August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

Ruthie Alcaide’s application last December for a spot on MTV’s The Real World promised some real drama: “America will glue their eyes to the TV,” she wrote, “to find out what Ruthie does next!” As it turns out, Alcaide wasn’t exaggerating. The Real World, the cinema-verité series that brings together seven young strangers under one roof and videotapes them for four months, has been racking up the biggest ratings in its eight-year history. And Ruthie may be the reason. “She was openly bisexual and in a lesbian relationship at the time we met her,” recalls executive producer Mary-Ellis Bunim. “And she was willing to talk about any area in her life.”

What Alcaide had neglected to mention before taping began in January was her drinking. Arriving on Hawaii at the Oahu beach house MTV had leased, Ruthie, a 21-year-old senior on leave from New Jersey’s Rutgers University, immediately made a splash by skinny-dipping in the pool. She also started downing cocktails. The next day, when she and her six housemates, known to viewers only by their first names—Teck, Matt and Kaia, all 22, Justin and Amaya, both 21, and Colin, 19—went out to a local club, Ruthie got falling-down drunk. Rushed home by her roomies, she went into convulsions. Amaya called 911, and as the crew filmed on, paramedics pumped Ruthie’s stomach.

Seeing herself passed out on-camera when the first episode aired in June “blew me away,” says Ruthie. Still, despite the alcohol-poisoning scare that January night and her departure from the show in March to enter a 30-day rehab program, she insists she’s not an alcoholic. “I was drinking a lot out of spite,” she says, reacting to the producers and her housemates. “The more they said, ‘Don’t drink,’ the more I said, ‘I’m gonna.’ That was a phase I went through.” Retorts Colin, a student at the University of California at Berkeley: “What phase? The alcoholic phase? She still hasn’t accepted that drinking is a large problem in her life, and that makes me sad.”

Ruthie grew up with other problems as one of a set of triplets (who include sister Sara, a Bryant College student, and brother Silverius, known as Scotty, an airman first class in the Air National Guard; an older sister, Rachel, 23, born on Oahu, is an insurance-company administrator in San Diego) born in Florida to Silverius Alcaide, a Navy petty officer, and his wife (who asks that her name not be used). When the triplets were almost 4, the family apparently broke down and the children were placed in foster care with a couple who had seven children of their own. Though she called them Grandma and Grandpa, Ruthie says her foster parents never encouraged closeness. “They were strict,” she says. “We did most of the housework while the biological kids didn’t. It was unfair.” Rachel and Scotty deny being treated badly. And “Grandma” (whose husband died last year and who asks that her name not be used) also disputes Ruthie’s claims. “Everyone had chores in the house,” she says. “I did my best to raise all my kids as my own.”

At 17, Ruthie moved in with a high school friend, Del-phine Ontai. After graduating from high school, she earned a scholarship to Rutgers, where she came out as bisexual in 1998. She tried out for The Real World, she says, so that others “could see people who are comfortable with their sexuality like I am.”

But Ruthie’s roommates grew increasingly uncomfortable with her. “When she’s drunk, she’s verbally abusive,” says Colin. Unnerved when she drove off one night after drinking, producers insisted Ruthie see a counselor. When her behavior only worsened, her housemates issued an ultimatum: Attend a rehab program or leave the show.

Ruthie chose rehab. She returned for the show’s final month and stayed sober throughout. Last April she and-her lover Jess parted ways but remain friends. She also claims to have “a good relationship” with her father, with whom she reconnected during taping. But ties remain strained with her mother, who had three more children and reappeared in Ruthie’s life when she was 15.

In September, Ruthie goes back to Rutgers, where she majors in journalism. And she’s already punching up her résumé. “I was lost on the show for a little bit, but it really comes out very positive in the end,” she says of her Real World experience. “Even though in TV land the 22 episodes are over, my life continues, and,” she vows, “there will be more episodes.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Paula Yoo in Honolulu

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