Nearly 30 years ago, seven strangers — folk singer Becky Blasband, alt-rocker Andre Comeau, rapper Heather Gardner, dancer Julie Gentry, artist Norman Korpi, model (and future The Grind host) Eric Nies, and poet/activist Kevin Powell — were picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped. The result was MTV’s Zeitgeist-capturing The Real World, which for better or worse changed television forever. Now, it’s time to find out what happens when these people stop being polite and resume getting real… when The Real World Homecoming: New York, which reunites all seven original cast members from The Real World Season 1, premieres on Paramount+ this week.
A trailer for the reboot shows decades-old tensions flaring between the reality-TV roommates, as they move back into very same NYC loft where it all began. (Side note: They had no idea they’d be returning to that loft until they showed up for the first day of Homecoming’s filming.) But during their roundtable discussion with Yahoo Entertainment about The Real World’s impact on pop culture, the cast members aren’t just being “polite”; they’re acting like the best of friends. Even Nies — who, as it turns out, did not return to the loft and participated in the new series remotely (for reasons that will be revealed on the March 4 premiere) — is all smiles, noting that they’ve all stayed in touch since the early ‘90s and regularly communicate via group text.
The bond these seven former strangers have forged is clearly solid. After all, even though there have been 33 total seasons of The Real World, the once-serious docuseries — which was groundbreaking in its explorations of formerly taboo topics like race, class, and homosexuality — eventually devolved into the sort of salacious, sensationalistic hot-tub-party antics that laid the blueprint for roommates-gone-wild shows like Jersey Shore, Big Brother, and Bad Girls’ Club. Only these original cast members know what it was like to be there in the beginning… even if they didn’t know they were making TV history at the time.
“I don’t think anybody thought this is going to change television history, and that it would start a new genre. … I don’t think we knew we were going to start something so enormous,” says Blasband, recalling that when iSeason 1 first began filming in 1991, producers actually told the cast that they were too “boring.” Korpi also laughingly admits, “I thought it was going to be like an After School Special, like something that it would be like an hour long and that was it, you know? And no one would see it.”
“It’s profound when I think about it now, just in terms of pop-culture game-changers,” muses Powell. “Our season literally falls into this category of things that helped to shift an entire culture and created a whole other genre of TV. No one can say that, and no one can take that from us. We are the seven who originated all of this, and it’s profound. There was no Kardashians, there’s no Paris Hilton. There’s so many different things that have come after. Unfortunately, you could also say there was no President Trump without us, as some people would try to blame us for [The Apprentice]. But what I’m proud of is that we were authentically ourselves in our first season. And I think that’s why people still talk about it all the time. It’s really powerful.”
“There was a sea change after our show, and an absolute shift in pop culture too,” says Comeau. “Obviously the whole genre of reality TV changed, and maybe it became, you know, a little more lurid, a little more exploitive. I’m so grateful that I was a part of the first incarnation of reality TV, and that it was more documentary-style. I don’t think that I certainly, or many of us, would have participated in the second season, or third season. We were all very serious in our artistic endeavors, and I think that we would have shied away from the possibilities of something negatively impacting our pursuits.” (That being said, Comeau makes it clear, with a sarcastic chuckle, that The Real World Homecoming: New York will not feature a subplot reunion starring his old ‘90s band, Reigndance.)
One of the most memorable and certainly most explosive moments from The Real World Season 1 was an argument about racism between Gentry, a 19-year-old white girl from Alabama and the youngest roommate, and Powell, a Black man from New Jersey and, at age 26, the season’s oldest cast member. However, the way the series handled it at that time, focusing more on the aftermath than on the altercation itself, was very different from how it would probably play out on reality TV today. “I understand that that is something people really do like to revisit, is that fight,” says Gentry. “But we did kind of get some resolution there [at the time]. Neither one of us left the loft after that. No one moved out. It wasn’t, ‘Now what are we going to do? Someone should leave!’ We did come back together then.”
“We’ve grown, we’ve evolved,” says Powell. “I’m still passionate about fighting any form of oppression — not just racism, but sexism, homophobia, transphobia, all of it — but I wouldn’t necessarily be yelling and screaming and cursing at this stage of my life. I think that we evolve, where we understand particularly that if we’re going to heal as a country, and move people forward as a country, then we’ve also got to be able to not only talk with each other, but also learn how to listen to each other and our different perspectives. I think that’s important.”
“And I feel like we’ve only grown closer since,” adds Gentry. “And so the thing that you get, I think, by having this reunion is seeing that we are still close and that our relationship does continue. And to me, that’s a much more interesting path.”
Gentry confesses that while the cast members “were a little hesitant” to sign on for this reboot at first, they all got on board once they found out “it was going to be the seven of us. There’s a lot of safety when you have your whole family there.” The only family member, so to speak, who was resistant to the idea was Gardner, a.k.a. “Heather B.” Gardner even informed the other six, via that group-text chain, that she wouldn’t be participating. But it didn’t take long for Gentry to persuade her.
“[The show’s producers] didn’t call Eric about my reluctancy, because Eric is very persuasive and he’s very convincing,” Gardner laughs. “I definitely was reluctant initially. I did not want to get involved. I kind of had this idea of not messing up something that was already really good and not going back into it and ruining what was already a good thing. … But then, just at this age, I’m married. I live with my husband. We don’t have any kids. So, just thinking about sharing this space with six other people, I was like, ‘Nah, yo, this ain’t gonna work! How many bathrooms?’ I had all of these pre-Heather B. demands that I wanted. And so Julie and Norman were on my tail. They would call, like: ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do this, you gotta do this!’ I didn’t call Eric, because he’s cute, and I know how persuasive he is, and that’s my boo. He’ll get to me. And so I left him out of my concerns. But Julie and Norman were like, ‘No, this is going to be great. We’ll have a good time. Just pack up your bar and let’s go.’ And so, that’s exactly what I did.”
The Homecoming trailer shows the reunited roommates addressing some past incidents (including the above-mentioned Gentry/Powell argument), but when asked about other unfinished business, Gardner keeps it real in her own amusing way. “I just wanted to address when I ruined Eric and Kevin’s birthday party by getting arrested for having a fight,” she laughs, referring to Season 1’s penultimate episode, when a woman accused Gardner of assault and police were called to the scene. “I wanted to make up for that. I wanted to come back and bring back the party that I ruined by the cops coming in and busting it up. That wasn’t me, y’all! I’m copping the Shaggy plea right now — it wasn’t me! But you know, I ruined their party, so I had to try to come fix that.”
“I don’t even know what she’s talking about,” says Nies, “because at that time in my life, it was all a party that never ended.”
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Luis Saenz