TELEVISION : A ‘Real World’ of Difference : Life has changed for seven young adults who took up residence in a $2-million Venice house for six months in a soap-opera documentary series conceived and aired by MTV: Everyone knows their names
A year ago, Beth Stolarczyk was just another young woman chasing the Hollywood dream in Los Angeles. The Ohio State graduate scraped by doing grunt work on music videos, dreaming of some day stepping in front of the camera as a celebrated actress.
Today, she is still grabbing work as a production assistant when she can get it and still yearns for her big acting break--only now she can’t go grocery shopping without strangers yelling out her name across the frozen food bins.
“It happens every day. They scream, ‘Beth!’ and come running up to me, and they talk to me like they know who I am,” said Stolarczyk, 23. “It’s freaky. They’re talking to me like I’m their next-door neighbor and they know everything I’m doing, and I want to say something back, but I’ve never seen the person before.”
A year ago, Dominic Griffin, 24, was a struggling free-lance music writer and television critic, attending local rock shows and peddling his reviews to a couple of industry trade magazines.
Today, he is still selling his words to any publication that will buy them and, dressed in a ripped pair of Levis, he said he still can’t afford a new pair of jeans. But he’s become a mini-celebrity on the Los Angeles club scene. Pretty models and actresses approach the gregarious, spiky-haired Irishman to say hello, and when Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes walked up to him one night as an enthusiastic fan, Griffin had to spin around a few times to make sure the rock singer was really talking to him.
What happened? Only this: Stolarczyk and Griffin were among the seven young adults selected by MTV to take up residence in a $2-million Venice, Calif house for six months to appear in the cable channel’s soap-opera documentary series, “The Real World.” For the past 13 weeks, their rather contentious adventures have been unspooling on national television in weekly installments, like a soap opera.
No one told them it would be like this.
“Oh, I’m sure that maybe once in a while someone will recognize me from the show, but there’s no way this is ever going to turn me into some big celebrity,” said Aaron Behle, a 21-year-old graduate of UCLA, another of the housemates chosen for the second season of “The Real World.”
That was in an interview last June. Taping of the series had been completed, but the first of 22 half-hour episodes was still a few days from appearing on MTV.
While several of the four men and three women hoped that the exposure would give them a boost toward realizing their show-business aspirations, all back then echoed Behle’s belief that the show wasn’t likely to change their daily lives much.
None of them anticipated that the television exposure would make them so recognizable that they can’t walk down the street without being asked for an autograph or grilled about why they behaved the way they did in the series.
“It’s a lot of fun, but it’s crazy sometimes,” said Tami Akbar, 23. “I get people stopping me in shopping malls for an hour at a time. . . . And it’s strange. Some people don’t understand that it was our real lives that were taped in that house. They come up and say, ‘Why did you kick David out of the house? Was that part of the script? I mean you acted like such a bitch, and now you seem so nice.’ ”
Stolarczyk said that some strangers insist on knowing “my real name. They whisper, ‘Come on, you can tell me. I can keep a secret.’ I guess they are so used to everything being fake on TV that they just assume that this must be made up too.”
Griffin said that when he went to an MTV shoot recently to tape some promotional spots for the program, even one of the company’s own sound technicians asked him how many takes they did during certain scenes to get the sound right.
Their lives have become fodder for debate and second-guessing. Irene’s wedding, its impact on Jon, Akbar’s abortion (she permitted the MTV cameras to follow her to and from the clinic where the procedure was performed), Beth’s decision to embarrass Aaron with a male hunk calendar he’d posed for--these are the topics that people want to grill them about. Most of all, however, what they want to discuss is “the incident.”
David Edwards, 20, a self-described “black comedian from the streets of Washington, D.C.,” was living in the YMCA and sleeping on friends’ couches in Los Angeles when he was offered the chance to be part of the second season of “The Real World.” When he moved into the fancy home that MTV had rented, he found that the producers had selected for his roommate an 18-year-old, Bible-quoting, country singer from a small town in Kentucky who wanted to hang a Confederate flag in their bedroom.
“Why would they do that unless they wanted turmoil?” Edwards said of the producers. “Why stick me in a room with someone who wants to hang a rebel flag? Conflict. And conflict is ratings, and that’s fine except they try to make the black male look like he’s an animal.”
Edwards feels he was set up. “I told them right from the start to take me out of the room with this guy or there is going to be a fight, and one (of the crew) said, ‘As long as it’s on camera, we don’t care.’ ”
If conflict was what they were after, the producers got it. Not only did Edwards fight with Jon Brennan, the country singer, but he also became embroiled in several arguments and physical scuffles with other housemates that culminated in an accusation of sexual harassment and his being kicked out of the house.
Other members of the household agree that because the producers picked as diverse a group as possible, the situation was designed to breed the kind of tension and stress that would captivate a voyeuristic audience.
“I don’t think you could put seven people as different and varied as we were and not have some kind of conflict,” Griffin said. “Every one of those people is strong-willed, maybe even stubborn, and something was bound to happen.”
None of them suggested, however, that the producers were anything other than fair and accurate in depicting all sides of every household drama portrayed in the episodes that have aired on MTV so far. The producers were, they agreed, especially careful and fair with the incident that led to Edwards’ departure from the house and the series.
Gleaned from what was aired on television and through interviews with the participants, it went down like this:
In what appeared to be a juvenile game gone awry, Edwards tried to pull a blanket off Akbar, while she was lying in bed in her underwear. Akbar held tight to the blanket and wound up being dragged by Edwards out of bed and into the hallway, with Stolarczyk joining in her effort to thwart him. The women were alternately laughing and screaming at Edwards to stop.
Finally, Akbar got up and dashed into the bathroom. Stolarczyk began screaming at Edwards, equating his behavior to that of a rapist who proceeds with his actions even when the woman says no. Edwards vehemently disputed the comparison, insisting that he merely had been trying to have some fun.
Executive producer Mary-Ellis Bunim later said that she agreed with Edwards that “it was clearly unfair to use the word rape ,” but she included the accusation in the program because “it happened,” and because she believed the audience would be able to see clearly that it was unjust.
Following the incident, which occurred about six weeks into their five-month stay, the three women in the house banded together, approached the producers--out of sight of the MTV cameras--and told them that they did not feel safe living with Edwards, who by that time had clashed angrily with just about everyone. If he did not leave, the women said, they would all walk off the show.
Bunim and her partner, Jon Murray, decided to back them and gave Edwards $1,200 in severance pay--remuneration for the money he would have saved in rent had he continued living there.
“I think the producers were worried about liability if anything happened later, even though I don’t think anyone was in danger in that house,” said Griffin. “But when the girls said ‘either he goes or we all go,’ there were some big consequences there to the viability of the show.”
None of those behind-the-scenes discussions were shown or mentioned on camera. What was shown was simply a meeting between the seven principals, in which the women informed the men that they wanted Edwards out. Some of the men disagreed with the decision, but that did not stop it. Also shown were some angry and even tearful hand-wringing among the housemates about how concerned they were that this incident, which they knew would eventually air on television, might damage Edwards’ show-business career. Then, Edwards, sadly and reluctantly, was shown leaving the house, never to be seen on the series again.
“I think they did a pretty good job and it was fair,” Edwards said of the way the incident was portrayed. “To me, it was just a playful game, and then they overreacted and it got blown out of proportion because of the cameras. There are a lot of people in there who are actors and actresses, and so they think they should play it up to the cameras.”
Both Akbar and Stolarczyk are aspiring performers, but both denied they were influenced by the presence of the TV crew. Both agreed that the incident was portrayed accurately and defended their behavior.
“I think the producers were very fair to include David’s side and, in a way, I do believe he was treated unfairly, because he thought he was being thrown out for just that one thing that one night,” said Brennan. “And if it was me or any of the other guys doing that, there would have been a little fuss and it would have been over, and that’s what he thought should happen. But I don’t think he realized what had been built up over time. It wasn’t just that one incident in the hallway.”
Stolarczyk said that she has taken it upon herself to respond to viewers who have written to MTV criticizing her, explaining that not every detail of the women’s conflict with Edwards was included. She said that after she explains to these critics that Edwards also dropped his pants in front of the women, choked Brennan and otherwise agitated everyone, they write back to her with more sympathy.
“In the beginning, it seemed that the producers really were focusing on the conflicts that we had, and I guess I don’t want people to think that they know who I am just from that,” Stolarczyk said. “So much is left out and there really is so much more to all of us than what you get to see.”
Edwards said that while the show’s editing makes it appear that he was involved in constant conflict with his roommates, he doesn’t remember it that way. To him, and to many people who write fan mail or stop him on the street, his banter and bickering was the funniest thing about the show, he said.
“I do not regret doing it, but when I left I was really depressed,” Edwards said. “It was my first chance on national television, and for a comic like myself, it was a great gig, and then it was taken away. But then I realized that I had a point to prove to them and to the people who were watching. I found it laughable that they were all there saying on TV that ‘we hope it doesn’t hurt his career.’ It’s funny that they think they had so much power that they could hurt someone’s career. But they can’t. I still have goals and hunger and I’m climbing. ‘The Real World’ is behind me. What I’m doing now is the real world for me.”
What Edwards is doing now is “making it.” He has a featured role in the movie “House Party III,” which will come out early next year, and he is a regular member of this season’s cast of the Fox sketch-comedy show, “In Living Color.” He said he earned both roles on his own, prior to the airing of “The Real World.” “MTV had nothing to do with my success,” he declared emphatically.
Exposure on the show has helped some of the others, however. Akbar has appeared as a host on other MTV shows, and while her primary focus before the series was singing, she now has been getting calls for acting auditions.
Brennan, who was a popular club singer in his hometown of Owensboro, Ky., before the show, has become a virtual Elvis to his neighbors now that he is on TV every week. He said that songwriters in Nashville have contacted him about writing songs for him after seeing him on television, and that exposure on MTV has opened doors to meetings with major music producers and representatives in the country music capital.
Griffin now has an agent at William Morris, and the show has helped him land a few additional writing gigs. He is also still on the MTV payroll with a “development deal” to try to come up with program ideas for the channel.
But with the fame comes vexation.
Akbar said that many potential dates are scared off or intimidated by the fact that she is on TV. They conclude that she is unattainable, she said.
Stolarczyk finds most of the public attention flattering--men want to buy her drinks far more often now--but it also scares her. “There are people now who know my first and last name and want to know where the house is. You never know what kind of crazy person could be out there.”
She also has had to deal with her Polish immigrant mother back in Ohio, who told all her friends to watch her daughter on MTV and then bristled at “the fact that we have been caught discussing Tampax and Maxipads and masturbation.”
And while the attention from women and rock stars has been a thrill, Griffin has had to come to grips with the enduring power of even one tiny TV image. In the opening episode of the series, Griffin was traveling across country in a Winnebago with Akbar and teetotaler Brennan. Griffin viewed it as a vacation and was shown a couple of times going off to grab a beer. At one point, Brennan cracked that he probably keeps beer in his suitcase--and the image that he is a hard-drinking Irishman stuck.
“The New York Times wrote I was in danger of dissipation,” Griffin said. “I sent a bunch of reviews of the show to my mom in Ireland and I had to explain to her that the New York Times was just a tabloid that nobody reads, and when she asked what dissipation means, I just said, ‘success. I’m in danger of success, Mum.’ The guy makes one comment, and I have to live with it forever. I’m driving on the freeway and a bunch of guys pull up next to me yelling, “All right, Dominic! Let’s go party!’ ”
In spite, or maybe because of all the conflict, producer Bunim said that this season’s shows have turned out stronger than the first season, shot with a different group of young people in New York. The first season’s participants were far more guarded in front of the cameras, she said, while the L.A. group were open to expressing their opinions, no matter how volatile.
Part of that volatility, Bunim conceded, resulted from the producers’ deliberate attempt this time around to cast people with much more varied backgrounds, morals and political viewpoints. That not only makes for more dramatic episodes but also for closer ties and a better understanding among the housemates, she contended.
“We can’t predict where conflict will arise and we don’t do anything to provoke it,” Bunim said. “Sure you can see beforehand some of the differences in attitudes, but how far and deep those differences will go, we can’t predict. That is what makes it fascinating for us and for the audience.”
The formula has worked well enough in the ratings that Bunim is in discussion with MTV for a third season of “The Real World,” to be shot either in Miami, San Francisco or Boston.