To a generation of gay men, Danny Roberts is an indisputable icon.
In 2000, the Georgia native was one of seven housemates to appear on MTV’s “The Real World: New Orleans” and seemingly overnight became a public face for the LGBTQ rights movement. Back then, he was a 22-year-old, fresh-faced college graduate learning to embrace his truth as a gay man. He was also in a relationship with Army Capt. Paul Dill, whose full name and face could not be revealed on air due to the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred openly LGBTQ people from serving in the military from 1994 to 2011.
Roberts, now 44, returned to television this week for “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans.” The third season of the unscripted spinoff series, which premiered on Paramount+ on Wednesday, sees him reuniting with housemates Melissa (Howard) Beck, David “Tokyo” Broom, Jamie Murray, Matt Smith, Julie Stoffer and Kelley (Limp) Wolf in the Big Easy for a second chance to “stop being polite and start getting real,” as MTV’s original tagline declared.
(Catch the trailer for “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans” above.)
As excited as viewers may be to catch up with the “New Orleans” cast, Roberts said it required “a lot of conversations and thought” for him to commit to the project.
“It never crossed my mind that this show would be revisited this late in the game,” he told HuffPost. “Most of my cast had tucked this away as a memory and moved on. Going back to revisit that period is fun and exciting, but it also took me back to some things that were better left in the past. It was a lot of anxiety and apprehension.”
“None of us, as individuals, are people that thrive on drama or seek it out,” he added. “Our goal was the opposite: Simply to come to New Orleans and reunite with old friends. Most of us hadn’t seen in each other in 20 years.”
Except that was not exactly how it went down ― as is the case with most reality programs. Within the first two episodes, tension erupts between Beck, Roberts and Stoffer involving an alleged homophobic letter that Stoffer wrote shortly after the original series ended, “painting (Roberts) as a ‘dangerous homosexual.’”
Many viewers will be particularly interested in an episode when Roberts reunites with Dill for the first time since the pair ended their relationship in 2006. The split, he said, was not amicable.
“I co-dependently stayed in that relationship for a lot of reasons beyond my own,” Roberts recalled. “I felt called to a higher purpose because it was held up by so many as an ideal. I can now look back and realize I just didn’t want to let people down.”
In the end, he came to view the reunion as a “little gift” that offered both of them some overdue closure.
“After sitting down and talking, I think it became really clear that what happened back then that was negative wasn’t about either one of us, it was about society and what it did to us at the time,” he said. “It helped me let go of some of the animosity that I still deeply held inside. We held so many outside factors against each other, and that’s unfortunate. America was much more homophobic back then. Clearly there’s still plenty of that around, but it was widely accepted to be vocally homophobic back then.”
Throughout the series, Roberts also touches on his HIV diagnosis, which he revealed publicly in a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly. He learned he was positive in 2011 when he visited his doctor for a regular medical checkup. Accepting the reality of his situation was like a “second coming out.”
“Given the circumstances in my life at the time, it didn’t make sense,” he explained. “It was the last thing on my radar, so it was a huge shock. You go through stages of grief ― grieving your old, healthy self ― and realizing you’re now held captive by America’s messed-up health care system. Your life depends on a broken system ― that’s frightening.”
“There’s shame and stigma you have to overcome, even to this day,” he added. “It’s a very interesting time, where like half the population is really informed and understands what it means to be positive and treated today. The other half is still trapped in the 1990s, and they still think of it as a moral punishment. So overcoming a lot of those old hang-ups is a huge journey, and I felt super alone in that journey.”
Roberts currently works as a tech recruiter and has a 5-year-old daughter, Naya, whom he adopted with an ex. He relocated from New York to Vermont in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and shortly afterward began dating his current boyfriend, Austin.
“I think reality TV does something really negative to many of the people who take part in it. Where we are as a nation right now is very much the outcome of that. Donald Trump was our president because of reality TV — let’s not forget that.”
– Danny Roberts, “Real World Homecoming: New Orleans” star
“You can probably fit the entire LGBTQ population in Vermont on a large bus,” he said with a laugh. “Amazingly, I met a dairy farmer who lives 15 minutes down the road from me. Sometimes in life, you’ve got to believe that the universe is in action.”
As for the positive response that “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans” has received thus far, Roberts chalks most of that up to old-fashioned nostalgia. Filming the new series, he said, was mostly “redeeming” and gave him a renewed perspective on his reality TV fame. Still, he’s wary of how the format has evolved in the years since the original series.
“Overall, it’s been a positive experience, but it’s a fine line. I think reality TV does something really negative to many of the people who take part in it. Where we are as a nation right now is very much the outcome of this. Donald Trump was our president because of reality TV ― let’s not forget that.”
“The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans” is now streaming on Paramount+.