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The evolution of the District is fast-paced these days. The population is growing, streetcars are on their way, and there’s once again a first lady in the White House who makes fashion-news headlines. And for the first time since its 1992 debut, MTV’s Real World landed in Washington.
From summer through fall last year, eight housemates lived at 2000 S St. NW. Habitués of D.C.’s gay nightlife would surely have seen the crew pile into any number of nightspots during the course of the filming. And if they were following all the Real World blogs, they quite likely knew that Mike Manning possibly had more reason than the rest to hit the gay spots.
The 22-year-old with the “boy next door” looks, hailing from Thornton, Colo., and taking time off from the University of Northern Colorado to live his life minute-by-minute for the cameras, came out as bisexual not long before filming began.
And D.C. suited him just fine.
“I actually did a lot of networking while I was here and I met a lot of people,” Manning said during a visit to Metro Weekly offices the night after the show’s Dec. 30 premiere party at Halo. “I actually hung out with people who live in D.C. almost as much as I hung out with the roommates. I love handing out business cards and shaking hands and meeting people. I think by the time I left D.C. I had a hundred new contacts in my Gmail account.”
Between socializing, his jobs with the Human Rights Campaign and the Energy Action Coalition, the gym and church, Manning became so rooted in the District that he wants to return for good. And whether it’s athletic accolades or academic honor rolls, the dynamic young man seems to get what he goes after — in other words, plan on seeing more of Manning about town in May after he earns his business degree.
METRO WEEKLY: Watching the debut episode, your debate about God at Buca di Beppo got pretty heated. Were you raised in a particularly religious home?
MIKE MANNING: For most of my childhood, my family would pray on Christmas and Thanksgiving. We would go to church on Easter Sunday and Christmas Eve, stuff like that. But we weren’t the “every Sunday” kind of family.
Then, in middle school, I started going to youth group with some of my friends. I became really close with my youth pastor and he taught me about the Bible. In high school I found a church and went about once a month. It was really welcoming, a “come as you are” type of church. Those are my favorite kind of churches, the ones that say, “We’re not going to judge you. We’ll read you Scripture and try to educate you in the ways of the Bible and improve you as a person.”
In my junior year of college, my father got involved with a church band. He’s an executive by day, musician by night. [Laughs.] He plays the guitar and does vocals. That gave him a reason to go. My mom started going every Sunday to watch him, and then my brother and my sister started going. Now we all go to the same church every Sunday. It’s a new church to me, because it’s not the one I went to in high school.
MW: I guess that covers your relationship with the church. What about with the Real World? How familiar were you with the show before you were a part of it?
MANNING: I knew kind of the idea that it was a documentary, that they have some sort of situation where people live in a house and they tape them. That’s all I knew. It was very vague.
My buddy calls me and says, “Hey, I heard about an audition for Real World. It’s tomorrow in Boulder.” That’s about 45 minutes away from us in Greeley. I was like, “Aw, man, that stuff’s crap. Nobody watches that anymore. Why would we waste our time?” He’s like, “I’ll buy you lunch. I don’t want to do it alone.” And I said okay.
So I showed up at the audition and I wasn’t really taking anything seriously. The casting director asked me some questions, and I was being honest thinking that it wouldn’t lead to anything. “I’m just here with my friend, you know? Moral support. Can you just send me on my way?” And then he called me back.
MW: Were you surprised?
MANNING: Yeah. Like, honestly, I’m not that exciting. [Laughs.] Why do they keep calling me? I talked to my parents about it and I was like, “Don’t worry, guys. This isn’t going to happen.” They were reserved about it. I actually came out to them a few months before that, so it was very recent.
MW: When you came out, that was as bisexual, right? You identify as bi, not gay?
MANNING:Yeah. I dated girls. I had my first serious girlfriend when I was 16 and lost my virginity to her. I dated girls all the way until my sophomore year of college. So I was straight.
MW: Were your parents okay with you liking guys too?
MANNING: In the beginning, they weren’t so much. They were nice, and they gave me the whole, “You’re our son and we love you anyway,” things like that.
The way I came out is I wrote my parents like a five-page letter. I tried to include everything. “I am telling you this because you are my parents. I love you.” We’ve always been very, very close. I’d played football with my dad, and we’d go fishing and shoot guns. I can stay in and watch TV with my mom and do whatever she does. My whole family, we’re very close. So I was like, “This isn’t a reflection on you. This is how I was born. I just want to include you in every aspect of my life. I don’t want to lie to you and tell you I’m going to the movies when I’m really going to a gay club.” I was just trying to be honest with them.
I sat them down, they read the letter, and then I was like, “Do you have any questions?” That was it. My dad was like, “Are you sure you’re gay or bi or whatever? Are you sure you like men?” Yes, Dad. “Are you sure it’s not a phase?” No, Dad.
I think the female body is very appealing. I enjoy seeing boobies and everything like that. [Laughs.] I feel the exact same way when I see a [male] Calvin Klein ad. I said, “This is how I was born and it’s taken me a long time to accept that. Believe me, Dad, I’ve thought about the whole ‘phase’ thing, and it’s definitely not a phase.”
My mom started crying. She said, “Does this mean I’m not going to have grandkids?”
“No, Mom, I’m still having kids. I’m still going to have a good job. I’m still going to work hard and do everything else.”
My mom was worried it will make my life harder. She was like, “Mike, you’re prom king. You have all these things going for you. You’re a jock. You get straight A’s. You’ve always been like the perfect child to me. I don’t want this to be your imperfection.” That hit me harder than anything else. She was putting me on this pedestal, holding me to a really, really high standard. Like everything else doesn’t matter because this is what she’s going to focus on, and she’s my mom. Is society going to focus on this? Are people going to judge me and overlook everything else that I’ve done just because of the gay thing? That’s what really made me upset about society in general.
A little bit after that, I talked to my brother. My brother and I are very close. We go to parties together. We play football together. He’s three years younger than I am. He said, “You wouldn’t be telling me this if you had a doubt about it.” The way he put it was awesome. I’ll never forget it. He goes, “It’s all right, Mike. Either you like the taste of pie or you don’t. I don’t want you to pretend to be somebody else around me just to make it okay.” He was the one I was most worried about, and he took it the best — even though it’s still kind of awkward sometimes.
MW: Did coming out affect your relationship with the church?
MANNING: The church that we go to now as a family is a little more conservative than my “come as you are” church. They don’t know about me. It’s not like I’m ashamed of it. I just go to church with my family, listen to the sermon, participate in the bake sale, sing at the old folks’ home and stuff. People don’t ask me, so I don’t broadcast. I don’t walk into church with the rainbow flag on.
If the pastor pointed me out in the middle of the sermon and said, “Hey, Mike, have you slept with a man?” I’d say, “Yes. Only God can judge me, but do what you want.” I’ve prayed about it for years and years. I have cried about this more than everything else.
MW: Many people struggle with their relationship with their church when they come out. It doesn’t seem that was a problem for you.
MANNING: It’s not about the church — it’s about the religion.
People get so caught up about some church saying all gay people are going to hell, so they hate all religion. It’s like getting mugged by an African American and judging all black people as being robbers — you just can’t do that. Those churches that preach hate and fire and brimstone, I don’t agree with. If you look at the core of the Bible, Christianity, of Judaism, of Islam, all the major religions of the world, if you’re going to worship Buddha or Jesus or a flying elephant, it’s all about love and being humble, loving your neighbor and treating other people how you want to be treated. It’s having respect for the Earth and for mankind and for the human condition. The core values are the same.
There are churches that use the Bible to oppress people that say “If you come into our church we’re going to judge you. We know the Bible. We think we are better than you. You’ve got to tithe this much and you can’t work on the Sabbath day.” They’re a little twisted. They’re so insecure that they feel like they need to use the Bible to judge people. I think it’s bullshit.
Church has been one of the best things in my life. When I was coming out and I felt I couldn’t tell a soul and I was really confused, I would read the Bible. I was like, if I lose everybody in my life, at least I have God, at least I have someone up there that loved me enough to die for me 2,000 years ago. If people that are coming out did turn to God and realize that God is about acceptance and love, they might be able to use that as a source of comfort instead of another obstacle to face.
MW: Norm Korpi, who was on the very first season of Real World, told me the show’s edits presented him as bi, although he’s gay. You can confirm that’s not happening with you, right?
MANNING: No, no. I hate America’s obsessive need to categorize everything. You’re either black or white. You’re either gay or straight. You’re either this or that. Even in the gay community, there’s like this biphobia. Everybody’s like, “You have to be gay or straight. You can’t be bi. You can’t like both. It’s not who you are. Blah, blah, blah.” Isn’t that committing the same crime they’re preaching against? They’re saying, “Don’t judge me, but I’m going to judge you within our own community.”
People should not give a shit. The question “What are you?” shouldn’t even exist. If you’re attracted to somebody, flirt with them. See where it goes. I like guys and girls. I’ve dated girls, had sex with girls and enjoyed it very much. I find females very attractive. I find males very attractive. If I want to date a guy, I’ll date a guy. If I want to date a girl, I’ll date a girl.
And I can tell you honestly that every gay guy so far, when we’ve actually gotten to know each other, they’re like, “Wow, I think you really are bi. You really do like girls.” A lot of older gay guys that I’ve talked to, they say, “Oh, you’re not bi. You’re just saying that. It’s a transitional phase.” Whatever.
MW: So you’ve gotten a dose of biphobia?
MANNING: Absolutely. A lot. For whatever reason, God hardwired my brain to be aroused with both and I’m not going to question it. I’m just going to live my life and be honest with people. I like who I like.
People should stop, take a second and think to themselves, “Hey, does this affect me?” Who they like, who they want to marry or sleep with or spend the rest of their life with, does that affect me? If the answer is no — and 99.9 percent of the time it’s going to be no — then keep walking.
If somebody doesn’t like me because I’m bi, then I’ll move on. I could give two shits. Get your nose out of my business.
MW: You’re also pretty casual about the terms “gay” and “bisexual.” You’ve used both to describe yourself.
MANNING: I am casual, because I think that’s the way it should be. Honestly, it doesn’t make a difference to me. For the sake of other people trying to understand me or whatever, I say “bisexual.” Right now, I am looking to date a guy, so if they want to call me “gay,” that’s fine. But I’m going to lunch with my ex-girlfriend next week. If we hit it off, start dating again, start sleeping together, I’m straight again?
I think “gay” and “bi” are interchangeable. I can say, “Yeah, I’m gay, but I still like girls.”
“Hey, I’m straight, but…” That doesn’t work so much.
Do what you want with the terms. I just want it understood that I hate categories and I hate being labeled. I’m “Mike-sexual.” That means if I want to date a 100-year-old Aborigine, I’m going to do it and I’m not going to give a shit what anybody else thinks.
MW: How familiar were you with D.C. before the show?
MANNING: Like everybody else, I did the whole eighth-grade field trip. But I didn’t really know anything about D.C. before I came here. I went to Wikipedia the week before I came here and I read about Mayor Fenty and where all the monuments were, and about the crime rate and unemployment.
MW: Were you disappointed you got Real World: DC instead of, say, Real World: Cancun?
MANNING: Absolutely. My initial reaction was, shit, I wanted this to kind of be a four-month spring break. But that would have killed my liver. I would not have done anything. I would have gotten a great tan, but I’d be portrayed on TV as this kid that’s lazy. And with my personality, I probably would’ve gone nuts.
But I could have chosen no place better than D.C. I got the chance to lobby congressmen. I saw the president speak. I got to do all this stuff that I’ve always been curious about. With me going on the show as gay or bi or whatever — as myself — having the chance to be liberated and make a statement and also work for HRC on the field team and lobby Congress for laws that directly affect my newfound liberation, it was wonderful.
I’m trying to move back here after I graduate. I love it. D.C. is the place where shit happens. People get shit done. It’s where the headquarters for the Red Cross and Disabled American Veterans are. And HRC. It’s the hub, and you can either be sitting on the sideline or you can be in the game. D.C. is kind of the playing field.
MW: In the nearly unique position of being a Washingtonian with cameras following you everywhere, did you still get a good feel for the city?
MANNING: The cameras gave me a break a lot of times when I was at work making phone calls and setting up meetings with congressmen and their constituents. The cameras didn’t follow me all the time, so I think I had more chance of getting to know the city than the other cast members. I worked more than anybody else and I branched out. I would wake up early and go work out and meet people at the gym.
MW: How did you end up at the Human Rights Campaign?
MANNING: I had seen the blue-and-gold sticker on cars, and I had no idea what it was. I randomly went into the [HRC Action Center and] Store one day. Kevin [Lynch], the general manager, told me a little bit about their philosophy. I got the business card from Kevin and looked them up online a couple days later. I was like, “Wow, this is really something I could work for.” I like their mission a lot. I printed out my résumé and — actually, I didn’t dress up. I should have. My business teacher would kick my ass. If they show me going into the interview with what I was wearing, I’m going to get my ass chewed. [Laughs.]
Now I absolutely love what HRC does. It’s really, really comforting to know that there’s an organization that large fighting for LGBT rights. And they have a religion and faith department. They have an elementary education area. They have diversity. They have the field team, which is what I worked on with legislation and laws, things like that. They have parenting. They also have marketing and working with companies. They’re hitting it at all ends. A criticism they get is that they’re really well-funded and not doing enough. But if people actually take a look at every little thing they’re doing for the LGBT community… Let’s face it, there are a lot of ignorant minds out there to change. They’re very smart, and it’s really awesome that something that huge has my back.
MW: With that work, you actually got to meet Rep. Jared Polis. And not only is he gay, he represents your hometown.
MANNING: He’s amazing. In the trailer [for the show], I’m joking around with him saying, “You’re the man I want to be in 10 years.” That’s absolutely right. He has something like a dozen companies. He’s openly gay, and proud of it. He’s a genius. This guy is really something to aspire to. If I could pick myself in 10 years, it would be Jared Polis. I’m talking to him right now about getting a job at his office, getting involved with politics. Wouldn’t that be a kicker? Becoming a politician because of a reality show?
If there’s something you’re passionate about, especially the younger generation, go meet with your congressman. They’re people too. They’ve been through the same shit. Yeah, maybe they read more and understand more about politics, but you’re a constituent and you have the right to talk to them and speak your mind. And especially the gay community: If you have something to say, if you want to make a difference, schedule an appointment and meet with your congressman or senator and speak your mind. People bitch and bitch and bitch, and they don’t do anything about it. Wouldn’t it make sense to bitch to the right person?
MW: I heard a rumor cast members had to get a waiver signed by anyone they slept with during taping. True?
MANNING: We had to get waivers signed by everybody we talked to! Everybody that was a potential person on TV had to get a waiver. I had friends I met in D.C. that had to sign waivers every time they talked to me.
MW: What’s it like now that the cameras are off?
MANNING: It’s very, very nice to not have to watch what I say or what I do and realize when I go to bed at night, “Wow, that might be on TV.” It’s nice to be myself and have a breath of fresh air. It’s nice to be able to lounge around in my underwear or naked if I want to and know that my balls aren’t going to be on TV. You probably saw the see-through showers. They’re not all the way see-through, but if you lean up against them…. What were we talking about? [Laughs.]
MW: Since the editing process might present you in a way that you don’t recognize entirely, what do you want to be certain viewers know about you?
MANNING: I want to be a catalyst for people to realize that stereotypes are shit. I hope that message really comes across. I have a feeling it will in the way that I presented myself as a hardworking person of integrity, a Christian that went to church while I was here. I hope it comes across that I don’t go with the way people think, especially in certain places where they’re not exposed to gay people at all and TV shows might be the only exposure to gay issues that they have.
MW: And, finally, what’s next for you?
MANNING: I’m doing personal training right now, getting my license. I’m trying to get a job out here so I can move back in May after I graduate. I’m also filming an indie film in Denver, The Big Red Chair. I saw an audition and I went and got the part. I didn’t tell them about [Real World] during my audition. I didn’t want them to try to ride the coattails of Real World.
No matter what I choose — personal training, nutrition, business, politics, acting — this show has given me the confidence to pursue anything I want. It’s given me the confidence to say, hey, I’m still young, I’m 22, I have a lot of life ahead of me. If I want to take off the next three years and just pursue things I wouldn’t normally have done, I’m going to do it.
New episodes of MTV’s Real World: Washington D.C. air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. For full listings, visit mtv.com.