At age 22, Melissa Beck fulfilled the dream of many people her age who spent their Saturdays mainlining marathons of The Real World on MTV: she became one of the seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. Melissa would be getting real in New Orleans, in a mansion along St. Charles Avenue called the Belfort, living with a pretty blonde, a rebellious Mormon, a horny gay guy, a hunky frat guy, a self-described player, and a spiky-haired Christian. It was the golden age of The Real World, and for a generation raised on MTV, Melissa is one of the show's most memorable cast members. Beginning in eaerly 2021, Paramount+ has been revisiting the series with The Real World: Homecoming, reuniting classic casts to relive the old days and in some cases hash out the same old fights. After seasons revisiting the inaugural New York cast and Season 2's more volatile Los Angeles brood, the series is jumping ahead to the 9th season's New Orleans cast.
The Real World: New Orleans holds a special place for many Real World fans. This was the season of Danny's Don't Ask Don't Tell boyfriend, Paul, who had to have his face blurred out on TV to stay compliant with the U.S. military's homophobic policies. It was the season of David's freestyling song "Come on Be My Baby Tonight," reproduced with moody (almost ominous?) atmospherics in the trailer for the upcoming Homecoming season. Wisconsin Mormon Julie Stoffer was given the classic Real World edit (the naive young skater girl thrust into the big, cosmopolitan city), but one could just as easily have held up Melissa as the consummate Real World cast member: 22 years old, half Black and half-Filipina, quick with a joke, not shy for an argument, ready to call roommates out on their bullshit one minute and tape a hysterical giggling confessional the next.
But reality TV can be a psychologically grueling business, especially for those who put themselves out there as avatars of their generation in their early 20s, at a time when reality TV was only giving us a few characters to obsess over. For Melissa, the prospect of going back for Homecoming wasn't an easy call. "I lived that for so long," Melissa explained in a Zoom interview with Primetimer. She said she chose not to re-watch her old episodes before entering the Homecoming house. "I went through so much therapy to not be her anymore, even though she didn't do anything crazy. She’s not a thing I'm ashamed of. But I also was like 'I don't need to see all that. I don’t need to see all that.'"
Which isn't to say that Melissa was traumatized by her time on the show. She speaks about her MTV experience with the sense of humor she was always known for, even if the twenty plus years since have added some knowing world-weariness to the boundless enthusiasm of one's early 20s. Hearing her speak about her experience, it sounds more like a (metaphorical) sobering up that happens once the experience ends and it becomes television fodder for the masses. It was the kind of television that Melissa was more than familiar with, having watched the show before she applied to be on it. "I was watching a Real World: Hawaii marathon, and I was figuring it out. I was like 'Okay, one black guy, one brown girl,' and then I said, 'Hold on, one Filipino girl! I could do this! Yes, I could do this, I could kill two birds with one stone for them, let me send this tape.'"
"I wanted to be on the show just because I understood how valuable The Real World was in terms of being in a pop culture lexicon" she says. "That sounds crazy, I know. But the show really mattered to young people, and I was like 'I love this, I wanna be a part of this.' And I watched the show and I figured out in my mind, 'Well there's only gonna be one brown lady, and it could be me.'"
Melissa found herself to be one of the show's most spotlighted cast members. Her storylines included an unlikely friendship with Julie, one that soured at some point between Real World: New Orleans and Melissa's only season on The Challenge a few seasons later, when she and Julie aired out their off-camera rift, which had to do with Julie's (allegedly) underhanded tactics while booking speaking engagements after the show. While Melissa is relatively tight-lipped about Julie now — "That friendship was true and real to me inside of that house," she says — the rift between Julie and her fellow cast members (Melissa and Danny among them) gets a lot of focus in the Homecoming trailer.
Another relationship that was featured a lot on Real World: New Orleans was Melissa's often frustrated friendship with David Broom (who now goes by the name Tokyo), who at the time was an aspiring singer out of Chicago. He was also the only other person of color in the Belfort house, and as such, Melissa saw it as important that they get along. But David spent the season aloof and estranged from almost all of the roommates, and it seemed to weigh heaviest on Melissa. "It was sort of a double-edged sword," she says, "because a part of me was like 'bro, this is a national TV show, we gotta get along, we're all we got,' and we didn't. And in one sense, I wanted it to work, because you do want to root for everybody Black. And in another sense, when it didn't work out that way, I didn't want our commonality in race to be a factor in that. It was like 'You don't get along with anybody in the house, but it's gonna look like I definitely don't get along with you,' and because of that, I don't want it to call into question who I am and my identity. Do you see what I'm saying? So it was like 'She's not really Black' — it was never that. It was like dude, I want us to have a cool friendship and relationship post this show, because we're gonna need each other. And it didn't work out that way, and I had always carried a sadness about that."
Revisiting these relationships promises to be a major part of Homecoming, and they were all a part of Melissa's trepidations about participating in the project, particularly given her ambivalence towards the show. "I never liked to fall back on 'the editing did this.' No, no, no, that was all me; that's just not the biggest and fullest picture of me. And I feel like with me, they didn't really know what to do with me, because I contain a multitude. Shit, here I was, I was half-Black, half-Filipino, well versed in the conversations of race and whatever, but I also was super into hardcore music. They didn't show that. You know, I didn't grow up religiously, so there was nothing to show there. Danny being gay didn't move me in any way, I was like 'okay cool!' I wasn't an alcoholic, there's no story there. [...] In the aftermath of having done the show, I went from a person who really wanted to be on the show to a person who's like 'Oooh, maybe I shouldn't have done that show.'"
Showing up for Homecoming would mean volunteering to revisit some tricky subjects. After two seasons, the format for the reunion series has been pretty well established: gather the old roommates back together, have them reminisce nicely for a bit, and then hit them with clips from the original show to be hashed over with a couple decades' worth of hindsight. "I did understand that there were major episodes that I was going to have to address," she says. "I knew that they were going to address budding friendships that may no longer be. I knew that they were going to address that dreaded N-bird incident on the swamp boat tour."
The latter incident refers to an episode where the roommates took a Louisiana swamp boat tour where the tour guide made several racist references and called a bird by the N-word, a moment that hit Melissa hard and had her frustrated with her roommates who tried to downplay it. "I understood that I was going to be put into a teacher role. I was going to be the one that was gonna drive certain narratives and certain conversations. But back then, you know, I bore a lot of responsibility for drama," she says.
Consequently, look for the subject of race to come up in the New Orleans reunion, as it has, quite contentiously in the first two iterations of Homecoming. "I knew that that particular topic was going to come up," Melissa says. "I knew that the onus of the discussion was probably going to be on me, and so I went into that knowing that and understanding that. I remember they showed the [video clip], and the open ended question was 'Have your views changed 22 years later on race and on discussions of race and racism?' And when I tell you the package went off, and it was crickets! It was seven people in the room like [blank stare]. And I remember all eyes were on me, and I remember opening the conversation like 'Well, whites? [Laughs] How y'all feeling now?'"
"I wanted to reiterate to these people, I was like listen, when this show came out, and I was upset about the N-word being used in the house, and nobody else was upset about it, that was actually the story. But they made it that I was annoying because I was upset. And the reality of the situation is all y'all should have been upset, and I shouldn't have been the one getting hate mail."
That notion of toxic fan response is a reminder that, with Homecoming, these hot-button discussions are happening at a time when viewer response to media is far more immediate than it was back in 2000, a reality that's certainly not lost on Melissa. "Another reason why it was so hard to make the choice to go ahead and do [Homecoming] was because I'm calculating in my mind the immediacy of viewer response," she says. "When we were on the show there was no Twitter, there was no Instagram, there was no TikTok where I can have the audio of myself memeified 20 times over. If you wanted to know how you were perceived and received on this television show, you had to figure out where the message boards were, then log on to those message boards. Some of those message boards required you to have a login, so you had to say 'I am Melissa from The Real World, and I wanna know what you were saying about me.' So there was kind of a responsibility and an accountability that you had to hold yourself to. So if I did that, [if] I went through the process of finding out information about myself, and I got my feelings hurt, I had only myself to blame. Now…"
"And it's scary," she continues, "because you don't know which way it's gonna turn. You don't know! If you are the main character on Twitter at any time, it's a wrap! Just delete your account. And so that was pretty scary, and it's a skill set you kind of gotta have to navigate these things." That said, the social media age does offer some silver linings for Melissa. "Listen, I'm most excited to become GIFs," she says. "I've been waiting for this moment. So [if] you guys wanna make them, make them. I love them."
Despite her trepidation, the prospect of a reunion with her cast members presented an opportunity as well. "When you see the trailer, and [David] is like 'We're back, and some of us haven't spoken,' and we hadn't spoken in all at this time. So it was really very interesting to see everybody, because we really have not connected. And it's sad, because you watch these other Homecomings and Real World New York, like those people all rock with each other. They go to each other's weddings, they know when [the others have] babies. We don't have that. We did a show and then we we bounced."
Still, one thing gives Melissa hope that Homecoming is going to hit the right tone: the trailer, which had just recently dropped when we spoke. "I was super anxious going in, I was super anxious coming out, but I've now seen the trailer, with the ominous remixed version of 'Come On Be My Baby Tonight,' which that alone… I'm gonna tell you what, I'm gonna tell you how much good faith that gave me about the process of this show. Because whomever is behind the scenes and did that really has their finger on the pulse and understands what the people want. 'Come On Be My Baby Tonight' is kind of the eighth roommate. It's the most important person on the show. It's the person that made us, it's the person that made us memorable. So just the respect that they have for the tune, I'm like okay, I feel like I'm gonna be fine. So I came off of this show really hopeful, and I mean I say that now — episode 4 is gonna come out and you're gonna be like 'How ya feeling now, Melissa?' But I think #noregrets.
Before we ended our Zoom call, I had one more question about one of the original episodes, where the roommates were invited to dinner at Anne Rice's New Orleans mansion. The idea was presented like Rice, the famous author of Interview with the Vampire, wanted to meet the Real World kids, but on the show she seemed to pass through their dinner quite briefly. I floated my theory that it was Rice's son who really wanted to meet them. "Yes!" Melissa confirmed, "She did not want us in her house, may she rest in peace. No, actually, when it came out that she passed, Danny sent me the link, and he was like, 'Oh this is so sad,' and he and I reconnected, and he was like remember that night? I was like, 'Danny, that was like one of the coolest nights there, because when do you have the opportunity to be there?' But then we remembered that her son was really super into the show, and so it just goes to show you all of the places that this little tiny piece of pop culture can take you. It was so special at that time, so special, and I actually am really thankful that I got to revisit it. I did not want to, I went in kicking and screaming, but I'm glad."
The Real World: Homecoming: New Orleans premieres on Paramount+ April 20th.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: The Real World Homecoming, MTV, Paramount+, The Real World, Melissa Beck