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?
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."
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."
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.