How Kristin was the victim of MTV’s Laguna Beach and who the real villain is
Laguna Beach was and is still peak reality television if you ask me. It premiered pre-social media, and when the genre was still up and coming, so there were far fewer clout-chasers than what you see on reality television today.
It’s been clear for a while now that the genre is played out to death, so with every passing year, the drama gets louder, the people get stupider, and I reminisce of the time when everything was so simple a little bit harder.
You see, when producers pitched “the real Orange County,” to this sunny seaside locale, no one knew what reality TV would become, or the exact consequences that can come bubble up from being “real.” When you combine that with rich teens who don’t know any better and who live lives that most of us can’t even fathom, bask in the glory, my friend, because you’ve created something fascinating.
This isn’t to suggest that the cast of Laguna Beach was never coached, poked or prodded into storylines – it is reality TV after all, and we’d do best not to be naïve. But the difference between reality TV now and reality TV then is so stark that we might as well classify them as separate genres.
Laguna Beach is something that I, admittedly, revisit reasonably often. I’d call it a guilty pleasure, but I don’t feel much guilt consuming it; I wish there was more! It’s stupid and relatable teen drama meets lifestyles of the rich and the (not yet) famous. What’s not to love? What I find most fascinating, though, is how my opinions of the cast—and the situations they find themselves in—evolve the more I grow.
The most significant 180 turnaround I’ve had is about one of the most iconic rivalries in reality tv history: Lauren vs. Kristin.
Laguna Beach’s protagonist Lauren Conrad wasn’t like the other girls
When MTV arrived at Laguna Beach High School, they interviewed many students to determine which group of teens they wanted to follow. From what I gathered, many kids were interested, but it was the drama between Lauren (LC for short) and Kristin which set the show into high gear.
In LC’s casting tape (which seems to have been scrubbed from the internet…) she recalls how Stephen—Kristin’s on and off boyfriend at the time and Lauren’s guy-best friend turn crush—was giving them the runaround and telling them contradicting stories about who he wanted and his intentions. When the two finally talked it out in their high school washroom, they had a mutual “a-ha!” moment and confronted Stephen with it.
This was the conflict that spurred the entire trajectory of the show. Does Stephen like Kristin, or does he like Lauren? Tune in each week to see who he chooses.
Anyone who re-watches this show will see that the answer was always obvious: he wanted Kristin. BUT we wanted him to like Lauren. And so did the producers. You see, Lauren had this undeniable girl-next-door quality. She’s was friendly, charming and kept to herself. She was the girl that, once you took her glasses off, you’d discover that she was actually beautiful. Who would’ve thunk?
She was relatable. She was the girl that many of us saw ourselves in. She was not like the other girls™.
And then there was Kristin: LC’s antithesis. She wasn’t pretty, she was hot. She wasn’t meek, she was loud. She wasn’t innocent, she was experienced. She was the girl that we loved to hate, and hate her we did. She was the ‘baddie’ of Laguna Beach, and, in hindsight, of course she was!
I don’t know how many of you reading this were teenagers in the 2000s, but let me give you a brief history lesson: we absolutely hated everything that girls like Kristin represented. That was the mainstream opinion. They were hot bumbling idiots, and we were different.
If there was any lesson to come out of this period, it was that the outspoken hot girl who knows she’s hot and has sex is. The. Enemy. Kristin was the enemy by default.
Just look at the pop culture around that time if you need proof of this. Throughout these years, most teen rom-coms had the exact same set up: popular guy thinks he wants hot, popular girl, but is unfulfilled by her bitchiness and vanity. It isn’t until he gets to know the good girl protagonist that he really starts to understand what he actually needs.
In Taylor Swift’s 2009 smash-hit ‘You Belong with Me,’ millions of us girls had our opinions validated. Never mind the fact that Taylor can write a hell of a tune, the song was bolstered tremendously by its relatability, which catapulted it to become her highest-charting single at the time on the Billboard 100.
The entire song is her outlining the ways that her crush’s girlfriend is entirely wrong for him and how she’s incredibly right for him, but he just doesn’t realize it yet. The differences she touches on between her and his girlfriend are mostly superficial: the girlfriend wears short skirts, Taylor wears t-shirts. The girlfriend wears high heels, Taylor wears sneakers. The girlfriend is cheer captain, Taylor is on the bleachers.
What does this really say about the high-heel wearing, short-skirt sporting, cheer captain girlfriend’s rightness or wrongness as his girlfriend? Not much, but we’ve already painted the two-dimensional picture of her in our mind, and we hate her for it.
This is not to chastise Taylor Swift or anyone who could relate; it’d surely be remiss to pretend that any teenager is or was above this line of thinking. We’ve all been there.
But to take it back to the Hills, we were so blinded by our hate for this archetype that we ignored something so integral to the story: Kristin was Stephen’s girlfriend, NOT Lauren. Lauren and Stephen never dated. Lauren was Stephen’s trump card, his revenge tactic. He only cozied up to her when he couldn’t have Kristin. But in the context of the show, the framing is set up to have you believe that Lauren and Stephen are OTP and Kristin is getting in the way of that.
Let me make this real simple: if Stephen wanted to be with Lauren, he would have been with Lauren. Kristin wouldn’t be able to “convince him” of otherwise, so why exactly was she the bad guy?
In a recent interview, Kristin says that she felt misrepresented “pretty much the whole show.” On Where Are They Now, here’s what she had to say about her time on Laguna:
“Laguna Beach was tough because I felt very used and manipulated. Basically, my boyfriend at the time, the producers would have him go and take out Lauren Conrad—take her to dinner, bring her flowers—which never would have happened if it wasn’t for the show, for MTV.
I put up a wall, I put up a really tough exterior because I felt like they were trying to take advantage of me, so it was a really difficult time. And so, when I saw it air and saw the way that they represented me, I was really, really upset. I cried for hours and hours after I saw the first episode.”
So, for those of us at home keeping score, MTV tried to ruin Kristin’s relationship and then made her the bad guy for it. Fun!
Hooking up is fine unless you do it too much and talk about it
On season one episode one of Laguna Beach, here’s how Stephen describes each girl:
“Kristin’s a really good girl to hook up with and have fun with. That’s what I’m saying I love, like, we can just have like, so much fun. But coming down to the boyfriend and girlfriend stuff, it’s like… Lauren would be a better girl.”
From this description, it’s pretty easy to deduce that Kristin’s willingness to have fun and hook up is what he likes about her. And while that probably isn’t the foundation for a stable relationship, this would be perfectly within his right if he didn’t immediately switch positions when he was not the one receiving this attention from her. If this quality is a plus, you can’t suddenly brand it a negative when it no longer benefits you. Which leads me to the infamous Cabo trip…
When the crew head to Cabo, Stephen and Kristin are firmly “off.” When Kristin’s asked about the possibility of a Lauren/ Stephen hookup and whether she’d be upset by it, she says, “Well, yeah, but at the same time, it’s Cabo,” and all bets are basically off the table.
But when Stephen catches Kristin living it up wild and free in Cabo, let’s just say that his response wasn’t as diplomatic. Here are some direct quotes:
“I can’t hang with Kristin being here, dude. It pisses me off more than anything. She’s so stupid, it’s sad.”
“What the fuck is your deal, bitch?”
“Hey, get up on the bar. You look real good, slut!”
“I can get so much better than you, I don’t even care. I feel so sorry for you.”
“Look at you, slut! Oh, my God.”
“You and me, completely done. You are such a fucking hoe.”
*Imitating Kristin* “Oh my God, Sam! Oh my God, Sam! I’m such a slut, hook up with me!”
Every time Stephen sought out Kristin to hurl more insults her way, she didn’t fire any back. Her response was to simply try and create distance between them, but he kept cornering her.
The next day when Stephen, Lauren and a few others are out to breakfast, his friends validate his extremely inappropriate behaviour last night because Kristin was being “annoying.” LC does make a quip about how he was mean the previous night, but not to Kristin, to her.
About Kristin’s antics, Lauren says, “Just look at her, she knows. She’s wearing a skirt and a little thong, and she’s up there on the pole. She knows that’s slutty.”
When the gang goes for dinner later this episode, Stephen falls all over Lauren in a transparently desperate attempt to make Kristin as batty as he was the night before. Still, Kristin shows herself to be the unbothered Queen that she is in a one-second moment that’s truly Iconic with a capital I.
This is only the most egregious instance, but Kristin was called a slut and condemned for her “sluttiness” many times by many different people throughout the two seasons that she was on. And yet, there was no shortage of guys clamouring to get her attention or of girls who were jealous of her. It’s not like the other girls in this group weren’t hooking up or that the guys didn’t love her willingness to hook up, it was that she did it a bit too much with a bit too much pride.
Being too real for reality TV
Upon re-watch, there are actually many reasons to like Kristin. She could laugh at herself, acknowledge her own ridiculousness, admit her wrongdoings, and try to see other people’s perspectives, but most importantly: I could always count on her to be honest.
The girl was not shy to say how she really felt in front of the cameras, even when it made her look bad, and it often did. Just from memory, I can recall many times where she would tell her friends what they needed to hear, admit to playing games in relationships, be open past hookups, express interest certain people, admit to having cheated, discuss her grievances about people in a direct way, and the list goes on.
Now, if someone came up to me and told me that they’ve been selected to be on reality television and asked me if I had any advice, I wouldn’t tell them to do the Kristin. Hell no! When it comes to people you don’t know or don’t know well, we have a tough time thinking about them in a nuanced way. We don’t think “person did bad thing,” they think, “person is bad.”
Because of this, most people on reality television will manufacture their authenticity, which is what I think Lauren did.
She was very tight-lipped about what she was willing to say in front of the cameras. She omits information all of the time. She preferred to keep her actions vague and polished and squeaky clean. She won’t talk about hookups, she won’t admit to doing anything shady, and she excuses herself from any narrative that might make her look bad.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and it’s definitely the smarter of the two approaches, especially considering the opportunities it awarded her afterwards, but let’s not kid ourselves. Lauren wasn’t an angel, she was just better at hiding her dirty laundry. Even if MTV revved up the tension between her, Stephen and Kristin, she was happy to play along. She was also happy to cosign a bunch of the questionable things her guy friends would say about women, so long as it wasn’t directed her way.
I am definitely not trying to make a villain out of Lauren, but I think that people mistook Kristin’s bluntness for bitchiness and Lauren’s meekness as sainthood. And I find it a bit frustrating that Kristin was so condemned for being honest when wasn’t that what we wanted out of reality television? Or did we want to be deceived?
Who is the real villain of Laguna Beach?
Of course, openness doesn’t equal goodness. Kristin’s willingness to live her life according to her own set of morals is not why I am writing this. You could unabashedly live by your code of conduct and still be kinda terrible. The thing that was refreshing about Kristin’s honesty is that she didn’t deflect blame, she accepted her consequences and recognized her faults. Yeah, she was a teenager who often made bad decisions, but she wasn’t blinded by her own narcissism.
While I think almost everyone in the main cast displayed some unsavoury behaviours or opinions (except for Trey, we love Trey!), I also recognize that they were fucking teenagers. Can you remember what you were like as a teenager or any of the horrifying things that you might’ve said? I do think that Stephen’s Cabo rant and the way he treated both women were pretty fucking bad, and it frustrates me to no end that he wasn’t condemned as the catalyst behind the entire conflict. But again, I don’t think that Stephen was a bad person per se.
What I find the most troubling is that MTV recruited 16-17-year olds and edited their footage to purposefully vilify a Junior in high school based on the fact that they needed a cohesive narrative. They promoted Lauren to the show’s protagonist and relegated Kristin to the villain, and didn’t give her a head’s up about it. They infiltrated her relationship and turned it inside out for ratings. They took her honesty, and they weaponized it.
At the same time, it’s undeniable that they made a very watchable show. With reality TV, there needs to be some level of deception because the creators need a linear story. They need good guys, and they need bad guys; we need people to root for and to root against. Real-life isn’t so black and white, so they need to amp it up if they’re going to make something interesting.
For me, I think that the real crime was the lack of transparency. Again, Laguna Beach came just before reality television absolutely exploded in North America, and so the cast couldn’t have possibly known what they were getting themselves into. It was adults cutting together the episodes and kids feeling the brunt of their decisions.
Kristin clearly felt betrayed when she saw her portrayal, and I think that she had every right to be. She got got by MTV, and her ruined reputation funded their salaries. It’s just kinda icky. I don’t think her portrayal should have blindsided her the way it did, and for that, MTV is kind of the villain. But so was the culture that gave them a good reason to portray her this way.
Luckily though, times are changing. Here’s what Kristin had to say in a recent interview:
“Unfortunately, I think for a long time, a woman who is outspoken and who has that kind of personality just easily gets labeled a bitch for going after your dreams and speaking your mind, which I think now luckily we’re coming around to accepting that a little bit more.”
I completely agree.
And if Kristin somehow ever comes across this blog post, I am sorry for ever playing into it.