Conrad is the oldest child of architect Jim and Kathy's three children. The family lives in prominent Laguna Beach, Calif. In the sixth grade, Conrad realizes that she wants to work in fashion. "I think that I get bored easily with things," Conrad tells USA Today in 2006, "and I love that it's always changing."
MTV approaches Conrad and a group of friends to document their senior year. The show, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, premieres in September 2004 as a counterpart to Fox's teen drama The OC with Mischa Barton and Rachel Bilson. "It really was presented to us like a documentary," Conrad tells USA Today. "Nobody thought it was going to blow up like it did...definitely a different way to grow up." The MTV reality series turns Conrad, Kristin Cavallari and Stephen Colletti into stars.
After a semester studying fashion at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, Conrad returns for another season of Laguna Beach. She transfers to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in L.A. With Conrad getting less screen time, Cavallari becomes the show's center and the second season averages 3.2 million viewers. For the third season, a whole new cast comes on board, including Conrad's younger sister Breanna.
Conrad makes Laguna Beach bad boy Jason Wahler, her main squeeze. "All of my boyfriends are trouble," she tells PEOPLE. In August 2006, the pair call it quits. "Breaking up with Jason was the hardest thing I've ever done," she tells CosmoGirl! in March 2007. "I still wanted to be with him but I knew that I couldn't be."
MTV develops a spinoff with Conrad featuring her move to L.A. as she studies fashion and interns at Teen Vogue (from left, fellow intern Whitney Port, Conrad's best friend Heidi Montag and future roommate Audrina Patridge costar). Creator Adam Divello tells USA Today why Conrad was chosen: "I think she proved that she is 'every girl'...She has ambition – not to just go off and be a celebrity."
"On Laguna the girls would fight with their boyfriends," Conrad, 20, tells PEOPLE. "Now we fight with our bosses. The drama on this show is real problems, like, [am I] going to get fired." Divello echoes Conrad, "It's really about the next stage in life, when you leave high school and leave home for the first time. It's about Lauren trying to make a career in fashion. And that in itself is exciting."
When Conrad lands the June/July cover of Teen Vogue, she makes publishing history as the first intern to become a cover girl. "I felt like I should be steaming clothes and stuff," she tells TV Guide. A few months later at the 2006 Teen Choice Awards, Conrad wins Choice Female Reality Star for The Hills, beating out Laguna nemesis Kristin Cavallari and Paris Hilton.
Conrad flirts with Nicole Richie's ex-boyfriend, Brody Jenner, and the two share a short romance. Conrad tells PEOPLE she was never serious with the Hollywood playboy. "He's a cool guy. We hung out a couple of times. But I went into it telling him – I was like, 'I don't want to date you.' Oh, he doesn't want a girlfriend either!"
The Hills returns for a second season but this time it's not just about work and boys. The show follows Conrad after her breakup with Wahler, and two of her closest friendships are on the rocks. The drama scores in the ratings with the second season outperforming the first by 9 percent. The Hills becomes the most-watched program in its time slot among 12 to 24 year-olds. That same month, Conrad makes a cameo in the comedic satire Epic Movie.
After landing the covers of Seventeen and CosmoGirl!, Conrad proves she's a draw for teenage girls. She inks a deal as the latest face for Avon's youth cosmetics brand, mark. With the deal, Conrad collaborates with beauty and fashion campaigns slated for the fall, while working on her own fashion line.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): amazon.com; Jemal Countess/WireImage; Clinton H. Wallace/Globe; Mark Davis/Getty; Jason DeCrow/AP