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''The Hills'': More sex, lies and videotape

…with the sound of nonstop partying, feuding, and backstabbing. In a tabloid-weary culture, what exactly is the appeal of MTV’s reality hit?

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PHOTOGRAPH BY MARLA RUTHERFORD

Idle girl-talk wafts through Lauren Conrad’s cozy L.A. apartment, as she and roommate Audrina Patridge carry on about party plans, boys, and random celebrity sightings (Melissa Rivers!?). They have, in fact, drifted from dissecting last night’s exploits into non sequitur land — ”I’m kind of wondering if this is even a dress I’m wearing or just a long shirt,” Lauren observes of her floaty white number.

But when Lauren suddenly picks up her BlackBerry, the four-person crew that’s watching her every move on handheld monitors on her balcony buzzes to life. A producer barks into his walkie-talkie to the camera operators stationed inside, ”See who she’s texting!”

As the shot zooms in on the device in her hands, the urgency is palpable: OMG, who is she texting? Then, when she puts down the BlackBerry to admonish Audrina for not getting home until seven this morning, the text message is forgotten. Suddenly, the most important question in the world seems to be: OMG, why was she out so late?

And that pretty much encapsulates the appeal of The Hills — where gossipy little trifles pique emergency-level curiosity until a few seconds later when another shiny bauble deflects attention elsewhere. It’s a hypnotizing kind of voyeurism that MTV first cultivated four years ago with high school reality sensation Laguna Beach. But this spin-off, which follows Beacher Lauren, 21, as she navigates the rough waters of handheld electronics, making out, and backstabbing in L.A., seems to have perfected it. And because loyal audiences have known Lauren for four seasons now — and have gotten pretty cozy with BFFs Audrina and Whitney Port as well as estranged former roommate Heidi Montag — they’ve become familiar with the rhythms of her life. That is, the TV version of her life — which, of course, is totally real, except for…well, we’ll get to that in a second.

For now, suffice it to say that 2.7 million viewers were transfixed by The Hills during its second outing last winter, making it MTV’s highest-rated series. Season 3, which premieres Aug. 13 at 10 p.m., promises to be even bigger because of the tabloids’ incessant coverage of the gals’ between-seasons story lines — er, lives. It’s a level of buzz heretofore unheard of for MTV-manufactured reality stars and good news for a network that lives or dies by its pop cultural relevance. ”We have this six-month commercial for the show [with the tabloid coverage] that doesn’t give away the narrative in full,” says Brian Graden, president of entertainment, MTV Networks. ”It’s a kind of postmodern marketing. We’re living in an age of TMZ and Perez Hilton — The Hills indulges that.”

The Hills began in May 2006 as an attempt to capitalize on Laguna Beach — which was peaking in popularity, but volatile to produce because of its reliance on real high school kids. The pitch: Follow the likable narrator of Laguna‘s first season, Lauren, as she ventures to Los Angeles for fashion school — a small-town-girl-makes-good story, ”the reality version of That Girl or Mary Tyler Moore,” as exec producer Tony DiSanto calls it.

Lucky for MTV, their Marlo Thomas wasn’t camera-shy. ”I said yes right away,” Lauren says, nursing a strawberry martini at Hills hot spot Lola’s with Audrina and Whitney. ”I wanted to do a show with people I liked. For so long I’d done a show with people I didn’t like.”

NEXT PAGE: Engagements, ”retirements” — and that alleged sex tape

Those people she liked, at the time, included Heidi, 20 — a friend from her brief stint at college in San Francisco — who became her roommate in L.A. The first season played on the push-and-pull of the duo’s work and personal lives: Lauren’s internship at Teen Vogue versus lingering Laguna boyfriend Jason Wahler; Heidi ‘s job at a party-planning firm versus her general aversion to work. But things heated up in season 2 with the arrival of plotline-hijacking, ratings-boosting Spencer Pratt, who became Heidi ‘s boyfriend and Lauren’s nemesis. By the finale, Heidi had moved in with him. ”I thought he was going to be a quiet, secondary guy,” DiSanto says. ”The big surprise was what a really dynamic character he is.”

Heading into this season, Lauren and Heidi aren’t speaking — they refuse to be interviewed together and are filming separate story lines. Aside from — or perhaps because of — that glitch, it promises to be the most…mature season ever? (Maturity being relative here, of course.) Whitney, 22, gets promoted to a full-time gig at Teen Vogue that makes her Lauren’s boss; Audrina, 21, is dealing with her first real boyfriend. Lauren, meanwhile, is struggling with post-Heidi life and run-ins with her least-favorite couple. And said couple is navigating cohabitation while maybe, possibly getting engaged…or not, depending on whom you talk to.

That’s where ”reality” gets confusing. It was reported that Heidi and Spencer had gotten betrothed, and promos for the season show him presenting her with a sizable rock; the couple, however, claim it was a ”promise ring.” To wit, Heidi shows up for an interview at Hills brunch fave Toast with Spencer in tow but no bling. ”We can’t wait to see how they edit that,” Spencer scoffs. ”We would get engaged; we just wouldn’t do it on Lauren’s show.”

In fact, the stars’ tabloid-worthiness forced producers to develop a policy against showing the girls as celebs — this isn’t, after all, Newlyweds or The Osbournes. The season premiere does address the purported sex tape featuring Lauren and her ex Jason (Lauren denies it exists), but it’s treated as a ”vicious rumor” and the subject of an explosive confrontation with Heidi — not as the national news it became. ”We want viewers to watch Lauren and the girls as the characters we know instead of in a show about being the stars of The Hills,” DiSanto says. ”You want to present the reality, but you don’t want to take viewers out of the drama.”

Ah, yes, the reality. The eternal question, when it comes to The Hills. Heidi and Spencer trash the series’ accuracy and voice qualms about how they’re depicted in Lauren’s voice-over. They even claim they faked arguments last season: ”We don’t fight in real life,” Spencer says. ”The only fighting was for the show. But we’re not playing that game this year.”

Lauren, however, cops to no such antics. ”They can never make you say or do something,” she says. ”You can always blame editing, but they can’t do magic.” And producers, for their part, swear they don’t stage story lines — but does it even matter? ”I really believe viewers are watching it not necessarily as reality versus fiction,” DiSanto adds, ”but as the story of these characters they’re into.”

Perhaps. But how long will those ”characters” tolerate being followed by cameras? ”I almost didn’t do this season,” Lauren says. ”It wasn’t so much about the filming, but I didn’t want to do a show with the other people on it.” Speaking of whom…Heidi is sort of over the whole thing herself. ”I don’t know if I could do another season,” she sighs. ”Being on a reality show is not very glamorous.”

So she’s considering retiring, as it were? ”There’s a difference between reality TV and being on a show narrated by Lauren,” clarifies Spencer, who, naturally, also functions as Heidi’s manager. ”She could be on reality TV for 20 years.” And thank God — or at least postmodernism — for that.

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