MTV’s longest-running reality show is now in its 33rd season. But after its 28th season, they dropped “The” and so now it’s just called Real World. But most of us know of the show way before it ever hit the new millennium. The revolutionary reality show began in 1992 when MTV was mostly just airing music videos. In between Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge,” people around the country fell in love with these seven strangers who lived in a loft and agreed to have their lives recorded for millions to see.
Okay, so this is what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real. The show pretty much birthed a whole new generation of wannabe reality stars – and that was before it ever became a term. So whether or not we want to honor or blame The Real World, we can’t deny the impact it had on American culture. So if you’re wondering what kind of impact I’m referring to, you can read and find out…
Nearly three decades ago, the idea of turning the cameras on non-celebrities for television entertainment was unusual. Watching a bunch of “nobodies” sit on the couch and complain about what to make for dinner? Yeah, it’s not something people were craving to see. Back then, the reality TV genre didn’t yet exist. But as it turns out, The Real World wasn’t even supposed to be “real.”
TV producers Jonathan Murray and Mary-Ellis Bunim actually set out to create a scripted drama for MTV about young people starting their lives in New York City. There was even a script developed called St. Mark’s Place, Murray said. But at the time, MTV wasn’t ready to do scripted programming. Basically, the costs would be too high.
MTV was all about music videos and game shows. It’s unclear as to whether Murray and Bunim pitched the idea or if it was MTV themselves, but a new idea was put on the table. Ultimately, the pitch was that The Real World could be an equally dramatic, unscripted series. Bunim and Murray did come up with, however, the cheaper idea of casting “regular people” to live in an apartment and watch their day-to-day lives.
Their idea was based on their belief that seven diverse individuals would have enough to talk about without a script. They converted a massive, 4000-square-foot duplex in Soho to a loft big enough to house seven cast members, which were chosen from 500 applicants.
When Bunim and Murray were thinking of edgy and youthful ideas for an MTV series, you would think that then-20-year-old PBS programming would be one of the last places you’d think they would look for inspiration. But when they were thinking of a non-scripted idea, they remembered a PBS docu-series from 1973 called An American Family.
The 12-episode series is sometimes referred to as the first “reality show,” which followed Bill and Pat Loud and their five kids. The show had its own controversy with the eldest son, Lance, coming out of the closet and the parents getting a divorce after 21 years of marriage. Remember, this was the early 70’s. The concept earned the show over 10 million viewers.
Oh, and they got paid, too. Each one of the seven cast members got $2,600 for their time on the show. The original cast of the first season, dubbed “Season 0,” lived in the loft from February 16 to May 18, 1992. The show premiered three days later, on May 21, 1992, for Americans to be both puzzled and intrigued.
The show attained quick success, and MTV viewers became fascinated with the lives of the original seven: Norman Korpi, Heather B. (Gardner), Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Julie Gentry, Eric Nies, and Kevin Powell. These first cast members were “fresh and engaging,” and had heated moments with discussions about race, love affairs with the crew, and tension between the cat, Smokey, and Korpi’s dog, Gouda.
The producers later confessed they really had no idea what they were doing during that first season. Since it was unchartered territory, they didn’t know what to expect and didn’t realize how challenging it would be to keep up with the lives of seven individual and very real people. By the end of their first 13-week shoot, Murray and his team were exhausted.
But their hard work paid off. They knew they had something special on their hands. What they didn’t know, however, was just how influential and important this new reality show was going to be for American society. For example, when that first season aired, Korpi became the first bisexual man on reality TV.
But the truth is, he wasn’t even bisexual. “In the early days, they couldn’t have a gay cast member, so they made me bisexual,” Korpi told CNN. He explained how one day, Ellen DeGeneres came up to him “out of the blue” at an art opening and said to him, “I couldn’t believe how brave you were. It took me like five years to even do anything.”
If Ellen says something like that to you, it leaves an impression, and it surely left Korpi feeling glad to be a positive influence. It’s been 28 years since MTV launched its social experiment. With 33 seasons, an entire generation of viewers discovered what “really” happens when people get together and live under the same roof.
The Real World’s first season was an indicator of what American culture would become. It paved the way for a platform that is very much felt today, where diversity is always demanded, and social media can make anyone a star. According to Murray, the power of the series was, especially in those early years, that it brought people on to the screen who were generally ignored by television.
“You didn’t regularly see LGBT people, and there was very little representation of black people or Latino people.” In the third season, The Real World: San Francisco, viewers got to meet Pedro Zamora, a gay Cuban-American man with AIDS. It was a major moment, not only in the world of television but for viewers who fell in love with the guy.
Filming the first season, in Murray’s own words, was “a sh*t show.” He said they naively thought everyone would just go to bed at the same time. But obviously, that didn’t happen. Murray described how they had this small crew scrambling to cover seven individuals who were all over the place.
But now, after 33 seasons, producers have long developed a sort of method to the madness. Not only have things become more organized and each member of the house has his or her own cameraman on them, but the show has become a little more complex, with themed seasons like Skeletons, Explosion, or Go Big or Go Home. I guess they just need to make sure things stay interesting. It’s not the longest-running reality show for nothing.
When Season 0 aired, many reviews of the show were negative. Matt Roush of USA Today characterized The Real World as “painfully bogus,” referring to it as a “cynical and exploitative new low in television.” Ouch. He said it was too phony and too dull to be a documentary. The Washington Post’s Tom Shales said the show was “something new in excruciating torture from the busy minds at MTV.” Another ouch.
Nonetheless, the show was more or less a hit with the viewers at home. One early sign of its popularity occurred on a 1993 episode of Saturday Night Live, which made fun of the second season’s recurring arguments between the cast – over cliques, prejudice and political differences. When SNL makes fun of you, you must be making a splash.
You might be thinking, okay, so these people just hang out, party, participate in some boring job. They don’t even need to be good at it; they get free room and board. Yes, well, kind of. While the very first cast on Season 0 were paid $2,600 each, later cast members enjoyed a bigger paycheck.
It has been reported that Real World cast members get $5,000, which is more than the inflation rate, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Sciences. Cast members are also required by contract to do reunion specials up to five years after the season ends, for $2,500. Any other show-related events are $750 each. Oh, but if you become a popular personality, former Real Worlders can make up to $10,000 per event.
Okay, so there are perks to being on the show, but let’s not forget the nitty-gritty details of contracts. It makes you wonder whether it’s really worth it to be on the show. In 2011, The Village Voice retrieved a copy of the show’s standard contract, which is 30 pages long. First of all, it stipulates that MTV is not responsible if a person dies. That’s not all.
MTV isn’t to be held accountable if someone loses a limb, contracts a disease, suffers a nervous breakdown, experiences “non-consensual physical contact,” and pretty much anything else you can think of the sort. Email may be monitored, and you have to promise not to hide from cameras in any establishments they can’t film in. The cherry on top: you’re responsible for long-distance phone charges while in the house.
Another thing to consider when signing such a contract is the fact that producers can humiliate them by portraying them “in a false light.” They can even hire actors “who may or may not resemble” the cast members to achieve whatever results they want it. Here’s the kicker: MTV gets blanket rights to all of the cast members’ experiences, “which occur, will occur, or have occurred at any time.”
Signing the contract means handing over your “life story,” name, background story, and even memorabilia in your home which includes film, pictures and emails. Producers are also allowed to take items from their homes as long as they’re returned after production is finished.
When there’s a bunch of good looking people living under one roof for a period of time, drinking and hanging out, things are bound to happen. Every season, hookups happen either in the house or with people they meet while filming. Murray mentioned just how “awkward” it can be to film these kinds of incidences. He said it’s really a matter of trust between the crew and the cast members.
It also has a lot to do with their comfort level in front of the camera. For instance, if there’s a cameraman in the room as two people start getting hot and heavy, the camera will stay on them just long enough to establish what’s going on, and then leave. But those surveillance cameras? They stay on. That’s why they always hide under the covers.
Fans of The Real World: St. Thomas learned about the random drug tests when Brandon became the first cast member ever evicted from the house for failing one of the tests. He had been open about being a recovering addict and even appeared to be sober until the 10th episode when the partying got to be a little too much.
So, he fell off the wagon. Usually, we only hear about people failing drug tests when they’re a professional athlete or on parole. But even though it seems as though the show promotes partying and “having fun,” rules are rules. Cast members can’t be taking any illegal drugs.
One of the best parts of being on the Real World is getting to live in an amazing home, whether it’s a mansion in NYC or a penthouse in Las Vegas. But putting those homes together takes a lot of time, effort, and consideration. In recent seasons, they decorate the living spaces with local furniture makers and artists.
However, in the first few seasons, Murray said they just bought stuff from Ikea. Going from that to walking through the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas and having the guy say, “Oh, we can rip this all out and create a loft for you” – that was a major contrast to the early years.
In a Reddit Q&A with Jonathan Murray, he answered fans’ questions and revealed how the Real World cast is typically recruited in recent seasons. They try to stay away from those with interest in acting or a background in acting. They prefer to choose individuals who wouldn’t necessarily go on reality TV, those who are looking for the experience and not the 15 minutes of fame.
Murray said they read message boards, looked at fan groups, and trolled the Internet. They once did an open call in Columbia, Missouri, and a crew member struck up a conversation with a girl working at the Starbucks there. She never even thought of going on the Real World, but when casting interviewed her the next day, she agreed to be on the show. That girl was Emily Schromm from The Real World: Washington, D.C.
In the same Reddit Q&A, Murray revealed that when searching for a cast member, they usually look for someone who has “openness, sense of humor, curious about others, interesting, decent looks, strong opinions that they can back up.” For a while, the series was choosing the same kind of people over and over again, and so they decided to step things up.
Murray said they looked at the past seasons and decided they had too many suburban middle-class kids who went to college. So they set out to find more blue-collar people from struggling families. Just look at recent seasons; you see Tony who works at a chemical plant, and Jason who lost his job at a car dealership.
Cast members aren’t allowed to bring books, magazines, or any outside entertainment. It’s so that they don’t isolate themselves during the whole experience. When they started back in 1992, cellphones, texting, and social media didn’t exist. Now, they have to find ways to keep the roommates focusing on each other and not their devices.
It may come as no surprise, but production keeps a lot of free alcohol in the house to loosen them up and heighten emotions. But, in more recent seasons, especially in the Real World Skeletons and Explosion season, they gave the cast members a phone when they went out, allowing them to shoot videos and post pictures online. It caused for a different kind of drama on the show.
As with other reality TV shows, The Real World has received its share of criticism for being staged. During a reunion show with the first four casts, Heather Gardner, of the original Season 0 cast, asked some of the 1994 San Francisco cast if their situations really happened, nearly accusing them of acting.
Cast member Jon Brennan revealed that producers asked him to state in front of the cameras that he hated housemate Tami Roman for her choice to have an abortion. But, he refused to do so, stating that while he did disagree with her decision, he didn’t feel any hatred towards her. Another accusation was made about the producers selectively editing material to give the false impression of certain emotions or statements. New York cast member Rebecca Blasband claimed that producers paid a man $100 to ask her on a date; she canceled the date when she learned of it.
As another example of making history, Zamora’s pseudo-wedding ceremony with his boyfriend Sean Sasser was the first time a same-sex exchange of vows was aired on prime-time TV. Sadly, Zamora died in 1994, just hours after his season’s last episode was aired. For many people, Zamora was the first person with AIDS they ever saw.
Suddenly, there was a face to match this disease that was being discussed for years. The fact that he worked so hard to educate other young people about the need to protect themselves made it an even more powerful story. Honestly, it doesn’t get much more real than that.
Not only did The Real World set the stage for acceptance in the LGBT community, but it also opened doors for some of its cast members…
Being on the show has served as a springboard to fame for some of the cast members. Tracy Grandstaff, for one, went on to enjoy minor fame. After being one of the original seven, she turned to the animation industry and did the voice of the animated character Daria Morgendorffer on Beavis and Butt-Head. She even got her own spinoff called Daria. Remember that?
Ironically, by July 1995, The Real World surpassed Beavis and Butt-Head as MTV’s top-rated show during its fourth season, The Real World: London. Tracy Grandstaff’s other spin-off shows include Daria: Is it Fall Yet? And Daria: Is It College Yet?
But Tracy was just one of the MTV originals who met fame…
Mallory Snyder is best known for her participation in The Real World: Paris, but she was also a swimsuit model for Sports Illustrated. We met her on The Real World: Paris as the soccer standout and the show’s resident “good girl,” who publicly maintained her virginity throughout the season. She started dating cast-mate, Ace, which lasted about six months.
When she came back from Paris, she decided to try modeling and found immediate success, appearing in the 2005 and 2006 Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit issues. She also modeled for the Abercrombie & Fitch and J.Crew. Her father, Todd Snyder, used to play in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons, from 1970 to 1973.
What about Tami Roman? Tami was a member of The Real World: Los Angeles in 1993. During her time on The Real World, she formed her own R&B girl group, which at first she called Reality. Tami herself was the rapper of the group. The group even signed a record contract with Mercury Records, but the music producer, according to Tami, was difficult to work with.
In 1994, Tami changed the group’s name to Female, and they were offered to be one of the African-American girl groups in the song “Freedom” for the soundtrack of the film, Panther. Later, Tami married NBA star Kenny Anderson. While their marriage ended in 2001, she was able to maintain her spot in the limelight. She acted in both big and small screen roles. Currently, she’s the outspoken member of VH1’s series, Basketball Wives.
Apparently, the “trouble maker” still gets in trouble. We met Puck on The Real World: San Francisco in 1994. He was the bicycle messenger whom others criticized for his poor personal hygiene. Fans saw the conflict between Puck and his roommates, most notably Pedro Zamora, the AIDS activist. Puck was no doubt an unforgettable member of the San Francisco cast.
The booger-picking bike messenger was something of a troublemaker in the house and was eventually voted out by the rest of the cast due to his rude behavior. But Puck’s troubles didn’t end when the season did. He’s been arrested for domestic violence and child endangerment. In 2008, he pleaded no contest to charges of battery and felony possession of ammunition. In 2012, he also pleaded no contest to stalking a woman.
Remember Kevin Powell from the very first Real World cast? He was the often outspoken one who had no problem sharing his opinion on race with his roommates. Today, Powell is a successful author, poet, journalist, and politician. He still speaks out, just now, it’s as an activist and public speaker.
Powell ran a campaign, unsuccessfully, for political office in New York. He wrote several books, including a memoir about his struggles overcoming poverty and how he became the first in his family to go to college. In 2017, Powell sued the filmmakers of the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me for copyright infringement. He claims it was derived from his own interviews with the late rapper that were published in Vibe Magazine. The lawsuit was later dropped, though.
Mike Mizanin was a member of The Real World: Back to New York. His conservative upbringing tended to land him in debates with his housemates regarding race. Who can forget the episodes where things got heated between him and Coral when he admitted that he didn’t even know when Black History Month was?!
You could say that those battles in the house led him to, or at least prepared him for, his true calling as a wrestler. Today, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin battles it out in the ring as a WWE Superstar. He’s still in the reality TV world as one half of a power couple. He and his wife Maryse Ouellet Mizanin, the “Total Divas” star, have a daughter, Monroe Sky, who was born in 2018.
I think one of the more popular cast members to come out of The Real World has to be Karamo Brown. He went from 2004’s The Real World: Philadelphia to being one of the “fab five” on Netflix’s makeover show, Queer Eye. Karamo actually made history on The Real World as the first openly gay African-American man on reality TV. When you think about it, it’s pretty impressive.
Before Queer Eye, Karamo had brief stints as the host on HuffPost Live, Access Hollywood Live, and Dr. Drew On Call. In addition to his inspiring work on Queer Eye, he works tirelessly on lots of causes. He advocates for stricter gun safety and education and support on HIV issues in the LGBTQ community through his organization, 6in10.org.
Erika Wasilewski was a cast member on The Real World: DC, who actually moved out of the house because she was homesick. But before taking off, she was tangled up in some drama before the first episode even aired. The Chicago native was said to have faked having cancer to prevent her boyfriend from breaking up with her.
Wasilewski later talked openly about her ongoing battle with depression she experienced throughout the season. She eventually moved out of the house before the season ended. Today, Wasilewski is the co-host of a radio show on Cleveland rock station, WMMS. She’s known as Erika Lauren and is a singer-songwriter who used to be a member of the cover band Pop Vulture.
During her time on The Real World: San Diego, Cameran filled the role of the party girl in the house. Today, she maintains a career in real estate in her native state of South Carolina. She married an anesthesiologist named Jason Wimberly in 2014, and the couple has a daughter, Palmer.
Wimberly prefers to keep a low profile and stay out of the spotlight, but Cameran isn’t done with her reality TV days. She still likes to mix it up in front of the camera. She’s been a member of the cast of Bravo’s reality show, Southern Charm, since 2014.
Jamie Chung flew under the radar during her days on The Real World: San Diego. Cruising by without any scandals, major fights, or embarrassing moments, she stayed out of the spotlight during her time on the show. Since the show, she married actor Bryan Greenberg and has appeared in several TV shows and films.
She was in The Hangover Part II, for instance. In 2009, she won the Female Stars of Tomorrow Award at the ShoWest industry trade show. In 2012, at the Seattle International Film Festival, she won the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Actress for Eden. When she’s not acting, she likes to write about fashion, travel, and beauty on her blog called What the Chung?
Rachel came to The Real World: San Francisco house and called herself a staunch Republican. While she was raised in a strict Catholic family, the other cast members quickly learned that she had a wild side. Today, she delivers political analysis as a contributor to Fox News. She’s also a mother of eight children! She’s married to another Real World alum: Sean Duffy from the Boston season.
In the sixth season, Sean Duffy was introduced in The Real World: Boston. He, too, was a conservative Republican. He, too, got into some serious squabbles with his liberal roommates. Like his wife, he found himself in the world of politics. Duffy represents the state of Wisconsin in the US House of Representatives. The two met during their time on the first season of Road Rules: All-Stars.