Keeping It Real

By Dan Avery

Originally published on Advocate.com December 15 2008 1:00 AM ET

When it debuted
back in 1992, MTV’s The Real World was
truly groundbreaking television. Not only did it establish
the template of thrusting disparate strangers together to
live under the camera’s unblinking eye, but it
introduced America to something rather unusual for the
time: an out gay man (Norman Korpi) who was
well-adjusted, popular, and upbeat.

Nearly 17 years
later, gays and lesbians are a staple of reality
television. In fact, it’s more noticeable if
there’s not a queer contingent on shows like
Survivor or Top Chef. So how could could
Bunim-Murray Productions raise the ante for Real
World: Brooklyn,
the show’s 21st
installment, debuting January 7? By including as cast
members a gay man, a trans woman, a girl who's dated
women exclusively ... until now, and an allegedly
straight virgin who pings the gaydar more than Ryan
Seacrest at a Jonas Brothers concert. Now, instead of
a token gay roommate, the show has LGBTs representing a
formidable faction of the house. But in the age of Lindsay
Lohan and Clay Aiken, will such card-shuffling
reinvigorate the somewhat stale Real World franchise?

Judging from the
first episode, which was sent out to reporters for
screening, it appears Bunim-Murray went back to the
show’s New York City roots more than just
geographically. Gone are the hackneyed
“projects” forced on cast members in
recent years (remember when the cast of The Real World:
Las Vegas
had to work at Palms Casino?). The
eight roommates (yep, there are eight this time around) are
encouraged to pursue their personal passions in the Big
Apple -- singing, writing, acting, etc. And while
there’s sure to be plenty of infighting and
drunken shenanigans, the cast doesn’t seem as
desperate for fame (or infamy) as in recent seasons.

Even the location
of the Real World house is something of a
departure -- rather than Brooklyn hipster haven
Williamsburg or stroller-set capital Park Slope, producers
opted for Red Hook, a slowly gentrifying neighborhood
that’s still mostly industrial (the arrival of
an IKEA earlier this year made local headlines). The
house itself, a converted two-story warehouse that sits
right on the Brooklyn pier, is to die for:
We’re talking about a built-in gym, funky
furniture, bold artwork, and staggering views of New York
Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. Being isolated in a
region practically inaccessible by public
transportation isn’t such an issue when you have cars
to shuttle you into Manhattan. So who are the lucky
20-something queers who got to call this pad home for
four months?

 MTV REAL WORLD JD X390 (MTV) | ADVOCATE.COM

J.D. Ordonez, 22,
from Miami Beach, Fla., is perhaps one of TheReal World’s most accomplished cast
members. He escaped an abusive family situation and put
himself through college, earning a degree in marine biology
and working as a dolphin trainer at Miami’s
Seaquarium at the tender age of 19. “Some
people think I’m arrogant,” he confesses in
the first episode, “but I think that’s
just because I’m a confident person.” As for
why he auditioned for the series, J.D. says he wanted
to be a role model to show young viewers of any
orientation they could achieve their dreams. (His
mantra: “You can be in dirt, but you don’t
have to be dirty.”)

Judging from
early scenes, J.D.’s homosexuality appears to be a
nonissue: “I didn’t hide it,” he
said at a recent press meet-and-greet at the house,
“but I didn’t broadcast it either. It came up
in conversation and it was no big deal.” Of
course, volunteering at the The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual
& Transgender Community Center and joining his
housemates at straight clubs like Angels & Kings
didn’t give the single hottie much time for
dating. (He swears there’s “no
validity” to the Internet rumors he was hooking
up with a certain silver-haired cable news anchor.)

If J.D.
doesn’t exactly rock the Real World
boat, housemate Katelynn Cusanelli, the show's first trans
housemate, is bound to at least make a few waves.
Raised in a religious Italian family in West Palm
Beach, she began identifying as female in high school. This
July she had gender-reassignment surgery in Thailand, and
she entered the house just three weeks after leaving
the hospital.

“I was
still in stitches when I arrived,” says Katelynn, who
left a boyfriend back home to join the cast.
“But my doctor said I was doing really well and
that it was important for me to get around.”

But why thrust
herself into the spotlight after just completing her
transition to womanhood?

“I knew
it’d be a stressful situation, but I realized I could
be a voice for the community,” she explains.
“There have been other trans women on reality
shows -- Isis from America’s Next Top
Model
and LaVerne on [I Want to Work for]
Diddy. But they were competing for a prize;
their being trans was secondary. This was a way for America
to see someone like me just being myself.”

MTV REAL WORLD SARAH X390 (MTV) | ADVOCATE.COM
  

That
doesn’t mean Katelynn, 24, falls into any
stereotypes: Somewhat shy, she’s an admitted
computer whiz and aspiring writer who just happens to
have a black belt in tae kwon do. Her arrival sparks
whispers among some of the male housemates, but she
seems to be accepted early on by the girls (though
only time will tell).

“It was
definitely a nonissue for me,” says Devyn, a teen
pageant winner who shared a room with Katelynn during
filming. “The only tension was when it was
being tiptoed around like a big secret. I was one of the
last to know. But I see Katelynn as the person she is
-- gender doesn’t affect character.”

One housemate who
might ruffle gay feathers is Sarah Rice, a 22-year-old
artist who hails from the queer mecca of San Francisco. Her
current boyfriend is the first man Sarah’s
dated -- until now, most of her relationships have
been with women. Though she considers herself part of
the LGBT community, heavily tattooed Sarah eschews labels,
coyly identifying as “none of the
above.”

“I fall in
love with people I have a strong emotional connection
with,” she says. “It just happens that
I’m in a straight relationship now.”

She felt a
certain kinship with J.D. and Katelynn but admits there was
no “Team Rainbow” in the household:

“Being
[queer] is part of what we are, and we support each other in
that way, but it doesn’t define us. It was
harder to come out to my lesbian friends as being with
a guy than it was coming out in the first place,”
Sarah says. Like J.D. and Katelynn, Sarah also volunteered
at the Gay Center, leading art therapy classes for
people who, like her, are survivors of sexual
abuse. She admits leaving her beau on the other side
of the country was hard but says she wasn’t tempted
by her fetching housemates or the New York singles
scene: "If it's true love, you can keep it in your
pants for four months.”

MTV REAL WORLD KATELYNN X390 (MTV) | ADVOCATE.COM
 

The remaining
five housemates are ostensibly straight, though mostly not
narrow. (Iraq war vet Ryan, 23, might have the toughest
time adjusting to his diverse household.) And there
are a few question marks, most notably Chet, a devout
Mormon who exhibits classic metrosexual tendencies --
like getting a manicure and commenting on his male
roommates’ attractiveness. In the first episode, we
see at least one cast member questioning his
sexuality, and J.D. reveals he got Chet to dance in
the spotlight at raunchy gay dance club Splash. Then
there’s Scott, a fitness model-personal trainer
with abs for days.

OK, so that one
might be wishful thinking.

We’ll have
to wait for the season unfold to see if sexuality becomes a
major issue in the house, but viewers will be able to check
out unedited and uncensored clips online at The Real World Dailies website.

Adding a level of
transparency, Real World executive producer Jim
Johnston will also write a weekly blog covering much
of the behind-the-scenes action. We could be looking at more
of the same from the long-running series, or this
could very well be the realest Real World in
years. Tune in and find out.