Head over Hills: The Undying Love Story of Heidi and Spencer Pratt
In the mid-2000s, Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt gained widespread notoriety by playing the villains on 'The Hills.' After spending five months with the two, we quickly learned their love was never mere tabloid fodder.
Photos by Molly Matalon; Styling by Sideara St. Claire and Cherokee Neas
At the Stonehouse Restaurant at the San Ysidro Ranch resort in Santa Barbara, CA, Heidi and Spencer Pratt are eating truffle fries and gluten-free bread and discussing how JFK and Jackie Kennedy celebrated their honeymoon at the same location. "It's why we like [the restaurant]," Spencer says. "Shout out JFK!"
Like Lana Del Rey, Heidi and Spencer—also known as Speidi, a name Spencer invented for them—worship Americana. They love blonde hair, The Bachelor, and the Pacific Coast Highway. Spencer believes Americans should defend the country against criticism. He's even mad at supermodel Janice Dickinson for forming an alliance with English contestants on the last season of Celebrity Big Brother: "She teamed up with the British!" he yells.
Mostly, though, Spencer talks about how much he loves Heidi. Over the course of five months of interviews, phone calls, and texts, Spencer tells me why Heidi (or "the boss," as he calls her) is the best woman on earth. "I love Heidi because she's the most special angel I have ever come across," he says. "Heidi is like the sunset."
Read More: Looking Back at MTV's 'The Hills'
This may sound crazy, but the word crazy has followed Heidi and Spencer everywhere since Lauren Conrad first told Heidi, on the famed reality program The Hills, "I want to forgive you, and I want to forget you." MTV initially billed Heidi as Lauren's sweet small-town sidekick from Colorado, but once Spencer entered Heidi's plot line in season two, the show became the story of Heidi breaking up with her best friend to date a psychopath.
The Hills getting cancelled was our 9/11.
When Heidi and Spencer married in April 2009—on camera, after eloping in Mexico the year before—fans predicted the marriage would end in a few months. Flavor Flav never found love on Flavor of Love, and of The Bachelor and Bachelorette's 31 winners, only six couples have stayed together. It didn't help that, as newlyweds on The Hills, Heidi and Spencer began collecting allegedly magical crystals. (Spencer says he once paid $65,000 for a single crystal.) Off-screen, they attracted media criticism for investing millions in Heidi's failed pop music career. In between the fifth and sixth seasons of The Hills, Heidi also endured ten plastic surgery procedures in one day, nearly dying in the process. But six years after the reality show that launched their careers ended, and nine years after Heidi met Spencer, Speidi remains together.
The couple lives in self-imposed exile from Los Angeles. After MTV cancelled The Hills, they briefly moved to Costa Rica, where they had planned to purchase a house. When they arrived, they learned that real estate in Central America can be just as expensive as it is in California. (Neither Spencer nor Heidi bothered to google prices before they boarded a plane.) For nearly six months, Heidi and Spencer say they lived in a Ritz Carlton in Costa Rica, ordering room service for themselves and their four dogs for every meal. By the end of their stay, they were broke.
"[The Hills getting cancelled] was our 9/11," Spencer says.
Today, Heidi and Spencer live rent-free in Spencer's dad's beachside vacation home near Santa Barbara. At their front gate, they've installed a laser security system typically reserved for museums, but Spencer admits they don't really need it. "Nobody wants to break into our home anymore," he says. "They google our new worth and see we are worth $10."
Before guests enter the house, Spencer makes them remove their shoes. Near the front door, he maintains a shelf filled with crystals; he's run out of space, so several lie on the floor beside it. Spencer picks one up. "Heidi bought me this crystal in Aspen," he says. "The owners love her. She got a discount, so it cost $250." In the stairwell, Spencer keeps a white crystal in front of a framed picture of Heidi and Spencer kissing at their wedding. "That was a gift from E! News," Spencer says.
While Spencer behaves like a loud David Mamet character, Heidi is like a woman out of a Bret Easton Ellis novel. She sits in the living room on a leather couch with one of her and Spencer's dogs, dressed in a black skirt and a hot pink shirt that matches her nails. She misses Colorado. "I love being alone," Heidi says.
Spencer crashes down on another leather couch in the living room. A stack of history books about South American cartels are spread across the coffee table in front of him. "To make words run smooth like poetry, that is talent," Spencer says. "We don't value books enough." Spencer loves the written word. In his office, he has hung Speidi's best magazine covers from the mid-2000s: Heidi and Lauren in Rolling Stone, OK! magazine stories about their relationship, and copy after copy of US Weekly. "Ever since [former US Weekly editor-in-chief] Janice [Min] took over Hollywood Reporter, it's been so good!" Spencer yells. "There would be no Speidi without Janice."
Spencer started behind-the-scenes in reality television: In 2005, he executive produced The Princes of Malibu, a Fox program about Brody and Brandon Jenner. Fox cancelled the series, but Spencer's co-executive producer, Sean Travis, went on to be executive producer The Hills. Spencer watched Lauren's star rise thanks to MTV, so he approached Sean about joining the cast. "Let Brody and me turn this up!" Spencer recalls saying. Sean rebuffed him, so Spencer and Brody started going to Hollywood nightclubs, trying to meet the girls from the cast. One night, Heidi and Spencer locked eyes at a club called Privilege.
"You can't make this shit up," Spencer says. "It was on the corner of Sunset—"
"And Crescent Height," Heidi says.
I was treating the show like a producer because I literally just made a show on FOX.
Heidi and Spencer finish each other's sentences as they describe their first encounter, Heidi's face turning bright as she describes what transpired that important night at Privilege. She was a huge party girl at the time. In most of the paparazzi photos of her and Lauren Conrad leaving nightclubs in the mid-2000s, Heidi says, she was blackout drunk. "Lauren and Heidi were the two best clubbers," Spencer says. "They [outdrank] Snooki and JWoww." But Heidi was bored with partying—she was looking for love. "I had been asking Brody [Jenner] and Kristin [Cavallari] if they had a friend for me, and they were like, 'No, we don't have any friends for you, blah, blah, blah,'" Heidi says.
Then she spotted Spencer in a booth surrounded by Playboy playmates. She had never seen one man with so many models; Spencer's game impressed her. "I was like cartoon goo-goo eyes, heart falling out of my head," Heidi recalls. She decided to steal Spencer from the playmates' clutches. They may be cute, but they don't have my dance moves, Heidi remembers thinking. She had lived in Italy for six months when she was 17, and European clubs had taught her how to dance dirty. Heidi dashed to Spencer, told him, "Let's dance," and then started grinding on him. "I was twerking before it was twerking," Heidi says. "It was my own creation." Over the next few days, she told all her friends about the new guy she'd met.
"I pretty much told everyone I was going to marry him and that I loved him," Heidi says. "[Everyone] thought I was crazy."
Heidi would soon get used to her friends calling her crazy. Trying to score a role on The Hills, Spencer pursued Heidi. At first they just went out clubbing with friends, but eventually they started seeing movies and getting dinner at the Grove. One night, Heidi remembers telling Kristin Cavallari, "Spencer is falling in love with me." She says, "[Kristin] turned it around [and told Spencer] that he was whipped." The comment annoyed Spencer. To prove he was still an independent man, Spencer danced in front of Heidi with another girl. Heidi stopped seeing him. "I'm done," Heidi told him. "I don't have time for this." Annoyed, Heidi changed her number on him. "This was back when changing your phone number was a really big deal," Spencer says.
Despite his initial reaction, Spencer had fallen for Heidi. He started hanging out with Nicole Richie, who was childhood friends with Lauren's assistant, future HelloGiggles founder Sophia Rossi. ("Sophia is a professional friend," Spencer says.) He recalls asking Sophia for Heidi's new number. Heidi remembers telling Sophia, "Absolutely not. If you give him my phone number, I won't ever talk to you."
A few months later, Spencer and Hills star Audrina Patridge ran into Heidi at a club. Heidi and Lauren had recently stopped speaking to Audrina because of rumors about her hooking up with Lauren's ex-boyfriend, Jason Wahler. "We were, like, so anti-Audrina at that point," Heidi says. "She showed up with Spencer, and we were like, 'Bitch, please!'" Heidi says she began playing mind games with Spencer. After playing hard to get for a bit, Heidi says she started dating him again.
Sometime in 2007, the same year Britney Spears shaved her head and Paris Hilton went to jail, Hills executive producer Sean Travis finally agreed to cast Spencer on the show. At the time, Heidi was the "B-plot," her story line secondary to the A-plot about Lauren, who served as the protagonist. Using his knowledge of reality TV production, Spencer began crafting drama to turn Speidi into the A-plot; he called his mission "operation upstage" or "upstage LC."
"I was treating the show like a producer because I literally just made a show on FOX," Spencer explains. "I didn't know how to be on-camera talent."
Spencer found The Hills boring. "They just edited out everything cool these girls used to do," he says. "[The editors] made them into these little drone robots that [said], 'Doop! Doop! Going to work at Bolthouse! And I work at Teen Vogue! Beep! Beep! Beep!'" He and Heidi sat around, brainstorming plot lines. They decided to play the villains because it would get the show higher ratings, and bringing in higher ratings could help make them the A-plot.
Spencer maintains he had no intentions to hurt Lauren's feelings. He saw a difference between Lauren and Heidi's on and off-screen relationships. Heidi remembers Lauren taking Spencer's on-screen manipulations personally.
All my friends' parents are producers and directors. I see the bigger vision of making content.
"She was like, 'It's my show, my world!'" Heidi says. "She didn't like someone coming in and changing up the formula because it was her world and she wanted it to stay that way."
Her anger increased when Spencer started calling the paparazzi on Lauren and Heidi. "Lauren had never been in a tabloid until I started calling the paparazzi on her, for her," Spencer says. He insists he thought he was helping Lauren. Several years earlier, Spencer had sold photos of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen to US Weekly's news photo editor Peter Grossman. Spencer says Grossman taught him that A-listers often call paps on themselves. "Look, all the big stars: Do you think that Brad and Angelina randomly got caught on the beach in Africa in the middle of nowhere where they reveal they're dating?" Spencer says. "No! These are strategic moves."
As a native Angelino, Spencer remembers finding Lauren's point-of-view odd. "[Lauren] is from Laguna Beach. I'm coming from LA," Spencer says. "All my friends' parents are producers and directors. I see the bigger vision of making content." Both Heidi and Spencer believe Lauren really was upset that Heidi's world no longer revolved around her own needs: Heidi had gone from sidekick to the protagonist of her own story, both on TV and in real life.
As when they finish each other's sentences when discussing their love, Heidi and Spencer complete their sentences when retelling iconic fights. "Heidi would still go out and do girls' night," Spencer remembers. "It would be 2:30 in the morning, and Heidi would come and meet up with me, and Lauren's like, 'You're leaving? We're just getting pizza now!"'
"She wanted me to be with her always 24/7," Heidi says. "Every night, every night."
According to Heidi and Spencer, one Valentine's Day, Lauren expected Heidi to go clubbing at Area with her. Heidi obliged, but at 3 AM she wanted to leave to see Spencer. She says that she and Lauren had a huge fight, where Lauren told her that she only wanted to live with a roommate who would actually be at home. "That's not a roommate, girl," Spencer says. "That's some Siamese twin shit." Lauren's anger increased when Heidi decided to move out.
"She felt like, 'If you're not going to do what I say, you're not going to be on my show,' type of thing," Heidi says. "She thought that if I moved out, I would be off the show, and that would be done, but that's not really what happened."
Without Lauren in the picture, Spencer became Heidi's focus. She started paying full attention to their romantic and business relationships. The couple hired Brad Pitt's longtime publicist Cindy Guagenti and say they secured an important partnership with a photo agency called Pacific Coast News (PCN), which they say was ran by a British tabloid vet. "In England, the whole Speidi, stagey shit, that's all they do," Spencer says. "[PCN] brought that to us." (PCN did not return Broadly's request for comment.) The photo agency would call Spencer and Heidi and tell them how to pose and when—if it was Halloween, for example, PCN would order them to pose with pumpkins. Spencer and Heidi obliged. In return, they say, they made millions selling their photos to England.
"We were fame whores, getting literally a million plus a year in photos and being hated for it," Spencer says. "It's frustrating for me that people don't recognize that this was genius. This was innovating!"
Their relatives started living off their success. Over the course of The Hills, Heidi's mom, her sister Holly, and Spencer's sister Stephanie joined the show. Heidi's mom owned a restaurant in Colorado. Before the recession, she had already hit financial trouble, and she needed the show's money even though she had no desire to be on TV.
Heidi, though, lived for the show's drama. On The Hills's third and fourth seasons, Spencer and Heidi's antics became the main plot. The couple staged fights with each other and their friends. Ratings exploded. 4.8 million people watched the episode "Paris Changes Everything." And Lauren and Heidi's fight over Spencer in the episode "Forgive and Forget" became a defining cultural moment of the Bush years. "I want to forgive you, and I want to forget you" became the new millennium's equivalent of "Frankly my dear, I just don't give a damn." Famed celebrity trash store Kitson even started selling Team Heidi and Team Lauren T-shirts. Heidi and Spencer say Kourtney Kardashian and Scott Disick based their own televised relationship on Speidi; according to Heidi, Kourtney asked her sister, Holly, for advice. (Kourtney's publicist did not return Broadly's request for comment.)
"She asked, 'What do Heidi and Spencer do? I need [to know] all the exact things, because we're doing exactly what they do,'" Heidi says. "What you don't realize is that when you fake fight, you make people hate you. It's not fun."
Hollywood types like the Kardashians have always understood how Speidi manipulated the plot lines and press, and Spencer assumed regular Americans understood "the fame game" too. "To me, it's entertainment," he says. "If you grew up in Palisades, you think, This is fun! Whatever. You make up these stories! So I didn't get that you can get murdered in the press, literally. I thought it was like a comic book." It helped that playing the villain was extremely lucrative: Spencer estimates between MTV paychecks, paparazzi deals, and getting paid to host events, he earned upwards of a million dollars a year. Every day, Heidi and Spencer say they paid $3,000 for hair and makeup. On some days, they would drop $30,000 on clothes.
I do have such a soft part in my heart for Lauren.
The negative media attention fueled their shopping sprees. One time, Heidi says she rewore a Chloé dress. "Psh, it's seven grand," Spencer says. "Wear that shit again!" However, when commenters ate Heidi up, she began to think she needed a new outfit for every day. Speidi had started believing their own press.
Heidi says the shopping masked the pain caused by playing a version of herself on TV that didn't correspond to who she really was. Looking back, she thinks she suffered from depression. In the mid-2000s, though, she denied the pressure and just kept shopping. Spencer and Heidi's world became more insular as negative media coverage of Speidi increased, and they mostly hung out with each other.
Even now, Heidi says she feels the loss of her friendship with Lauren. "I do have such a soft part in my heart for Lauren," she says. "I love the time that we had together. I really do appreciate everything that she did for me. I wish that it had turned out differently."
The backlash of the fame game became unavoidable when Spencer and Heidi expanded their reality TV career. In the summer of 2009, between filming seasons of The Hills, they appeared on NBC's I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here. This required them to travel to the jungle in order to compete against American Idol's Sanjaya Malakar and Daniel Baldwin. Spencer and Heidi maintain they agreed with the network to play the villains. On day two of the competition, they quit.
America turned on Spencer and Heidi. NBC executive Paul Telegdy told Ryan Seacrest, "They are insincere, lazy, entitled, and they claim the devil has possessed them." The couple appeared on The Today Show, and Al Roker called Spencer a "jerk." "When I started realizing I'm on The Today Show, and I'm getting verbally accosted by the weatherman, with all due respect, I was like, Something is wrong here," Spencer says.
Spencer and Heidi logged onto the internet and saw hundreds of comments criticizing them. Spencer had conceived of their actions as performances—no different than A-listers pretending to go on shopping excursions in the tabloids—but America took them literally. To the public, reality TV was real, and it showed Speidi as they truly were.
"If you're really going to do a reality show, you need to be a 100 percent real person if you really want to make it out, if you really want to leave a show and say, "That was me. I did it,'" Spencer says. "You cannot be an on-camera producer worried about ratings.'"
At age 22, Heidi spent her time sitting around her and Spencer's mansion, reading the comments. "I was just ridiculed and called the 'ugly friend,' she says. Watching his wife cry, Spencer became angry. "Literally comments were created just to talk shit about Heidi!" Spencer yells at me, still furious nearly a decade later.
When a doctor approached Heidi offering to give her ten plastic surgery procedures worth $300,000, she jumped at the opportunity. She thought she would end all the negative feedback. Spencer resisted the offer—he thought Heidi was beautiful—but he says the doctor told him the procedures were easy. "I heard the word minor a lot," Spencer says. "Minor is the word I recall hearing."
I was in so much pain. I was literally crying every day.
In the office, Spencer says, the doctor showed him how much the procedures typically cost. All the prices were crossed out on the sheet of paper. "Tax was $0," Spencer says. He started thinking about how this would help them on the show. "And at this point, we were all for plot, so "$300,000 free?" Season four ratings had dipped by 25 percent. In 2009, Jersey Shore premiered; when Snooki got punched, she instantly eclipsed Hills stars as America's favorite starlet. Spencer and Heidi knew they needed to step up their crazy, so they took the surgery deal.
But the surgeries were far from minor. "I was not in the right mind frame to make that decision," Heidi says. For six months, she lay in a bed wrapped head-to-toe in bandages like a mummy. "I was in so much pain," Heidi says. "I was literally crying every day." Doctors prescribed her painkillers, but they failed to work. She stopped taking her pills. One day, Spencer brought home a crystal. When he placed it next to Heidi's bed, the pain disappeared.
"I felt the crystals were helping," Heidi remembers. "Whether it was just metaphorically, or just a placebo effect, [they helped]. Spencer was like, 'Wow! These crystals are really working too.' We were just not at a good place at the end of The Hills."
Spencer started buying more crystals. While in the Bahamas, Heidi says she received a call from her business manager. "There's a mistake," Heidi remembers him saying. "Someone is trying to charge a $70,000 crystal [to your account]." Spencer told him, "Oh no, that's mine!" The business manager's response: "You guys are crazy."
Their performance had blended with their life, and at some point Heidi and Spencer became Speidi, the couple they played. The Hills's final season further worsened their well-being. Before Heidi had healed, she had to return to shooting The Hills because of her contract. The producers wanted to tape Heidi's mom seeing Heidi's new face for the first time, and Heidi was contractually obliged to shoot the scene. Heidi says she begged her mom to cancel, but her mom was losing her restaurant in Colorado and needed money. "[MTV was] writing $30,000 checks to a broke lady, with all due respect," Spencer says.
On national television, Heidi's mom said she preferred Heidi before surgery. Heidi broke down. She remembers telling her Mom, "I can't believe you just said that line! That wasn't what we agreed to!" Her mom told her she didn't know what to do; the producers had fed it to her. Heidi says, "It wasn't her world. She got confused."
"I take a lot of responsibility as well because I should have intervened in my family and been like, 'This isn't appropriate, I'm not doing it. It is affecting my real life. I'm putting an end to this,'" Heidi says. For two years, she stopped speaking to her mom. A devoted husband, Spencer sided with Heidi. He viewed Heidi's mom as anti-Speidi.
I was like, 'I need to be nutso at this point, like holding crystals to my head.'
"It all started merging too much. I wish I had never brought my family on The Hills," Heidi says. "I kind of shut down and pulled back from my family. I did the worst thing and it just kept getting worse after that."
Heidi and Spencer became more and more ostracized from the outside world. Where only 2.1 million people watched The Hills season five premiere in fall 2009—a dramatic drop of 30 percent from the previous season premiere—4.83 million viewers tuned into Jersey Shore's season one finale on January 21, 2010. The first episode of season six of The Hills premiered in April 2010; it featured the scene in which Heidi revealed her new face to her mom. 2.7 million people tuned in.
"Shit, we knew how good the Jersey Shore was because we were super fans," Spencer says. "So I personally was like, 'I need to be nutso at this point, like holding crystals to my head.'"
"We were in such a survival mode," Heidi says.
They say they filmed a pilot for a spin-off where they move to the suburbs and have kids, but in the final season, their behavior alienated The Hills executive producer Adam Devillo. He had hired a producer Spencer refers to as "The Collector." "She was grimy," Spencer says. "Even the crew hated her." (Adam did not return Broadly's request for comment.) In the final season, Spencer says, she would get up in his face, trying to provoke him and make him go off. During one shoot, Spencer says, she asked him to punch his sister, and Spencer freaked out.
Even the mastermind behind "operation takeover" had had enough. He went out and started buying more crystals, hoping the decorative ornaments could restore their sanity. "I was hoping I could be a wizard at that point," Spencer says. "I was like 'Fuck it, I need magical powers to get out of this.'"
"You definitely were on a spiritual quest," Heidi agrees.
"Yeah, I was trying to find wizard powers!"
"Why were you trying to find wizard powers?" I ask.
"Because we needed magic," Spencer says.
"We were going down," Heidi adds.
"I needed, fucking, a spell to get us out of there. I needed some Harry Potter magic," Spencer says. "You could feel the energy, the hate. We needed to counteract this darkness."
After MTV cancelled The Hills, they scrapped Speidi's spin-off. Spencer and Heidi had saved none of their fortune. They had invested millions in Heidi's failed music career. They assumed they could live comfortably off paparazzi photos, but as social media exploded, the value of paparazzi photos declined. Why would US Weekly buy a paparazzi photo when they could use a celebrity's Instagram selfie for free?
Poverty forced them to accept what they had done. They pioneered the reality TV game without a road map. In the last four years, they've appeared on foreign reality shows and Marriage Boot Camp. For a few weeks a year, they play Speidi, but then they go home to their house, where they live alone and avoid the public. They spend most their time together, which they live stream on Snapchat, drinking, cuddling, and watching reality TV.
"I became the character that I was pretending to be," Heidi says. "I was pretending to be this Hollywood materialistic girl on The Hills that they kept telling me to play out, and I really started becoming more like that. Like you hear with actors, they need to take a break because they start becoming like the movie characters they've played. When you play pretend, you have to be really careful with that."
Five months after I first meet Heidi and Spencer, I'm in their guesthouse with Spencer. Antonio Vivaldi's "Concerto in C Major Op. 8, No. 12" plays on a TV screen. Four dog cages sit at the foot of a bed. He wears flip-flops, long green pants, and a grey shirt. A light blonde beard covers his face. He wanted to shave, but says his barber told him he looked too good with the facial hair.
Spencer is giddy with excitement because of Tiffany "New York" Pollard's performance on Celebrity Big Brother. At first he detested Gemma Collins from The Only Way Is Essex, but says he has admired her ever since she yelled, "I don't play games!" at another contestant. He plans to use the line the next time a reality TV competitor calls him crazy.
"Are you going to play the nice guys now?" I ask.
"Psssh," Spencer says. "We gotta play the villains."
Around sunset, Spencer and I leave the guesthouse to meet Heidi on their back porch. She wears a black cardigan and tight jeans. A make-up artist has contorted her face. Heidi and Spencer and kiss and then walk from their porch to a set of stairs leading to the beach.
The sky is turning pink and blue, and a row of white boats speed to the shore—the beach could serve as the set for Apocalypse Now or Britney Spears's "Sometimes" music video.
Heidi is shocked when Spencer then tells her I've never seen Perez Hilton's season of Celebrity Big Brother. "What?" she asks. Heidi and Spencer care more about dated pop culture than the sunset, and they say they rarely even come to the beach. "We don't like civilians," Spencer says, as he points at people playing with their dog in the sand.
The one thing Spencer does care about more than celebrity is Heidi. When the sky turns pink and blue, he takes out his phone to take a selfie, but he gets distracted by Heidi's presence. He stops and smells her hair. "I love the smell of hairspray," Spencer says. He kisses her and then takes a selfie with her. It's been nine years since Spencer and Heidi first met at Privilege, but it's clear they're still in love.
"No one has ever made me feel so good," Spencer says. "I never even thought it was possible to feel this good."
"The biggest misconception about us," Heidi says, "is that we wouldn't do it all over again."