Of all the seasons of MTV’s “The Real World,” which launched the reality-TV genre with the template of “seven strangers live in a house and have their lives taped” for all the world to see, few are as memorable as the ninth, set in New Orleans and broadcast in 2000.
Much of that has been rightly attributed to cast members like Danny Roberts, an openly gay man who dated a service member at the height of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But for many of us — especially the Black folks watching — there was also the fan favorite Melissa Beck, who both visually and tonally represented a much-needed change for the franchise.
Born to a Filipino mother and a Black father, Beck was funny, thoughtful and, for lack of better phrase, with the shits when it came to challenging her castmates on their archaic and sometimes asinine thoughts on race.
For the fans who continued to follow Beck in the blog and Tumblr era, we learned that her experience on the show was not one she took for granted. However, she wrestled with the show’s long-criticized depictions of Black women. So, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Beck would be back for the third installation of the franchise’s latest revival, “Real World Homecoming,” which airs on Paramount+.
As an elder millennial who used to obsess over the original “Real World: New Orleans,” I’ve been devouring the new episodes and grateful for the entertainment value the cast can still provide 22 years after the initial airing. This is particularly true of Beck, who is very much wiser on the new show, but thankfully, still ready to check someone when need be. Of course, she is also still providing constant comic relief.
Beck spoke with HuffPost to discuss the lengthy process that got her to sign on for a reunion, what relationships she hoped could change, the economics of reality TV then and now, hiding in plain sight on the internet in the aftermath of the show, and what fans of her post-“Real World” writing might be able to look forward to in the near future.
As much as many of us enjoyed you on the original “Real World,” for those of us fortunate enough to follow you online, you doing the “Homecoming” doesn’t come across as an easy yes. Walk me through your thought process on deciding to participate.
I think the part that people have to understand is the process of coming back to “Homecoming” took months and months and months. I wanna say almost a year, just so they could gauge our availability and gauge our level of interest.
At the time that they approached us, they started setting boundaries and being very clear about it has to be all seven of us or we can’t do the season. So there’s kind of like a weird loyalty that you have to have with your cast members, even if you have had no relationship with them for the past two decades. As more and more people start signing on, there’s kind of like this onus put on you that if you don’t, you’re the person that’s messing up the opportunity for everyone.
So that’s one side of it. The other side of it is just really taking an inventory of who you are as a person today and how you’ve healed from that reality to the experience. And when I say healed, I think that there’s a way for that to be misconstrued, so I just wanna top-load with this: Having done “The Real World” was a great experience. It brought me to a lot of good things in my life.
However, managing reality-TV fame without the mental health resources that I think we all needed was very hard. And in order for me to do that and figure out who I wanted to be and who I am outside of being Melissa from “The Real World,” I had to go away for a long time.
So coming back to do “Homecoming” was not an easy choice. It wasn’t a decision that I made lightly. I did a lot of thinking. I did a lot of talking with my husband and my people ― you know, I have a village around me. I spoke to an astrologist, and after I had all my ducks in a row and I felt like I was in a place emotionally with that experience where I could feel good about showing up and being truly authentically me.
What were the conversations between you and cast members like Danny and Kelly? Were y’all strategizing on the best way to get through the experience?
I think that Kelly and Danny had always kept in touch. They maintained like a brotherhood-sisterhood kind of relationship throughout the years. The interesting part about that is when I started reconnecting with them [about “Homecoming”], they made it clear to me that there was so much reality-TV-based trauma — like the aftermath of being on a reality-TV show — but they did not discuss that with each other. And I was baffled, I was like, “Hold on, y’all have each other. Y’all both experienced the same, exact house and y’all have not talked about this thing.” And they were like, “We don’t talk about the thing.” And I was like, “Why?” And they’re like, “We connected on a real friendship level outside of ‘The Real World,’” and they felt that talking about the thing would minimize their actual friendship. My mind was blown that they had not discussed that.
So not so much on the strategizing?
Yeah, there was no strategizing. I think it was really just let’s go in there and let’s try to have fun and be our authentic, real selves and check in with each other when we need to.
When Danny and I had reconnected, we didn’t so much talk about it, but we did connect in the sense that he meant a lot to a lot of people. I meant something to some people. And so carrying that responsibility of being this person from “The Real World” forever is heavy and lovely at the same time. So we related on that sense. I think Danny went on the show to find a sense of closure and also to tell his full story. And that’s why Kelly agreed to go on. I’ll be dead-ass honest: I was thinking Kelly wasn’t gonna come on. And if Kelly wasn’t gonna come on and that we didn’t get all seven, then it could be her fault. But then she signed on, so then I had to.
Jamie actually texted me before we came into the house and apologized about the N-word incident privately. And I really appreciated that actually. It’s not really so much strategizing as much as it was saying if we’re gonna do this, let’s be our whole and true, authentic selves, get this check and get home.
Was there any particular cast member that you were hoping that that relationship in particular would be better than it was the first time?
Yes, Tokyo in particular. [Editor’s note: Castmate David Broom changed his name to Tokyo]. I had always carried a weird sadness that we didn’t connect. I tried in the original show to have a connection with him and then it didn’t work out. And then on top of that, I’d always felt bad about how that went for us. And now, especially rewatching it, they show us the clips and stuff in the house meeting and I saw just how mean I was as a person to him.
He did things that sucked at the time. I feel like I didn’t understand him and I owed him an apology for being so confrontational and mean. I was hoping that with this time around, we would have each other and we would have like a layer of bonding. So when he showed up as Tokyo and in a whole completely different presentation, it was just such a warmth. I was like, OK, see if you had known yourself back then, we would’ve really vibed, because awkward and Black is what we do. Like, I would’ve loved that. [Laughs]
I was really happy to come away from that experience with a newfound friendship with him, and I feel kind of like a big sister to him in a weird way.
I really don’t want to spend too much on Julie, but I was actually very curious about the third episode where she’s essentially trying to self-produce. Was that surprising to you? I ask because I feel like reality stars now are more aware of that kind of thing and may self-produce, whereas this cast is used to just being more of yourselves on camera, at least I thought. Does that make sense?
Yes. 100% makes sense. So when we were approached to do this show, obviously reality TV has changed within the last 20 years. However, the premise of the show had always been let’s see what happened when we reunite these seven — still strangers, if you think about it, because we hadn’t been together for 20 years — and how they’ve grown and changed since the camera stopped rolling. This was always meant to be a documentary. This was always meant to be a slice of our real life. So when I overheard the hot tub conversation that she was having with her husband, I didn’t love it because that’s not what I was here to do. And that’s not what anybody was told this was for. And also the way it was pitched to us was this is pure nostalgia. This is feel-good television; this is legacy television.
They had to come at us at every which way with all kinds of positivity to get us up out of our house so every positive buzzword they could throw at us on top of the check was the only way that they were gonna get all of us to agree. So, I was not OK with the self-producing.
Speaking of the economics of reality TV between then and now, did they make it worth it? And can you break down the economics as you see them? Do you feel a lot more appreciated financially?
Listen, listen, it was a cute check.
Let me just let me explain like this. We did the original show in 2000, and it was for $5,000 and that was for our story rights in perpetuity. So forevermore, MTV could play this “Real World” in Israel, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, all over the world. Any time, it could go into syndication. It was $5,000 pretax and I had to be Melissa from “The Real World” forever, but also was not allowed to use the terms “MTV Real World: New Orleans.” I had to be “reality star Melissa Howard” or whatever it was. I am now a walking billboard for your network, but I only was ever paid $5,000.
On top of that, the year 2000 was kind of at the precipice of when reality TV was going to become the thing that it is now, which is a multimultimillion-dollar monetizable format. That is a real genre in television. But this was before “The Hills” and before “Jersey Shore,” so those people were able to run because I walked, but I was not able to get a regular job. I had to figure out how to be Melissa from “The Real World” and monetize my weird micro-fame, which was very big, but also very small at the same time. So I was just like, look, it’s reparations in this motherfucker.
How do you feel about the reaction to the show thus far? I honestly see more people talking about this one in particular for a lot of different reasons. One because the age group that’s online now kind of grew up with the show. But there is also your old episodes now available to stream, so new people are finding you.
Yeah, I was scared to come back because think about it when I was on “The Real World” in the year 2000, there was no Twitter. There was no way for viewers of a show to get their immediate response out there. Back then you had to jump onto a message board. You had to find out where the message board was. You had to register. You had to say who you were, so if you found out any information about you, that was your own damn fault. [Laughs]
With this, it’s immediate and it’s right in your face and people have access to you. So, I’m very big about boundaries. I’ve had a private Twitter account for all of this time. I’ve been here.
I understand all of the tools of online discussion, but I also have established boundaries around that. My pinned tweet is that this is a joyful Black space. If you can’t have or experience a joyful Black space, then you can’t be up in here. And so this time around, I am just completely prepared. My block hand is strong ’cause you know, racism is real. But it’s been good so far.
You’ve had to contend with the angry Black woman trope on the original show and you’ve discussed that both in the past and more recently. That you felt a responsibility to have certain conversations and generally being cognizant of how Black people can be maligned on TV. However, I would like to discuss how hilarious you are. Your one-liners — even when dealing with the insufferable — are so good and make the show for a lot of us.
Listen, I have always contained multitudes. I think that part and parcel of going onto the show is if you are a person of color, if you are a Black person, that educator role is always going to be on there. But I also stressed to the producers of the show when we first got on here, I was like, “I understand the emotional labor behind talking about race and I also understand the value and the importance of it. However, I want to also be given the chance to just be a mom and and wife and be a person who survived a reality TV.”
They were very amenable to my concerns and they said, you know, Melissa, it’s going to be a show about what happened to the seven of you after you left that house. I don’t think that you’re gonna have to worry about that. They were fair so far with the first three episodes.
Now what was in that purse you were walking around the house with.
[Laughs] Listen, you don’t gotta get ready if you stay ready. I got candies, I got essential oils. I got hand sanitizer, I got extra masks. I got pens, I got pencils. I got chargers. I got headphones, whatever you need. I got it.
The filming days are long, and I think the purse is true auntie excellence, but also kind of my own security blanket. I just had it all the time. I had things in there that I needed, and Danny benefited from my purse too ’cause Danny stayed eating my candies, so it was fine.
Are your children more impressed with you now that you have done another show? Do they know you’re considered a reality legend?
I have a seventh grader, and seventh grade is a formative time for a young girl. When we were still in talks to do the show, I sat her down and I said, “Shalom, I have an opportunity to go back to reality TV.” And I was like, “Mommy was on a show before you were born.” And so I think I’m having this really nice heart-to-heart because I don’t talk to my kids about anything about “Real World.”
This girl said, “Mom, like seriously, I’ve seen the whole thing on YouTube. You’re not telling me anything.”
So then I said, well, “Homecoming” is me revisiting that and if there’s anything that you saw there on YouTube that you’re embarrassed about, or if there’s anything about me now that you find embarrassing that could affect your everyday life at school, I will not go, I will turn down this money and I will not go, because you know, seventh grade is hard. I get that. And she looked at me, she was like, “Mom, literally no one cares … good luck with that.” [Laughs]
So as you mentioned, I feel like I’m one of the very few people that were fortunate to even see your private Twitter account, but before that, you also used to blog. A lot of the humor you have on the show can be found in each. Can you talk a little bit about that period?
Princess Melissa was a blog that I started after my time on “The Real World” because I needed an online store to sell the print of my artwork, and so I attached the store to what I thought was called a weblog. So I was blogging before blogging was a term, and it was a way for me to give a more fuller picture of who I am. I’ve always felt more comfortable in my written presentation than in my face. I was in the grind for a little while in LA for like four or five, six years, but then I disappeared. I went completely ghost, and I had always stayed online writing for many, many years. And when it wasn’t Princess Melissa, I moved to Tumblr [and then] I moved to Patreon.
My writing has always been available and out there because that’s just the safest space for me to present who I am. So I’ve had people that have followed me from “The Real World” onto the blog. I have people who have been reading my work for years and years and didn’t even know I was on “The Real World,” which is a whole another layer. But, I never stopped writing because it’s kind of like breathing. Before I even got onto “Homecoming,” I had just finished the final touches on a pilot that we are currently shopping, which is bananas.
Are we gonna see more of you publicly on the internet and elsewhere?
Yeah. I love to be in the house, and it is still technically a pandemic. So to get me outside the house, it’s gonna cost money. It costs me money. We still have protocols in my house. You leave here with a mask on, and if you are leaving it better be to get food or money. If those things are not out there, then you come back in here.
I have to ask you this because I didn’t realize this until a photo with Danny and Beyoncé resurfaced, but that means she must know who you are. You are BeyHive. How does that feel?
Dude. OK. Listen to me. I don’t want the Hive to eat me up so let’s just get this off top. When Danny confirmed that Beyoncé was tripping off him at a photo shoot for Interview magazine in November 2000, I was like, hold on a second, hold on a second. That’s how I know Beyoncé knows who I am. This is crazy because if you think about it, I did say the word bootylicious [on the show] and I know I didn’t invent bootylicious — I know that in 1992, Snoop Dogg said it first. However, Beyoncé watches reality TV. I might have inspired that. Nobody can tell me different. [Laughs]
Do you think if released now “Come on Be My Baby Tonight” would be a hit?
100%. What a time for Tokyo. I’m so happy for this revival of his song, because if you think about it, he had a viral moment before that was a thing. Dave Chappelle took that song and blew it into the stratosphere. I genuinely believe that reality TV, people who try to make a jingle — they could thank Tokyo for that, because he did it first and he did it best.
I have always felt it was the reason that we were put on the map. Danny’s important. He’s great. But “Come on Be My Baby Tonight”? And when I heard that, the ominous remix version of it in the “Homecoming” trailer, I was like, oh, OK, Paramount+ knows what they’re doing because this is what the people want. It gets ’em going. [Laughs]