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“The Real World” Pioneered Reality TV As We Know It — But At What Cost?

The pioneering franchise shaped how reality TV handled race. Now the first two Black castmates are grappling with its legacy.

Posted on April 8, 2021, at 2:33 p.m. ET

When The Real World premiered in May 1992, the unprecedented vérité soap opera about twentysomething protagonists became required viewing for an entire MTV generation.

It created the mold of plopping diverse people into a single space and letting the drama unfold, assembling seven castmates in an apartment in a big city — from New York to New Orleans — and chronicling the conflicts that emerged when they lived together for months. Years later, big networks took this concept and changed the setting, sticking people into the Big Brother house and the wilds of Survivor for mass-market versions of this pressure-cooker entertainment.

But The Real World was first. And everything, from the mundanity of who was doing the dishes to more complex romantic and friendship entanglements, could erupt into a power struggle. In the first season, set in New York, roommates vying for access to a house telephone turned into a debate about race and class. A fight between a white castmate and a queer Black castmate in the Seattle season led to a “slap heard round the world.” One castmate had an abortion in the Los Angeles season, and another was evicted for sexual misconduct.

The franchise lost ratings and relevance as slice-of-life reality shows proliferated on cable TV. Its final season aired in 2017. By then, reality shows were less invested in bringing “diverse” strangers together and more in mining specific subcultures, from Jersey Shore dwellers to proto-Instagays, wealthy Black women doctors, and the South Asian diaspora in Miami.

Still, the show remains one of the most enduring subjects of Gen X and millennial nostalgia. And as the failures of representation on reality TV have reached a breaking point, a Paramount+ reboot, The Real World New York: Homecoming, has brought the castmates from the original first season back together to grapple with the racial politics over the course of their six episodes.

Reunited in the same Soho loft from 1992, the original cast has rehashed some of their clashes and debates with the benefit of hindsight. For the first Black castmates, the reboot has also been an opportunity to highlight the original show’s mishandling of representation. “Reality television provides the platform for people who haven’t been able to tell their stories to tell their stories,” castmate Heather B., now a radio personality, told me in March. But there didn't seem to be room for the full picture. Her backstory didn't make it onto the original show, making her "a unicorn," she joked. "They didn’t show my mother or my father."

The show often sacrificed nuance in favor of drama when framing the Black castmates for the network’s predominantly white audience. Kevin Powell, an author and activist, was positioned, as Heather B. puts it in the reboot, as the “angry Black man.” For Kevin, Homecoming has been an opportunity to reclaim his story. “Through the years, I was hurt, I was depressed, I was sad about it; I avoided talking about The Real World at all,” he explained in an interview with me in March. “Coming back has actually been healing because I got to say a lot of the things that I didn’t get to say back then.”

YouTube / MTV / Via youtube.com

Kevin Powell in the first season of The Real World, 1992

Jonathan Murray, an openly gay man who cocreated the show with Mary-Ellis Bunim (who died in 2004), told me he always wanted diversity to be “part of the show’s DNA.” After a scripted version was deemed too expensive, they turned to the documentary format, with the “idea of a bunch of people living together who normally wouldn’t live together who were from all different kinds of backgrounds,” he said.

The castmates were all in line with the MTV brand: young, good-looking people pursuing creative professions. They included Eric Nies, already a successful model in New York City seeking to make it in entertainment; Julie Gentry, from Alabama, who wanted to break out as a dancer and performer; Andre Comeau, a long-haired aspiring rocker; Norman Korpi, a designer trying to break through in the New York art world; and Becky Blasband, an emerging singer-songwriter from New York. Kevin was already a successful freelance writer and spoken-word poet, while Heather B. (née Gardner) was trying to make it as a rapper.

For Heather B., the show represented an opportunity to get on MTV as a woman rapper, long before the social media–fueled reign of Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. Queen Latifah and MC Lyte were garnering attention, but, as Heather B. points out, there were few ways for rappers like her, early in their careers, to get national screentime. “I had no expectations, except that when the camera gets on me, I could talk about what it’s like being a female rapper.”

Kevin, who around the time of the show was writing the first cover story for then-new hip-hop magazine Vibe, said he knew “MTV was a big brand at this time for young people — I just thought maybe I’d get some speaking gigs out of it.”

There was no reality television industry or reality-TV-star-to-influencer pipeline, but The Real World already depended on a kind of bargain between castmates and production. The castmates wanted screentime, and the producers wanted storylines that would be relevant to the MTV audience. “We believed that when you live with people different from the people you grew up with, you’re gonna make mistakes,” said Murray, “but you’re also gonna grow, and that growth would be our story arc.”

Mario Ruiz / The Life Images Collection via Getty Images

Julie Gentry (left) and Heather B. on the set of The Real World, 1992

If the show was about young people’s evolution, we saw that most fully with Eric and Julie. Julie got the most fleshed-out arc, with her turn from sheltered Alabama girl to independent woman in the big city. We see Julie’s origins at her home in Alabama and in disagreements with her dad. She goes to dance practices and pursues her profession. The episode “Julie in a Homeless Shelter?” captures the cringey after-school-special flavor of how reality television dealt with social issues: Julie randomly visits an unhoused Black woman, Darlene, presumably to show us how open and charitable she is.

No one who watches the show would be surprised that it was Eric who broke out the most definitively afterward (he got handpicked to host the dance show The Grind). There are endless shots of him on modeling shoots. He’s also framed as a relatable everyday person, trying to make things work with an ex-girlfriend; he goes to a basketball game with his unavailable dad. We see Eric’s open-mindedness as he is flirty with Norman, who was openly bisexual on the show and is now out as a gay man. Ultimately, Eric and Julie were the vectors of relatability for the network’s audience.

Heather B., in contrast, was turned into a kind of foil for all the other castmates’ stories. Some professional elements of her life were featured: She’s shown at the studio, crafting her sound and presciently rapping about date rape in the song “The System Sucks.” But even though she shot some scenes with her father, they never made it on the show. (In contrast, she meets Julie’s mother in one scene.) And very little of her personal life or background did either.

“I don’t even think people stop to think what my family history was,” she told me. “I was almost like every roommate’s roommate in the house. … ‘Oh, I’m hanging out with Heather.’ ‘Oh, let me go talk to Heather.’ But nobody really knew my story.”

“You keep hearing the same story over and over again,” she said of the kinds of mainstream narratives available for Black people at the time, “so you believe that is the story for every Black person — that you grew up in a single [parent] home.” Her own background seemed to slip by producers: “I went to private school. I had my own room. I had my own telephone number. … I had my brothers. We went on family vacations together. I was raised Catholic. Why not show that?”

MTV

Heather B. during The Real World New York: Homecoming

But The Real World was not invested in showing the complexity of the Black experience or intragroup differences. In retrospect, it often exploited the idea of clashing perspectives among groups — between straight and queer castmates, and between white ones and people of color. And it was Kevin who was often edited into the latter storylines.

In one disagreement, Becky describes the US as a “melting pot” and “a land of opportunity.” Kevin disagrees and talks about the system being “stacked.” “Racism is race plus power,” he says at one point. “You’re full of shit,” she says. “Your mother’s full of shit,” he replies before muttering, “stupid bitch.” (Kevin apologized in the reboot, and admitted to me: “I was a sexist pig.”)

In a debate with Julie, he tries to talk about her position as a “white girl” from Alabama.

“I come from a particular background. You come from a particular background,” he says.

“Get off the Black/white thing — I’m sick of it,” she replies. “What are you going to do? Hit me?”

“Why do you assume because I’m a Black man I’m gonna hit you?” Kevin says.

These conversations about race might have been new for primetime MTV, but they barely scratched the surface compared to the ones Kevin was used to having. “By the time I got to the show, I had experienced so much through my teens and twenties, around race, racism protests, rallies — all kinds of stuff,” he recalled to me. “I had read tons of stuff on history and rooted in anti-racism work, but it never really came out even in the interviews [with casting], because, honestly, I wasn’t asked.” (He recalls only one Black woman working behind the cameras at that time.)

Still, the clashes and his attempts to talk to the clueless castmates clearly made for good television. The fights reach a crescendo toward the end of the season, in the kind of "he said, she said" game that is now de rigueur on Real Housewives. Julie tells the castmates that, in an offscreen argument, Kevin cursed her out and almost threw a candleholder at her. Kevin says Julie picked up the phone and asked him to get off right as he was in the middle of a serious job interview; he admits that he lashed out at Julie but says he never threw anything at her.

“It became quickly obvious to me then that I was talking to folks who had never experienced anything,” he recalled of his castmates’ lack of awareness regarding discrimination or other points of view. “I felt compelled to say something, just based on who I was and what I’d experienced — or debates or arguments, depending on your perspective. But it was all organic.”

Whether any reality TV conflict can truly be organic is a fraught question, given the typically heavy involvement of producers through editing. (Showrunner George Verschoor mentions in the reboot that 60 hours of footage a week were whittled down to 24-minute episodes.) Either way, Kevin got lots of screentime when his activism stirred the pot; it made for great drama, regardless of how it made him come off. Yet he didn’t get the same 360-degree treatment as his white counterparts. There are brief shots of Kevin teaching Black and brown students at a weekend class at NYU. We see a snippet of him at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe performing spoken-word poetry about his family and meeting his mom. But his life as a writer, where he would express ideas about these issues on his own terms, wasn’t included. (He recalls telling the producers how important Vibe magazine, backed by Quincy Jones, would be.)

Ultimately, Kevin’s moments as the “angry Black man” led to massive viewer backlash. “Letters, mail — lots of mail — and things people would say to me publicly,” he recalled in our interview. “There were people who avoided me at MTV. I realized people had created judgments.” In interviews for a media job, an editor told him his portrayal on the show had soured many people on working with him. Even his mother “was terrified,” he says in the reboot. ”She said, ‘Don’t ever talk to a white woman or white person like that again.’”

Getty Images

The cast of The Real World in 1992

The Real World pioneered the concept of bringing strangers together as a microcosm of the American experiment. PBS arguably invented reality television in the early ’70s when they turned the lives of the Loud family in California into the multipart series An American Family. But the conceit of assembling people from diverse backgrounds as a story unto itself became part of the core of reality television. “It’s sort of an old-fashioned liberal idea,” Murray said of the show’s genesis, “that we’re really all the same — you just have to cut through all the other stuff to really get down to the core.”

Of course, however similar we may all be on the inside, people don’t have the same experiences in the outside world. While the show changed the landscape of television, diversifying the kinds of identities that could get a platform, it also normalized the idea that castmates of color (especially Black ones) are expected to perform emotional labor for white audiences.

“We wanted to reflect voices that had not been heard,” Murray recalls of the idea behind The Real World. Throughout the ’90s, the show did provide many of the channel’s suburban white viewers’ first casual peek into the experiences of people of color, and many straight viewers’ first exposures to queer life and politics. But in retrospect, that first season comes off as an attempt to educate the network’s majority-white audience about race in America rather than providing a platform for the castmates whose voices had not been heard on the network.

Reality television is an exchange of personal experience for visibility, a transaction that can be more fraught for castmates of color on a network with mostly white production crews. Today, Murray acknowledges there was a lack of racial diversity behind the scenes. “I think, from the beginning, we had pretty good representation on the crews as far as gender and sexual orientation diversity. Where we’ve struggled more, quite honestly, is in racial diversity,” he admitted in our interview. “We sort of realized after that first season that if you’re gonna cast a diverse show, you need to have a diverse crew. You don’t want the cast looking back and not seeing anybody who looks like them or who they just don’t feel like shares any of their life experience.”

Courtesy of MTV

Kevin Powell in The Real World New York: Homecoming

In Homecoming, all the castmates come back to the loft for a new, shorter Real World season. They revel in nostalgia and the passage of time, pointing out how much they’ve aged; some are parents now. But the reboot quickly turns to one of its main themes: the idea that The Real World was always political. The castmates view footage (unseen by viewers at the time) of themselves in 1992 watching the Rodney King verdict, a flashpoint for police brutality. They sit around the loft, like they did almost 30 years ago, and discuss how George Floyd’s killing has galvanized people again.

In particular, the reboot seems designed as a vindication of Kevin. “Kevin was labeled the angry Black man,” Heather B. says in one conversation. “Kevin wasn’t wrong, ’cause fast-forward — where’s the lie?” Kevin gets a less one-dimensional edit this time around, allowing him to showcase his expertise and talk about his experiences since the show.

Growth remains a focus of the program, and the white castmates get to talk about their own. “It took this many years to realize I have to be anti-racist,” Julie tells the group. Becky, though, makes herself into a caricature of the Becky meme. She talks about taking an Afro Brazilian dance class in which she “lost” her skin color. This time, not just Kevin, but all the castmates, try to get her to see how she’s coming across. She leaves the house in a huff. On a walk with Julie the next day, she says, “I’m not there to be the poster girl for white privilege.” During a FaceTime call with Kevin in a subsequent episode, she accuses him of “policing” her words and hangs up on him. She never returns to the house.

The show breaks the fourth wall during the last episode. Murray and Verschoor appear onscreen and ask the castmates about what they wish had been included. Heather B. talks about those scenes with her father — and we finally see the missing footage of them at a restaurant. “Please don’t ever do that to another Black girl again,” she said later, adding, “There’s a lot of Black women out here, Black girls who need to see that.”

Homecoming emphasizes the idea that as much as things change with racial politics, they also stay the same. The same is true of reality television’s failures around racial representation. Black castmates on reality television continue to highlight pay discrepancies with white castmates. They have also spoken about the way that castmates of color are expected to share certain kinds of trauma and often get depicted as angry. And the lack of diversity behind the scenes remains a problem.

Heather B. went on to release her first album, Takin’ Mine, in 1996. She points out that her record label was confused about why MTV wouldn’t play her videos. “It took a very long time for people to make the distinction that I was very serious about my rap career,” she said, recalling that at the time being on MTV — not a hip-hop hub at all — was seen as selling out. “And thank god I ended up being very successful as a full-time recording artist, but it took some time to get to that point.” In the aughts, she segued into radio. She now hosts three shows, including The Happy Hour With Heather B. and Sway in the Morning (she’s a cohost).

Kevin went on to write 14 books, including a memoir, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood, and cover stories about Tupac Shakur for Vibe and Rolling Stone. (Shakur became a fan in part from seeing him on the show.) But he was always ambivalent about The Real World experience. “You feel disempowered when things are taken out of context, and people draw conclusions because they don’t see the full story,” he said. “Sometimes it doesn’t have to be other people making you invisible — sometimes it’s making yourself invisible because of the pain you carry around, simply because of who you are.”

At the same time, many people have told him he made them think about race in a different way. “People have always quoted to me: 'Racism is race plus power,'” he says. “I’m sure they’ll make some memes of us now.” ●

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.