Five Hours With The Man Behind The Best Drama On Reality TV
From Laguna Beach and The Hills to Selling Sunset, your favorite reality TV stars have one thing in common: superproducer Adam DiVello.
It’s 4 p.m. when Chrishell Stause struts into The Oppenheim Group office in Hollywood in a hot pink minidress.
“Good morning,” she coos to her fellow Realtors, sitting at their desks in full glam.
This is the fifth time she’s walked in the door.
The other four times, she walked a half block down Sunset Boulevard as Netflix’s cameras filmed her approach from the perfect angle, so the light from the afternoon sun created a lens flare just above her head. A good “morning,” indeed.
Sitting in the crowded control room a floor above the offices of The Oppenheim Group — named so for its twin-brother founders, Brett and Jason Oppenheim — a Selling Sunset producer reviews the walking footage for me and creator Adam DiVello. “Picture it with music that goes ‘Work it, I’m a boss!’” the producer says, mimicking the series’ signature relentlessly upbeat soundtrack. Down below, the monitors show us the characters who populate Netflix’s smash hit reality series milling around the office as the crew prepares for the rest of the shoot.
In one corner, Emma Hernan, an Oppenheim Group agent who moonlights as a vegan empanada entrepreneur, squeals in delight that her hot pink oversize suit, accessorized with a silver bralette and heels, matches her friend Chrishell’s dress. She pulls a bright pink hairbrush from her purse and smooths her platinum blond waves between takes, then stands up from her desk and brings Chrishell into an embrace, imploring a cameraman to take their photo.
Elsewhere, Nicole Young, a new cast member for Season 6, sits quietly at her desk in the far corner, observing the scene from a remove. She’s wearing a skin-tight black spandex jumpsuit and sparkling stilettos, looking like Formula 1 Barbie, but no one has commented on her outfit, or wished her a good “morning.”
“Are we doing a team meeting?” Emma asks the Brothers Oppenheim.
“No, just bullshitting,” one of the twins replies.
On another show, this would all be filler. Most reality series bob along the surface of artificiality, killing time between the moments where truth breaks violently through the fourth wall. (Think: hot-mic audio of a husband admitting to cheating on his wife on The Real Housewives of Miami, or shaky night-vision footage of a Bachelor cameraman chasing the show’s runaway lead.) But we’re in the world of executive producer Adam DiVello, who, before creating Selling Sunset, masterminded genre- and generation-defining “docusoaps” like The Hills, The City, and Laguna Beach. On a DiVello production, fake and real are whipped into a frothy mousse, in which the smallest hints of human emotion — the single, mascara-tinged tear — are held aloft by premium cinematography and the perfect needle drop.
When DiVello brought Selling Sunset to Netflix in 2019, the world discovered how irresistible his mix of high-gloss production and low-stakes drama can be. The last season was watched for 95 million hours in its first four weeks, and the show has spawned spin-offs in the O.C. and Tampa. DiVello is reality TV’s queenmaker, and with good lighting and the right edit, any bit of this banal office “bullshitting” could be the next Lauren Conrad crying GIF.
Earlier that day, sitting on the patio of a café on the Sunset Strip not far from the Oppenheim Group office, DiVello constructs another compelling image, this one of his own ascent in Hollywood. While filming a scene for the Laguna Beach pilot at Conrad’s house, the East Coast-born DiVello recalls standing in awe of his subjects’ tony Southern California lifestyle. “Lauren’s dad was dropping two palm trees in his backyard with a crane. I remember standing there [thinking] ‘I can’t believe people live like this,’” DiVello says. “We’re up on top of that mountain overlooking the ocean, and all I thought [is] ‘This is where I want to live.’” Years later, when DiVello bought his first house — in Southern California, where he’s lived ever since — he had his own palm tree installed. “It didn’t need to be craned in. It was a much smaller palm tree,” he concedes. “But I did text [Conrad’s dad] Jim and said, ‘Jim, it’s gone full circle. I’m now putting in my own palm tree.’”
As a kid growing up outside of Philadelphia, DiVello had an eye for the aspirational. “My mom said I only used to watch the commercials when I watched TV — I would never watch the actual show,” he says. In college, he realized very few people actually get to make commercials and switched his major to film and television. Years of assistant gigs at MTV led DiVello to the network’s development department, and to becoming an executive producer on Laguna. Back then, Laguna Beach creator Liz Gateley says, DiVello was young, hungry, and obsessed with the aesthetic details that would become the series’ calling card. “There was a situation in Season 1 where we were shooting outside one of the cast members’ houses, and the parents had two cars. The fancier car was in the garage, and the not-as-fancy car was out in the driveway,” Gateley says. “[DiVello] stopped down and said, ‘OK, let’s switch the cars out. Let’s put the nicer car out in the driveway.’ [He has] that kind of drive to make every detail work.”
DiVello’s love of advertising still powers his creative process. He got the idea for Selling Sunset after seeing an ad for The Oppenheim Group in The Hollywood Reporter, and the show doubles as free marketing for luxury home sellers. “At the end of the day, [reality TV is] a product that you’re basically selling to a large, mass group of people,” he says. “People are choosing it over something else and spending their time with it over something else.”
Hours before shooting the office scene, in the actual morning, DiVello and I visit one of the houses that will appear on the show in Season 7. (Season 6 premieres May 19 on Netflix.) Every fireplace in the five-bedroom, seven-bathroom Beverly Hills home listed for $12.9 million is burning brightly. The entire house — the home theater, the glass-enclosed gym, even the outdoor kitchen — somehow smells faintly of a musky cologne. “Imagine having a little party here,” DiVello says as we marvel at the yard, with its 45-foot custom zero-edge infinity pool. It’s the kind of place where you’d happily watch nothing happen.
“We’re going to exaggerate how you’re feeling, and for that, we can’t apologize.”
But it is the job of producers like DiVello to make sure something always happens. “It’s kind of like therapy, being on a reality show,” says Kris Lindquist, a Selling Sunset executive producer who also worked with DiVello on The Hills and his New York City-based spinoff, The City. “You’re going to be asked to look at things you don’t necessarily want to look at, and you'll probably hate us at some points for that. But we also ask you to trust us. We’re going to tell your side of the story. We’re going to tell the other side of the story. You’re always going to be represented fairly.”
Still, season in and season out, somebody has to be the villain, the victim, the ingénue, the comic relief, and DiVello’s favorite part is shaping those characters in the edit bay. “I tell people all the time when we sign them up for this, it’s going to be an exaggeration of who you really are,” he says. “If you’re feeling lonely or sad in real life, there is no slow song playing when you’re staring off in the distance. But on our show, there will be. We’re going to exaggerate how you’re feeling, and for that, we can’t apologize. That’s really what they sign up for.”
The great innovation of Laguna Beach and The Hills was the way they dispensed with the confessional interviews where the reality stars get to say their piece. The absence of talking heads gave the shows a scripted feeling, and put more of the storytelling in the hands of the editors. On Selling Sunset, the interviews are back, but the scripted feeling remains.
“We don’t give them lines; we don’t tell them what to do,” Selling Sunset Executive Producer Skyler Wakil says. “I know that everyone thinks that we do.” He repeats an analogy he got from DiVello to explain his tricks of the trade. “It’s like building a pinball machine. You have the little holes and flaps, and then you place your cast there, and you see what happens.”
DiVello says that producers and cast come to an agreement about how much of their life they’ll share. “We have a show to make. You have a life to live. We can’t make our show unless you let us have your life and vice versa. It’s give and take.” But the camera has a way of pushing people to share more than they planned. “I think they surprise themselves,” he says. “I think sometimes we might spark more of a conversation than they would normally have.”
And if the characters seem all too willing to take the bait, well, “drama sells,” says Mary Fitzgerald, Selling Sunset’s most famously nonconfrontational cast member. “I have a new house because of it.”
So, what is it like to put your life in the hands of the producer who created “Speidi,” aka The Hills’ villains-turned-tabloid regulars Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt?
“I was a nervous wreck, to be honest,” Jason Oppenheim recalls of filming Season 1. “I was difficult; I overthought everything.” Opening up his business and personal life to cameras and editors ran counter to every instinct. “I don’t even cede control to my lawyers and my accountants. I’m involved in everything, making every decision in my life,” he says. “The only area I can think of where I have ceded control and am comfortable ceding control is with Adam.”
Oppenheim’s fears weren’t exactly unfounded. For every person whose appearance on a reality show leads to fame, lucrative book and sponsorship deals, or TV hosting gigs, there’s another who’s inundated with online hate for their portrayal. Others allege that producers manipulated them or preyed on their insecurities to tell a story, with sometimes devastating effects on their mental health.
DiVello’s shows are no exception, particularly when it comes to those who get the dreaded villain edit. Montag and Pratt, The Hills’ iconic troublemakers, have spent the ensuing decade spilling alleged production secrets. Christine Quinn, Selling Sunset’s resident villain until her departure after Season 5, went on the Call Her Daddy podcast in May 2022 and alleged that DiVello cultivated a toxic work environment and manipulated her to craft narratives on the show. Laguna Beach and The Hills star Kristin Cavallari went on the same podcast three months later and alleged that DiVello bribed a castmate with a Birkin bag to say she had a drug problem on The Hills. (Reps for Cavallari and Quinn declined to comment for this story.)
When I ask DiVello about these criticisms, he becomes visibly uncomfortable. “I don’t focus on them, to be honest with you. We make a TV show and we put it out there, and you’re either going to have happy people sometimes [or] you’re going to have people that aren’t very happy with how it turned out. And whether it’s because they want to drive the narrative now or not, I don’t know,” he says. He looks away from the table and out toward the street. “I think at the time, we were all enjoying the process. Everybody’s moved on with their careers, and I hope everybody’s happy. I can’t control what happens outside the camera.”
Most make their peace with the bargain of appearing on reality television. “My experience with Adam and MTV was like Willy Wonka,” says Kelly Cutrone, the head of fashion PR agency People’s Revolution, who appeared on DiVello’s shows as aspiring fashion designer Whitney Port’s no-nonsense boss. (“No one really worked for me,” she says now.) “It was golden ticket land, and they were great. Of course, they’re going to push sometimes when you’re tired and you don’t give a fuck. But that’s their job.”
If anything, Cutrone says, being produced is like bungee jumping without the cord. “Reality TV is a gladiator sport,” she says. “The risk is you become chum for carnivorous consumers everywhere. You have to roll the dice. There’s no guarantee you're going to get through it. … You’re on TV because somebody finds you entertaining, and that doesn’t always mean fun.” And aren’t the painful moments what make the show a success? “These are all things that we maneuver in life,” Gateley says. “If you can watch people who live in a beautiful place and have nice things fall and stumble somehow, it makes all of our lives a little easier.”
Port’s own relationship to the shows that made her famous is more complicated. “I didn’t like feeling produced at all, and that was tricky,” she recalls, referencing a time on The Hills when she was coaxed by producers into bringing up rumors on-camera that cast mate Lauren Conrad, her fellow intern at Teen Vogue, had made a sex tape. (The rumors were later revealed to be false.) “I remember a whole conversation with the producers and them being like, ‘But you would ask [her] what was happening,’” Port says. “I knew that [Conrad] wasn’t in a place yet where she wanted to talk about it or for it to be a storyline on the show. So by me bringing it up, I was making it real. I didn’t like that position.”
These interactions were often complicated by the fact that Port had gotten genuinely close with producers on both shows. “My talent producer is still one of my best friends,” she says. “It was always so hard because I wanted to tell her everything, but then I was like, ‘Shit, this is going to come up in the Monday morning producers meeting. How much do I really want to share here?’”
Though Port is grateful for her time in DiVello’s glossy reality television machine — she ended up marrying Tim Rosenman, whom she met when he was a field producer on The City; they now share 5-year-old son — she is up-front about its negative consequences. “I would do the show a million times over; I have no regrets. I loved it. It was such an amazing experience for me,” she says. “But my relationships with the producers definitely had lasting effects on me and my trust issues, because I did get so close with them. When there were moments that things were heading in a direction that I didn’t know, or someone showed up that I didn’t know was showing up [in a scene], or I was being manipulated into saying things that I didn’t really feel like — those moments, they made little tears in my general trust with people, I have to admit.”
If the same anxieties are governing the current cast of Selling Sunset, there are no signs of it on set. Back at The Oppenheim Group office that afternoon, DiVello flits between checking in with the crew and talking shop with the Oppenheims, who are buzzing about their latest listing. “That house is a fucking 10,” Jason Oppenheim says as I exit the offices and cross the threshold back to the real world.
Outside on Sunset Boulevard, the tinted windows of the O Group offices shield the agents-turned-fledgling-reality-stars from the fans who regularly stop by to gawk. Other Angelenos stand nonchalantly at the bus stop directly in front of the office. There’s only one hint of the lacquered world of luxury being crafted inside: a trellis with faux vines that’s been affixed to the bus stop trash can to hide the garbage from view.
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