Against all odds and reason, Lauren Conrad seems like a normal person. Almost. On Monday morning the 21-year-old reality star and budding fashion designer sat unperturbed on the seventh floor lobby of the W hotel in Times Square as a hubbub of activity swirled around her. She had come straight from an appearance on Live With Regis and Kelly, where she’d discussed that evening’s season-three premiere of her MTV show The Hills, in which she stars as, well, herself.
Singer Enrique Iglesias had filled in for Regis Philbin, and Ms. Conrad, legs crossed primly under her strapless Mint dress, faux-swooned while describing the experience of getting to sit next to him during the interview. She was flanked by both an MTV publicist and a personal publicist, and when a photographer arrived to take her picture, a makeup artist from Avon’s mark line (for which Ms. Conrad became a spokesperson in February 2007) popped up seemingly out of nowhere to powder Ms. Conrad’s face.
And yet, Ms. Conrad appeared entirely unfazed and down-to-earth, laughing easily and saying girlish California-isms (“I know!”; “love that”) un-self-consciously. When the MTV flack mentioned that the daily papers, including The New York Times, carried reviews of The Hills, Ms. Conrad, who first starred on MTV’s runaway hit Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, squealed, “Oh, cool!”, saying she liked to read what people wrote about the show (“I think they do such a great job”) before admitting, “I don’t read the paper so much, though … I read the weeklies.” When the photographer raised his camera she expertly tilted her chin and put on a picture-perfect smile.
WHEN LAGUNA BEACH DEBUTED on MTV in September of 2004, it was a new kind of reality show, with multiple cameras, gorgeous movielike lighting and a traditional narrative that followed young, good-looking and wealthy high schoolers. Ms. Conrad was a breakout star—instantly likable—with pretty Marcia Brady all-American looks paired with a Hollywood starlet’s raspy voice. The Hills, which first aired in spring of ’06, was meant to document Ms. Conrad’s independence, moving to L.A., taking classes at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (where, brain-meltingly, Project Runway’s season-two contestant Nick Verreos is employed) and toiling as an intern at Teen Vogue (the show has her working in an overcrowded fashion closet, yet she also appeared on the August 2007 cover).
Through the laws of natural trend order or pop culture leakage, Ms. Conrad’s personal style—femme-y, diaphanous dresses, chunky jewelry and wide Alice in Wonderland headbands—can be seen everywhere, particularly in New York this summer, where the gals sweating buckets on subway platforms all look like they’re on their way to a garden party. Go into any Intermix (a favorite New York shopping destination for Ms. Conrad) and find a look you would have seen on The Hills girls last spring.
“I grew up at the beach—most of my clothes are something you can layer with a bathing suit,” Ms. Conrad said of her aesthetic, which will be translated to her own clothing line, Lauren Conrad Collection, which debuts at the Las Vegas trade show PROJECT next month, and in stores early next year. “In high school you wear a bikini under your clothes. [Laguna Beach] is a beach town, you know? I could see the beach from homeroom. Once I moved to the city I had to toss out my flip-flops and step up my style to make it look more polished. But I still love the bohemian beach look. In my line I really wanted to combine the two—there are pieces in there that I would wear over a bathing suit to the beach, but I’d also wear that same piece with layered jewelry and heels to a club.”
The spring ’08 line, which includes 40 different pieces in fabrics like jersey knit (“the comfiest fabric”) and gauze (“I love it because I go through, like, five outfits before I decide what to put on, and it’s supposed to look wrinkled”), was worked on at every stage by Ms. Conrad, who still is taking classes at the institute. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “doing this line was the best education I’ve gotten. It’s taken four months to get ready, it’s been crazy. Every spare moment I’ve worked on it.” Her interest in fashion stretched back to preadolescence, when she made clothes for her Barbie dolls on a small battery-powered sewing machine. “I wasn’t really into high school,” she said. “I was like a C student. My dad said, ‘It’s fine if you want to be an average student, but you’re going to have to do some stuff on the side.’ I went to a local art college and did sketching classes. By the time I got to college, I had it down.”
Her taste in designers—Marc Jacobs, Cynthia Vincent, Diane von Furstenberg, Rebecca Taylor—reflects her attraction to all things girly. “My mom always makes fun of me because I love bows and rosettes, and she says that I dress like a little girl,” she said. “I figure you may as well do it as long as you can, you know what I mean?”
Working at Teen Vogue, she says, helps to forecast trends. “You shoot everything three months ahead of time, so you learn to be open. You’ll see something and it might look a little odd, and then three months later everyone will be wearing it.” Like those suddenly ubiquitous high-waisted jeans? “Oh, I can’t wear those,” she said, eyes wide. “My mom wore those. That’s not going to happen. You know, I had to call my mom and apologize when I bought a pair of Ray-Bans. I made fun of her forever for wearing them—I just thought they were the ugliest glasses. And then I had to be like, ‘Mom, I just bought a pair of Ray-Bans. I’m really sorry for making fun of you.’”
Ms. Conrad is currently filming the second half of this season of The Hills (including a couple of New York location days this week), living in the same, post-Heidi apartment—rigged with set lighting and trailed by cameras—with roommate Audrina Patridge. It can be a bit much, being taped crying, yelling, breaking up, but Ms. Conrad takes it all in stride.
“It’s cool,” she shrugged. “We’re lucky. We have exciting lives, and it’s L.A., and they can show how glamorous it can get. But everyone goes through the same things—no matter where you are from, no matter what you do, you deal with the same stuff.”
She smoothed her hair down, a familiar gesture for anyone who has watched her on TV. “We’re on a reality show, so we can’t take ourselves too seriously.”