When MTV’s The Real World premiered nearly 30 years ago, it broke new ground for reality TV to exist as we see it today. Though the genre has become somewhat scripted over the years, the first season of The Real World set the tone for how reality shows attempted to address real-life issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and more – raw and uncut.
One of the most memorable scenes from the show comes from a heated argument between season one cast members Rebecca “Becky” Blasband and Kevin Powell. The scene in question is a fight the two have regarding racism in America that became one of the biggest blowups in TV history. During episode two of The Real World Homecoming: New York, the show flashed back to that very moment and almost three decades later we see how those same conversations are still taking place.
During the kickoff of The Real World Homecoming: New York‘s series premiere, Shadow and Act spoke with Powell, a series veteran, acclaimed writer, poet and political activist, about his thoughts on how the new reboot continues to tackle hot button topics, his impact as one of the first Black reality TV stars, and why shows like The Real World are still necessary today.
As a young writer who had just moved from New Jersey to New York back in 1992, Powell had no idea what he had signed up for and to this day he’s still surprised at how much love he and his castmates get for being the pioneers of The Real World. “It’s so funny because so many people on social media are like, ‘I can’t believe it’s [been] almost 30 years,'” he told us. “‘Has it been that long?'” I’m like, yeah, time flies, time flies. Which is a reminder that we should not take time for granted. But yeah, here we are.”
During that moment in time, Powell couldn’t have predicted how groundbreaking the reality series would be, much less how the show would go on to successfully run 32 more seasons up until 2019. Similar to his castmate and close friend Heather B. Gardner, Powell didn’t even realize he was considered one of the first Black reality TV stars until he noticed the overwhelming response he was receiving from fans following his season’s TV premiere.”It wasn’t until I started going, honestly, on the lecture circuit. Because remember, back in ’92, those early [days], we didn’t have internet. We didn’t have social media like we do now. There was no text messaging,” he shared. “So I remember people writing letters to MTV. Then when I got to Vibe, because I was writing cover stories on people like Tupac Shakur, people were sending me letters saying, ‘I watched you on MTV. Now I’m reading your articles on Tupac.’ That made me go OK, people are following this thing. They’re into this.”
The Real World always had a way of holding space for timely dialogue about things that went on inside as well as outside of each season’s respective houses. In a time where many taboo subjects are starting to get a bigger spotlight, especially in America, it was almost necessary to have the original Real World cast come back together to revisit those discussions they helped spark all those years ago. The rest of the cast considers this a nostalgic series of events, but for Powell, he describes this full-circle moment as “divine intervention.”
“It was definitely crazy when we [all] got the call. This was back in December, I believe,” he added. “But now, we’ve had the white supremacists storming the [U.S.] Capitol, and we’re in the middle of this trial for George Floyd right now. All that stuff that we talked about back then in different ways, it’s all there [now]. So I think it’s very profound that the show has come back in this time. You couldn’t have scripted this better, honestly, for an unscripted show.”
The reboot maintains the original show’s forward-thinking framework as it shows “some of the things that we need to be thinking about as a people,” according to Powell.
“It [also] says a lot about how far we haven’t gotten in our country, unfortunately, that the same things have been brought up. But my hope is, as people see the show and these episodes unfold, them seeing that people from different backgrounds can actually have civilized, humane, uncomfortable, and difficult conversations, and still be allies and supportive of each other. I think that’s important. Because that’s part of the problem, people not coming together.”
Prior to the reunion, Powell had been keeping busy in life hosting writing workshops, participating on panels and promoting his latest book, “When We Free the World.” The reboot gave him a brief break to reconnect with his old castmates, but the most bittersweet moment was saying goodbye once again as they all returned to their everyday lives.
“Honestly, it was sad when it ended. Part of the reason why I agreed to do this reunion was obviously to see them,” Powell shared with us. “The fact that the seven of us are still alive right now, we should be in touch with each other.”
As The Real World Homecoming: New York prepares to wrap up the six-episode season, Powell hopes that the reboot will inspire people to watch the original series to see how much the cast has grown and far show in itself has come. “I think people need to see who we were and see who we’ve become, because it also becomes a metaphor for all of us,” he says. “You should not be afraid of going back so you can go forward. That’s the way I look at it. I think that it’s important because I think we have to see what lessons we’ve learned. Imagine going through life 5, 10, 20 years, in this case almost 30 years, and you never reflect on anything. You don’t grow as a human being if you don’t do that.”
He adds, “I hope that people see that because of this unique experience of us being the first cast of the first reality TV show in the history of American TV, on a mass level like this, that there’s a bond there. That in spite of everything that we’ve been through and any differences that we still may have, there’s a deep connection. I think about all of them. I think about every single cast mate, because we’re connected for life because of this experience.”
The Real World Homecoming: New York will aired its final episode of the series on Thursday, April 8. The entire season can be streamed in full on Paramount+.