This is the story of several dozen strangers, who stood in line outside Q’s on a Tuesday morning, all of them desperate to live in a house and have their lives taped-except for one reporter, who was freaked out by the experience.
MTV’s The Real World is the granddaddy of all reality television. The show has repeatedly brought together seven strangers from differing backgrounds to live under constant video surveillance so that audiences can supposedly “find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”
When The Real World began in 1992, Cops was the only other reality series on television. Now Americans are inundated with reality shows featuring less-than-spectacular examples of humanity-The Simple Life and Blind Date come to mind-and most of us are beginning to think our own lives are worthy of a reality series.
I have always half-heartedly thought of trying out for The Real World as an alternative to post-college employment, so it was with only slight hesitation that I agreed to attend the open casting call to write a small expose. As The Real World approaches its 20th season, the producers have added a twist to this year’s casting by specifically asking for young people with career goals to audition. Anticipating a large crowd of intelligent, witty twenty-somethings, I was surprised that only 30 people showed up and downright shocked to learn I was one of two who actually lived in Santa Barbara. Everyone else had driven “up from Los Angeles.”
I walked past two gay men animatedly comparing piercings with girls who looked like they had cut junior high. Wearing a flower print dress and worn flip-flops, I stood in line next to pink stiletto heels holding up women who looked like they were auditioning for porn. Behind me, a woman in a shirt on which she had puff-painted “Pick ME!” spoke loudly about her self-diagnosed narcolepsy. As we neared the door of Q’s, I shared a pen with a preschool teacher who had spent nine hours on a bus from Las Vegas to fill out a brief application with questions like “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “What’s your most embarrassing moment?”
An assistant ushered us past the cocktail waitress trying to ply us with drinks-at 11:30 a.m.-and we were asked to introduce ourselves with our name, age, and a few interesting facts. I was glad to be second in line and able to get it over with, until the first guy stole the entire interview by announcing that he was 23, divorced, gay, HIV positive, and in the military. The producers thanked him for being so brave. Then I confessed my interesting fact: I talk in my sleep.
My introduction-“I’m Rachel, I’m 22, I actually live in Santa Barbara, and I like to write :”- was followed by an awkward silence. I could almost hear everyone thinking “Why did she bother?” I wondered the same when I was then further outdone by an 18-year-old who had gone into drug rehab at 14, a Latino struggling to come out to his traditional Catholic family, and a young woman from New Mexico who said she talked to her best friend, Jesus Christ, whenever she was tempted to have sex.
I was the only one who had included the career goal MTV had advertised for. I recognized then that these people all wanted something else: to be famous not for their contribution to humanity but because they were crazy-different enough to be cast.
I’m from a generation that grew up watching The Real World, when it defined the reality series and was groundbreaking in its bold representation of people and issues America wasn’t seeing on television. My peers and I were all glued to MTV every Tuesday night to watch these strangers argue and relate and learn while discussing topics like AIDS, politics, homosexuality, racism, religion, and abortion. Once I reached 18, the minimum age to be cast on The Real World, I moved out on my own and realized my life would never be anything like the show. Since my moment of disillusion, I try to limit my watching such mind candy, but I can’t be the only one who has noticed that the series has devolved into a drunken orgy freak show.
Each season now features what have become predictable stereotypes-the sheltered Christian girl, the angry ethnic guy, the alcoholic, the “All-American” male, the guy too cute to be straight, and the one with a sweetheart at home on whom she will cheat. And for some reason, we watch this drivel every week, simultaneously compelled and repulsed by the drama of complete strangers. I understand most of us are closeted reality TV addicts not because we are learning anything about love from The Bachelor or experiencing the Hollywood glamour through The Hills, but because watching people humiliate themselves on television makes the rest of our lives look more meaningful.
That said, why do more than 35,000 people still apply to The Real World each year? I barely manage a whole day without saying or writing something I regret. I can’t imagine the repercussions of having all my actions broadcast around the world. No wonder all the roommates from the last 10 years keep reappearing on shows like The Real World/Road Rules Challenge. How could anyone ever get hired for a serious job after airing his dirty laundry so openly?
I wasn’t serious about my Real World audition. I felt like the only one who was remotely “normal” with the career goals MTV claimed it was looking for, but I knew the moment I stepped into that line I would never make it to the next round. Although I was just being me-being real-I wouldn’t make the cut. Because there is nothing real about this world.