When word came that the nation’s capital would become a part of the real world – make that The Real World – it was only natural that it arrived via one of Washington’s most common exports: the press statement.
“The Real World will begin production in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2009 and is slated to premiere in 2010.”
The announcement, made on June 10 by the D.C. Office of Motion Picture & Television Development, included the following comment from Jonathan Murray of Bunim/Murray Productions, creator and executive producer of the show: “Young people have never been more engaged in what’s happening in this country and Washington, D.C., is the perfect place for The Real World cast to express their opinions and pursue their passions.” And this from Mayor Adrian Fenty: “In a time when our country has witnessed the impact and spirit of our nation’s young people, it is a pleasure to welcome MTV and The Real World cast to the District of Columbia as they utilize the immense opportunities that the District’s backdrop will undoubtedly provide.”
As the lives of the new season’s cast play out in the ongoing production, the backdrop for those lives is surprisingly gay. Though little is certain about the cast until this 23rd season of the show makes it through final edits, one of the eight cast members seems to be a gay male. Another has photographed for the Washington Blade. There are whispers of one working at the Human Rights Campaign. The young Real Worlders have partied in at least five nightlife venues catering largely to the gay community.
And in the virtual world, gay people are taking the lead in campaigns both supportive and critical of the production. Christopher Wiggins is in the former camp, launching “The Real World DC” as a Facebook page. Adam Rosenberg sits in the latter camp, where you’ll find the blog he runs with some friends: “Anti-Real World DC.”
Then there’s the Real World house itself, sitting at 2000 S St. NW, on the northern edge of the Dupont Circle neighborhood — traditionally identified with the city’s GLBT community.
This is the true story of how a few months of filming The Real World in Washington, a city whose reality-TV exposure is more C-SPAN than Survivor, has tweaked and teased the local gay community.
SINCE FIRST AIRING on MTV in 1992, The Real World has not shied from GLBT angles. Occupying that debut address, a New York City loft, was Norman Korpi, a gay man. The Internet was nascent, Ellen DeGeneres was closeted, and Will & Grace was years from seeing the light of TV.
Nearly two decades later, Korpi, now 43 and an artist living in Los Angeles, is still a little bitter about an edit that turned him from gay to bisexual in Episode 3.
“They had one of the other cast members go, ‘Norm’s a bisexual,’” Korpi recalls. That was news to him, as well as to many of his friends who scorned him for apparently hedging his identity. “I was part of that Queer Nation scene, running around…. Then the bisexual thing came out and they all turned their backs on me. Because they believe the bullshit? You think this is really me? Those first years were really difficult for me.”
From that experience comes a warning for the current crop of residents at 20th and S Streets: “The editing is going to be somewhat harsh…. They think they can outrun that editing experience, but they really can’t. The Real World is not a free ride.”
Whatever the reality, Korpi was shown dating Charles Perez on the show in an era when controversy threatened something as mild as ABC’s thirtysomething for showing two gay men talking in bed.
After including a lesbian in its second season, in Los Angeles, The Real World moved to San Francisco and introduced viewers to Pedro Zamora, a young Cuban American, who was openly gay and HIV-positive. He died of AIDS-related illness just as Season 3 completed its original run.
“While some may denigrate The Real World and MTV for, in a way, creating the reality-TV phenomenon, it was one place where you could see real people,” says Cathy Renna, of Renna Communications, located a few blocks away from the Real World’s D.C. digs. “I’ll never forget watching Pedro. In terms of impact on culture, it was one of the earliest, truly genuine representations of real people in our community — as well as real homophobia. The conflict that was created opened up an opportunity for discourse.”
Including gay cast members has remained a strong component of the show through its two decades, and Bunim/Murray included a transgender cast member, Katelynn Cusanelli, in The Real World: Brooklyn, which aired earlier this year.
Working with the production team, Renna, a lesbian, arranged for three of the Brooklyn cast members to intern at the LGBT Community Center in New York. Considering the show’s history with the GLBT community and her own experience with MTV and Bunim/Murray, Renna hoped to have a hand in continuing the legacy in D.C.
“When I heard about D.C., I got in touch with MTV, but never heard back from folks,” she says. “The only interaction I’ve had was seeing them across the street filming two cute boys having salad.”
CUTE BOYS HAVING salad is likely all it would take to set the Twitter-verse or blogosphere on fire. After all, the Washingtonian maintains “Real World DC Watch: The Map” online for convenient stalking. Washington City Paper goes a step farther, offering the “Real World DC Stalker Stalker,” a collection of all the Real World: Washington, D.C. data you can stomach.
Aside from Wiggins’ Facebook page and Rosenberg’s blogs, there’s plenty more flying around the virtual world regarding the Real World production. Is a cast member leaving? Who’s working where? Will those nasty rumors from so-and-so’s hometown catch up with her? Answers may conflict, but they’re out there just the same.
Al Baggett couldn’t be happier. The 36-year-old gay resident of Mount Vernon Square is definitely a fan, helping Chris Wiggins with the Facebook page.
“I’m an American pop-culture junkie,” says the former school teacher. “Chris and I have been by the house several times taking pictures.”
Sadly, Baggett has yet to be asked to sign the golden release form clearing him to appear on the show. That’s even after spending an afternoon at a Capitol Skyline Hotel pool party where the cast made a splash.
“We had no idea they were going to be there,” he says, “but they’re all over the place all the time. It’s not that hard to be on-camera, but I haven’t been asked to sign a waiver or anything. Eventually that may happen. If it doesn’t, I’m not going to be devastated.”
That there are those like Baggett with a high level of Real World interest isn’t news to the media, and both his friend Wiggins and pseudo-nemesis Rosenberg have fielded more than their share of interviews, as outlets jockey to present a glimpse of The Real World.
A new-media director for a nonprofit, Rosenberg says that aside from a mountain of local media, the Anti-Real World DC bloggers have gotten interview requests from as far away as college papers in Missouri and Ohio.
“It’s just kind of fun to watch the craziness develop, because people are going nuts over a reality show,” he says. “D.C. is one of those cities that sometimes gets a little uptight, so in one sense it’s kind of neat to see this happen. In a pop-culture way, D.C. gets really excited. But most of the pop culture things that come out of D.C. — until Obama got elected — were probably very inside-the-Beltway jokes that only political people would get. It’s interesting to see now how it’s become a mini-L.A., almost.”
Like Rosenberg, the 29-year-old Wiggins also works in new media, though as a journalist. He’s involved in broadcast media as well. So far, however, it seems his favorite bit of coverage has been handled in print.
“The Washington Post called us the ‘real Real World cast,’ which was funny,” says Wiggins, who lives in Northern Virginia. “There are two shows going on. At this juncture, more people are interested in behind the scenes, the ‘unplugged’ version. From the amount of coverage we’ve gotten, I think the interest is there.
“There’s an effort to control interaction with the public, but in the age of new media nothing is secret. … All the local outlets — FOX, CBS, NBC, ABC — they’ve all done stories in which I or my Twitter feed were mentioned. The Twitter feed is the main way I get information out, with more than 5,000 followers — including Entertainment Weekly. From a journalistic point of view, we get a chuckle that it’s journalists covering journalists at this point.
“MTV and Bunim/Murray don’t comment on current productions, so the most logical step is to cover those covering it. I feel comfortable with that because I’m not reporting for any one organization. That this is more new media, maybe this is the way that works. I’m comfortable with that. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think the exposure was exciting.”
WHILE THE SHOW has made Wiggins and Rosenberg strange bedfellows — not literally, though the two are friendly — Rosenberg has an advantage in covering the RWDC: He lives across the street from the Real World house. Of course, Rosenberg would call it a disadvantage.
“The weekends get a little bit crazy,” says Rosenberg, 28, sitting on a concrete ledge adjacent to the Safeway at 1800 20th St. NW and directly across S Street from the mansion housing the cast, who happen to be conversing on their stoop for the cameras. “Thursday, Friday, Saturday you’ll have people gawking and stalking. This is Stalker Central right here. This is ground zero for the stalkers. This is where they sit.”
When the cast comes home for the evening, the street ”becomes a block party,” complete with entourage and other hangers-on, many obviously unfamiliar with the area.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a car go the wrong way down a one-way street,” says Rosenberg. ”Then people get in fights and things. It gets loud and rowdy. I called the police once, when there was a fight that went on right here. They responded, they were good about it. But that never happened [before] in the two years I lived here.”
Noting that he moved to the area because it was quieter than nearby Adams Morgan, with the arrival of The Real World ”it’s turned into a dorm room…. It’s nuts.”
That potential for friction — or excitement, depending on one’s tastes — is something bar and club owners and managers, particularly of gay venues, have had to mull. To allow or not to allow the production, with its attendant boom mikes and cameras, into your venue: That is the question.
Nellie’s Sports Bar at 900 U St. NW was one of the gay venues that decided to throw open the doors, so far welcoming filming about a dozen times. And there’s no mistaking when the production rolls in, looking like electronic chaos. But owner Doug Schantz says it’s more orderly than it might appear at first glance.
“They abide by the same rules as any customer,” he says. “When it gets busy on the deck, they have to stand in line [for the bar]. It’s been fine. They’ve come on nights that aren’t as busy as other nights. The one gay guy and the other guys come in and watch sports. One of the guys is seeing a bartender here.”
While a romantic liaison might make the cast a bit more intimate with Nellie’s, Babak Movahedi, owner of Halo at 1435 P St. NW as well as its Miami counterpart, can point to even deeper roots in the Real World garden.
“Halo has employed one of the roommates,” says Movahedi, adding that that is all he can say on the subject. He’s happy talking about a former cast member, though. “One of our staff members in Miami became a roommate on The Real World: Brooklyn: J.D. [Ordonez]. He was the host for our five-year [Washington] anniversary.”
With these close ties, it’s not surprising Movahedi has welcomed the cameras into Halo, even if it means he’s had to reassure some patrons that no one will appear on the show without signed consent.
“As long as there is balance, not to intrude in the lives of the patrons, it’s another fun thing happening at Halo,” he says. “It’s another aspect of doing something new and novel and having fun. That’s what people go out for. If someone doesn’t want to be part of that, they won’t be filmed.”
David Perruzza, vice president of the company that owns JR.’s and Cobalt/30 Degrees, may not have seen as much of the RWDC gang as Schantz or Movahedi, but he’s definitely a fan, following filming at Cobalt at 1639 R St. NW: “It’s been absolutely painless. This cast has been amazing so far. The guys are really nice. The customers were excited they were there.”
Ed Bailey, an owner of Town Danceboutique at 2009 Eighth St. NW, says his customers are sometimes excited to see the RWDC cast, too. But that doesn’t mean he’s allowed the cameras to follow.
“It’s just not conducive to creating the best atmosphere for the customers,” Bailey says, acknowledging that the no-filming rule took some thoughtful consideration.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Bailey. “Clearly, everybody is a little bit drawn in. There’s the allure of being involved in something as well-known as The Real World.”
Despite that allure, Bailey feels the intrusion would interfere with ”the optimal party experience” at Town, and while he’s glad that some cast members have spent off-camera time relaxing at the club, ”we decided not to allow ourselves to become star-struck.”
JUSTIN B. SMITH wishes the Real World cast would put that star status to maximum use. As a young, African-American gay man maintaining a video journal of his experiences with HIV, and as one who considers Pedro Zamora a personal hero, he definitely feels that more could be done. That’s why he joined an online campaign on Facebook begun by longtime activist and executive director of The Center, D.C.’s GLBT community center, David Mariner, dubbed “MTV Real World DC: Meet a Real Epidemic in DC.”
Though it’s not a particularly active campaign, it was a way for local activists to urge RWDC to shine some star power on the local HIV epidemic.
“I have plenty of e-mails and notices that they’re going to be at EFN Lounge, Halo, whatever,” Smith says. “But what else are they doing? Are they getting involved in the community? It would be great if they would understand that our city needs help with HIV/AIDS…. They have to understand that they’re living in the real world. In D.C., one of the real-world things we have to deal with is HIV and AIDS.”
While the Metromix Web site, among others, offers photos of three of the cast members volunteering in a D.C. soup kitchen, a rumor that had at least one cast member working at Whitman-Walker Clinic was debunked by clinic sources.
“My message to the cast is please get involved,” Smith continues, adding that while he’s seen the cast publicly, he’s declined to get in the way of the production, though he does want to open their minds. “To the producers, I would say the same thing. You have the power. You’re in control. You can help us so much in the D.C. area.”
Adds Mariner: “Some seasons have done a really good job affecting issues in communities that they’re in. I was hoping that would be the case this time as well.”
SOMEONE WHO’S NOT holding out hope is Sam Nitz, 28, who contributes to the Anti-Real World DC blog. The depth of his Real World scorn seems possible only because he once held the show in high esteem, especially when he was a closeted gay teen growing up in Wisconsin.
“I thought it was really great,” he says, pricking memories of first watching the show in the summer of 1994, the San Francisco season, while he and his father spent their days remodeling their home’s basement. “Putting someone who really had AIDS on TV was groundbreaking. The people seemed real. The conflicts seemed genuine. As opposed to now, when it all seems as produced as a boy band: There’s the GLBT person, the ethnic minority, the white frat boy/douche bag.”
If there was ever a time the gay community owed something to The Real World for pioneering portrayals of the community, Nitz is certain that time has passed: “The debt’s been paid. Right now it’s all just stereotypes. They’re just looking for Gay Man No. 1.”
For every Nitz, there’s likely at least one Baggett.
“It’s probably more real than people want to believe,” says Baggett. “Make the best of it. Some people just feed off negativity. If I lived right by there, I’d be excited as hell. I know some people aren’t happy. I’m sure if you live near it, it can be a pain — but get over it. To have them in your city, I don’t think it hits people until it starts airing. That will be when it’s really cool. I’ll be excited the next season after D.C., but it won’t be the same.”