Danny Roberts Shares His Struggles After 'The Real World' and How He's 'in a Good Place' Now

In 2000, Danny Roberts became a public face for LGBTQ+ rights after starring on The Real World: New Orleans but wasn't ready for the pressure. Now he's a single dad ready for his Homecoming reunion

The moment Danny Roberts arrived at the Belfort Mansion for The Real World: New Orleans in 2000, his life was forever changed — but so were the lives of many, many viewers.

As a newly out gay Southerner dating a man in the military, his impact far exceeded his naivete and continues to this day.

For proof, look no further than the comments section on his Instagram page: "I was just an insecure high school kid watching your season and being inspired by you," reads one. Another says he was "there for a gay kid trying to make sense of life," while yet another commenter writes, "It helped a lot to have you on TV." And there is no shortage of fans calling him a "crush."

"My coming-out story is the genesis of a lot of other people's in that generation's coming-out story, but I think so much of that is timing," Roberts, 44, tells PEOPLE via Zoom from his quiet cabin in Vermont for this week's issue. "Matthew Shepard was murdered [for being gay] a year before this season filmed and it kicked off a whole new energy in the LGBT movement. And then I landed right in the middle of that."

Now, 22 years later, as he steps back into a house with Julie Stoffer, Kelley (Limp) Wolf, Melissa (Howard) Beck, Jamie Murray, Matt Smith and David "Tokyo" Broom for The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans — premiering Wednesday on Paramount+ — he's "in a good place," but also recognizes the journey it took to get there.

Danny Roberts Rollout
Daymon Gardner/Paramount+

"I had very, very serious reservations about doing this again," Roberts says. "It's a lot to dig all this back out. Because it's not just digging out a chapter of our lives, it's digging out a chapter of pop culture and our nation's story in a lot of ways. I think the reason this season is so sentimental to so many people, is because then it happened at kind of the end of an era before we moved into a very digital, post terrorist age."

When The Real World's ninth season premiered on MTV in the summer of 2000, Georgia-born Roberts especially made a splash as the season followed his budding romance with Army Airborne Capt. Paul Dill, whose full name — as well as his face — could not be revealed due to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which barred openly gay people from serving in the military (the policy was later repealed in 2010).

"There was real risk and real ramifications," Roberts says. "I don't come across in any sort of threatening way to mainstream America. I could just be the stereotypical guy next door in Anywhere, USA. And that, I think, helped a lot of people connect to this story that otherwise maybe wouldn't have. It made it real for a lot of people."

By the time the season ended, Roberts was one of the hottest faces on television — magazine covers, a guest role on Dawson's Creek and even a photo shoot with Beyoncé followed. And he became a face for LGBTQ+ rights.

"This child was not ready for it," Roberts says of the pressure. "I was so young and lacked so much just basic confidence."

Scott Wolf Rollout

Meanwhile, he and Dill continued to date in secret. "We were forced into this underground life while he remained in the military, and we got stuck in this codependent, toxic relationship that carried on for many years," Roberts says. (Dill left the military in 2003; he and Roberts split in 2006.)

"I can look back from a healthy mindset now and realize I was greatly traumatized from that period," Roberts reflects. "I still carried the trauma of growing up in a really repressed environment where it was not safe to be out. It was a heavy juxtaposition: I was expected to be and wanted to be this strong voice, but I was suffocating inside."

Several years later, Roberts was diagnosed with complex PTSD, which is caused by prolonged trauma, though he says, "I think of it less as a diagnosis and more of a narrative of my own life story, which I can then reframe to approach my future."

Daymon Gardner/Paramount+

Around 2011, Roberts was having a regular health checkup when he learned he was HIV positive.

"I grew up very afraid of HIV — I was basically a hypochondriac — and it came out of nowhere," he says. The reality of his situation meant "grieving a more innocent, healthy version of myself that's now gone; embracing the knowledge that you're now a slave to health care system; and letting go of the deep shame related to it."

Today, Roberts' viral load is undetectable thanks to the antiretroviral treatment Biktarvy.

"I'm very, very thankful that we live in an era of science that we do now, or I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you," he says. "So I just thank God every day we live in the era we do."

Another reason Roberts is thankful? His 6-year-old daughter Naiya, whom he shares with his ex-husband.

Becoming a father "has been the most transformative event of my life," he says. "It was a catalyst for me to get to the root of finding strong mental health and get my physical health back."

Roberts says Naiya "is really into costumes and dressing up," which has brought out elements of his personality that had been long dormant.

"Her wonder at the world brings me back to a more imaginative part of myself," he says. "She takes me back to an innocent earlier version of myself that was free and imaginative and had not been tainted by the darkness of the world."

When the pandemic hit, Roberts, who works as a tech recruiter, left his apartment in Manhattan and headed to his "getaway cabin" in Vermont. "And I found myself a dairy farmer right down the road," he adds with a smile, referring to his boyfriend Austin. "So he makes it home too."

It was with all this hard-won joy and perspective that Roberts reunited with his ex-roommates in November to film The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans after years of not speaking.

"I had very specific goals," he says. "We'd touched on the impact of fear and inbred hatred, but this was an opportunity to revisit that topic because it's still very relevant in what's happening today.

"I think a lot of people are sentimental about this season of the show," he adds. "This is a nice bookend to the story."

The Real World: New Orleans is now available to stream on Paramount+. New episodes The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans drop Wednesdays on Paramount+.

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