Let’s go back — back to the beginning. Ten years ago today, on Sept. 28, 2004, the world was introduced to Lauren Conrad, Stephen Colletti, Kristin Cavallari, and their high school friends in a small California town called Laguna Beach. Nestled in Orange County, the town’s picturesque look and massive homes inspired MTV’s initial pitch of a real-life version of The O.C. — an insider’s look into the lives of the young, rich, and beautiful.
But the show morphed into a never-before-attempted experiment in reality television that simply followed its subjects’ lives, rather than manipulating them into uncomfortable situations. There were no scripts, no confessionals, and the friendships, relationships, and Cabo bar-top dancing were all real — and, obviously, set to the soundtrack of Hilary Duff’s “Coming Clean.”
It eventually transformed into a reality empire, consisting of two successful spin-off series — The Hills and The City, which were allegedly scripted and edited to alter viewers’ perceptions. Laguna Beach, however, remains — at least according to the cast — a pretty accurate record of a group of classmates surviving the angst of high school.
The show’s closest predecessor was MTV’s Real World, which placed a group of strangers in a house together, filming their every move, fight, and confessional. Laguna opted simply to document its subjects’ lives rather than to influence them. The formula clearly worked, with hordes of fans still tuning into RetroMTV’s summer marathons years later, but it was never replicated after LC and her friends left the small town for bigger lives. Three successful seasons later, Laguna went off the air and the network attempted to capitalize on the series’ success, creating shows like Newport Harbor and 8th & Ocean to emulate the same “real lives of the rich” vibe. Neither show took off with the same gusto or found a love triangle as supported as the one between Conrad, Colletti, and Cavallari.
Instead, reality TV evolved into a study in the ridiculous and the over-the-top. Series were secretly scripted by producers. Cast members learned that the more drama they created, the more air time they’d get.
In 2006, several months before the third season of Laguna Beach ended, Bravo premiered The Real Housewives of Orange County, the first installment in would become Andy Cohen’s empire of collagen-injected Housewives, looking for a fight. They showed off their mansions, went on shopping sprees, and ripped out each other’s extensions — all for the chance at C-List stardom. Three years later, MTV’s Jersey Shore premiered at the opposite end of the spectrum, as a more down-and-dirty Real World with Snooki, The Situation, and JWoww hitting the gym, baking their bodies in the tanning salon, and hooking up in the clubs. The days of innocent Cabo bar-top dancing were over.
So what happened to that scrappy group of teens from the small coastal town? They dominated the airwaves before social media was even a factor, and while some went on to fashion lines, hit TV shows, best-selling novels, and rose-colored Instagram filters, most of the cast now leads relatively normal lives.
Stephen Colletti took his pretty face and acting chops to Hollywood, where he starred as Chase Adams on the CW’s One Tree Hill from 2007 to 2012. Kristin Cavallari left behind her high school sweetheart, and appeared on the last two seasons of The Hills before hitting the Dancing With the Stars circuit, becoming a mom (twice!), marrying Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and starting her own Chinese Laundry shoe line. And Lauren Conrad proved to be the most successful of all, narrating and starring in five seasons of The Hills, penning eight books (one of which was a New York Times bestseller), running her clothing line Paper Crown, creating a line for Kohl’s, consistently working with philanthropic groups like BlueAvocado and The Little Market, and — most recently — getting married to William Tell.
But what about their high school friends who didn’t go on to fame and fortune? Christina Sinclair (formerly Schuller), Morgan Smith (formerly Olsen), Jen Bunney, and Dieter Schmitz opened up about their experience on the show, how it shaped their lives, and their thoughts on their childhood friends’ fame.
TIME: What made you want to be involved with the show?
Christina Sinclair: We’re sitting there in class, and over the daily announcements they announce, ‘Okay everyone, MTV’s here. They’re going to cast a reality show on Laguna Beach. If you’re interested, sign up in the quad at break.’ And I think for any 18 year old, that’s a dream come true. It’s like Grease — when they say they’re going to film their prom and it’s going to be on national television. Oh my gosh, I have to do it! Just the prospect of having that opportunity, especially as a teenager, you think, ‘Oh, this fame, this great chance to show who I am to the world.’
Morgan Smith: I thought it would be a fun experience to do with friends, and also a way to capture my high school experience on film. Something to show the kids one day!
Jen Bunney: We’d fill out these questionnaires, and basically they picked my friends. They didn’t pick me, they picked my friends, and just by association I became involved with the show. At that point, I was kind of shy and not really into boys yet. I was late with all that. I didn’t have my first kiss until I was 16. I was sort of removed. I was just starting to get into the whole popular, boy, boyfriend, party, drinking scene. So I was more on a periphery at that point, which is good. It allowed me to concentrate on school and things that were actually important to my future.
Dieter Schmitz: They cast actual friends. Why wouldn’t you want to do an MTV show with your best friends? Most of the cast were people I’d known my whole life. I still see some of them everytime I go home. It seemed like a no-brainer.
Did you have dreams of stardom, or think about becoming famous when you signed on?
CS: I was involved in musical theater. I was the lead in the musical at that time. The timing was such that I really felt that that was what I was supposed to do with my life. I had just gotten cast as the lead in the musical. I was loving it. I really felt that God wanted me to kind of pursue that more in-depth, so I definitely had those aspirations before the show, and being cast really reaffirmed that for me.
MS: Acting and being a celebrity was never really the path I wanted.
JB: It was a popularity thing. It was fun. It was the cool thing to talk about. It wasn’t like it is now. If you’re in high school, and you have your own show, you’re just awesome. But kids didn’t view it that way necessarily, when they came to Laguna Beach. They didn’t really understand the capability of the impact that national television could have when your life is featured on it.
What was filming like while still being a high school student?
CS: They wanted to do it like Real World. I remember our initial contract was like, ‘We’ll film you all the time. We can have cameras in your bedroom.’ And all of us were like, ‘Absolutely not. That’s not happening.’ So I think it kind of forced them to take a step back and do it in a different way.
MS: It wasn’t a 24/7 filming experience like other reality shows. We had set times after school to meet during the week. I would say we filmed anywhere from two to three times per week from 3-7 p.m. or something along those lines.
What were the most deceptive elements of the show?
JB: I honestly think Laguna Beach was pretty good. For the characters that they focused on, I’d say it was pretty right on. They did some scripting in the sense that they would set up scenes. But it was based on real-life things that were going on. They didn’t concoct anything like they did on The Hills.
MS: I would say the slogan “They really are this rich and beautiful.” Seriously? They couldn’t have picked a better slogan? I drove a Jetta that they liked to refer to as a “German sports car” – not quite!
CS: I think for the most part, it was accurate. I do think that they made it out to be almost an “us versus them” thing in some episodes, and it wasn’t really like that. I mean, we were all friends, and it was high school. All friendships have their ups and downs, but I look back at high school and that group of people, and we were all friends.
Do you think your portrayal was accurate?
CS: It’s one of those things where if you don’t say something, or you don’t do something, they can’t make you do it. They can’t put words in your mouth. It is what it is. All those looks, any words that were said — they were said.
MS: A 30-minute segment can never show all of who you are. It’s interesting because when people came up to me after the show and felt like they knew me, I always thought that was funny. They really only knew a 30 minute, cut-down version of me. Still, it was great to know people felt connected.
JB: There were a million things that embarrassed me, but overall, I was just super goofy and funny. When I said things, I didn’t really think of them in the sense that they’re going on national television. I thought of things as, “This is going to make my friend laugh.” So that’s how I looked at it. I feel that my portrayal on Laguna Beach was a lot more accurate than it was on The Hills even though they made me sound like an airhead on Laguna Beach. But at the same time, I wasn’t the focus. I was not a main character. So anytime I would support a main character, or say something about a main character, or talk to a main character, they would air those lines. So that would be how people looked at me, even though that had nothing to do with my life.
DS: Nothing aired that I didn’t say or do, and I never felt like the show was trying to manipulate me or my friends. It was all pretty genuine.
Did you know the show would be a hit from the beginning?
DS: I had no idea it would be as popular as it was. We didn’t think much about becoming famous. We were just enjoying high school with our friends.
JB: I think it’s before reality TV really picked up, and so it gave us a chance to be ourselves without really recognizing the impact it was going to make on pop culture and on the country. We had no idea that saying something stupid or mean was going to really be reverberated throughout the entire country. I think once The Hills started, people were like, “Oh, this is serious, this is going to be airing on national television.” When we started filming [Laguna], they didn’t know that it was going to get picked up. We were just filming a pilot for fun. We weren’t thinking of national television in the sense that this is going to be on every TV set. So it really gave us a chance to be really genuine and vulnerable, which I think is pretty rare nowadays.
CS: I think for all of us, we didn’t know what it was going to be. We thought it was going to be a Made or a True Life. There was nothing really like that on the air at the time, so we had no idea what to expect. The attention that we got from it, it was crazy. We thought it was maybe going to be a half-hour special that was going to air a few times. We never realized that it was going to turn into a series that was going to gain so much momentum.
MS: I thought it was going to be a True Life or some sort of documentary. I remember seeing my first billboard, and then my first ad in Us Weekly. It was all so surreal at the time.
How would social media shape the show today?
CS: I think it goes both ways. It’s crazy, now you watch reality television, and they’re all over the place, all over the tabloids, all over everything. But we were the first real reality show that wasn’t any sort of a structure, like Real World. There [were no] on-camera interviews. In some ways, [it was] a blessing that we didn’t have to deal with all the social media and all the negative stuff that comes with that. But at the same token, you look at Bethenny Frankel and the empire she’s created — separate from her television personality, her Skinnygirl cocktails and all the stuff. If you’re launching a business, it’s such a great opportunity — great exposure, free PR. There’s definitely pros and cons to it.
MS: I think it was a blessing that we didn’t have social media, I see those candidates on The Bachelor getting slaughtered on Twitter and my heart really does go out to them. They are people that feel, and although some may think they ask for it — it still hurts.
What do you think of Lauren Conrad, Stephen Colletti, and Kristin Cavallari’s fame?
DS: Lauren’s one of my best friends. She hasn’t changed at all since we were kids. She’s still the same, kind person I knew growing up. We still see each other occasionally, and she hasn’t changed a bit.
JB: It was cool. I’ve always really liked Kristin, and I’ve always really liked Lauren, so it wasn’t like seeing people I hate rise to fame. It was seeing people I know and love rise to fame.
CS: I’m so happy for them. They’ve made the most of what we were given and I’m so proud of them. Every opportunity that Lauren’s created for herself, from Laguna Beach to The Hills to her clothing line to everything that she’s done. It’s phenomenal. She’s created such an empire for herself and it’s awesome to see a girl that you grew up with have that success.
In the battle for Stephen’s heart, were you Team LC or Team Kristin?
DS: I was probably Team Lauren. I got why Stephen liked Kristin. She was really cool, but Lauren and I had been best friends for a long time, so I always wanted them to get together.
JB: I was probably on Team LC. My loyalty resided with her, even though I really liked Kristin. I’d known Lauren since I was really young. I sort of supported her, but at the same time, it was all up to Stephen, so it was hard to be on someone’s side. It did seem like a big deal at the time. Lauren and Stephen had had a really long history, and then Kristin and Stephen had a really intense but shorter history, so it was two different types of relationships.
CS: I think I was Team Stephen. I grew up taking baths with Stephen. His mom is my godmother. He’s like a cousin to me. So I always wanted him to be happy. In high school I feel like it was changing so frequently that I didn’t care, but I did care about the girls’ feelings. I just feel like, “Come on Stephen, don’t be messing around. If you like Kristin, like Kristin. If you like Lauren, like Lauren. Don’t be a little player!”
How did being on the show affect your future?
CS: I was going to go to SMU in Dallas. Then, right before I left, I felt that getting cast on Laguna was so reaffirming that I needed to really pursue acting, and I didn’t end up going to SMU. I’m so glad I didn’t, because I probably wouldn’t have met my husband, nor any of the other friends I met going to USC. There’s always the possibility that maybe I would have gone to SMU, and who knows where I’d be today. But other than that, I think essentially, who I am as a person would not be different.
DS: The network would put us up in these amazing hotels [for the press tour], and I remember not always receiving the best treatment because people saw us as stupid teenagers. It actually inspired me to get into hospitality, because I saw such a difference in how some places treated us versus others.
MS: I’m not sure, to be honest. I did the things I think I would have wanted regardless of being on a TV show — graduate college, travel, get married, and start my career in New York and now Los Angeles — I would say it helped with confidence and meeting people.
Do you regret doing the show?
JB: Overall, no. Now that it’s been so far removed from my actual life, it’s fun to look back on it and have this experience you can share with your children someday, and have it be this cool thing you did. I don’t think anyone from Laguna Beach had anything to be bitter about.
CS: I definitely would do it again. Obviously, it was an amazing opportunity, but beyond that, I feel like there would have always been that, “What if I would have done it?” If I hadn’t done it, I think I would look back and be like, “Well, where would I be if I had done it? What would have happened if I had done that Laguna Beach show?” If I hadn’t done it, I think I would regret it.
MS: Regrets? Well, maybe some of my outfits.