This is the true story of what happens when seven strangers are picked to live in a loft and have their lives taped. Find out what happens when they stop being polite — and change the landscape of television forever.
Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry (née Oliver), Norman Korpi, Eric Nies and Kevin Powell were chosen to live in a loft at 565 Broadway in Soho from February until May 1992 with cameras capturing their every move. The footage was compiled into 13 episodes of “The Real World: New York” that revolutionized MTV and pioneered reality television when it premiered on May 21, 1992.
“The whole approach was new,” Jonathan Murray, the co-creator of MTV’s “The Real World” and reality television pioneer, told The Post in a recent interview. “So we were really figuring it out as we went along, and the cast really didn’t have any idea what they were getting into other than what we had struggled to explain — it’s sort of like ‘90210’ but real people. It’s like ‘The Breakfast Club,’ but you’re not all locked in the cafeteria — which was great because the whole process and the cast reaction was all so innocent and open to the experience.”
Murray and his production partner, the late Mary Ellis-Bunim, had been experimenting with what would become reality television for five years by applying the principles of dramatic storytelling to everyday people’s lives. After MTV picked up “The Real World,” they chose to film the project in New York City with a focus on casting seven strangers with an interest in the arts to appeal to the network’s audience.
“It was before social media, so we were running around New York posting in laundromats and where other young people might see our sign and they could tear a telephone number off and call us,” Murray recalled. “We went to Austin and Birmingham because we wanted someone who was coming from outside New York [and] have that perspective . . . Birmingham [is] where we found Julie Oliver. I just remember . . . being so excited about the people we were finding.”
Now, nearly 30 years later, all seven Season 1 cast members are returning to 565 Broadway as part of a new revival series, “The Real World Homecoming: New York,” premiering Thursday on Paramount+.
Gentry told The Post in a recent Zoom call, “They got seven people who were very different and from very different backgrounds. But . . . something that we all really have in common [is] that we were open to a new idea . . . that it was a new thing. But I can’t see any of us auditioning for ‘Real World 27.’ ”
Comeau agreed, adding, “Or even Season 2, having seen what the first cast went through and realized what this is and what it might mean, what kind of impact it would have on your life, I probably — I might not have done it.”
While everyone was excited for the project to begin, filming the show became a logistical challenge. Not only did the house get into 90 degree temperatures because of the hot lights that production required, but the hard wires on the camera also created tripping hazards in the house for the cast.
New York — the city that never sleeps — lent itself to curious passersby stopping cast and crew on the streets and potentially ruining authentic moments.
“We were calling it a docu-series at that point and people on the street would ask us what we were making. We always just told [producers and cast], ‘Tell them it’s a documentary or that it’s a student film,’ so that they would leave us alone,” Murray said with a laugh.
The technology at the time also hindered the true New York experience that producers hoped to capture.
“When we would go out of the house to follow the cast, we would have to unhook the camera from this cable and put on a remote control pack and that process took about 10 minutes,” he said. “So we would have to keep the cast waiting.”
But in one instance, the conversation couldn’t wait. Powell and Gentry had gotten into a heated debate about race in America on the street, and producers wanted to be able to capture the entire conversation. Murray explained that the only solution was to throw the camera cables out of a window and rehook the camera down a floor in the loft.
“It was crazy,” he recalled. “And of course, we’re shooting that scene — meanwhile, the LA riots had just happened and people were seeing this young black man and young white woman arguing about race. At some point they decided to take the conversation back [inside] because quite a crowd had gathered.”
The producers soon realized that they would need to speak with cast members individually about situations in the house to provide more context when they were editing the footage. Nowadays, confessional scenes are critical in any reality show; “The Real Housewives” go all out in full glam for their interviews.
“For Season 1, I was doing most of them,” Murray said. “We were doing interviews with the cast really every seven days or so, and we were using back staircases. We were using the roof. We were using the bathtub. We were using the pool table . . . We would use interviews if we had to somehow get something that wasn’t in the scene or somehow narratively get us from one place to another.”
While Bunim and Murray explained to their production staff what their roles did and did not entail, lines were crossed when Blasband began to have an inappropriate relationship with a production director, Bill Richmond, during the cast’s trip to Jamaica.
“From the beginning, we had explained to our crew that this is the story of the relationship between cast members. It’s not about their relationship to us, and so there’s a line here and you should not cross the line,” Murray said. “We are not going to become their best friends, because when something happens in the loft, if there’s an argument, we don’t want them coming to one of us to express their heartache or upset. We want them talking to each other, so you need to stay on your side of the line. We took that really seriously.
“So when one of our directors crossed that line, we had to say to him, ‘You can’t continue to work on the production.’ And so he crossed the other side of the line and dated the cast member for a brief time.”
“He was young and it was, I’m sure, a pivotal experience in his life,” Murray said.
Richmond did not return an interview request for this story.
All of the cast and crew’s hard work paid off when the ratings came in. Murray recalled the MTV audience having an “over-the-top” reaction and the ratings “tripled what the network was normally getting in prime time.” Soon enough, “Saturday Night Live” was spoofing the show, and MTV realized that the show’s format could be replicated to keep the ratings up.
Murray explained, “It was definitely creating a stir. It was just that the more traditional media, the older critics, they didn’t get it, but young people got it. And what we would call today’s influencers got it . . . so it was at that time that we made the decision to change the location each year and recast each year. And I think doing that probably is part of the reason the show continued to be relevant for so many years.”
“When you look at our first season, there’s an innocence to it,” Blasband said. “I mean, there was like three or five minutes of Heather and Julie playing Scrabble. I mean, who sees that on TV anymore? But it’s wonderful to watch.”
But more than ratings, the show was changing pop culture.
“When I realized that this is game-changing is when we started seeing the reactions to it, especially when we went to the Video Music Awards in September of ’92, which was the year of Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Howard Stern. And then there was the seven of us,” Powell told The Post.
He recalled people “screaming for us as loud, if not louder,” adding, “That’s when I realized this is a significant turn in American TV history.”
Murray also knew that the show was revolutionizing television and continued to produce shows that pushed the boundaries of what people were accustomed to on their screens. He began with MTV’s spinoffs, “Road Rules” and “The Challenge,” as a way to keep using cast members from “The Real World” who the audience connected to and moved on to producing “Making the Band” and, eventually, Paris Hilton’s “The Simple Life.”
“Our agents said to us, ‘Hey, what about a reality version of ‘Green Acres?’ ” Murray said of how the show came about. “And then we got together with Fox and cast Paris Hilton and then met a lot of her friends and her sister and ended up choosing Nicole Richie to do that series with her.”
The show became such a pop-culture phenomenon that it inspired the family of one of Hilton’s friends, Kim Kardashian. Her family, spearheaded by matriarch Kris Jenner, sent an audition reel out for their own show, which later became “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”
Murray, who is now an executive producer of the series and its spinoffs, said, “I got a call from the executive at E! who said Ryan Seacrest had this great tape of this family and did I think it was a TV show. And they sent me the tape, and I said, ‘It sure is!’ I said, ‘You’ve got the momager mom. You’ve got the three sisters, each unique. They’re entertaining. You have the dad who thinks they’re all crazy. And you’ve got the young daughters, you’ve got the brother trying to figure out his place. So it felt like a perfect TV series.”
The casts of early reality television didn’t get to experience the same benefits and career-advancing opportunities that their successors have enjoyed.
“We were in the arts and Heather, you were rapping at the time, and I was singing, and it was like, ‘Great. We got this little thing on MTV. It’s going to help us launch us,’ ” Blasband said. “We didn’t know what it was going to really be. And we actually had to prove ourselves even more at first when the show came out because people didn’t know what to make of us and at that time, music and the arts and television did not get married.”
“People looked at us like we were crazy,” Gardner added. “And then now you see people who are able to do certain things in reality TV and become multimillionaires, in some cases billionaires.”
“In some cases, president!” Blasband interjected.
Former President Donald Trump’s reality television series, “The Apprentice,” produced by Mark Burnett, ran for 15 seasons from 2004 until 2017.
“It’s funny because, before the election, I ran into these fine folks and I brought up the fact that if a certain president was re-elected, that maybe we should do a public service announcement apologizing to the American people for starting this avalanche of bad taste,” Comeau said, laughing.
Some later “Real World” cast members enjoyed a measure of fame — including Wisconsin congressman Sean Duffy (“TRW: Boston,” 1997), “Southern Charm’s” Cameran Eubanks and actress Jamie Chung (“TRW: San Diego,” 2004), as well as Netflix’s “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown, who became the first openly gay black man cast on a reality show (“TRW: Philadelphia,” 2004).
Still, as other reality TV shows and stars gained popularity, it seemed that “The Real World” was on its way out. “The Real World: Atlanta” was released on Facebook Watch instead of prime time in 2019.
Rumors of a series revival started swirling in June 2018, and ViacomCBS worked behind the scenes to give fans the taste of nostalgia they were craving with the original New York cast.
“What’s cool about it is you see sort of how these seven young people, how their lives have evolved, and how they how they want to continue to evolve as people. It’s just really interesting how ahead of his time Kevin Powell was with some of the issues he was raising in 1992 around race and white privilege,” Murray said.
The cast was unaware that filming would take place at the original location until the last minute.
“It was a total, total shock because for us, the last time Norman, Julie and myself were together in that loft is because Oprah Winfrey had done a  special,” Gardner said. “I thought that was the last time we were ever going to see that place again because it was up on the market for sale.”
Blasband joked, “But here’s the weird thing: The scaffolding was still there! I’m like, really, after 30 years you haven’t fixed this building?”
Even crazier, the cast first found out about the reunion through their group chat.
“We’ve been connected as a group for the last couple of years via text thread and part of it is because one of our directors from the original season, Rob Fox, had passed a couple of years ago,” Powell said. “We just thought it was important for us to stay in touch with each other. But there’s no way we could have predicted this was going to happen and happen so fast.”
Nies hopes that the reunion will inspire fans to embrace each other’s differences just as the original cast did years ago.
He explained, “Maybe the younger generation and maybe new fans that come on from watching the show will see that, yeah, it’s possible [that] you can have differences. You can have an argument. You can have different opinions. You can come from a different walk of life and still be able to work it out and be able to accept each other and love each other and move on.
“That’s the biggest message of all in this world of cancel culture and division and separation that we see,” he added. “Like there is no separation and division between any of us, and I hope that that’s a message that really does come across.”