Whitney Port is a hard girl to reach. Filming is running late. She needs to get to the airport. Her cell phone doesn’t have reception. She’s working.
The fact is, she’s always working. The 23-year-old Port stars on MTV’s newest “reality soap opera,” The City, playing herself. The series is a spin-off of the wildly popular docusoap, The Hills, itself a spin-off of another heightened-reality show, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.
On the show, Port is the pretty blonde California girl plopped in Manhattan, all wide-eyed and ready for a fresh start. You almost want to feel bad for her. Only this girl has a better social life, better clothes, and a way-better apartment than you. She also has one of those too-cool jobs — working PR for designer Diane von Furstenberg — that involves clothes and champagne and parties that little girls’ dreams are made of.
The premise of the show is deliciously simple: Fresh in town for a glamorous new job, Port finds herself stuck in a painfully black-and-white New York City dilemma. Should she choose the uptown world of her social-climbing co-worker Olivia Palermo, or the downtown lifestyle of her photographer friend Erin Lucas and jam-band-fronting boyfriend Jay Lyon? (In this topsy-turvy version of the city, the “uptown” crowd resides in Tribeca, while the “downtowners” favor Gramercy.)
She’s got it so good that it comes as no surprise that not everyone is happy for her. On the blogs she’s a favorite target. New York magazine’s fashion blog, The Cut, called her a “shitty-assed friend” in an episode recap called “The City Has Utterly Failed Womankind.”
Critics love to argue that her onscreen existence is scripted and setup, more Gossip Girl than Truman Show. They say Port’s co-stars, her friends and her boyfriend, are all cast by MTV, pretty faces picked for their telegenic qualities and flair for talking about feelings “female to female” and whispering ominous platitudes like “the truth hurts.” Her onscreen chemistry with boyfriend Jay Lyon started off about as tepid as day-old bathwater, so it’s easy to see why people would think they were actors playing their parts. The Cut went as far as to call her “asexual.” But when Port tells me about Jay, “her love interest,” on the phone, it’s clear that she’s a girl who at least has a crush. Maybe some things are real in the city.
Her critics also say she doesn’t work, that her glamorous high-fashion job at DVF is a fake — equal parts MTV plotline and PR stunt for the label. No matter what you think, don’t underestimate her. Being Whitney Port is a full-time job.
“It’s very, very surreal,” says Port of her reality-show fame. “I feel like I live this dual life, but most of my life that’s on TV is my real life, is my personal life. So I try to balance it as much as I can. And the cameras aren’t around all the time, so I’m allowed to have my time. And I have all my best friends who live in L.A. who have never been on the show. I come from a really big family, so I try to stay grounded and stay close to my roots when I’m not filming.”
She watches the show (“it’s kind of like watching a home video”) and so does her family. She also keeps in close contact with Lauren “L.C.” Conrad, the breakout star of the Laguna Beach franchise. Before Port set off on her own made-for-TV adventure, Conrad gave her some advice. “She told me to take everything one day at a time, to have fun with it, try not to overanalyze things, and just continue to be myself because that’s what everybody really connects with, if you’re true to yourself.”
While the rest of The Hills cast makes for frequent tabloid fodder with their quickie marriages and boob jobs, Port has managed to stay away from that kind of fame. In fact, she seemed the least likely Hills cast member to get her own show, if only because she’s so, well, normal. “[L.C.] is pretty much the only one I keep in touch with on the show,” admits Port, but the two are close. “I talk to her all the time, she’s always helping me out and giving me advice and we’re good friends, so we like to catch up and see what’s going on in each other’s lives. We’ve always had that kind of sounding-board relationship where we help each other out.”
Haters aside, Port does have a bit of fashion-world credibility. She interned at venerable fashion rag Women’s Wear Daily before applying for an internship at Teen Vogue. It was there that she was spotted by MTV’s casting crews and joined Conrad as a Teen Vogue staffer and reality-TV star. In the show’s third season, Port moved on to PR firm People’s Revolution, where we met her boss, Kelly Cutrone. A brutally honest mentor, Cutrone pops up on The City to give Port advice and start fights with her friends. (Cutrone will soon star in her own reality show, on Bravo.)
At the end of season four of The Hills, Port got the chance to interview with DVF in New York. Of course, she got the job. “I knew that I always wanted to be in New York at some point or another, so to actually have this opportunity so young in my life, I felt like I couldn’t pass it up,” says Port. “And it’s been great.”
For someone who’s been in the game for a while, Port remains innocently optimistic when asked what she’s learned. “Just stay close to your gut and don’t let people take advantage of you, but also follow your dream and know that it’s not the easiest industry to be in,” she says. “People are very demanding and it’s very high stress, but if you really want it just work as hard as you can in your young life because it will pay off at the end.”
If a little naïve, Port is clearly not stupid. Over the phone her speech is thoughtful and measured, a far cry from the breathless “ums” and “you knows” and exaggerated sighs from the show.
Her car pulls up at JFK — presumably for a flight to L.A., where she is snapped by paparazzi a few days later. I wonder: do people have any misconceptions about her?
“I think people think that I — oh I’m here actually, I can answer this question though — people think that I may not have that much personality or I’m kind of mute, but I think what people need to realize is there’s a lot of power in editing, so there’s a lot more to me than just meets the eye. Umm... business class please, thank you.”
See, always working.
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