It took just 11 words to forever alter the history of reality television: "I want to forgive you, and I want to forget you."
Fans of The Hills will never forget Lauren Conrad's takedown of former best friend Heidi Montag, who — along with her then-boyfriend Spencer Pratt — was accused of spreading rumors about a sex tape between Lauren and Jason Wahler. But looking back, the mic-drop line overshadowed just how composed Lauren remained throughout their emotional conversation as she pressed Heidi to admit Spencer was behind the rumors, and when that failed, to recognize how much pain they caused her. Whether or not she was coached by a producer, Lauren's poise in that moment reflected the manicured nature of MTV's The Hills, which built upon Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County's soapy reputation with its manufactured storylines and relationships.
If this era of reality TV thrived on manipulated drama — something The Hills owned up to in its 2010 series finale — Spencer and Heidi were the puppet masters pulling the strings. Thanks to his previous experience producing Brandon and Brody Jenner's The Princes of Malibu for Fox, Spencer was particularly conscious of how the genre had changed since the days of The Real World, and when he joined The Hills in 2007, he went to work maximizing his screen time.
Spencer freely admits he sought to make Heidi's "B-plot" just as important as the main storyline about Lauren, The Hills' narrator and golden girl, and he recognized that the best way to do so was by creating a lane for themselves as the show's main antagonists. It helped that there wasn't much competition for the role: Season 1 focused heavily on Lauren's job at Teen Vogue (and culminated in her fateful decision not to go to Paris for the summer) and less on the interpersonal drama that characterized later seasons.
"Upstage LC" became Spencer and Heidi's goal, and a 2016 Vice profile reveals they were so committed to that mission that they would sit around brainstorming potential storylines. "I was treating the show like a producer because I literally just made a show on Fox," Spencer told Vice. "I didn't know how to be on-camera talent."
And so Spencer and Heidi set out to remake The Hills in their image. From his first appearance in the Season 2 premiere, Spencer leaned into the role he imagined for himself. He two-timed his girlfriend, lying to her face about his interest in Audrina Patridge, and drove a wedge between Heidi and Lauren, her best friend and roommate. Heidi played her part as well, confronting Spencer about his bad behavior only to overlook it. By the time she agreed to move in with him in the season finale, they became the united front forever known as "Speidi," a moniker created by Spencer himself.
In the interim between Seasons 2 and 3, Speidi took "operation upstage" even further by spreading the sex tape rumor, resulting in Lauren and Heidi's iconic "You know what you did!" confrontation at Les Deux. The "sick little rumor," as Lauren called it, forever destroyed Lauren and Heidi's friendship, and the conflict came to define The Hills for the next few seasons as Spencer's sister Stephanie Pratt, one of Lauren's friends, found herself stuck in the middle of their cold war.
As The Hills wore on, Spencer and Heidi realized villainy was a booming business. The worse they behaved on television, the more their star rose, and they parlayed that fame into a lucrative deal with photo agency Pacific Coast News, paid hosting gigs, and appearances on other shows, including I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here. At the peak of Speidi's power — when network executives declared them to be "everything that's wrong with America" in 2009 — they were making more than $1 million per year, Spencer told Vice, and though the firehose of cash soon became a dribble, their legacy endures. Spencer and Heidi Pratt understood that reality TV villains aren't born, they're created, and they offered a blueprint for the next generation of stars who weren't afraid to play dirty in their quest for celebrity.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.