A World Apart
ONCE, THE IDEA OF THROWING together a group of total strangers and televising the results was unheard of. Then came The Real World, the unscripted adventures of seven young people sharing a house in New York City. The show spawned a franchise—and the current crop of reality TV. “I wish the people who use these techniques would credit us, says series co-creator Jon Murray. Or that we got royalties!”
AT THE REAL WORLD audition, Julie Gentry caught the eye of MTV producers by performing a clog dance in a bright pink jacket. “I figured they wanted southern,” says Gentry, a native of Alabama, where she still lives. But what ultimately came across was a lack of sophistication. Gentry (then known by her maiden name, Oliver) often appeared overwhelmed by city life in episodes she calls “Julie Lost in New York”—and cemented her reputation as the show’s country bumpkin by admitting that, at 19, she was still a virgin. “I never hear the end of it,” she says.
Fortunately, she’s too busy to care. Married since 1998 to catering chef Joshua Gentry, 27, Julie, 28, recently became a first-time mother with the May arrival of son Noah. Juggling child-rearing duties and a part-time job teaching dance with business studies at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, Gentry doesn’t even keep a TV in her family’s bungalow. But when the time comes, she won’t hesitate to show her son tapes of the show. “I think he’d be really impressed with his mom,” she says.
the naughty one
THE FLIRTATION BETWEEN CAST MEMBERS JULIE Gentry and Eric Nies may have attracted more air-time, but it was Becky Blasband who provided the first season’s most heated romance—much to MTV’s displeasure. Blasband, now 34, had an affair with one of the show’s directors during the course of filming. “This kind of stuff happens on sets all the time,” says the New Hope, Pa., native. “But because it was The Real World, it was a big deal.” Indeed, the director, Bill Richmond, who remains friends with Blasband, was subsequently fired, as relationships between cast members and off-camera staffers are strictly forbidden.
These days, Blasband is having a love affair of a different sort. “Music is my husband, acting is my mistress,” says the singer-songwriter and onetime Off-Broadway performer. Now single and shuttling between homes in L. A. and San Francisco, Blasband will soon release Million Dollar Movie, a “hip-hop pop” CD she plans to distribute via the Internet. And where does she see herself in the future? “Huge,” she says, laughing. “Nah, I’ll probably be getting in trouble. As usual.” She adds, “I’m a naughty girl with a heart of gold.”
ON THE REAL WORLD, THE OFTEN SHIRTLESS Eric Nies was known for his six-pack abs. Afterward, they helped win him a three-year gig hosting MTV’s dance show The Grind, a series of multiplatinum workout videos, and cameos in films, including The Brady Bunch Movie. “We’d go to a club and there’d he a herd of girls wanting to dance with him,” says Nies’s brother John, 34. “It was a wild ride.”
One that screeched to a halt in 1995. Not only did MTV fail to renew Nies’s contract, but he wound up broke after a business partner bilked him out of an estimated $250,000. (Nies won a legal judgment against the man but never recovered the money.) Despairing, Nies drove to the Jersey Shore to commit suicide. He pulled out a knife, carved “set me free” on a tree and prepared to slash his wrists. But before he could do so, he felt an intense burst of energy. “It was like I got my spirit back,” he says.
He has held on to it—aided by a Vietnamese spiritual healer he calls Grandmaster, with whom he shares a house in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now 30, Nies, who once romanced Pamela Anderson, maintains a Zen attitude toward dating. “When it is time to have a woman in my life, it will happen,” he says. Meanwhile, he keeps busy as a volunteer spokesman for Operation Fit Kids, promoting exercise for children. His videos are still selling briskly, as is a tummy-toning device he invented called the Abaratus. “I feel at home with myself,” says Nies. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
WALK INTO ANDRE COMEAU’S GUTTAR-FILLED APARTMENT in downtown Los Angeles and you’ll immediately notice what’s missing: any evidence of his Real World past. “God, no, you won’t find anything like that here,” says Comeau, 30, who was a struggling rocker when he appeared on the show. “If I ever had to do it over again, I wouldn’t.” Bemoaning MTV’s love of reruns, he adds, “Three months of my life has now been examined and reexamined for 10 years! There’s nothing I can do to get out of the mold.”
Appearing on The Real World, he says, also wreaked havoc on his music career. Soon after the show ended, his then bandmates—”guys I grew up with” in Royal Oak, Mich.—turned jealous of Comeau’s burgeoning TV fame. “My band, Reigndance, ended up hating me,” he declares, and they broke up in 1997. “I think they felt I ruined our chances to be a bigger success.”
Now teamed with a new group, Milkweed, and dating a 26-year-old waitress, Comeau (who also plays drums and piano) moonlights as a sound-effects editor in Los Angeles. He ruefully compares his MTV pigeonholing to that of a certain Gilligan’s Island castaway. “Thanks to Real World, I’m in a state of suspended animation,” he says, laughing. “I’m no different than Bob Denver.”
REPARING TO SET FOOT IN THE REAL WORLD’S SoHo loft for the first time, “I had a plan,” says Heather Gardner, 30. “I told myself, I am not going to get caught up, I’m not speaking to anyone, I will just be me and get my money.’ ”
So much for that idea. By the time the show wrapped, Gardner had traded her loner scheme for a tight bond with castmate Julie Gentry. “I knew she’d never met anybody like me before, and I’d never met anyone like her,” says Gardner, a Jersey City native, of her country pal. The pair roomed together for several months after the show ended, and in 1998 Gardner served as a bridesmaid for Gentry.
Friendship wasn’t the only thing Gardner got out of her Real World experience. A rapper whose nom de mike is Heather B, she used her TV exposure to promote her 1995 single “All Glocks Down,” which became a radio hit. Still living in Jersey City, Gardner is in a “serious relationship” with her boyfriend of four years and has a new album due in August. And though she has lost weight since her Real World days, she laments the sleekness of subsequent casts. “I was 5’8″ and 160 lbs. when I did that show,” she says. “Now the girls are a size 2.’
BEFORE HE JOINED THE REAL WORLD, 24-year-old Kevin Powell knew little about MTV. “I didn’t have cable,” he says. A political-science grad from Rutgers University, Powell was concerned with more cerebral matters. But it wasn’t his mind, he says, that attracted the casting agent who discovered him at a Manhattan restaurant—it was his funky overalls. “She said she liked my look,” he recalls.
No matter. Powell soon made a name for himself as the most argumentative member of the group, clashing with his castmates over issues of race, gender and sexuality. “I had a chip on my shoulder,” he admits. Yet “being in that space with someone who was gay [Norman Korpi], and with women, made me see how human they were,” he recalls. “I had to start working on some of my own issues.”
Powell, now 35, has leveraged that self-discovery into a career on the college circuit, lecturing about race, politics and the media. He has also published four books of poetry and essays. Currently single and living in Brooklyn, Powell is producing a spoken-word CD-and mulling a run for Congress. Of his Real World stint, he says, “The whole thing was about people coming together to work things out. I still get letters from people who say that meant something to them.”
WHEN MTV LOCATION SCOUTS VISITED NORMAN Korpi’s Brooklyn loft to see if it would make a suitable Real World locale, they suggested that Korpi, a commercial artist, audition for the show. There was just one problem: Korpi, then 23, had never informed his parents that he was gay. He ended up telling them prior to the show’s premiere—he says they were supportive—and went on to become one of the first openly-gay stars on MTV. “All of a sudden on TV is this average, dorky kind of person who was gay—not the stereotype,” he says. “People were refreshed.”
As were his new roomies. “I call Norman a magnet,” says castmate Heather Gardner, who has remained a close friend. “He draws [together] all these different people—white, black, gay, straight.” Korpi’s likability helped him recruit nine former Real Worlders for his directorial debut, a comedy called The Wedding Video, about two men who marry (Korpi stars as one of the grooms). Although the independently financed film does not yet have a distributor, Korpi says the experience of working with fellow Real World alums such as Gardner and Julie Gentry has been a source of closure. The show “kind of held me captive for 10 years,” says Korpi, who is now 34, single and living in Los Angeles. “Doing this film puts it all behind me. I feel free again.”