Late last year, Julie Gentry was in Atlanta helping her 19-year-old son, Noah, move into a house where he and four of his college classmates planned to live together while the pandemic kept them off-campus.
At one point, Gentry said her son took the opportunity to tease her about the long-ago role she played in television history. “He was laughing that I was setting him up for his ‘Real World’ experience,” she said.
It was only minutes later that Gentry got a text message from Bunim/Murray Productions, the company that created “The Real World” for MTV and which cast her in the debut season of that groundbreaking series. The company was inviting her to return to the same SoHo loft where she’d lived with six other aspiring artists and performers nearly 30 years ago while a camera crew recorded them for a first-of-its-kind, nonfiction soap opera.
“I said that text is fake,” Gentry recalled. But as she and her former TV roommates — who have stayed in constant contact since “The Real World” premiered in May 1992 — started checking in with each other, they discovered they had all had received similar, authentic invitations. And so they all agreed to accept them.
The result is “The Real World Homecoming: New York,” a new reality series that reconvenes those original seven strangers, picked once again to live in a loft and have their lives taped — not as wide-eyed teenagers and 20-somethings eager to bare their immature souls, but as parents and professionals in their 40s and 50s, with families, careers and a fuller understanding of what they exchanged decades ago for a modest amount of visibility.
“Homecoming,” which begins March 4 on the new Paramount+ streaming service, allows viewers to catch up with its fully-grown alums, who take a certain pride in having made “The Real World” before the genre it helped create became ubiquitous, codified and mercenary.
Having lived for so long in a world that “The Real World” helped to create, we can sometimes forget what an offbeat proposition it was when it was introduced and how different and unprepared a media environment awaited it.
Before the show arrived, MTV filled its airtime with low-rent coverage of youth culture and narrowly tailored blocks of music videos; the network had homegrown franchises like “Headbangers Ball,” “Club MTV” and “Yo! MTV Raps” and it played “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in constant rotation while other signature programs like “Beavis and Butt-Head” were still on the horizon.
“The Real World,” created by the producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray, took its cues from the 1970s PBS documentary series “An American Family” and from scripted teen dramas of the day like “Beverly Hills, 90210.” It was part gamble and part stunt, not an attempt to spawn a generation’s worth of programming on MTV (in spinoffs and clones like “Road Rules,” “The Osbournes” and “Jersey Shore”) and across television.
But the DNA of “The Real World” lives on to this day — in highly mutated form, in some cases — in reality franchises like “Big Brother,” “Real Housewives,” “The Bachelor,” “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and countless other shows that exist to mine content from social conflict.
For its original cast members, “The Real World” promised the chance to live rent-free in New York while they pursued their careers, but it bonded and branded them in ways they never expected.
“No matter what, we’re connected for life by this,” said Kevin Powell, who has remained a journalist, author and activist. “No one can say they were the first — we are the first.”
“Homecoming” offers its cast members the chance to look back on their misadventures and conflicts from the original show and reassess themselves for better or worse. As Gentry, an aspiring dancer from Birmingham, Ala., who became a mother of two and a community garden organizer, put it, “We’ve evolved but we haven’t really changed.”
They are also hopeful that by revisiting their past debates on what were once taboo subjects for TV — sometimes heated arguments on race, sexuality and privilege in America — they can do better for themselves and set a healthier example for viewers.
“Hopefully we’ve reached this level where the slings and arrows and heatedness can mature into a rational conversation and a real discourse,” said Rebecca Blasband, a singer-songwriter and recording artist who went by Becky on the original series.
She continued, “Because that’s what we need in this country. We’ve become a combative society, and in that combat, we lose reason.”
Norman Korpi was working as a photographer and fashion designer when he learned about “The Real World” from producers who were scouting his loft as a possible location for the series. The show appealed to him because of its intended focus on young people trying to break into creative careers and its potential to democratize TV programming.
“It allowed you to see people who had never been shown before, to be exposed to people you’d never encountered and see their stories evolve,” he said.
The show’s Black cast members felt their decision to appear on “The Real World” was especially fraught, requiring them to weigh the value of representing the communities they came from against the credibility it would cost them there.
Heather B. Gardner, then an up-and-coming rapper, said she felt it was important to appear on MTV at a time when the network featured few Black people and hip-hop was widely portrayed as crude and inherently violent.
But Gardner, now a Sirius XM radio host, said that many peers were skeptical of her motives at the time.
“My record company didn’t understand it,” she said. “And the hip-hop world didn’t initially embrace it. It took a lot of work to earn their stamp, of me being like, ‘Yo, this was just a documentary — I didn’t quote-unquote sell out.’”
The housemates attended political rallies, met NBA stars and enjoyed some good-natured hedonism on MTV’s dime.
“My daughter will say things to me like, ‘What were you thinking, taking your top off in Jamaica?,’” Gentry said. “I tell her, ‘I had no idea you were ever going to exist, so I couldn’t really think about it.’”
They also quickly found out what happened when people stop getting polite and found themselves in heated disagreements about their different backgrounds. In the show’s first episode, Gentry saw that Gardner carried a beeper and jokingly asked her if she sold drugs. A later episode, called “Julie Thinks Kevin Is Psycho!,” recorded an intense fight between those two roommates, where Powell declared, “Racism is everywhere,” and Gentry retorted, “Because of people like you — not people like me.”
But time passed and temperatures cooled. Cast members became friends outside of the show and got on group texts with each other; Gardner was even a guest at Gentry’s wedding. “The Real World” became Patient Zero in the viral spread of reality TV, running 33 seasons in its original incarnation as reality programming overtook the programming grids of MTV and countless other channels.
As MTV’s parent company, ViacomCBS, prepares to relaunch its CBS All Access service as Paramount+, it sees reality TV and “The Real World Homecoming,” in particular, as a powerful lure for potential subscribers.
The original “Real World” series “was the purest of the social experiments,” said Chris McCarthy, the president of MTV Entertainment Group. “People have held deep relationships with these cast members, in a way that, quite honestly, we only dream could happen today.”
Noting that MTV also plans to bring a resuscitated version of “The Real World” to Paramount+, McCarthy said he expected that “Homecoming” is a series that “will bring back lapsed viewers and the next version could be something totally different for brand-new viewers.”
But the thought of returning to the show in middle age is one that some cast members had to sit with. No one wanted to be seen as trying to recapture past glories: “How could we recreate something that we did at that time in our lives?” said Gardner. “Unless we stay drunk the whole time, it’s not going to work.”
The roommates were not encouraged, either, by the state of modern-day reality TV, some of which has a distasteful and selfish tone and has helped unleash unsustainable levels of narcissism.
“There’s a very greedy aspect of the industry that’s like, ‘Whoever can behave the worst or have some sex tapes, go right to the front of the line,’” Korpi said.
Blasband said that the reality genre was not solely to blame for America’s problems, but it reflected and amplified the national psyche, serving as “an expression of the subconscious of our society,” and could be used for good or ill.
When “The Real World” first appeared, she said, “It was very refreshing for people to feel that they were actually connecting to something other than canned laughter.”
But in the years since, she said, the reality genre has embraced “a tabloid mentality that began to bleed into news journalism — I see it on CNN or Fox News, a heightened, incendiary drama that doesn’t belong there.”
Some of the roommates said they felt more compelled to participate after events like the Black Lives Matter protests of the spring and summer had reawakened them to the complex realities of racial disparities in America that they lacked the ability to articulate back in 1992.
Andre Comeau, now a rock musician living in Los Angeles, said that a torrent of videos that he had seen in recent years, capturing incidents of police violence against people of color, had been “so shocking to me, to see that on an everyday basis — I had no idea that it was so prevalent.”
Comeau said he felt it was important to discuss these developments on-camera with his Black co-stars and to explain how his own stance had evolved since the original season.
“At the time, I thought I was oppressed,” he said with a sardonic chuckle. “Being a young, longhaired white male living in a city, I would get pulled over on a regular basis. But that is nowhere near the level of institutional racism that happens every day.”
Naturally, the roommates’ return to their downtown Manhattan lodgings came with some ready-made reality-TV drama. Eric Nies, the fashion model who parlayed his “Real World” fame into hosting roles on MTV programs like “The Grind,” said that he made it as far as a New York hotel room and was never actually able to set foot in the SoHo loft for “Homecoming.”
Asked why, Nies said in a phone interview, “I’m not sure how much I can get into that right now.”
Nies, who was able to communicate with the other housemates over a video monitor, elliptically added that the circumstances of his separation were “definitely not by my choice, but I accepted the outcome — more will be revealed in the future.” (MTV declined to comment on this.)
Other cast members said that they found value in participating in “Homecoming.” Korpi, who is gay, said he wanted to revisit his experience of coming out publicly on the show and its impact on his life when the series ended.
At the time he appeared on “The Real World,” Korpi said he had just ended a relationship with another man. “However, when the show aired, I was perceived by some cast and the public as bisexual, which was hurtful and a lot to bear,” he said.
He added, “If you didn’t live in that time, you don’t know what it was like to come out when there’s nobody out, being gay,” he said. “People were terrified of that.”
Korpi, who has been a filmmaker, a painter and an industrial designer and continues to work in his family’s bakery in Michigan, said that traditional paths in the entertainment industry were not necessarily open to him after his “Real World” season.
“It wasn’t like any agent was going to touch a gay person with a 10-foot-pole,” he said. “I struggled a little bit — or a lot — and I realized I needed to make the work for myself.”
Powell said he also had suffered for how “The Real World” had portrayed him.
“I got stigmatized as a politically angry Black man, and that stuck with me for a long time,” he said. “It was very painful having to deal with that.”
Though he did not regret the passionate feelings he had expressed on the original show, Powell said that he felt he owed it to himself to show that he could engage differently with his roommates on the new series.
“At the time, was I very heated in a different kind of way about racism? Absolutely,” he said. “Am I different person now? You will see that when you watch the episodes.”
Gentry, who had memorably sparred with Powell, said she also wished to make amends and do better this time around. “All the stuff on race, I said a lot of pretty naïve things in that first season,” she said.
Powell said there was a lesson that the roommates and their viewers alike could take away from “Homecoming”: that it is possible to engage one another about our disparate perspectives and experiences as long as we do so respectfully.
“We have to have uncomfortable conversations with people about things we don’t agree with,” he said. “But it has to be with love.”
Shooting finished on “Homecoming” in January, and the cast members have spent the weeks since reflecting on what it meant to them. But though the reunion might seem likely to serve as a kind of bookend to their original “Real World” experiences, some were hesitant to describe it in such terms.
“‘Closure’ insinuates that there was trauma or something,” Blasband said. “I have a lot of fondness for my roommates.”
Gardner, who was initially reluctant to do the new show, said afterward, “I don’t regret it at all.” But not even a previous season spent living her life for public consumption was enough to prepare her for a second go-round — to have her old self reflected back to her at the same time that her current self was being held up for examination all over again.
“Bruh, it’s different,” she said. “The mirror is gigantic. The mirror is Macy’s window at this point.”