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INTERVIEW - REALITY BITES BACK
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The Real World’s first gay housemate,
Norman Korpi, discovers the value of parody
By Daniel A. Kusner
It’s kind of difficult to feel the slightest hint
of sympathy for anybody who ends up on The Real World.
The spoiled brats who live rent-free for a few months
and become instant celebrities are paraded before the
mass media for our voyeuristic entertainment. Degrading
these selfish neurotics about their silly arguments
is all part of the reality-TV fun. They’re just
characters. And without going into how victimized they
all end up feeling after their 15 minutes have quickly
ticked away, some of them happen to be actual human
Michigan native Norm Korpi was one of the original “seven
strangers” from the first Real World installment.
Back in 1990, he was just a post-grad art queer making
the rounds in New York when he agreed to be a part of
“some kind of TV documentary” that later
became a pop cultural phenomenon. Without being a militant
activist, the amiable Norm is undeniably a queer pioneer
of reality programming. Ten years ago, things were a
little different about gays represented in the mainstream
media. Norm was easily “tolerated.” His
name even had an eponymous “normal” ring
to it. But — not that he had a lot of control
over it — his sexuality label was just a little
“In one of the very early episodes — we
didn’t even know each other all that well —
one of the cast members referred to me as ‘bisexual
or whatever,’ and that episode was released to
the press and the bisexual label stuck,” he remembers.
“At that time, there were no Ellens or K.D. Langs.
It was pretty much just me. But I think it took almost
three whole years for the general public to realize
that I was a gay man through-and-through. And overcoming
that was sort of frustrating.”
Reality TV celebrities are always griping about how
their public personas are distorted and shaped by clever
editing. But what’s interesting is how much control
the network has over those meticulously constructed
“cast members.” Without a doubt, The Real
World is a high-dollar commercialized project. The former
housemates could easily cash in on producing scintillating
enterprises about their experiences on the show. But
many of them haven’t had much luck in that department.
“There’s so much that we’re legally
prohibited from doing. Every single Real World participant
has signed thicker-than-steak contracts that restrict
what we can do with our experiences on the show. I mean,
they don’t have the rights over my biography,
but it’s a fine line as to what we can and cannot
do,” he explains.
But — if properly executed — corporate brass
can’t say anything about parodies, and that’s
where Norm’s new movie comes in.
The Wedding Video, a selection in Fort Worth’s
Q Cinema film festival (see review on Page 45), is a
madcap spoof of the series that chewed these roommates
up and spit them out. Ten former Real World-ers were
cast to play friends who converge on Beverly Hills for
Norm’s gay wedding. It’s a low-low budget
film, but it’s also a near-miracle that the MTV-stylized
mockumentary even got off the ground.
“A large portion of the film’s budget was
spent on lawyer fees — advising on what we could
get away with. This project is actually a big step in
figuring out just how far we can take things without
crossing some line in the sand,” he explains.
Apparently, once The Real World hits the air, most of
the cast members find themselves in a weird media-circus
limbo. While everyone in the freethinking world seems
to know who they are, they have a tough time gaining
a foothold in the non-televised world. After the series
ended, Norm tried working in a coffee shop but his employment
was terminated because distracting Real World fans would
never allow him to do his job. Instead of boo-hooing
with “goodbye cruel Real World” antics,
Norm grabbed his bootstraps and began setting the wheels
in motion to produce films. Eventually, The Wedding
Video project started coming together.
“It’s weird. So many of the cast members
become these, like, refugees who are washed up on Hollywood
Boulevard. But most of them are really smart, talented
and nice people. We have something in common that bonds
us together, and almost all of them are totally there
when one of us needs them,” he says.
There was no elaborate crew working on The Wedding Video.
But Norm managed to get a sizeable number of Real World-ers
to participate in an independently funded film that
required them to sacrifice a significant amount of time.
And in true self-sufficient fashion, Norm not only starred,
wrote and directed the project, he also had to learn
“When I found out how expensive it was to hire
a professional editor, I learned that it was cheaper
to teach myself how to edit over 60 hours of footage,
and that took a good year or so,” he admits.
His Real World experience ultimately helped pave the
way for shows like The Osbournes. So what’s Norm’s
reaction to that show’s recent $20 million deal
for a second season?
“I couldn’t have been happier. Anyone who
can squeeze money out of Viacom has my most sincere
admiration. But honestly, even though she got $20 million,
I still think that’s really nothing compared to
what she’s really worth to MTV,” he says.
“I was on their very first reality program, which
I believe spawned the entire industry. Real World was
essentially the engine that propelled MTV into the conglomerate
it is today. It gave them the money to do things like
buy Paramount Studios.”
While he didn’t make a fortune back in 1990, Norm
acknowledges the impact he’s made on modern culture.
“I know that I haven’t done that much. There
are plenty of other dedicated people who are really
out there really trying to shape the public’s
perception about gay people in a healthy way,”
he says. “But I can at least say that —
at the time — I was one of the very few openly
gay people out there in mainstream media. At the very
least I was that.”
The Wedding Video will be screened on Saturday, June
22 at 7:15 p.m. at Caravan of Dreams, 312 Houston St.
in downtown Fort Worth. Filmmakers Clint Cowen and Norman
Korpi will be in attendance. Following the film is The
Wedding Reception, a kitschy meet-and-greet party complete
with bridesmaid gowns and champagne fountains, which
will be held at the Sundance West Highrise Apartments.
Cover charge $5. For additional information visit www.qcinema.org.