More than a decade ago, Heidi Montag made a pointed attempt to parlay her reality TV fame into something greater. As MTV producers did their best to paint her as the antagonist in Lauren Conrad’s life narrative, aka The Hills, Heidi — then in her early 20s — mustered up the courage to finally pursue her lifelong dream. Which, as it turned out, was a far cry from exploiting (a totally inauthentic version of) her young adulthood in front of millions of viewers week after week.
On The Hills, Heidi’s caricature claimed she wanted to work in PR. As viewers may recall, she dropped out of LA’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising after she landed a “gig” working for event-planning powerhouse Brent Bolthouse. But, in real life, the Crested Butte, CO, native yearned to be a pop star. “I always loved to sing,” Heidi tells Life & Style in an exclusive interview. “I was shy about that for a while, but I eventually started to open up about how I wanted to record an album. I knew I needed to start making moves.”
Luckily for Heidi, her then-fiancé and now-husband, Spencer Pratt, already had a foot in the door. In the mid-2000s, Spencer served as a talent manager for his pal and future Hills co-star Brody Jenner. It just so happened that Spencer had established a good rapport with Brody’s one-time stepfather, David Foster, an esteemed producer who’s worked with the likes of Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Jennifer Lopez — and who was married to Brody’s mother, Linda Thompson, from 1991 to 2005. It wasn’t long after Heidi shared her previously suppressed passion with Spencer that he secured a time for her to sing in front of David at the Grammy winner’s recording studio in Malibu.
Brody, Heidi, and Spencer in 2006.
“Oh my gosh, I’ll never forget it. I was so nervous! I think I could barely talk. And David was like, ‘Yeah, just do some notes for me,’” Heidi recounts. “So we did all these different notes and he was like, ‘OK, well, the great thing is you can match what I’m doing.’ He told me I had a great ear. He was like, ‘You have great tone and I think we can do it.’”
After getting David’s stamp of approval, Heidi wasted no time breaking ground on what she hoped would be a transition into a full-fledged music career. One of the first songs she ever recorded was “Touch Me,” a collaboration between Mr. Foster and songwriting extraordinaire Kara DioGuardi, who’s penned hits for Christina Aguilera, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, and more pop legends. “After getting over the nervousness, I was just so excited to record,” Heidi says. “That was really a moment in time for me.”
But she was just getting her feet wet. Heidi went on to cut several other tracks — “Higher,” “No More,” “Fashion,” and “Body Language,” among other gems — a necessary warmup to her first and only studio album, Superficial, which was released digitally through Warner Music eight years ago today on Jan. 11, 2010. Though she had a legitimate label behind her, Heidi shelled out $2 million of her own money to assemble an all-star team of writers and producers.
“I really just wanted that right sound, so I set the bar high,” Heidi — who ended up making magic with Cathy Dennis (Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue), Laura “LP” Pergolizzi (Rihanna, Miley Cyrus), Steve Morales (Enrique Iglesias, Celine Dion), and more — tells Life & Style. “I wanted to work with people of that caliber. That’s how much I cared about the album.”
Heidi soon traded in set-up lunches and shopping trips for marathon sessions in the recording studio. “I think people have no idea that I spent hours and days working on Superficial. Like, when everyone else on The Hills was going shopping, I was in the studio. I hardly had a break at all. I went right from filming to the studio,” she says. “I really wanted it to sound like me. It was important to take a step back and really take my time with it. I never settled. I worked really hard because I wanted it to be perfect.”
And perfect it was. At the time of Superficial’s release, I had been a diehard fan of The Hills since its 2006 premiere. Contrary to my friends’ (and, let’s be real, the entire country’s) loyalty to a certain Miss Conrad, I was a staunch supporter of Heidi. I fell fast in love with the Hollywood ingenue on Season 1 of The Hills — her carefree approach to life was aspirational AF when I was a confused, closeted 15-year-old — but I also learned to appreciate the way she manipulated the media and took control of her image outside of the girl we got to know through MTV’s unjustly blurred lens.
Heidi at the 2008 MTV Movie Awards.
In 2008, the New York Times branded Heidi as a “feminist hero” for defying Spencer’s (most likely scripted) wedding demands, and for standing up for herself in the aftermath of Lauren’s infamous, friendship-ending “You-know-what-you-did!” attack at Les Deux. Heidi was also my personal hero for her unapologetic display of self-love, regardless of others’ opinions — an important life lesson I had yet to master in my teens.
It’s true: Not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes, they wear bundles of hair extensions and carry Birkin bags. Needless to say, my unremitting veneration of Heidi has only intensified since high school. So with that in mind, paired with my affinity for all things Britney Spears-inspired, you can only imagine how I felt when Heidi ultimately put forth the auditory blessing that is Superficial.
My gay, pop diva-loving heart practically exploded. And not just because of my steadfast respect for Heidz. The music, influenced by a number of pop evangelists, including Britney, Xtina, and Jessica Simpson, was good. Like, really good. When Superficial eventually made its way to my iTunes library, I was a freshman in college and no longer hiding who I was. Consequently, I was unafraid to sing the praises of pop goddess Heidi.
Now that I was out and proud, you best believe I played the s–t out of her record. Heidi’s angelic voice frequently filled the halls of my dormitory. And, whether they liked it or not, my roommates — and pretty much every student who lived on the third floor of Marymount Manhattan College’s East 55th Street residence hall — knew the majority of Superficial’s lyrics. Despite my enthusiasm over Heidi’s foray into music, her album failed to achieve commercial success. Reportedly, it only pushed 1,000 copies in first-week sales — and did not earn back the millions of dollars spent during its production. Although she was once confident that the music was “bulletproof enough” to eclipse her polarizing feud with Lauren, Heidi now sees why her efforts weren’t well-received.
“I think people just didn’t want to give it a chance and there were so many people on Team Lauren at the time that were just like, ‘No, I don’t want to hear it anyway. She’s not friends with Lauren,’” she tells Life & Style. “I knew it would be a lot to overcome, but I thought the music spoke for itself, and that I could just continue following my dreams and have more of a grassroots buildup.”
Looking back, Heidi suspects that it wasn’t just her public enmity with Lauren that derailed Superficial’s trajectory. The now-31-year-old mom-of-one — who shares son Gunner Stone, 3 months, with hubby Spencer, 34 — believes the scrutiny she faced for making the controversial decision to undergo 10 plastic surgeries at once also hindered its performance; she went public with her procedures days before Superficial’s release. “It was just such bad timing on my part,” Heidi reflects. “I put my heart, my soul, my money, and years into making this album — and then it’s almost like I sabotaged myself.”
Heidi in 2010.
Heidi admits that she couldn’t bring herself to listen to the 12-song track list “for a year or two” because she was “so sad about how it was upstaged” by unfavorable press. The album’s poor reception hit Heidi particularly hard because, at one point, a very powerful force at Warner Music had put his utmost faith in her. Record exec Tommy Page, who sadly passed away in March 2017 at age 46 due to an apparent suicide, was the A&R who oversaw Heidi’s music career in its beginning stages. According to the aspiring chart-topper, Tommy planned to make Heidi Montag a Top 40 staple.
“I had Warner Music calling MTV, being like, ‘Can she perform at the VMAs? We’re ready to push Heidi and put a lot of money behind her as a music star if we can get you guys on board.’ And MTV just said no. So I could have been performing at the VMAs, and my music career could have been exactly what I thought it would have been,” Heidi tells Life & Style. “But MTV refused to get on board. And then the record label was like, ‘Look, our hands are tied at this point, so there’s not much we can do for you. We can’t push you like a normal artist because MTV is blocking you.’”
Frustratingly, producers of The Hills were adamant about never breaking the “fourth wall” on the show. Essentially, the idea was to ignore the cast’s meteoric rise to fame — so that viewers could still “relate” to Heidi and Co. Obviously, a Superficial-related story line was out of the question. “They were very serious about keeping us normalized and recording an album isn’t necessarily ‘normal’ for a 23-year-old girl. I think it would have been a whole different thing if they kind of lifted the veil. They did that in the finale, but at that point, it was way too late,” says Heidi. “So it was a catch-22. I got to where I was because of The Hills, but because of MTV, I couldn’t go any further.”
Even with its myriad of setbacks — LC allegiants’ dismissal of Heidi’s musical ambition, bad publicity and its seeming correlation to Superficial’s lack of sales, plus MTV forbidding her to perform at the VMAs — the album was met with critical acclaim from a handful of reputable outlets. People described it as “a fun, empowering mix that you could really dance to,” which is profoundly accurate.
The criminally underrated disc is laden with sonic treats. Standouts include dreamy, mid-tempo tracks like “Blackout” and “Fanatic,” sexually charged girl power chorales like “I’ll Do It” and “More Is More,” and pulsating club anthems such as “Turn Ya Head,” written by Cathy Dennis in the vein of “Toxic,” the 2004 No. 1 smash she crafted for Britney.
In due time, Heidi found the emotional strength to add Superficial back into rotation. If you follow her or Pratt Daddy on Snapchat, you’ll find that the couple often listen to the album during everyday tasks: working out, cleaning the house, and even taking care of their little boy — who, as Gunner’s mama proudly says, “loves a good beat.”
“I eventually got to a point where I was like, ‘You know what? Forget it. I’m just gonna enjoy it and appreciate it myself, even if no one else does!’” Heidi recalls. “It’s a weird thing. When I listen to each song, I can remember exactly what was going on when I recorded it, and exactly where I was. It’s always such a good flashback for me to listen to that album.”
Heidi and her “biggest supporter” Spencer pushing her music career in 2009.
For those who still haven’t given the album a chance (how tragic if that’s you, TBH), Heidi is hoping to reach new listeners all these years later. “I would urge them to listen with an open mind because it’s not even about me. Take me out of the equation and Superficial is an incredible pop album. All the writers are top of the line,” she says. “Everyone who worked on it is the best of the best in the business, so I just think that the songs themselves are incredible and fun and empowering. I hope that anyone who listens to the album feels empowered and more confident.”
Here, Heidi takes Life & Style though each track from her pop opus, which she says doubles as a “photo album,” reminding her of a distinctively unique chapter in her life. “I love those songs,” she gushes. “It just takes me back to where I was in that moment in time in my life, and being on The Hills. Every song makes me smile for a different reason.”
1) “Look How I’m Doing”
“So now you act all jealous / ‘Cause you know you did me wrong / I let you slip that first mistake / But the second time, I was gone”
HM: “I think that’s just such a fun track because that’s how I felt. I felt on top of the world. With Lauren, I felt like she broke up with me, we were in such different places — and I know it wasn’t how she felt — but this song, even though it sounds like a kiss-off to an ex, it really resonated with me because of what I was going through in my friendship with Lauren.”
2) “Turn Ya Head”
“So, turn ya head / Fix your eyes on this, ain’t nothing like a show / Turn ya head / Keep the dance floor lit / Ain’t nothing like a show”
HM: “Cathy Dennis wrote ‘Turn Ya Head’ and I just loved it. To me, it felt like a new ‘Toxic.’ I thought it was the new ‘Toxic.’ I just thought it was so hot and sexy and fresh. It’s so self-spoken. It felt so me at the time. I was living a show.”
“And you got me so wild / I can’t disconnect, it’s automatic / I’m a fanatic for you”
HM: “I love ‘Fanatic.’ And Cathy Dennis also wrote that one. And the lyrics really expressed how I felt about Spencer. I always was just such a fanatic for him, and it was just so fun to be able to sing a song that was so relatable for me in my own life.”
“They say I’m superficial / Some call me a b—h / They just mad, ‘cause I’m sexy, famous, and I’m rich”
HM: “I think ‘Superficial’ was so ahead of its time and acknowledged the future of pop culture. I love how the song celebrated me doing my own thing, having this boss attitude, and completely owning it. I just think that ‘Superficial’ is such a great anthem. It’s empowering for people. Because, at the end of the day, who cares what anyone says? It was like, ‘I know you say I’m superficial, but I’m not. I can wear designer and not be superficial.'”
5) “More Is More”
“More is more / On the dance floor / It’s f–king chaos in here / More is more / Than you asked for / It’s f–king chaos in here”
HM: “I heard ‘More Is More’ and I was like, ‘I need that.’ It had a swear-word in it and, at the time, there were really no songs with swear-words in them on the radio. There are now of course, but at the time, it felt really progressive and edgy and ahead of the curve. It was such unknown territory. And then Dave Aude did a remix because we definitely wanted to get it on the dance charts and it did! It reached No. 27 [on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart]. It’s so cool that it did hit the charts and because of that, ‘More Is More’ really holds a special place in my heart.”
6) “One More Drink”
“His hands upon my waist, so close that I can’t wait / I’m going home with you, if I have one more drink”
HM: “Dawn Richard from Danity Kane wrote this one with Mary Brown. Mary Brown is great. I knew her even before I started cutting music. And, actually, that was the very first song I cut for the album. I thought it was such a fun club anthem. It just makes you feel sexy.”
“You’re twisted / As a liar you’re gifted / Can’t believe your so twisted / Like an actor in character / I don’t know how I missed it”
HM: “To be honest with you, singing this song was so hard. LP [songwriter Laura Pergolizzi] didn’t think I could cut it. She was like, ‘I’ll let you try, but if it’s not sounding great, I don’t want you to have this record.’ So I tried and I think I surprised her — I actually surprised myself! — because she was happy with what she heard and she was like, ‘Oh, alright, you can have it.’ But it is a very, very vocally challenging song for sure. But I love that song. The lyrics were so fitting for my situation [with Lauren]. I had someone in my life at that time who was so twisted and maniacal and no one was seeing it. So it was something I could really put my heart and soul into.”
8) “Hey Boy”
“Don’t think that your hittin’ for my team, ‘cause you don’t know what it means to be a real man / Don’t act like your payin’ my bills, when you know your broke a– can’t even pay attention”
HM: “This song was all about women empowerment. And, like the lyrics say, I have always paid my own bills and I do pay my own way. And it was like, ‘Look, if you’re not gonna get with this, then see ya later. Bye, boy!’ It definitely didn’t have anything to do with my relationship with Spencer at the time, but I think it was so good for other people to hear. Who hasn’t been fed up with a boyfriend at one time or another? I wanted my fans to know that it’s important to be your own woman, be empowered, pave your own way — and if he’s not willing to get with that, then send him on his way.”
9) “My Parade”
“I’m young and I’m having fun, so I’m gonna celebrate / If you wanna play, then follow me / But if you don’t, get out of my way / Won’t let ya rain on my parade”
HM: “This is one of my favorites because it’s so emblematic of how I’ve lived my life and how I feel. It’s my parade, life is too short, I’m gonna do what I want, I’m gonna enjoy it, and if you don’t want to have fun and be a part of my life, then get out of my way. And that’s always been my motto since I was really young. This was a great celebration of one’s self. I don’t feel like there’s enough self-love and there’s nothing wrong with loving yourself. Be your own best friend. You’re the only person you’re with all the time, so you might as well enjoy it!”
“Black out the satellite, where should we run to? / Let’s get invisible, boy / And if you want to, go somewhere no one can find us / We can get out of here”
HM: “Believe it or not, Taylor Momsen wrote ‘Blackout’ with Cathy Dennis. But I didn’t know that until I cut it. Cathy played it for me and it was love at first listen — and I knew I needed to record it. It really felt like my anthem for Spencer. It was just so us, and explained perfectly how I felt about being with him. And the creator of The Hills actually loved it so much that he wanted to play it during our wedding on the show, but the higher-ups at MTV said no. But that’s how much they loved it, too. So I think ‘Blackout’ is forever one of my favorite songs.”
11) “I’ll Do It”
“I’ll be your blonde tonight, if that’s what you like / Stilettos and fishnets, if that’s what you like / I’ll be your hot mess, schoolgirl in curls / Whatever your type, baby if that’s what you like / I’ll do it”
HM: “I played the demo of that song myself so many times before I even recorded it because I loved it so much. I was like, ‘That is it.’ It’s sexual, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s all about the woman being in control which I love. It’s also so fun to sing — and I won’t tell you what I’ve done to that song! The lyrics were naughty and when I recorded it, I just felt so sexy and cool and confident. It was like, ‘I’ll be whatever you like because I’ve got it all.’ In a way, it’s like the modern version of [Chaka Khan’s] ‘I’m Every Woman.’”
[Ed. note: There aren’t words to express the sheer brilliance of “I’ll Do It.” It is my absolute favorite track on Superficial. If you listen to one song on the album, please let it be this one.]
12) “Love It or Leave It”
“I’m an important lady / When I show up, they pay me / Pass the check to the right / I don’t need you to save me / I know that some people hate me / I’m just living my life”
HM: “‘Love It or Leave It’ is kind of like a moodier version of ‘My Parade.’ It’s just always been my attitude. Like, I don’t want to play games. You either love me for me and all that I am, or peace, see ya later. Basically, this was my way of saying, ‘Yeah, I do whatever I want, and I know I’m not perfect, but you’re either gonna be down with it or you’re gonna have to hit the road. Because I’m not going to change the way I am for you.’”
Superficial is available on iTunes.