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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.

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 in Brooklyn.

"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 McGrath.
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," says Bunim.
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 character.)

"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 side.

"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 life."
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 cast.

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 people."

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 guilty."

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 worth 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."

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