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Danny Roberts Is Still Making a Real World Impact, 22 Years Later

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22 years after The Real World: New Orleans debuted, Danny Roberts and the entire cast are back to deal with the emotional baggage they left behind in the Big Easy.

An out, gay reality television personality during a time when there still weren't many, Roberts’ time on the popular MTV show led to a photoshoot with Beyoncé (shot by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz), parenthood, and eventually, to a remote cabin in Vermont. No, Roberts didn’t lose his mind and go full hermit — he just left the media ecosystem.

Roberts’ newfound television fame pushed him into becoming a gay activist, but it also ruined his relationship with Paul Dill, a U.S. Army captain he was dating and whose face MTV producers had to blur out when he made an appearance during an episode of The Real World: New Orleans that aired in 2000 during the height of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."

But in the second episode of Paramount+’s The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans, audiences now get to see Paul’s face.

What unfolds couldn't be more real: Roberts shares his journey to find healing from his relationship with Paul, his castmates, and how he copes with CPTSD. But it isn’t all serious! The castmates spent two weeks in NOLA reliving their initial Real World experience and making new memories.

Out got the chance to speak with Danny Roberts about going back to The Real World, his photoshoot with Beyoncé, adopting his daughter, and just what the hell is going on with his roommate Julie Stoffer this season on Homecoming.

Out: What’s it like going through The Real World experience with your New Orleans castmates for a second time?

Danny Roberts: It feels a bit like a fever dream, to be honest. It was probably one of the least expected things to happen. I think we had all neatly tucked that experience away in our past and moved on with our lives. Most of us have families and children. So it was this very unexpected little gift that happened, now six months ago. That's part of the reason why it also feels like a fever dream because it's been a moment since we actually filmed it.

Going a little further back than six months, tell me about your photoshoot with Beyoncé from 20 years ago. She wasn't the Beyoncé we know today at that point.

Yeah, exactly. It’s probably one of my most memorable life experiences now. Extremely surreal. I would love to get my hands on the pictures. If you or Out’s readers can figure out a way to get me a copy of this I will owe you a year of my soul. I want a copy of it! I think it was in New York Magazine and they did a piece on up-and-coming entertainers from different domains, comedians, actors, reality TV, whatever. Beyoncé and I did a whole shoot in the back of a limo and the photographer was Annie Leibovitz on top of that! So it was this incredible experience that I knew was surreal the moment it was happening, but now is extremely surreal. She turned to me and she was very nervous and shy and sweet, and she says, “I know who you are.” I was thinking, “Okay, are you kidding me? It doesn't matter who I am.”

In the first and second episodes of Homecoming, you and Melissa deal with the fallout from Julie writing letters to your employers that cost you jobs. Do you think Julie’s reaction was amplified because of the cameras?

I think the real story here is not even about us as individuals but exposure, whether it's through the medium of television or social media. Whatever the case, amplification and exposure drastically change a lot of people's personalities. I think there are certain kinds of personalities who are drawn to exposure to begin with and I think this type of exposure amplifies certain people's personality types. Let's leave it at that. I think it would have been a very different experience outside the limelight.

How real are the outings in this season of Homecoming? New Orleans was still hot and heavy with the ongoing pandemic when you filmed.

Going to the drag show in the second episode wasn’t something we did organically. There were safety procedures, so there was no organically going out and doing anything. It was sort of a setup for us. It was a bar that was cast and tested. The truth is we weren't really allowed to be out and about mixing. We were locked down in the middle of the Delta wave. That was kind of a bummer and kept us from really getting to truly enjoy the city.

Learning the bar was designed specifically for you and your roommates and watching Julie getting wasted and belligerent that night makes her behavior even messier…

I think there are some people who know exactly what they're doing. *laughs*

In the second episode, you said you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) from your time on The Real World. What is it and how does it affect you?

There’s an important differentiation between PTSD and CPTSD. The key concept behind PTSD, in general, is an event has threatened your basic safety. What we generally all know of as PTSD is related to military service. But it is generally related to extreme short-term events that really threaten someone's safety or wellbeing. Complex, which is the C in CPTSD, is related to long-term exposure of being unsafe. I think the truth is most of us in the LGBTQ+ community have some degree of this level of not feeling safe, secure, in basic safety, especially when growing up. I think a lot of people actually fall into that spectrum. I just think my experiences were extreme.

As part of your extreme experiences on the show, you talk about becoming an “accidental activist” and feeling like you needed to stay in a toxic relationship with Paul to satisfy “Gay America.”

It was a time when there weren't a lot of people who were out, especially to that degree globally. It wasn't a safe time to be out. I was by no means the first person to be out on television or even on this show. This is the ninth season of it, and there’s almost always someone who's out. But it was still a very unsafe time to be out. We filmed a year after Matthew Shepard was murdered and it was still very fresh. I think it was a pivotal time in that society was ready for change and was starting to drastically change and a lot of people were pushing for change. And I became a visible, physical manifestation of that movement and that energy at the time. Someone said for my generation, my season of The Real World became a linchpin memory and a relatable moment in a lot of people's lives. And I didn't want to let people down. I wanted young people to have someone to look to — I want it to be what I needed and that's what I was striving to be. So it felt like me letting people down when this relationship ended. My relationship with Paul was held up by a lot of people as an ideal to strive towards. We all wanted relationships and to be open about it when it was not okay to be out. So it was disappointing for me to not live up to that ideal. We had to live very much an underground life for years while he was still in the military. It was a really extreme and unhealthy situation.

Several years after filming your initial season, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Had you been back to New Orleans before filming Homecoming? How has the city changed?

I love New Orleans and I've tried to go at least every other year since filming. It's kind of a special home away from home with this strange connection I have with it. But I love that city, it's probably the most unique city in the country. It's a very colorful tapestry. There are insane layers of history there and they're really unique people. Everybody knows it for its food. It's just an incredible place. Even globally, it's one of my favorite cities in the world. Even if I had not had this Real World experience there I’d probably feel the same. But I have been every couple of years. The hurricane completely erased the old New Orleans. There's very little resemblance between what it was then and now. First off, it's a lot smaller. A lot of people left after the hurricane and never returned. A lot of the city was destroyed and never rebuilt. What exists now is a much more gentrified version of what was there when we were there. On a positive note, it is a much safer city than it was. It was pretty dangerous the first time we lived there. I feel comfortable doing things, walking in areas now that we actually weren't allowed to visit back then.

Really? MTV restricted you from certain parts of the city?

There was a lot of the city that was off-limits to us.

When the original season came out, I was 12 or 13, and for me, I was too young to even conceptualize being gay, but the season was so amazing for me to watch.

This is just fascinating for me to hear because I think, most of all of this time, I have always made this assumption that most people watching the show at the time were probably in their 20s and 30s, maybe late teens? The truth is, I now realize from hearing from people over the years, the actual honest, median age of people watching was like 12 to 14, and that blows my mind. I'm like, “wait, where were your parents?” We had a much younger audience than I ever realized. I'm trying to remember how did I conceptualize being gay as a kid, which was a very different story because the time when I grew up was pre-internet. I didn't even grow up with cable, so I had no real-life example. I had a gay uncle at the time, I just didn't know it. I thought he just had a weird roommate. I didn’t know what gay was other than something bad you don’t want to be. It's hard for me to even imagine that that would be like watching that show at 12 or 13.

We’re talking about kids watching these shows with adult situations, so what’s it like for you as a dad knowing your daughter could see these sorts of things?

If my daughter was 12 or 13 back in the day would I want her to watch my original season? Probably not. But she's quite savvy and sassy, so I'm sure she would find her way to it. Nowadays, I have no problem with it because there was nothing that I feel happened or was set in the show that I would be ashamed of or not want her to know or understand. Right now, she's six and we're at a point where we're really helping her understand the concept of what adoption is — she's adopted. It's very abstract for her still, but it's part of her story. Right now she's just trying to understand why I’m on a screen and it’s really blowing her mind. She asked me, “What are you doing in the movie?” It makes no sense to her tiny head, but, also she loves watching YouTube videos of kids doing nonsense all day. So thinking little ones probably assume we all do this. Many of us do.

When you were preparing to be a parent, did you look to straight people or gay singles and couples as examples? Or did their orientation not make a difference to you?

It didn’t make a big difference to me, to be honest, though, just by statistics, the vast majority of people I know who are parents are hetero. But the truth is, I think most people are not great parents. So it's more like, who I don't want to look to as examples. My roommate Kelly and her husband Scott are people I absolutely look towards. I think they're amazing in the way that they approach their parenting. They’ve been an influence for me. I have taken bits and pieces from hetero and gay parents. I think it was always very important for me that I adopt. I think a lot of gay men especially look toward surrogacy but there are so many kids who need homes. I always believed in it. I was never one who had a mission in life to have children. That wasn't one of my key goals. But I always felt like if I met the right person at the right time, it would be nice, but I was always very set on adoption. And open adoption was important for me too, which means that her mom is still part of the story. She's not some mystery person.

The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans streams weekly, with new episodes airing Wednesdays on Paramount+. 

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