By Vinay Menon
Lauren Conrad has not been in the news lately.
This can only mean her plan is working. Not to vanish from the radar, of course. After storming the zeitgeist in 2004 on MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and then its spinoff series, The Hills, the 26-year-old has worked too hard to make a name for herself to let that name get snuffed out by the forces of obscurity and cultural amnesia.
But if the goal of most reality stars is to become famous, the reality is most never will, at least not in the long term. The smart ones figure this out while there is still time to leverage their fleeting popularity. The really smart ones realize popular culture is an artificial ecosystem dominated by unpredictable whims and trends, a place where celebrity is a renewable resource.
“I think that just simply loving fame can be very dangerous, especially when you are dealing with being a TV personality as opposed to an actor who can continue on to many different projects,” says Conrad, on the phone to talk about her new novel.
“I think the end is inevitable and it’s very difficult for some people to let go. The idea of being adored by people you’ve never met — if you really love that, it’s really hard when it begins to fade.”
This is the downside of the celebrity-industrial complex, where an endless line of wide-eyed dreamers are fed into the grinding gears each year and spit out on the other side.
This is also a theme of Conrad’s The Fame Game, which was released this week by HarperCollins as the first part of a new trilogy. (Her debut series of books for young adults, L.A. Candy, replaced the “reality star” top-line on her resume with “New York Times best-selling author.”)
“I have always enjoyed writing,” she says. “It was always something I wanted to pursue when I had time.”
When she walked away from The Hills in 2009, there was suddenly time for writing and her other passion, fashion design. The five years Conrad spent on MTV, starting when she was just 18, also gave her ample source material for these fictional tales about young people playing the fame game in Los Angeles.
“This was a life I lived for years and years,” she says. “It was fun to be able to give people a sneak peek of that life without necessarily telling other people’s stories.”
The protagonist in her new book is a character named Madison Parker, the “mean girl” from the L.A. Candy series. Given the autobiographical nature of the previous trilogy — “the stories are definitely inspired by things that have happened in my life” — one wonders if Madison is a thinly-veiled caricature of Heidi Montag, another Laguna Beach alumna and Conrad’s best friend until a nasty public feud tore that relationship asunder.
“No, she is not,” says Conrad, flatly. “Madison represents a large group of people.”
The Fame Game, like the best reality shows, is intended to be entertaining first and foremost. But amid the jaunty passages and pop-cultural references, there are often throwaway lines that come across as wise and cynical about life in the fast lane — or at least, life in the on-ramp to the fast lane.
Was Conrad trying to impart a message about the reality of reality television? Was she making observations about the possible infamy of fame in a culture where just about everything is disposable, including celebrity status?
“I think there are two main messages,” she says. “One was that when it comes to working in the entertainment industry, there is definitely more than meets the eye. I think this is an industry that has been glamorized for so long. But there’s a lot more to it.
“I also wanted to let people know that while there are some really lovely perks to being on television, there is definitely some challenges that come along with it, too.”
The biggest challenge comes from knowing when to exit.
“I don’t think it’s healthy for any person to be under the level of criticism that you are when you are on television or in the public eye,” says Conrad. “I think that people who cope with it best are those who just avoid it.”
So what has fame taught Lauren Conrad about Lauren Conrad?
“That’s a good question,” she says, going silent for several seconds. “I think the experience overall has taught me about the importance of a bigger picture. I think it’s very easy to get caught up in day-to-day gossip and things around you and get upset by them. But very quickly, you’re yesterday’s news. I used to really stress about those types of things and I’ve learned to let it go.”