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American Television, Reality Shows  
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"This Is the True Story...": MTV's Real Cool World

When viewers tuned in to MTV in 1992, they were introduced to seven strangers chosen to share a house together for three months, who had their lives taped nonstop, with the end result of their communal experience broadcast to a nationwide audience in a series of thirteen episodes. This was the premise of MTV's runaway hit show and soon-to-be cultural icon The Real World.

The show's cast of seven strangers was diverse; it comprised three women and four men, two African Americans and five Caucasians, six heterosexuals and one homosexual, Norman Korpi. Korpi's presence in MTV's SoHo loft was not, however, greeted with the shock that Americans felt in response to Lance Loud's overt homosexuality. Instead, Korpi presented himself as a gay role model: politically active, intellectually astute, and perhaps most importantly, in the words of fellow cast member Julie, just everyday people.

MTV's decision to cast Korpi in the premiere season of The Real World set a precedent that MTV would adhere to closely, the conscious inclusion of gay men and lesbians in the "seven strangers" formula. Almost invariably the gay or lesbian cast members come across as the most "normal" of the seven cast mates, and very often they are the most involved in political causes.

In the New York season, for instance, Korpi cajoled other cast members into joining him at the March for Reproductive Rights in Washington, D. C. In 1993, Los Angeles "Real Worlder" Beth Anthony campaigned for gay marriage; and, shortly after taping ended for the season, she married her girlfriend Becky. Real World New Orleans (2000) featured Danny Roberts who, by announcing that his lover was in the military, brought to MTV viewers the debate over the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, dramatizing in richly human terms the cost such a policy exacts of those who are directly affected by it.

But the Real World cast member who left perhaps the most lasting, politically charged, and poignant impression on MTV audiences was Pedro Zamora (1972-1994), a resident in the 1994 San Francisco season. Zamora, an AIDS activist, was HIV-positive during the show's taping, and he used his appearance on the show to educate MTV viewers and the public at large about both the dangers of HIV/AIDS and the rights and dignity of PWAs (People Living with AIDS). Zamora died of AIDS complications on November 11, 1994, and was eulogized by President Bill Clinton.

This is not, however, to say, that all queer MTV Real World cast members have been laudable. Indeed, during its 27-season (and counting) run, the series has featured more than a few problematic characters.

For instance, in the "Davis vs. Tyrie" installment (air date December 6, 2006) of the Real World Denver, "straight acting gay guy" Davis Mallory engaged in a drunken and heated confrontation with African-American cast member Tyrie Ballard that culminated with Mallory using a racial epithet in reference to Ballard. Mallory subsequently apologized to Ballard and, after his tenure on the show ended, began touring college campuses to discuss his formerly conflicted religious beliefs about homosexuality, as well as his experience living with Stephen Nichols, his homophobic Christian roommate on the Real World Denver.

More notorious was MTV's conscious overlooking in 2011 of Real World Las Vegas cast member Dustin Zito's gay porn star past. According to blogger Andy Dehnart, Zito performed as Spencer on Fratpad, a site that features ostensibly straight men living together in a house where they are often naked and sometimes having sex with each other. As Michael Jensen of AfterElton has pointed out, Zito attempted to explain away his gay porn past by at once claiming that he was "100% straight" and had no desire to do anything sexual with guys, while also stating that he was comfortable enough with himself to do something with another guy for money.

Although MTV's The Real World has received criticism for becoming formulaic, it continues to lure viewers into the lives of randomly chosen strangers every year. In fact, every new season brings with it the promise of a new gay or lesbian character that viewers will come to know, and with whom many can readily identify. However, viewers also found themselves lured to more competitive, money-driven Reality Contest shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race as a suitable antidote to The Real World's increasingly predictable format.

Game-Show Reality: Outwit, Outlast, Out There!

While the appearance of gay men and lesbians on Reality Contest shows has been sporadic, there remains no shortage of queer contestants who vie for these shows' top prizes. In fact, one of the most noticeable and notorious queer contestants, Richard Hatch, was also the first winner of the popular Survivor series on CBS.

When Richard Hatch walked away with the $1 million prize for being the last Survivor standing, American television viewers sat up and took notice. Here was a hirsute, paunchy gay man seen by millions of Americans winning a test of raw physicality and brilliant cunning and being handsomely rewarded by a jury of his reality game-show peers.

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