NASHVILLE — Kristin Cavallari was 17 years old when casting directors showed up at her high school. Fox’s prime-time drama “The O.C.” was a surprise hit, and savvy MTV executives were eager to replicate the formula — wealthy teenagers, sun-soaked locales, untold amounts of drama — for something called a “docu-soap,” a new subgenre in the early days of reality television.
Producers spent weeks at Laguna Beach High School in Southern California before they stumbled across Cavallari, an outspoken junior who was dating Stephen Colletti, a popular senior who worked at a surf shop. They also discovered Lauren Conrad, a girl-next-door type who had a crush on Colletti. Three photogenic teens in a classic love triangle? Jackpot! One MTV development executive called his colleague and said simply, “We have it.”
“Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” debuted in September 2004, post-“Real World” but pre-“Real Housewives.” The trio became tabloid favorites, and no one more so than Cavallari. Branded as the show’s “bad girl,” due to her tumultuous relationship with Colletti and feuds with classmates, Cavallari had the mind-bending experience of becoming one of our culture’s first reality TV villains when she was barely old enough to have a driver’s license.
“I didn’t look at myself as a star. I looked at it more like, ‘Everybody hates me,’ ” Cavallari, now 31, said during a recent interview in Nashville. She lives here with her husband, former Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and their three children. “That was really tough for me, being so young.”
She cried when she first saw how she was portrayed on “Laguna,” but after a while, being controversial just felt normal — and she embraced it. Years later, she returned to spin off “The Hills” where she happily agreed on her tagline: “The Bitch Is Back.”
Now, she’s the star and executive producer of “Very Cavallari,” which airs Sunday nights on E! and chronicles her adventures as she opens a store in Nashville for her lifestyle brand, Uncommon James. She wants her fans to see the grown-up version of herself, the working mom who runs her own business. A nameplate in her office reads “I’m CEO, Bitch.”
“Do I want to be the villain? No. Because I’m a mom, I’m a wife, and I just don’t think that’s who I am,” Cavallari said. “I have that tough side to me still, but I don’t think it’s the only side to me. I don’t think it ever was the only side to me. I think that was the one side that they decided to show.”
After nearly 15 years of living in front of cameras, Cavallari is accustomed to criticism. Some is mild, such as last month when she posted a photo that jokingly called her pet chicken "dinner." Some is more severe — in 2014, she revealed in a TV interview that she and Cutler don't vaccinate their kids, alluding to the disproved idea that vaccinations can lead to autism. Even after enormous backlash for citing a false claim, she doubled down in follow-up interviews.
“At the time, I was kind of feeling down about it. But you know what it did? It forced me to then go and do even more research than I had done prior, and I’m even more confident in my decision now,” Cavallari said. “I still get s--- for it, I’ll still get more s--- for it. But I really don’t care.”
Not caring about others’ judgment is no surprise to anyone who saw Cavallari in her first days of fame. She first floated into the public consciousness quite literally — on a pool raft, as the “Laguna Beach” first season narrator, Conrad, introduced the cast.
“That? That would be Kristin,” Conrad said scornfully. “Wherever Kristin went, drama followed. She thinks she’s hot.”
Cut to: Cavallari climbing out of the pool in a red bikini. “Okay, I guess she is,” Conrad conceded. “But she can’t stand me. Here’s the reason why: Stephen. I guess he’s kind of her boyfriend, but Stephen and I have been really close forever . . . Kristin’s the wrong girl for him. I’m just waiting for him to figure it out.”
That shot of Cavallari by herself in the pool quickly established her character, said executive producer Tony DiSanto — especially because it was contrasted with a scene of Conrad and her friends analyzing who they should invite to a party, and looking very unhappy when Cavallari’s name came up.
“What I loved about it was Kristin seemed confident, fearless and really unconcerned with school politics and everything going on around her,” DiSanto said. “She was paving her own way.”
Because reality TV was in its infancy, the students — and their parents — had no idea what they were getting into, or even what “editing” really meant. Producer and “Hills” creator Adam DiVello said they tried to prepare the cast, saying things like, “It’s going to be a much more amplified version of yourself.”
“I remember my mom had some reservations about it being MTV, just because they didn’t have the best reputation necessarily,” Cavallari said. (This was shortly after the MTV-produced Janet Jackson Super Bowl halftime show incident.) “But other than that, my parents were excited and I was excited. We just had no clue.”
Cameras followed the teens for months, from hotel parties and fashion shows to yacht trips and Blink-182 concerts. Ratings exploded, bolstered by the Kristin-Stephen-Lauren triangle. Even though Cavallari and Colletti were dating for much of the show, with Conrad eager to “steal” him away, Cavallari was often portrayed as the one in the wrong. (Colletti and Conrad declined to comment for this story.)
In perhaps the show’s most famous scene, during a spring break trip to Cabo while she and Colletti were broken up, Cavallari danced on the bar and later kissed another guy. Colletti screamed “Slut!” from across the room.
“The framing of ‘Laguna Beach’ certainly hasn’t aged well, but they should still get some credit for, in one shot alone, showing us such a clear depiction of toxic masculinity before the phrase was even popularized,” the Ringer recently wrote, naming it one of the 100 best TV episodes of the century.
Cavallari, however, was painted as the villain. She refused to back down from a fight and had no filter. In other words, a reality TV producer’s dream.
Alex Murrel, who starred in the second season of “Laguna Beach,” said she and Cavallari had similar reactions to the editing. As cast members have since revealed, situations were heavily manipulated and “softly” scripted. Incidents that happened months apart were stitched into episodes to look like they happened the same week. Producers encouraged story lines, conversations and, of course, drama.
“I think producers took advantage of strong personalities. Kristin and I . . . we were true to ourselves, and I think we were easy targets to mold us into what they wanted us to be,” said Murrel, who is still one of Cavallari’s closest friends. She added that they have no regrets — it was their choice to be on TV. Of course, she said, “It was definitely not fair that we were portrayed in a completely different light than who we are as people.”
After two seasons of "Laguna," Cavallari moved to Los Angeles and tried her hand at acting, but her heart wasn't really in it. In 2009, she got an offer to star in Conrad's spinoff "The Hills" once her frenemy departed. Although Cavallari was reluctant to go back to reality TV, she was pragmatic enough to know that the paycheck and exposure could propel her into the next phase of her career.
Cavallari is open about how she faked everything from fights to relationships during her two years on “The Hills.” She had a blast, and was not the least bit deterred by MTV’s “Bitch Is Back” label.
“At the end of the day, if a bitch means that I go after what I want, I speak my mind, and I’m not going to let people walk all over me, then call me a bitch. Great. I’ll take that,” Cavallari said. “Because those are all things that I am.”
She had a much different plan for “Very Cavallari,” which debuted on E! in July and has averaged 605,000 viewers a week, the majority in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic. Cavallari, who had worked with E! on a short-lived talk show and red carpet coverage, was in talks for a long time about her own reality series. When she decided to open a store for her lifestyle brand, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“I think in a world where people don’t know what the truth is anymore, she has a very real sense of just being who she is,” said Amy Introcaso-Davis, E!’s executive vice president of development and production. “Whether it’s good or bad, it’s the truth. I think that there’s something about her that is very, very real.”
Cavallari persuaded her husband, Cutler, to participate; then he inadvertently stole the spotlight in the series premiere with his extreme unenthusiasm. Cavallari insisted that’s just his dry humor.
“People think that he is the breakout star, which is fine, I’ll let him have it,” Cavallari joked, rolling her eyes.
The staff of Uncommon James also gets plenty of screen time. Near downtown Nashville, it’s the Pinterest-perfect space, stocked with jewelry, home goods, journals and a line of baby clothes. Glamour shots of Cavallari hang on the walls. Though 90 percent of the brand’s sales comes from social media, the store is already becoming a stop for bachelorette parties, of which Nashville has plenty.
“Girls in general are so fascinated with Kristin,” said Kelly Henderson, a stylist and Cavallari’s close friend who also appears on the show. “Having an actual place to go that represents her is going to be exciting for them.”
Cavallari never shows her kids’ faces on TV or to her 3.2 million followers on Instagram. But people still have plenty to say about her family, particularly after her inaccurate comments on vaccines several years ago. “How can you knowingly support the spread of potentially deadly diseases by not vaccinating your children?” a fan letter asked on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live.”
Now, Cavallari said she didn’t realize it would blow up into such a controversy.
“I’m so confident in what I’m doing as a parent — both Jay and I are — that the stuff about my kids, or how I’m raising my kids, that’s the one area that doesn’t really get to me, to be completely honest,” Cavallari said.
One thing she does care about? Based on her own experience, she’s hesitant to put her own kids in the limelight when they’re too young to choose if they want to be there.
“It would not surprise me if at least one of my kids grows up and wants no part of the spotlight,” she said. “And we don’t want to rob them of their decision to have their lives out there like that.”