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Long before the current avalanche of reality-based shows,
MTV's The Real World was giving us an up-close look
at 2O-somethings navigating their way through life.
With the kickoff of the program's lOth edition this
month, Out assembled several of its gay and lesbian
alumni to discuss how The Real World affected their
lives and how the show woke up a generation to gay realities.
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THE SETUP IS, TO SAY THE LEAST, SURREAL. BASKING IN
the sun on the deck of a lavish home in Los Angeles
are Norm Korpi, Dan Renzi, and Danny Roberts, three
former cast members of The Real World-all gay. They're
waiting for the next setup in the days photo shoot,
while Beth Anthony and Ruthie Alcaide (also former Real
Worlders, who are lesbian and bisexual, respectively)
are in hairstyling and makeup. These people, who have
never all worked together before, are hanging out for
the first time. "Norm is a hell of a lot taller
than I thought he was," admits Roberts. "He
makes me feeling like a midget!" "The most
shocking thing I learned," groans Korpi, "is
that Danny was 4 when I was on the show." "Yeah,
I had just been potty-trained," says Roberts with
a laugh. "He's just glad because he's half a blip
hotter than me," quips Renzi. Huh? "They were
checking our lighting with a light meter, and they go,
'Danny is half a blip hotter than Dan.' And Danny goes,
'Yep.' He answered just a little too quickly."
Joking aside, Roberts acknowledges the significance
of the situation. "It's kind of weird with gay
Real Worlders, because we're the only [cohesive] group,"
he notes. "We're the gay club." The charter
member of the dub is Norman Korpi, who in the winter
of 1992 entered a New York loft, not quite sure what
he was getting himself into. Of course, neither was
MTV. "I wouldn’t say we were nervous,"
says Judy McGrath, president of MTV Group, who has been
at the network since it launched in 1981. In 1991, when
MTV decided to get Real, McGrath was an executive vice
president and creative director. "Something about
it sounded like the greatest idea to us," she says,
noting her fascination with 1973's An American Family,
ostensibly the first reality series, and I one that
featured a gay person, Lance Loud. The premise of The
Real World was simple: Put seven strangers in an apartment,
with video cameras following their every move, and see
what happens. But Korpi almost didn’t make it
onto the show.
"We ultimately cast the seven most interesting
people.' explains series co-creator Jonathan Murray,
who reveals that while roughly 35,000 people audition
for The Real World and Road Rules each year, only about
200 are openly gay or lesbian.
"I got a rejection letter," remembers Korpi,
now 34, who at the time was an artist living in a loft
"We were actually looking at his loft to use on
the show [when we met him]," says Mary-Ellis Bunim,
co-creator of the show.
And then the casting person called me back and she said,
'Come back in,' " says Korpi, a Michigan native.
"I was like, 'Oh, well, I got a rejection letter.'
She said, 'Oh, don’t pay any attention to that.
"MTV, for one, was thrilled to have a gay house
dweller. "We always thought that one of the things
we should do is reflect our whole audience," says
But deciding to become the first real openly gay person
on a regular television show since Lance Loud took some
serious consideration. "I had the contract in my
hand," Korpi says, "and I was on the F train.
I looked up and down the train and said, 'What if one
day everybody on this train knew who I was. Would I
be able to handle that-would that be OK?'
"Ultimately, it was more than OK. None of Korpi’s
roommates were homophobic; even Julie, a young woman
from the South who had never encountered homosexuality,
embraced her housemate. "She was very open,"
So were audiences. About five episodes into The Real
World 1’s [broadcasts] I had maybe one piece of
fan mail," sighs Korpi, who watched model roommate
Eric's letter bag overflow. All of a sudden, after a
month, an enormous amount of mail came in-I mean boxes
of it, and it was just overwhelmed. And to this day,
they still write letters.
"Norm’s incredibly entertaining and very
likable," says Bunim. "I can’t remember
any negative reaction whatsoever."
"Had I been a little older, I would have connected
more to it," says Danny Roberts from last year's
Real World in New Orleans, who actually watched the
debut season. "But I was like, wow, there's an
actual gay person on television. Growing up Southern
Baptist in a small town in the South, the gay thing
was so taboo. It really just made me feel like they
are real people, Jiving real lives."
Of course, that was the goal of Bunim and series co-creator
Jonathan Murray when they came up with the idea for
The Real World, long before reality shows such as Survivor
and The Mole incorporated gay people. Murray had previous
experience as a news executive and documentary filmmaker;
Bunim was an executive producer on the soap operas Search
for Tomorrow, As the World Turns, and Santa Barbara.
"The premise of the show is about diversity,"
says Murray, who is openly gay. "It's about bringing
seven people together who aren’t like each other,
so you have to include gay people, black people, Latinos.
So we've always h, done an outread1, year after year,
to try and make sure that different segments of society
know we're interested in telling their stories too.
"To that end, Murray says, they always try to find
people who are sympathetic. "But we cant always
predict what they re going to be like when they’re
put with six other individuals," he admits.
And they can’t always find gay people. Case in
point: This summer's Real World, which returns the show
to its New York roots, debuts July 3 and does not have
a gay housemate. (However, the new Road Rules, a reality
show also created by Bunim and Murray, does have a queer
"We ultimately cast the seven most interesting
people that we think would s make a great cast, and
sometimes there's a gay person among them and sometimes
there isn’t," explains Murray, who reveals
r that while roughly 35,000 people audition for The
Real World and Road Rules ead1 year, only about 200
are openly gay or lesbian. "We wouldn’t cast
someone just because they’re gay."
While every cast member I spoke to acknowledges that
every thing that happened was "real," most
have a grudge or two on ~ how things were edited together.
"I expected a more well- rounded person than what
they showed," says Ruthie Alcaide, who was on 1999's
Hawaii season and was seen being taken to the hospital
in the shows first episode, after she consumed too much
alcohol. "I had just come off of the college scene
but [was] still in the college mode. It wasn’t
like I was partying every day."
Genesis Moss, the young lesbian in the shows Boston
cast, was portrayed as being attracted to her drag queen
friend Adam/Eve, when "I was never sexually attracted
to a drag queen,"
"She stresses. "But because Adam was a drag
queen and he was " my best friend, they jumped
on that I was having some sexual attraction to him."
Harvard law student Justin Deabler came across as a
bit of an Alexis Carrington type in the Hawaii house.
"I think that was radically out of context,"
says Deabler, who left the show at mid "season
when his great-aunt fell ill and he went to be by her
"She died five hours after I got there," he
recalls. "But what sucked more was that two weeks
ago I couldn’t go to bed, and I turned on the
TV and that episode when I left was on again. And I
thought, This is going to haunt me for the rest of my
And who can forget Korpi's being labeled a "bisexual'?
"I'd like to correct the record," he states.
"I'm not quite sure how the bisexual thing got
in there; when I looked back to study it, it was Julie
who said, 'Norm is a bisexual.' And so with Julie's
label on me, that's how it became [so]."
The production side works to find a balance between
the sensational and the mundane. Says McGrath: "It's
in the interest of storytelling. I've always worried
about the cast members and if they feel exploited when
it's over. [But] you would never be com- pletely satisfied
with what the director and the editor decide they're
going to use to tell the story."
Most, however, understand that editing is done to reflect
the spirit of the show. "When it comes to editing,
of course you re going to take the most dramatic parts,"
says Alcaide. "If you didn't, people wouldn't watch."
And they have watched. When the show debuted in 1992
it averaged 527, 000 viewers per episode. And all seasons
get repeated heavily, eventually landing in syndication.
Last year's New Orleans show attracted 2,216,000 viewers
per episode, making it number I among basic cable shows
in its time slot among viewers 12 to 34 years old, the
mediums highly coveted demographic.
In attracting those viewers, The Real World has been
able to influence the way young people view gays and
lesbians. "The Real World has worked against stereotypes,"
observes Sadath Garcia, an openly gay 19-Year-old college
student from Chicago who began watching the show in
1996. "From a Harvard law student to someone dating
a guy in the military. I think that's one of the larger
battles the gay community fights." The show has
had a diverse batch that’s for sure. Following
Korpi's 1992 debut, Beth Anthony became the shows first
lesbian when she joined the Los Angeles house mid-season
in 1993. In 1996, Dan Renzi strutted down the catwalk
and n exchanged some catty comments with housemates
as well in IS Miami (he returned to MTV this winter
in the Real World/Road - Rules Extreme Challenge). Genesis
followed in Boston in 1997. Justin and Ruthie made their
debuts in Hawaii in 1999, and Danny charmed pretty much
everyone in the Big Easy in 2000. There were no openly
gay housemates in the 1995 London cast or the 1998 Seattle
But no one on The Real World-gay or straight-has had
the impact that openly gay AIDS activist Pedro Zamora
had when he appeared on the San Francisco show in 1994.
All of the cast members had been made aware that an
HIV-positive person would be living in the house, but
that didn’t prepare them--0r the country-for the
emotional effect Pedro’s presence would have.
"Pedro helped bring information about a disease,
and it also showed the human side of someone dealing
with a horrible ill- ness," says Lisa Wolf, a clinical
psychologist who works with children in Los Angeles
and has watched the show since its inception. "It
broke down the barriers of 'this is a gay guy.' Nobody
cared about his sexuality."
"He made it very easy," recalls one of Pedro’s
housemates, cartoonist Judd Winick, who has since captured
his time with Zamora in the award-winning graphic novel
Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned.
As if illustrating the tight bonds formed in San Francisco,
this August Winick will marry fellow housemate Pam Ling.
"Every little fear I had going on in my head bad<
then, Pedro knew it. That was his mission-to educate
Even President Clinton was affected, and after Pedro’s
death at the age of 22, just hours after the shows season
finale aired, Clinton issued a statement saying that
the young man had turned AIDS into "a disease with
a human face."
And along with Zamora came the networks first full-fledged
gay romance (not counting Korpi’s brief tryst
with talk show host Charles Perez), when Zamora met
Sean Sasser shortly after he moved into the San Francisco
house. The two celebrated a commitment ceremony on air.
"Before Pedro and Sean, I'd never witnessed a same-sex
relationship," admits Cory Murphy, who also lived
in the San Francisco house. "So the first time
I saw them holding hands and kissing, I couldn’t
help but feel a little uncomfortable simply because
I'd never seen it before. However, I got used to it
Danny Roberts has put a different kind of stamp on The
Real World. He wasn’t an activist. He wasn’t
dramatic. In fact, one of his roommates didn’t
even think he was gay. "Kelley thought I was hitting
on her at first," Roberts says with a grin.
"He came across to me as a well-rounded person
who just ill happens to be gay," says Teen People
entertainment editor Jeremy Helligar, who has watched
the show since the first season.
Indeed, Roberts, who was dating Paul, an officer in
the military, during the taping, had some of his private
struggles played out for the public to see, including
a fleeting lapse of fidelity I when he locked lips with
another guy during Mardi Gras. "That was the first
time in my life that I did something that hurt me just
as badly as it hurt the other person," sighs Roberts,
who is still with Paul. "I can’t see not
being with Paul." But fame has its price, and one
of Roberts's payments was seeing his head placed on
an erotic photograph that made its way across the Internet
last year. "I get asked about it constantly,"
he admits. "But ifs fake, so I don’t put
my energy into worrying about it."
More important is the good that the show does, which
is reflected in the hundreds and hundreds of stories
every gay cast member has heard. "Ifs like you're
allowed to be gay on the show-it doesn’t count,"
notes Miami's Renzi, who, like every other gay Real
Worlder, says the response he gets from viewers has
with little exception been positive.
"Friend of mine is from rural Wisconsin,"
says Deabler. "He said, 'You helped me come out
to my younger sister.' "
Celebrities have gotten in on the act too. Korpi had
recently moved to Los Angeles and was doing production
work for the premiere of WaterWorld when an excited
young blond woman approached him. "I call 'em screamers,"
says Korpi. "But this screamer was actually Gwyneth
Paltrow. So Gwyneth says, 'You've got to meet my boyfriend.'
All of a sudden we're heading right for Brad Pitt. She's
like, 'That’s my boyfriend! He loves you.' And
he turns around, sees me, and says, "Ifs...Norm!"
And he, like, grabs me, and he gives me this big hug
and this big kiss. And he went on for 20 minutes-obsessed."
Equally profound is the effect the queer castmates have
had on their roomies. "I always felt that if there
was someone who had a problem with [my being gay] in
the beginning, [that person] wouldn’t have a problem
with it in the end," says Roberts. "And Julie
[a Mormon] was so not cool with it in the beginning.
I didn’t try to force it down her throat, and
by the end she had a whole new outlook on it."
The change extends further. "In reality, gay people
run the gamut," notes Teen People's Helligar. "That's
what happens in The Real World. You get a more accurate
portrayal of what gay people are like. So ultimately
it does good."
Wolf says it helps gay youth deal with their sexuality:
"It's like a mirror for young gay people looking
in the television which says, 'You're represented.'
" It is also helpful in breaking down stereotypes
for heterosexual youth. "The most important thing
about the show is that it has exposure to different
lifestyles. Exposure increases your empathy for other
people, and it makes you feel that they're familiar,
so they don’t become a threat-it breaks down the
'us and them mentality." And, one could add, The
Real World fosters empathy in a way that is perhaps
more powerful than that effected by gay TV characters
who are fictional, because the struggles feel more authentic.
Like Roberts, Wolf also points to New Orleans's Julie
as a prime example of the empathy factor. "For
people who live in very small towns and don’t
have a lot of exposure to gay and lesbian lifestyles,
you got to watch her thinking evolve over the course
of the show,"
Wolf says. And, she adds, allowing yourself "to
watch Julie evolve in her thinking makes it OK for you
to change your [own] thinking."
The show is poised to continue opening minds. This summer,
Bunim and Murray go into production on the Chicago edition
of The Real World, which, atypically, will air in the
winter. "The first couple of seasons [the concept]
was very iffy," recalls Bunim, "But now we
think it could go on forever."
So with the show long behind all of them, are they ultimately
glad they did it? " I definitely have my moments
where I regret has its doing it," admits Roberts,
who has had to lead a secret life with placed Paul because
of his boyfriend's military ties. "But there are
so many positive things that came out of it-people saying
I've 's fake, made their lives easier. That makes it
"I've had so many people come up to me and they
just cry, 'You saved my son,' " adds Korpi.
"Would I do it all over again?" wonders Anthony.
"A thousand on the times over, if it meant that
one less teenager had suicidal thoughts or one less
person felt shame."