Viewers of Netflix's latest reality series Twentysomethings: Austin instantly fell in love with bubbly, light-hearted twentysomething Keauno Perez -- or, as we know him, Keke.
"The night before I'm supposed to move to Austin," he says. "I'm thinking, how do I get out of this? Can I tell the few friends that know I'm going, 'Oh, I got cut at the last minute?'"
Starring on a reality show can be nerve-racking for obvious reasons, but for Perez, it went beyond cancel-culture and Insta fame. Not fully out at the time, the 28-year-old Arkansas native knew that identifying as a gay man on television would be a major step. To put it into perspective, less than 20 percent of his friends and family knew that he was gay. But now, anyone who's seen the show on Netflix does.
"Terrified," Perez says quickly when asked about the beginning of his journey. "I kept saying, 'Oh my gosh. The U.S. is going to know I'm gay,' and my roommates would be like, 'Well you know the world is going to know.'"
Within the first week of its release in December, Twentysomethings: Austin had landed a spot on Netflix's 'Top 10 in the U.S.' list. But it was months before that that the real magic happened: eight strangers gathered to live together in Austin, Texas.
"I'm so nervous," Perez squealed, pulling up to the house in a black Chevy truck for his opening scene. Anxiety seemingly flooded through the screen, and suddenly, the audience was also nervous to meet the seven other twentysomethings.
Each cast member came to Austin for a vastly different reason from the next. One for a modeling career, another to take on standup comedy, another to start anew after a difficult divorce. But for Perez, it was simply to be himself, and more so, to figure out who that was.
"I'm coming to Austin because Austin is different," he shared in a confessional during the first episode. "Where I'm able to be my authentic self."
That meant fully living as an out gay man, a life he had never truly stepped into.
"I don't even know how to be gay," Perez shyly told his castmates. "I wish there was a book."
Naturally, the path to self-discovery wasn't linear. (Is it ever?)
"I didn't find love," Perez said, looking back. "But my goal was to start my journey to find love."
"Not everything works out," and while many of us twentysomethings can attest to that, he says it's just about "putting everything out there."
That he did. The 12-episode series saw a lot of firsts for the dating newbie -- first date, first kiss, and of course, first broken heart. Viewers are taken along for the ride, as Perez is wooed by a true Texas cowboy, Oscar. Some light flirting and dance moves at a gay bar led to a romantic first date on a boat ride in the Austin sun, and it seemed like sparks were flying...but they soon fizzled.
Oscar told Perez over the phone that their relationship wouldn't work, as he "couldn't give [Perez] what he thought he needed."
With tears rolling down his cheeks, fellow cast member and good friend Natalie Cabo comes over to comfort him, reminding us that this, too, is a part of the journey.
"I kept thanking [Oscar]," Perez shared. "And Natalie was like, 'You're the only person I know that would thank someone after ending it.' But I'm happy I cried. I know that sounds so funny, but that helps you discover what you want."
Moving forward, Perez has a new zest for dating. He might have entered the house shy and unsure, but it's obvious that he left, fully Keke, with confidence and even a new motto: "To embrace the hard moments."
"They're only going to help build you up for your next relationship," he says. "And even though there were bad moments, the good was so good."
Rest assured, Keke. The good is only getting better.
Twentysomethings: Austin is now streaming on Netflix.
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