Melissa Beck was one of the dozens of young hopefuls who participated in the MTV phenomenon, The Real World. The series, considered to be the first real reality television series, followed seven strangers over a few months picked to live in a house in a major city as cameras captured everything. Beck found herself as part of the New Orleans cast at just 22-years-old. The funny girl enjoyed her time in adult Disney World with her housemates and though she got into some trouble, she was loved for her sense of humor, her flirtatious and vivacious personality and not being afraid to live in her biracial truth in a time where race wasn’t showcased on television in such a forum.
In early 2021, Paramount+ began revisiting the series with The Real World: Homecoming, reuniting classic casts to relive the old days and in some cases hash out the same old fights. Since revisiting the inaugural season’s New York cast and Season 2’s more volatile LA gang, the series is jumping ahead to the 9th season’s New Orleans cast. Beck admits she was hesitant to participate, but after some thought, she figured it would be a good thing.
In a recent chat with Shadow and Act Unscripted, she spoke about her time on the original series, being part of reality TV gold before the genre took over, and more. She even dishes on The Real World being a dream of now-billionaire, Kim Kardashian.
S&A Unscripted: You all are back for a reunion of sorts, and a lot of people are really taken to this whole idea of these one-off reunion specials instead of the traditional multi-season reality shows that we’ve been used to. It’s kind of refreshing to see it this way, especially to reunite after such a long period of time. And I know that initially, you weren’t necessarily happy to be part of the reunion. You’ve been open about wanting to distance yourself from your time on the show, even though you didn’t really do anything too crazy and you were a fan favorite. So why were you hesitant to do this again?
MB: I think when I went on the show originally, 22 years ago, I was excited about it. I understood its place in pop culture in terms of being on MTV, which at the time was how we measured what was cool. So I feel like I loved being on the show. But at that age, I didn’t understand the permanence of that decision, so I didn’t get that, ‘Oh, I’m going to be 22-year-old Melissa from The Real World forever.’ That was the part that made me, after a while, have to figure out who I am outside of this very famous but broke person. So that’s why I shied away from coming back to it. Years later, honestly, I did have a lot of anxiety and trepidation about revisiting. But it’s listening to your voice on it, on an answering machine or voicemail. You don’t want to hear all that. You don’t want to feel that. But I will say it was a weird gift in terms of here I am, getting the opportunity to reconnect with the only people in the world who could understand what it feels like to have had that experience. So in that, it was really, truly kind of therapeutic.
S&A Unscripted: You talked about knowing the place that The Real World had in pop culture at the time of you being on the show. Twenty-two years ago, what made you want to be part of the show initially? I feel like even though the show had been on for eight seasons and you guys were going into the ninth season, it was still relatively new.
MB: We came up at a time before when I think when our show started airing, it was also the first time Survivor also aired. So once Survivor hit the airwaves, it kind of like made a shift in terms of like how formidable reality TV as a genre would become. I feel like we were right on that cusp of when it was a kind of a novel thing to do. I had always been a fan of the show, so I had my seasons that I liked to watch. I watched The Real World: New York, even the original one when I was very young, and it was really formative for me. I watched all of the seasons actually until mine came along. So I have always had a big admiration and respect for the show and what it meant in terms of opening doors of dialog that you wouldn’t normally see on TV. So I wanted to be a part of that, I just didn’t understand at the time what that would really mean. But in the end, it has worked out nicely for me.
S&A Unscripted: I mentioned that you were on the show at a time when it was still kind of taboo, even though The Real World was basically like the only reality show at the time. People like Kim Kardashian have been open about how the show was a catalyst for her reality television career. So how does it feel to be part of such a movement and to see where reality TV has gone?
MB: When I saw the clip of Kim Kardashian talking about, ‘Do you remember Real World? I really wanted to be on Real World.’ And I am watching the most famous, richest person – an actual billionaire reality TV personality – talk about you wanted to be on my show, and I am not a billionaire. I’m telling you what, that was bittersweet. That was interesting. It’s really crazy. It takes a minute to understand that you and the persona that you presented as a very young person carries a lot of weight in for a lot of different people, including Kim Kardashian. That is wild to think about because that means Kim Kardashian might actually know who I am. That’s weird.
S&A Unscripted: You spoke about how somebody like Kim Kardashian can say that The Real World was a dream of hers and to see where she is now and to see what reality stars are doing with their platform must be mind-boggling. So knowing what you know now and you know, and you joking that you’re not a billionaire. But you’re part of pushing this reality TV thing forward. What would you have done differently to capitalize off of the platform that the The Real World offered? Or could you have? Some former reality stars say that they were looked at as a joke, whereas now people are transitioning into acting careers and owning empires and different things like that.
MB: It was a different era because when I went on reality TV, this was before there was Twitter, before there was Instagram, before there was Tik Tok. So there was no way to really monetize who you were or your personality. I couldn’t go make leggings and drink diet teas. There was no place for that because that didn’t yet exist. So if you look at something like a franchise like The Real Housewives, all of these women are able to parlay because on multiple seasons of the show, which was not a thing back then. When I was The Real World, you had your one cast and then they moved on to the next city. But then shows like The Hills came on at MTV, and they followed the same people for years at a time. So I think it was just a different time. But I actually think that was good because at that age, I was not ready for that. I had to figure out who I am outside of being this very famous, but not monetizable person. So I think I spent a lot of that downtime growing up. So I realized that time and place has so much to do with what you can do with your reality TV experience. And now people go on reality TV shows specifically to become an influencer.
S&A Unscripted: One of the things that The Real World has always been praised for is that they really put forth issues and addressed issues that have been a conversation starter and often overlooked in society. With your season, we saw firsthand the whole don’t ask, don’t tell policy due to one of your housemates having a partner whose face had to be blurred out on television to stay compliant with the U.S. military’s homophobic policies at the time. And now we have shows like Modern Family, where even though it was a sitcom showed a same-sex couple who were parents. And then you have other reality shows like Queer Eye. How impactful have you found The Real World to be as they are the start of changing perceptions and narratives.
MB: I always make sure that I top load any of these conversations with paying respect and homage to it being on Real World and for MTV for opening that door for those kinds of conversations. Because at that time, there were no discussions about racism on TV the way that they were on MTV. There might have been some blind spots in how those stories were presented but I do feel like they were important because to this day, I still get letters from people that say, ‘Melissa, when you talked about this particular topic, I had never thought about it that way. So thank you for that.’ I think it was really important and kind of groundbreaking for MTV and Real World specifically in bringing actual issues to life. Paramount+ just started streaming the old season that I was on and I have seen clips and what really is touching is, ‘Wow, they really had to blur this man’s face because it was a problem to be gay in the military.’ That sounds like such a bizarre 50s – 60s problem, but that happened early on. We are not that far from that time. So I applaud MTV for attempting to open up those conversations, especially for young people, because these conversations are for them.
S&A Unscripted: Going back to the entire reunion, who were you most excited to see? Have you had you kept in touch with any of your former housemates all these years later?
MB: No, we actually hadn’t. I would speak to Danny every now and again, but we didn’t know what was going on in each other’s lives, necessarily. So this was truly a revisiting of seven strangers picked to live in a house. This was a real-life part of that experiment. I hadn’t kept in touch with anyone. I will say that I was very excited to see Tokyo, who used to go by David, just because I’m also a fan of the show and nobody can tell me that “Come On, Be My Baby Tonight” is not a hit. I was always very curious to know what his path was after the show and how he processed his level of fame. Because if you think about it, “Come on, be my baby tonight” is the reason why anybody even remembers Real World: New Orleans. Dave Chappelle is talking about your song, and there is some kind of value in that, so I was excited to see him again.
I was excited to see everybody again. Kelly, it turns out, was kind of living a very similar life to me. Being a mom and minding her business and drinking her water is the world we lived in. So I just was really hopeful going into the house and excited that we could potentially have a closer relationship because these are the only people in the world that can understand this. So, it was nice to reconnect.
S&A Unscripted: And what do you think viewers are going to learn about you now? This was 22 years ago and you’re not in your early 20s anymore. Obviously, you’ve grown, you have a family, you have children. So what were you excited to show off this time around?
MB: You know what? I’m a mess, and I said this in every interview, but I’m gonna say it again: I’m so excited about my new teeth. They’re great.
The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans airs Wednesdays on Paramount+.