The phenomenon of The Hills which returns for season 4 on Aug. 18 at 10 p.m. has gone beyond the weekly tabloid covers (mostly chronicling Lauren's feud with her former BFF Heidi Montag), the endless spoofs (see Mila Kunis and James Franco's dead-on Audrina/ Justin Bobby on FunnyOrDie.com), or even its place in the current presidential campaign. (After Heidi endorsed John McCain, he joked that he never ''misses an episode of The Hills''; Barack Obama promised David Letterman, ''My first act as president will be to stop the fighting between Lauren and Heidi.'') The series has also transformed an ordinary California girl into a West Coast reincarnation of Carrie Bradshaw (if Carrie were a millionaire), while giving MTV its biggest success in years. Season 3 averaged 3.9 million viewers, making it MTV's highest-rated show since 2004's Real World: San Diego, and its May 12 finale topped even the broadcast networks in the 12-to-34 demographic. ''I would go out on a limb and say this is probably the biggest show we've ever had,'' says MTV Networks' president of entertainment, Brian Graden. ''With Lauren Conrad, a whole generation of women see themselves in her.'' Says Tony DiSanto, MTV's exec VP of series programming and development, ''It's almost becoming like a novel at this point, like this generation's A Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist.''
Whether or not you equate drunken nights at Hyde and Les Deux to the classic literary works of Dickens, the show's success is undeniable. And no one has reaped more benefits than Lauren. While she has yet to graduate from L.A.'s Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, where she majors in product development, she's already launched her own eponymous clothing line (in partnership with MTV), which is sold in 500 boutiques across the country. Forbes estimated her 2007–08 income to be $1.5 million and Lauren says she used her own money to purchase the reported $2.3 million home she lives in on The Hills. ''I see her as a global brand,'' says Max Stubblefield, Lauren's agent at UTA. ''Fashion and beauty are the drivers, but we've had a lot of interest from a lot of different categories.'' Since The Hills premiered in 2006, Lauren has landed endorsement deals with Mark cosmetics and AT&T, has a book proposal in the works, and wants to launch her own television and film production company. ''It's about empowering girls,'' says Lauren, when asked to describe what she represents as a brand. ''You're gonna have bad boyfriends and best friends-turned-enemies. You need to be yourself, you need to work hard, and you'll get there.'' And if you can get someone to give you a reality show along the way, it can't hurt.
NEXT PAGE: Lauren watches as the fratty guys laugh and joke. ''That's really gross,'' she says. ''I've kissed two out of three of those.''