Almost every scene in MTV’s “The Hills” reboot looks like clearly manufactured drama. But one aspect of the docuseries seems quite real: Mischa Barton’s pure disgust whenever someone mentions the name Perez Hilton.
No, you have not clicked on a story from 2007: Barton, best known for Fox’s prime-time soap “The O.C.,” is starring on “The Hills: New Beginnings,” MTV’s latest attempt to capture millennial nostalgia. Returning cast members include Heidi Montag, her husband Spencer Pratt and his sister Stephanie, Audrina Patridge, Whitney Port and Brody Jenner. In last week’s series premiere, Barton briefly explained her involvement, saying that she used to hang out with this crowd years ago. It makes sense if you don’t think about it too much.
Anyway, “The Hills” became a pop culture sensation for the drama generated by wealthy Southern California 20-somethings; now that they’re all 30-somethings, they’re at risk for being boring, so producers pounce on any potential controversy. On Monday’s episode, that meant setting up a showdown between Barton and infamous celebrity blogger Perez Hilton.
If you missed Hilton’s heyday as “the most hated man in Hollywood” in the early 2000s: He ruthlessly trashed celebrities, as he mocked their weight; ridiculed their addiction issues; scribbled crude drawings over their photos; and made headlines for outing multiple stars. He has been trying to redeem himself for the last 10 years, after he was shaken by a string of suicides by bullied LGBT teens and toned down his website. Hilton, who frequently apologizes to celebrities he once skewered, maintains he feels ashamed and regrets his past blogging.
But before then, one of his favorite targets was Barton, whom he nicknamed “Mushy”; he wrote some truly horrific posts about her appearance and various struggles over the years. During the series premiere last week, Barton described the toll that his scathing commentary took on her psyche.
“Perez was a total bully back in the day, and he was awful to me and lots of women,” she said, as an image of one 2010 post (“The Mush Can’t Find Real Acting Work, So She Plays Dress Up!”) flashed on the screen. “There was a lot of pressure to be really skinny. It’s hard when you’re young, you know? You take these things to heart, and I really did.”
Watching Barton talk about him — she was understandably still furious — was an uncomfortable reminder of the often relentlessly cruel celebrity coverage a decade ago, when Hollywood was at the height of paparazzi madness and there was little understanding of how the Internet could damage people.
“If Hilton’s blog has evolved, he may not have had a choice,” Nico Lang wrote in a 2017 Into profile of Hilton. “Knowing cattiness of gossip sites DListed and The Awful Truth largely went out of fashion following the rise of what The Awl’s Choire Sicha called ‘The New Niceness,’ epitomized by the feel-good clickbait of BuzzFeed and Upworthy. These websites drew readers in with the promise of instantly shareable inspiration, not the destruction of the powerful.”
So naturally, now that the culture has learned these lessons, “The Hills” arranged Barton to confront Hilton at a party. Standing with Patridge and Port, Barton glared as soon as she saw Hilton walk in and greet Montag and Spencer Pratt. (He’s close friends with the couple and the godfather to their son.)
“He was the face of a certain brand of hate. I really felt like I was a target for him. I don't know how to describe it,” Barton said, deeming him a “scumbag.” “He's lucky that I have a thick skin. But ultimately, it affected my career, it affected my life.”
Their conversation was brief, as she detailed his wrongdoing: “This bullying that you did for so long to so many young girls, I find it hard to let go,” Barton said. “It’s not just about the body shaming or outing people who are gay before they’re really out of the closet. . . . I don’t really sit well with people who purposefully harm other people.”
“I understand that,” Hilton said. “I knew it was wrong in the past what I was doing. I was still doing it even though I knew it was wrong.”
“Cause of the money?” Patridge piped up, in her best line in the series so far.
“I say this on my kids’ life. I swear. If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would,” Hilton insisted.
Barton looked unconvinced. “You would actually go back in time and change all of those people’s careers you messed with? All of those the people you outed?”
At this, Hilton abruptly changed gears. “I just swore on my kids’ life!” he snapped, waving a hand in her face and storming out.
Barton shrugged. “I think he really showed his true colors at the end, too, running off,” she said later, adding that it was “cathartic” to confront him — even if she had no plans to forgive.
In a YouTube video following the episode, Hilton said the scene had been edited down quite a bit. He explained that he and Barton actually talked for more than 10 minutes, and he profusely apologized for his past behavior.
“Of course, you didn’t see any of that, because that’s television,” he said. Although, he admitted, the “old Perez came out a bit” when she was dismissive of him swearing on his kids. “I exploded. I did not handle it right,” he acknowledged.
And proving it’s hard to shake old habits, he ended with some critiques of Barton’s performance on “The Hills: New Beginnings” so far.
“I don’t expect her to like me. I don’t expect her to accept my apology. I do expect her not to be boring on a reality TV show,” Hilton said. "And everything I’ve seen so far? Boring.”
“That’s not calling her a nasty, miserable person,” he quickly added. “That’s just saying she’s not a good reality TV star.”