How ‘The Real World’s’ first season sparked real change

Story highlights

The show debuted 25 years ago

It turned the camera on people not often seen on TV

CNN  — 

When “The Real World: New York” debuted on May 21, 1992, Norman Korpi became the first bisexual man on reality television. Except he wasn’t.

“In the early days, they couldn’t have a gay [cast member] so they made me bisexual,” Korpi told CNN. “One day, Ellen [DeGeneres] came up to me out of the blue, it was an art opening and said, ‘I couldn’t believe how brave you were. It took me like five years to even do anything.’ I was like, ‘Whaaaat?’ You don’t even think people paid attention or knew you.”

It’s been 25 years since MTV first launched its social experiment with “seven strangers, picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped.” Over 32 seasons, a generation of viewers have discovered what happens when casts “stop being polite” and “start getting real.”

“The Real World” Season 1 was a harbinger of American culture to come, one in which diversity would be demanded and social media could make anyone a star.

The show that wasn’t supposed to be

Two decades ago, the idea of turning cameras on non-celebrities for entertainment purposes was uncommon.

The reality TV genre did not exist. “The Real World” wasn’t even supposed to be “real.”

TV producer Jonathan Murray and partner Mary-Ellis Bunim had actually set out to make a scripted drama for MTV about young people beginning their lives in New York City, Murray told CNN.

“There was actually a script developed called ‘St. Mark’s Place,’ and it was pretty good,” Murray said. “Ultimately, MTV just wasn’t ready to do scripted programming and bear the cost of scripted programming.”

At the time, the network was primarily airing music videos and game shows, so Murray and Bunim pitched “The Real World” to MTV executives as an equally dramatic, unscripted series.

The show found quick success as MTV’s audience became fascinated with the lives of Korpi, Heather B. (Gardner), Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Julie Gentry, Eric Nies and Kevin Powell.

There were heated moments involving discussions about race, a love affair between Blasbard and one of the show’s directors, and tension between Heather B.’s cat, Smokey, and Korpi’s dog, Gouda.

Murray remembers the first cast as “fresh and engaging.”

“They really met the criteria we had set for the show, which was to pull together a diverse group of young people who wouldn’t ordinarily live together,” Murray explained. “You had just this wonderful mix of people.”

The producer confessed they had no idea what they were doing that first season – not realizing how challenging it would be to keep up with seven actual lives. By the end of the 13-week shoot, Murray said his team was exhausted, but they knew they had created something special.

Representing the “other”

Murray is proud “The Real World’s” place in pop culture.

“I think what the real power of the series was, particularly in those early years, is that we brought people on to the television screen who had been ignored by television,” he said. “You didn’t regularly see LGBT people, and there was very little representation of black people or Latino people.”

In the third season of the series, “The Real World: San Francisco,” viewers met Pedro Zamora, a Cuban-American gay man with AIDS, who worked as an HIV/AIDS educator.

It was a pivotal moment, not only in television, but also for viewers who came to love Zamora. (His commitment ceremony with boyfriend Sean Sasser was the first same-sex exchange of vows on prime-time television.)

Zamora died in 1994, hours after his season’s last episode aired.

“For a lot of people, that was the first person with AIDS they ever met. Suddenly, there was a face on this disease,” Murray said. “The fact that he was working so hard to try and educate other young people about the need to protect themselves from AIDS, it was just a powerful story.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive officer of GLAAD, hailed the series for the exposure its given to the LGBTQ community.

“Whether it was Pedro Zamora shedding light on living with HIV, Danny Roberts (Season 9) showing the harms of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ or Katelynn Cusanelli (Season 21) educating the world about being a trans woman, MTV and ‘The Real World’ gave LGBTQ youth stories to relate to and opened the hearts and minds of viewers around the world,” Ellis told CNN.

Blazing trails

But that may not have happened had Korpi not pushed the door open that first season.

Korpi said he had no issues with revealing his sexuality to the world – even if that meant being labeled bisexual instead of gay over fears of advertiser retribution.

“There were no celebrities out, and since I wasn’t risking a $6 million career or something like Elton John, who cares if I roll the dice,” Korpi said. “MTV was global and I feel like that’s part of the reason why the seven of us are remembered, because we were part of something that changed the world.”

When his season was airing, Korpi said he found it most gratifying when he heard from people who wanted to share their stories of having gay family members and friends.

Now a patent holder and technology developer, Korpie still gets recognized for his stint on the show.

“I just did this trade show and people were literally giddy,” Korpi said. “My manufacturers and my sales reps were like, ‘Why are these people so fidgety?’”

All worth it, Korpi said, to “have had a front row seat and been able to watch the world change around me.”

It doesn’t get much realer than that.