She came to fame as a quintessential California blonde, but can reality TV star turned author Lauren Conrad still attract the paparazzi when she steps out as a brunette?
By Marshall Heyman
Starting with Laguna Beach in 2004 and moving on to The Hills, Lauren Conrad, known affectionately as L.C., has had the last five years of her life documented on national television. Since she only turned 23 in February, this means that nearly 22 percent of L.C.’s time on earth has been transmitted to homes around the world. And that’s not including the countless tabloid articles chronicling her anxieties about her work (at Teen Vogue and fashion-public-relations firm People’s Revolution), her friends (Whitney Port, Audrina Patridge, and Lo Bosworth among them), her frenemies (Heidi Pratt), and, of course, her love life. (She’s dated Laguna costars Stephen Colletti and Jason Wahler; Brody Jenner; baseball player Doug Reinhardt; and currently actor Kyle Howard, though, despite rumors, she insists they are not engaged.)
When Conrad decided to leave The Hills, she considered dyeing her hair brunette so her producers couldn’t coerce her back in front of the camera. “I went into a wig store and tried on a brown wig, and they all laughed at me,” Conrad recalls. “All these women [who worked there] were like, ‘You look like Hannah Montana.'” So today, in a quest for a little peace and quiet, if not complete anonymity, she agreed to don a brown wig as a social experiment for Bazaar. Off she trotted to paparazzi haunts in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills to see if she would still be mobbed by fans and cameramen from TMZ. (“The last three concerts I went to, I was removed by security because I was a fire hazard,” Conrad says drily. “People crowd around you and you lose that whole personal-space concept.”)
In front of the Marc Jacobs store on Melrose Place, tourists gawked while 15 paparazzi came out of the woodwork and frantically snapped away. It may not have needed local-police intervention, but “it was a bit of a scene,” Conrad explains later. It wasn’t just the wig that had onlookers confused and excited, it was L.C.’s transformation from typical California girl to glamazon. “Normally, if I was walking down Melrose,” she says, “I would be in sandals and skinny jeans. This was a whole look.”
She adds, “I think initially the wig threw people off, but they figured it out. I felt like it only disguised me for a moment, and then it made me feel like I was hiding, which made me feel silly.”
The paparazzi photos of L.C. immediately hit the blogosphere. Fans erupted in a chorus of cheers and jeers. “Love the brown hair. Hate the fake tan,” wrote Meg on people.com; “I love it!! It is sooo cute,” gushed Kate. “It brings out her eyes, which are gorgeous,” suggested Kaycee. Others weren’t so positive. “She looks like a drag queen,” said soSweet.
“Day to day,” Conrad says, “I can only do blonde. Everything else makes me look sort of plain-Jane.”
Indeed, it is the golden locks and girl-on-the-make spirit that has earned Conrad, a self-proclaimed multitasker — “I’m a writer slash designer slash TV personality. I think Tori Spelling’s one too” — a huge fan base as well as a reported $75,000 per episode. Her last chapter of The Hills aired on May 31 and sent Conrad into the wild blue yonder of writing young-adult books (the first of her trilogy, L.A. Candy, hit stores in June) and designing a new fashion line for Kohl’s, to be launched in October.
Conrad says many of her personal decisions during filming were contingent on the production schedule of The Hills. “My roommate went to Europe for two months, but I couldn’t take a vacation without clearing it months and months ahead of time,” she notes ruefully. “My friends all got to date guys who didn’t need to sign a release form.”
The experience taught her to be careful what she wishes for. “It literally affected the underwear I had to buy because I needed thicker underwear with a more sturdy band so it could hold up a microphone.” She goes on. “I couldn’t wear whites or prints because they don’t look good on film. I had to consult a director of photography when I picked the paint for my walls because I had to have set lighting in my living room and kitchen.” Coming to a full boil, she adds, “I had to have separate birthday parties for my filming and nonfilming friends.”
It should come as no surprise that Conrad now insists, “It’s a closed book. I’m done. Against everyone else’s will, I’m trying to take a break.”
The reality, however, is that “they” — meaning Conrad’s people, perhaps, or the American public — “want me right back on television. You know how quickly the attention goes away.” (Case in point: Her Laguna rival Kristin Cavallari jumped to take Conrad’s place on the show, which returns this fall.) Still, she admits, “It doesn’t worry me. I’m looking forward to it.”
It’s that affable, self-effacing nature that has turned Conrad into a star of the reality genre. “Imperfection is relatable,” Conrad explains. “If you look at the show, there are a lot of skinny girls with big boobs, and they’re always perfect. I don’t think perfect is relatable. I’ve screwed up a lot.” Indeed, she has screwed up so often, she wanted to publish a book titled How Not to Date “and basically write down every mistake I’ve ever made.”
What Conrad hasn’t done is try to manipulate and goad the press, as Hills costars Heidi and Spencer Pratt have. What does she think of Pratt’s rumored decision to pose for Playboy? She pulls a face. “They’re not going to pay for themselves,” she says — in a sly reference to cosmetic enhancements?
Would Conrad pose? She cringes a bit, then asserts, “Everyone makes those choices and wants to do different things. I just don’t have any interest in showing my body in something like that. That’s a little personal.” Nor would L.C. eat a bug on television or show up on a beach in Mexico wearing a face mask for a photo opportunity in response to the swine-flu epidemic, like the Pratts have.
“The face mask on vacation: I don’t know if it was so funny because people really were being affected by that disease,” Conrad posits. “But otherwise [Heidi and Spencer] are very entertaining. You have to laugh.”
Does she think Speidi harbor ambitions to foster a Brangelina-like love-in with the press? “They’re completely different. The next time Angelina and Brad go shopping in the market and Angelina holds up two melons and smiles for a photograph, then they will be similar.”
As for herself, Conrad claims, “I don’t call magazines and let them know about things so they can write stories. There was never an incentive to keep doing The Hills so I could get into Les Deux. That was never the point. It was more to create a fan base so I can go create a business and do something I really love doing.”
Eventually, Conrad would like to produce television — perhaps a scripted show based on L.A. Candy — and she believes she’ll ultimately return to reality television as a host. “I’m comfortable in front of the camera, but I can’t act. I definitely aspire to be someone like Tyra Banks, who’s created an empire for herself,” she offers.
Some would say she’s well on her way. Just as many of her high school friends are finishing college degrees, Conrad sees her experience as her own rite of passage and says, “I kind of just graduated from my show.”
Like any other, such a milestone involves growing pains.
“If an actor leaves a show, they go on to play a new part and a new character,” Conrad says with great perspicacity. “I’m not moving on from a character. I’m not going to play a new part.” Lifting the brown wig from her head, she adds, “I’ll be me before and me after.”