Soon after The Real World: New Orleans aired its final episode in November 2000, its cast, now bona fide celebrities, went on a media blitz to capitalize on their newfound fame. This was just months after 51 million viewers tuned in to watch Richard Hatch win the first season of Survivor, signaling a dramatic shift in the zeitgeist away from actors and onto personalities. Reality stars: They’re just like us… they are us. On the red carpet of the People’s Choice Awards in January 2001, New Orleans castmate Danny Roberts was asked what was next for him. “Running away from the public,” he replied. “Really?” the reporter asked, bewildered by such a statement. “You’re not liking this?” Then, with a devilish smile, he shook his head. Despite this admission, he would soon appear on MTV’s Battle of the Seasons in 2002 and on a special MTV News: Out in the Real World in 2003. Then he disappeared, essentially going into lockdown with his then-boyfriend in Seattle.
Until one day last spring, when his phone rang with an offer he nearly refused.
“They thought I would probably be the last one to say yes,” Roberts says of his call with production in which they presented him with the idea for a reunion series that would have him and his six castmates returning to NOLA, living under one roof again for the first time in 22 years. His likelihood to return at that point? “Hesitant to no way,” he says. He had gone to great lengths to distance himself from his past. But two key reasons to sign onto the show arose after conversations and debates went on for months. The practical one: A paycheck. Roberts is a single parent, and a check of this size is not presented often. The other piece: Gaining the confidence from the producers that they were setting out to create positive, meaningful storylines. “We made it very clear that we were not there to make salacious drama and nonsense.”
It’s not that Roberts had a bad go of his first experience, so much as it was everything that came after. As one of very few visibly out gay people at the time, Roberts had unwittingly become the representation of entire population. Seemingly overnight, he became the poster child for gay. As such, many gay people, seeing themselves in him, were quick to approach him either as the friend they’d made in their head or to voice their deepest, darkest secrets.
“Even though people were approaching me with kind words or some kind of excitement, my traumatized brain went to ‘get away from me.’ I had visceral reactions to feeling like I was constantly in danger,” he remembers. People didn’t mean badly, but it felt badly for him. Over time, that fear sank into him and became his operating system. Several years later he realized he needed to do the work to undo it through learning tools such as understanding what parasocial relationships mean. “For the longest time I couldn’t even explain to people what I was feeling because I didn’t have the language.”
He cites Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” and its evocative lyrics “Bag lady you goin’ hurt your back/Draggin’ all ’em bags like that/I guess nobody ever told you/All you must hold on to is you.” By his 30s, he was able to put the bags down and realized it was not his work to carry them.
Despite their closeness throughout their original season, most of the cast had lost touch over the years. Homecoming wasn’t just an opportunity to reunite; it was also a chance to reexamine. “I think there was a recognition now that we have trauma bonding. [The original experience] traumatized us in different ways, but in negative ways for a lot of us, and we can bond over that and support each other now.” It has also allowed them to fill in memory gaps through conversation with one another and the inclusion of never-before-seen-footage from the original series within the new one. “Over time you forget what really happened and start to only remember the edited, final cut, so this has been a really great opportunity to reconnect, or, in some instances, connect the dots.”
One of the big plot points of both series revolves around Danny’s ex, Paul, who in 2000 was enlisted in the military and, because of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, was forced to conceal his identity on the show. It was a reminder, both then and now, about the limitations of queer visibility no matter the desire to live out loud. “Yes, it was a military storyline and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ but the real deeper sense that people were connecting with was having to constantly live different identities and what that does to you, and the mental weight it takes to live that way. This was just an extreme version of that story.”
When producers approached Roberts about bringing Paul onto Homecoming, Roberts balked. Though the pair had dated for seven years after the show, their eventual breakup wasn’t as amicable, and they hadn’t been in touch for years since. The idea of them reconnecting felt, to Roberts, contrived. “I begrudgingly agreed to do it even though I don’t really want to. It was never really about us. It was about two people put into situations that were far bigger than we were as individuals.” And though he’s quick to note how the storyline has been his shadow for 22 years now (“I’m always referred to as the guy dating the military guy”), he also recognized how this could be an opportunity for closure, both for him and Paul, and also for viewers.
And speaking of closure: Anyone hoping Homecoming might serve as the impetus for a second act for Roberts as a public figure might have to temper any expectations. “You’re not going to see me in this kind of capacity for sure. We’re all getting back to our normal, humdrum lives and raising children. That consumes my energy, wanting to be present and focused on that first. I was handed a gift here and want to continue doing advocacy work around HIV and mental health. I think that’s my mission and my goal.”
Does Roberts see himself as the gay icon that he’s been called by everyone from fans to the New York Times for the better part of two decades? “I don’t know; what is an icon? Seems a bit like hyperbole to me. It’s very flattering. To a niche of people, it is that. And it’s not just me. It’s this bigger event in a lot of young people’s lives that was pivotal for them. The icon is being shown something that is visible that allowed a lot of people to start thinking about their lives in an entirely new way that was freeing. That was an iconic moment.”
If you enjoyed this story, check out Evan Ross Katz’s musings on the reimagining of Anne Hathaway!
Special Offer for YouSave up to $120 on select Dyson products right now
More from In The Know: