Lauren Conrad: Reality TV as a Business Model
The offices of the Paper Crown fashion line are jammed with an MTV film crew as producers walk around in headsets and speak in whispers. The second floor suite in Los Angeles' Westwood neighborhood is decorated with a zebra skin rug, an ornate table with lion's claw feet, and mannequins in half-finished gowns. Reclining on an overstuffed antique sofa is Lauren Conrad—reality TV doyenne, best-selling author, and fashion impresario—in a bright print shirt, high-waisted slacks, and high heels of her own design.
Conrad, who blasted to stardom in MTV's reality series about precocious Orange County teens, Laguna Beach, and its spin-off, The Hills, is embarking on one of the more unusual stunts in the short history of unscripted television. To cement her reputation as a businesswoman, the 24-year old is trying to distance herself from her reality TV alter ego. The chosen vehicle for this transformation? Yes, a new reality show—her third in seven years. Conrad's yet-unnamed series, which will make its debut early this year on MTV, will follow her quest to become so successful as a businesswoman that she has to eventually cancel her show. As her agent, Max Stubblefield, puts it: "Lauren's new businesses will feed on the show—which will feed on the new businesses." Conrad insists she would love "for the cameras to go away. This show is a vehicle to get there. I would love to become a big, natural brand."
Despite being famous for little more than once having been a teenager, Conrad—known as "LC" by her legions of adoring adolescent fans—may already be the millennials' answer to Martha Stewart. She's the author of four best-selling books, including Sugar & Spice, which continues the chronicle of a fictional young woman dealing with the travails of reality stardom. She's coming off a successful campaign as the exclusive spokesperson for Avon's (AVP) Mark cosmetics. Since 2006 she has had endorsement deals with toy company Hasbro (HAS), leather goods maker Linea Pelle, and AT&T (T). Her fashion line for Kohl's (KSS), LC Lauren Conrad, has been a "consistent top performer in our women's category," says Donald A. Brennan, a senior executive vice-president for the retailer. Her slightly more upscale line, the Lauren Conrad Collection, was sold in more than 500 stores before she discontinued it last year to focus on Paper Crown. She's even done her own "Got Milk?" ad.
Unlike many reality stars of her generation, Conrad's public introduction involved neither a sex tape nor a friendship with Paris Hilton. In 2004 she was cast as the star of MTV's alpha-kid show Laguna Beach and wooed fans with her estimable sanity. During five seasons of the show's sequel, The Hills, which followed her as a student at Los Angeles' Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, Conrad maintained a nearly Churchillian composure in the face of juvenile male behavior and back-stabbing female frenemies. Her constant disappointments in love and her ability to eschew various Hollywood rites of passage—Asian symbol tattoos, collagen lip injections—made her a favored cover girl of women's magazines and a good-girl role model. "She was always going through that relationship saga of trying to find the right guy," says Adam DiVello, creator and executive producer of The Hills. "It was very Carrie Bradshaw."
All along, Conrad's ambition was to leverage her exposure into a miniature lifestyle empire. By 2009, The Hills had become MTV's most successful show, with Sopranos-esque DVD sales of 2 million, a thriving mobile streaming content business, and a deal with iTunes. MTV also initiated a reverse product-placement scheme in which it offered clothes—similar to the styles Conrad wore on the show—for sale on its SeenON!MTV e-commerce site. That year the site produced $20 million for the network.
Conrad, who made $75,000 an episode, as first reported in In Touch Weekly, says she didn't get a penny of the ancillary revenue and left the show after the 2009 season. She says she also felt restricted by DiVello's decision to edit out the ways in which her rising stardom affected her life. And that, she says, "was a dealbreaker." As a result, her new series will function as a "weekly 30-minute commercial," she says, for the LC brand. To ensure this, Conrad is an executive producer, hoping to capitalize, as Stubblefield puts it, on "more potential upside."
She's also putting her own capital at risk. Conrad has invested "a large amount" in Paper Crown, she says, to retain complete creative control. "This is mine to lose," she says. "I've learned that when you are not your own boss, you always have to meet in the middle." As a designer, Conrad says, she's often reminded that Kohl's target customer exists in, as she puts it, the "broader market." When she was designing the Lauren Conrad Collection, "I didn't always have the final say," she admits, "because someone else was financing it." Perhaps as a result, The New Yorker referred to one of her collections as "sub-Old Navy."
Conrad describes Paper Crown, which launches this year, as "more upstairs" than her previous work. With pieces ranging from $65 to a $390 chiffon wrap dress, Conrad says she's trying to design "very chic, clean pieces that have good fit and good fabrics" to be sold at upscale boutiques. Will consumers shell out nearly $400 for a dress designed by a hopeful soon-to-be-erstwhile reality star? "I'm afraid of failure, always," says Conrad. "There's been many, many times I questioned myself." That said, given the strength of the LC brand, she hopes to see revenue from Paper Crown in about a year.
Conrad's longer-term goal, she says, is to create "my own business in replacement of the partnerships I have." It will be, she predicts, a retail fiefdom encompassing books, clothes, and beauty products. As she ticks them off, the young mogul pauses, having momentarily forgotten something. "Oh yeah," she says, "and a TV show." At least for now.