Chapter One: From Orange County to ‘The Hills’ • Chapter One • From Orange County to The Hills
Reality television would come to shape my entire life—for better or worse—and bring me some of the greatest opportunities I could ever dream of. And yet, I didn’t grow up watching reality television. When I was a teenager, my favorite shows were Dawson’s Creek (team Pacey, for the record!) and Felicity. I watched TRL every day after school, and I watched hours and hours of MTV music videos.
When I look back on my simple, family-oriented childhood in Orange County, it’s sort of surprising that I would come to find myself on reality TV for most of my adult life. I grew up in Yorba Linda, a very laid-back suburban community twenty minutes from the beach. My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad is an engineer for our family business, which makes mechanical parts for big companies to use on anything from airplanes to rides at Disneyland, from huge oil rigs to huge factory machinery for Coca-Cola.
My mom was not the PTA, baking cookies kind of mom. She was the outgoing, funny one that all of my friends love. She was fun and open, and my house was the hangout for most of my friends and my siblings’ friends too. It was often a full house with me and my three younger siblings: my sisters, Casey and Samantha, and my brother, Mark. My mom also let us kids decorate our rooms however we wanted, so at one point, I had all four walls of my room painted different bright colors like a giant Rubik’s cube. I love that she let us express ourselves like that. Geographically, my hometown’s not that far from LA, but spiritually, it’s a whole different planet. I loved growing up in a such a quiet, tight-knit town. A few years ago, I moved back to Orange County with my daughter because I want her to be raised in that same slower-paced, family-friendly environment.
My mom went over-the-top when it came to celebrations and threw us all these elaborate, themed parties. My favorites were my thirteenth-birthday “luau” with real fire dancers, and my eighteenth Vegas-themed party with craps and poker tables set up around our backyard to look like a real casino. I’ve started doing the same thing for Kirra, staging big, fun-themed birthday parties, which she seems to love—especially her mermaid-themed third birthday, complete with a sequined mermaid tail and an appearance by a “real” mermaid.
We went to church most Sundays as a family, all dressed in our Sunday best, my sisters and I with our hair done and dresses on. I liked going to church as a kid. I felt like it gave me the basis for my values and taught me where to turn when it feels like I have no one, which is to God. I tried the church’s theater group too, and it was great place to explore my love of performing. Ever since I was little, I’ve always been intrigued by acting and performing. I remember being five or six and watching The Mickey Mouse Club, and I would always tell my mom that I was going to be on that TV one day. I knew at a young age that’s what I wanted to do. So in high school, I started going to acting classes, and my mom really supported me with that. I was kind of shy growing up, but I broke out of it and pushed myself out of my comfort zone to pursue acting.
I honestly never liked high school. I went there to learn and I worked hard to do my homework during my lunch break so I could leave school at school. I looked forward to coming home and spending time with my family, or doing other activities like dance and theater. I even loaded up on my classes during my first three years of high school, so by senior year, I was at school only three hours a day and I could work afterward.
Don’t get me wrong: I had a lot of friends in high school. I was friendly with everyone, and didn’t get caught up in the drama or gossip. My mom told me that I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend or wear makeup until I was sixteen years old, so for much of high school, I was skinny, underdeveloped, and fresh-faced, looking much younger than I was. I would definitely call it an awkward phase. I was fine with her rules, though, and I didn’t rebel. I wasn’t really interested in having a boyfriend at that age. I had crushes growing up, but I was mostly focused on other things, like dance and the swim team, where I swam the 400-yard freestyle.
My favorite classes in high school were science (especially biology) and art (drawing and painting). At the time, I thought about going to school to become a psychologist. I was always listening to my friends share their problems, giving advice and trying to help. People came to me, so it felt natural to think about ways to turn that into a career. I couldn’t always take my own advice, but my friends appreciated my insightful, nonjudgmental words of wisdom. I’ve always been interested in why people are the way they are. I still think about that sometimes, especially when I’m in the waiting room at an audition looking at all the other girls there. Everyone has their own story and brings something unique to the role. You can take the same script, and ten different women are going to read it ten different ways. That’s always fascinated me.
As soon as we got our driver’s licenses, my friends and I went to shows every chance we got. I had always loved music, and during high school I got into the punk music scene. I even wanted to look the part, with my hair dyed purple and my nose pierced. Almost every weekend, my friends and I would go to the best venues in the area—The Glass House, Observatory, and Chain Reaction—to hear our favorite bands, including Thrice, Finch, Rufio, and Yellowcard. We would dance and sing our hearts out and then rush home before our 10 p.m. curfew. I also worked at a small recording studio in Newport Beach during my senior year of high school, an experience that would serve me well when I got to LA.
After high school graduation, I started taking classes at Orange County Community College at night, and in the daytime I would go to LA to audition for commercials, music videos, and modeling gigs. Starting at sixteen years old, I took acting classes once a week in LA with a well-known acting coach named Fawn Irish. I also met with a modeling agent who often knew about commercial and acting gigs. I was soon going on lots of auditions—most actors spend more time auditioning for jobs than actually filming!—but it was in my acting classes more than anywhere else that I saw the real artistry behind the career. The other actors in my class were passionate and intense. They put everything they had into a scene, and I so admired their dedication to constant improvement. It was just incredible to watch them, and then to be able to get up there and act with them myself. It was so different from the church theater experience growing up!
As much as I loved it, there were parts of the process that took a bit of getting used to. For example, when I went out for roles, the other young women in the waiting room all looked exactly like me, with straight brown hair, the same thin frame, and about the same age. It was disheartening to see how many women were vying for the same roles in commercials or music videos. I landed roles in a few music videos for rock bands, none of which you’ve heard of. I loved music, so it was fun, and it certainly provided the opportunity to exercise my dramatic muscle. Plus, I got paid a hundred bucks for each, which was great at the time.
It was hectic running around LA all day from audition to audition, and the traffic was so unpredictable driving the forty miles back to Orange County for school. I was late to class so often that a couple of professors threatened to fail me. So I had to make a decision: stay in school and focus on my studies to try to become a psychologist, or move to LA and pursue acting and modeling full-time. I figured I could always reenroll in school and get back to my studies, but this was the time to give my dreams a shot, so I took the leap.
Thankfully, my parents were supportive of me leaving school and giving myself a real chance with the auditions. They knew I was serious from the acting classes I had taken in high school, but more than anything, they knew I had to get it out of my system—whether I found work or not. They understood the importance of not living a life with regrets and what-ifs.
I packed up my childhood bedroom, withdrew from my classes, and moved to LA to see what would happen. You know how some things are just meant to be? I think that I had to be in just the right place, at just the right time, for everything to work out as it did.
I was in LA with my dad looking for apartments in the Villas apartment complex, but unfortunately they didn’t have a one-bedroom unit available. We were on our way out when I started chatting with two sweet girls in the elevator. They were both from Kansas, best friends, living in a three-bedroom and looking for a roommate. They overheard us talking about not finding a place, and offered me the room on the spot! It was a great apartment, and they seemed so normal and nice. My room would be very private, with its own bathroom. I couldn’t believe how everything was already just clicking into place. I looked around and said, “When can I move in?” Just like that, I had my first apartment in LA.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t turn into a lifelong friendship. Once I got cast on The Hills, the girls turned a little sour toward me, and I moved into the next one-bedroom that became available in the building. But still—I was in LA and ready for anything!
I started my new life, mostly by enjoying the pool at my new apartment complex. There was nothing better than lying poolside and learning my lines for an upcoming audition. Believe it or not, that’s where I met MTV producer Adam DiVello, who was there to scout the apartment complex for Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag because they were moving from San Francisco where they both had attended the Academy of Art University for one semester. Lauren was getting a Laguna Beach spin-off show that was still in development. At the time, I had never watched Lauren on TV, but I knew who she was from magazines and interviews.
At first, when Adam approached me and introduced himself, I thought he was just another cheesy producer trying to hit on me or invite me to an “exclusive club” that night. But he talked about the shows he worked on, and I began to think he could be legit. He asked why I’d moved to LA, where I was from, and where I was working. I told him I’d recently started a job as a receptionist at Quixote Studios, a photo, video, and event studio in town that was the location of magazine and commercial shoots, music videos, fashion events… you name it. I needed to work and make money for rent and acting classes, and it seemed like a great place to get insight into some elements of the business. I could see the wheels turning in Adam’s head as I told him that I’d already met some cool new people, including some amazing photographers and casting directors, through this job. I had been going out in LA for a few years already, and I knew the hottest spots to go each night of the week. Adam liked that I was in the know and could bring Lauren and Heidi out with me.
Adam told me he was moving quickly to put together this spin-off show, and just a few days later, I was in the MTV offices to meet the rest of the showrunners and producers. I shared the basics about myself and learned more about the show. They told me that, based on my background and the time they spent getting to know me, they thought I would be a great fit with the group of girls. I was in LA to pursue modeling and acting, and I quickly realized that this could be good practice for me to get comfortable in front of the camera. I didn’t have a lot of expectations beyond that and really didn’t know what I was in for, at all. Within a week or two, I signed the papers, and we started filming within two to three weeks.