The shows depicted a fashion world with almost no diversity. But they also offered a glimpse of what was possible.
For Editorialist‘s fashion and beauty editor Cortne Bonilla, the memory is so distinct. She’d get home from school, toss her backpack on a chair, and go directly to the television in her family living room. This was her time. This was her zen. MTV’s The Hills was on.
The Los Angeles-based reality show ran for just four years (2006 to 2010), but its influence is still lingering. Produced by Adam DiVello—who went on to create Laguna Beach and executive-produce Netflix’s runaway real estate hit Selling Sunset—it was bringing in an average of 2.7 million viewers by its final season, according to data shared by MTV. Many of them also watched the New York-centric spinoff, The City, which premiered with a viewership of 1.6 million.
The shows, which followed a crew of young white women try to "figure it all out" against the dreamy backdrops of Southern California and glittering Manhattan, were visually enticing and culturally intriguing. For suburban teenagers who grew up outside of the electric social bubbles of either location—especially people of color—they also provided insight into a fashion world that, in a time before social media, wasn’t easy to access.
Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, Bonilla didn’t have a direct line to the industry, and she knew gatekeeping was rampant. "But at the same time, The Hills made me think, ‘Well, I can do jeans like that. I can layer my tank top and have the hem hanging down from the bottom. I can look like those girls," she says, referring to the show’s core cast of Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag, Audrina Partridge, and Whitney Port. "They were teenagers at the time, and watching them from the beginning of high school to entering their careers—that made it feel more real, adding to the allure of it all."
Essence Contributing Style Editor Shelton Boyd-Griffith feels the same way. "It almost was an entire personality trait," he says. "And it was completely disconnected from my own experience [in St. Louis]. I didn’t know any girls that looked like those girls on TV. It was so interesting to see how the 1% lived. And to see the opportunities that they got—I thought it was magical! Like, oh my God, you can work there? But then later on in life you find out that the opportunities for white people are not the same for Black people."
Of course, the whiteness of the series was glaringly obvious to any Black or Brown person in the audience. Often, the only people of color featured were the runway models walking the fashion shows. Nowadays, the lack of diversity would be met with pushback and derision, but The Hills was a part of a different time. The dream of being part of the perfectly imperfect fashion industry was so appealing, and so hard to find depicted anywhere else, that some fans were willing to overlook the inequities.
Fashion has always been about fantasy, and its foray into reality TV was no different. Most real-life magazine interns weren’t contributing to cover shoots, rubbing elbows with celebrities, or having weekly check-ins with the editor-in-chief. Both Conrad and Partridge have defended the show being, for the most part, an accurate portrayal of their lives at the time. "I think the story they told wasn’t a dishonest one," Conrad told Allure in 2012. Partridge has claimed that in the beginning, the show was "very real, [and] very raw," with storylines becoming more contrived as seasons went on. What didn’t need to be manipulated, though, was the lack of diversity on screen. In a way, it was maybe the most honest take the show had to offer.
According to Paper Fashion Editor Mario Abad, the depiction of the industry on The City wasn’t that far from reality. "I didn’t even think about whether [The City] was scripted or fake or not. For me, it was the closest thing to what my future would look like if I could get a job at a magazine in New York," says Abad, who’s originally from Fort Worth, Texas. "When I interned, though, I do remember not seeing a single patch of melanin anywhere in the fashion closet. The assistants, directors—everyone was just white. Maybe it wasn’t a shock to me because I had seen the shows. I knew it was a very white environment just from seeing the movers and shakers and the players in the industry."
Whiteness wasn’t the only topic on the series that tended to go unmentioned. Financial privilege played a major role, too. So much of the show’s allure was built on the locations: West Hollywood apartment condos and sexy bars along Sunset Boulevard and charming Soho lofts. The stars drove Range Rovers and Hummers; they always had Chanel bags nonchalantly draped on their shoulders.
"It’s completely unrealistic to have the amount of money that they did working as interns or entry-level positions in LA or New York," says Bonilla. "They were already rich children, probably richer than most wealthy or middle class people their age. And they had cars! It wasn’t a question of ‘How are you gonna get to your internship ? How are you gonna eat lunch every day?’ When I interned, my whole family asked, ‘Are you going to be eating? And I said, ‘No, but I’ll just figure it out.’"
"These girls were driving to school. They could go to Paris, no question. They had their Louis Vuitton luggage ready. They had all their fancy bags," she adds. "That’s probably what made the show so much fun until you realize it’s a lot easier to break into an industry when you have resources like that."
But shows like The Hills and The City — and even other fashion-adjacent reality shows like America’s Next Top Model and The Rachel Zoe Project — did offer a kind of access. With the exception of Facebook, this was a time before the dominance of social media. There were no editors or industry insiders offering curated glimpses into their professional and personal lives. It was before you could swipe through a sea of photos of the same runway show on Instagram and feel like you were there too.
‘When I watch the girls in The City, I think about being a young teenager, living in middle America and thinking, ‘I wanna go to New York’ or ‘I wanna go to LA, I wanna go to Paris. I wanna work a magazine!" says Boyd-Griffith. "And the thing is, for a lot of Black and Brown kids, shows like that did open us up to what else was possible in the world. They showed us how other people lived and what we could attain."
While series like Project Runway and Making the Cut still exist, they focus more on the design aspect of the industry than the media, and they focus on competitions rather than drama. Now that the public is privy to the perils of reality television, industry folk are no longer willing to be truly unfiltered on camera. Instead, they tend to offer up curated versions of their lives on Instagram—which means that in some ways, the gates of fashion have started to close again.
"As much as a lot of these shows were problematic, I do credit them for building my love for fashion. And I am kind of sad that this generation doesn’t have more of that look into the behind-the-scenes of a magazine, or a PR firm, or a design studio," says Abad. "Today with social media, we just see the pretty and glossy parts of working in fashion and it’s not always realistic."
Yes, The Hills and The City weren’t one hundred percent real, but they were eye-opening. Not only did they capture a bygone era of the industry (for good and for ill), but they also provided a pathway for young adults who knew they wanted to work in fashion but didn’t know how to get there. They dared a generation to take a chance, and not be afraid to fail. Bonilla describes it best: "Sometimes, you need a little delusion to follow your dreams."
Bianca Betancourt is the culture editor at HarpersBAZAAR.com, where she covers all things film, TV, music, and more. When she’s not writing, she loves impulsively baking a batch of cookies, re-listening to the same early-2000s pop playlist, and stalking Mariah Carey’s Twitter feed.
20 Movies to Look Out for in 2023
The Best Movies of 2022
Here’s Our First Look at ‘Barbie’
The Best TV Shows of 2022
The 15 Must-Watch TV Shows of 2023
How to Watch Volume 2 of Harry & Meghan
‘The White Lotus’ Season 2 Ending, Explained
The 25 Best Time Travel Movies
The 25 Best Horror Movies on Hulu
So, Who Died in ‘The White Lotus’ Season 2 Finale?
‘White Lotus’ Is Getting a Third Season
How to Watch The White Lotus Season 2
A Part of Hearst Digital Media
Every product on this page was chosen by a Harper’s BAZAAR editor. We may earn commission on some of the items you choose to buy.
©Hearst Magazine Media, Inc. All Rights Reserved.