Back in 1992, reality TV phenomenon MTV’s The Real World hit the small-screen to showcase the lives of seven total strangers – Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi, Eric Nies and Kevin Powell – living together in a New York City loft. Almost 30 years later, the show is recognized as the foundation for what reality TV has grown to be today.
In the spirit of TV show revivals, MTV has resurrected the staple unscripted-franchise to help kick off the launch of Paramount+ – ViacomCBS’ rebranded streaming service that’s home to its library of content from networks such as CBS, MTV, BET, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central.
The brand-new series – The Real World Homecoming: New York – picks up the show with the first season’s original cast 29 years after it initially premiered to revisit iconic moments and real issues that helped the show make history. The multi-episode docuseries – in similar fashion to the show’s original format – takes these seven veterans back to where it all started to, per its famous tagline, find out “what happens when they stop being polite… and start getting real.”
Shadow and Act spoke with series vet Heather B. Gardner ahead of the show’s revival as she touched on The Real World’s legacy, how it birthed the genre we consider to be reality TV, and how her role as one of the first Black reality TV stars paved the way for others to flourish in this space.
“I think it’s awesome that we were able to do something like this without knowing what would come from it,” she said of The Real World’s impact, “but at the same time it’s still pretty fascinating to wrap your head around this style of television that’s only been out 30 years.” Keep in mind, when The Real World first premiered there was no social media or even a place for a reality TV show of this format to exist.
For Gardner, it’s been mind-blowing to see how much has changed in the TV landscape in such a short timespan. She shared with us how the vetting process used for many reality TV shows today, didn’t exist when The Real World was described as nothing more than a documentary with a few artists at the time it aired. On top of that, MTV dared to go where TV had not gone before to gather people of different races and backgrounds to speak candidly on issues we still grapple with today.
“You go back and watch the first season and see some of the conversations we were having and how we handled it – that was 1992. Fast forward to 2021 and you think about the very raw and organic conversations we were still having,” she told shadow and Act. She revealed that sometimes, “some of [the episodes], for a lack of better words, were about nothing. Stuff that people wouldn’t dare put on television right now because of money, production value, and time spent. All of those things were happening for us back in 1992 because the same way we didn’t know what was happening or what to expect, neither did [MTV]. They took risks with unknown people and put them on television.”
Those risks paid off for the network and gave life to a beloved TV franchise that has made way for other inspired shows such as The Challenge, Are You the One? and more to join The Real World TV family. However, those risks weren’t without some pushback when the show first premiered as Gardner shared how some people had a distaste for what the show was doing.
“We kind of got shunned for it,” she said. “People weren’t kind when this show first came out, people weren’t as open, but at the same time it was a guilty pleasure for a lot of people.” That guilty pleasure being that viewers couldn’t resist tuning into an organic source of entertainment that didn’t shy away from issues we’ve only recently begun to get comfortable with addressing so openly. Through the show, viewers were able to connect with all kinds of cast members that joined the series and that’s where people started forming connections that made The Real World this larger than life spectacle. “From The Real World sparked all these different kind of reality formats,” Gardner shared with us. “They were all birthed from this kind of a show.”
The Real World reviving the franchise in the form of this special reunion brought back a lot of fun memories for the cast, but stepping back into that Manhattan loft wasn’t a walk in the park. It transported right back to those scenes where they had no choice but to face the music. “It wasn’t comfortable going back and doing this reunion,” Gardner revealed. “It was like this big mirror staring all of us in the face going back and doing this reunion show, looking at how we responded to things then versus now with ironically some of the same topics. Some of the same conversations just different names – back then it was Rodney King and today it’s [insert name].”
The show was infamous for pushing the envelope with issues such as race, sexuality, mental health, and more, but it offered these ordinary people a platform to be vulnerable and change their lives in the process. For Gardner, it took her good friend Sway Calloway – a renowned radio personality and staple in MTV’s News team – recalling her how influential she was in helping build the legacy of reality TV to realize her impact. “Sway was really one of the first people to remind me of that. He said, ‘do you realize you’re the first Black female to ever do reality television?'” She continued saying, “I never looked at it like that. Other than music videos, they didn’t show Black women on MTV.”
As a founding member of today’s most popular TV genre, Gardner ushered in generation of Black women reality stars who have been able to flip the system and make it a profitable venture to build up their own brands and businesses. “These opportunities were not available for us at the time, but that’s still not a reason not support the women out here doing it,” she told Shadow and Act.
Gardner credits people like The Real World vet Tami Roman, Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss, and Love & Hip Hop alum Cardi B has a part of this legacy of women in reality TV. “I think it’s amazing what so many women have been able to do when they sign on to do reality TV. Not everybody is throwing drinks and fighting, so I’m glad they were able to take a reality show platform and build from there. I can’t help but to be happy for them.”
To have gone from entering the TV world as a signed artist at Boogie Down Productions to now running three full-time radio shows at Sirius XM, Gardner has blazed a trail of her own that’s made it possible for others to use it reality TV as a launching pad for their careers as well.
Her hope for the franchise’s revival to continue highlighting these hard conversations and encourage people to listen to one another so we can start making real change.
The Real World Homecoming: New York airs weekly on Paramount + on Thursdays.