode of the show where Lauren brags about being at the Roosevelt pool weekly and he abruptly turned it off. She shows a keen self-awareness that everyone should hate the person they were at 22, so she mocks her choices to highlight just how much she’s grown as a person. Look! I used to be accidentally basic because I was too dumb to know better. Now it is a life choice and a life choice that takes up a shit ton of time and most of my bank account.
This active pursuit of Instagram perfection and the easily digestible life that is so plain and inoffensive everyone can relate to it isn’t just aspirational though. It reaffirms the entire worldview of the basic bitch that yes, it is worth spending all this time planning your fake wedding, yes, it is worth browsing for scarves on Etsy for six hours, because in order to ascend to the level of basic beauty that is so perfect no one can ignore it takes work. It takes work to be this pretty yet inoffensive and approachable.
There is no doubt Conrad works hard to maintain her brand–her work and effort to cultivate this perfect sheen is part of the image. For, in order to embrace the newer Minivan Majority (though what is with her bragging about being on the cover of Redbook, my mom’s version of the basic bible?), the basics. Unlike her predecessors, who could win our moms over by simply being real, relatable, and rocking a white t-shirt with jeans from time to time, Conrad has it tougher than Aniston, Julia Roberts, or Reese Witherspoon. She can’t be real because of the very machinations The Hills helped perpetuate. While her image was established around her authenticity on a patently inauthentic reality show, everything she does is still ultimately a performance. It is role play for girls who would never deign to admit they know what D&D is–if given their fashion magazine dream scenario, how would they behave? Like Lauren Conrad. It is a believable fantasy, just accessible enough to keep fans tuned in to her brand for over a decade. We see through the PR of this contemporary Cinderella story though, and part of the fun is peeling back the layers underneath it, so she has to perform real, embrace the basic, and live it like it should be a goal versus the insult it was intended to be.