Features

D.C. Gets Real

November 12, 2009


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For those of you who have neither the time nor the inclination to untangle the sprawling web of Twitter feeds, blogs, and forums devoted to the upcoming 23rd season of “The Real World,” set here in Washington, D.C., but still want the inside scoop before the show premiers on December 30, let me save you some trouble.

Erika Wasilewski, the “Windy City rocker” with a “need for affection,” as she’s described in her Cast Bio, moved out of the house mid-season to go back to Ian, her long-time boyfriend.

Ty Ruff, an aspiring NFL player from Baltimore, who thinks “believing in God is a crutch,” tossed a fellow cast member off a balcony, sending his battered victim to the hospital.

Ashley Lindley, the hot-tempered “Portuguese beauty,” told two locals that all the guys in D.C. are “assholes, ugly, or both,” who just use her to get free drinks or on camera.

Mike Manning, the newly-out former jock, landed himself in the middle of a romantic tug-of-war between two handsome D.C. men—the brown-haired one named Eric, and the curly-haired one Robbie.

And, by “Real World” executive producer Jim Johnston’s estimation, only one fourth—at most 50 percent—of that information, all from online coverage of the show, is correct.

“It’s just interesting, the conclusions they come to,” Johnston, who has produced the last eight seasons of “The Real World,” said of the cadre of amateur bloggers who obsessively covered the filming of the show from July through mid-October. “If they want to learn to be journalists, they need to get their facts straight.”

Of course, Johnston didn’t read everything that was published online about his show during production.

That would have required him to follow the 2,500-plus tweets from RealWorldDCNEWZ, the Twitter hub of “Real World D.C.” scoops, along with the feed’s other 5,000 followers; track “Vevmo,” an obsessive reality television forum that served as a petri dish for “Real World” gossip and whose “Real World D.C.” section has received over 300,000 hits; watch videos on the cutesy pop-culture blog of a 22 year-old waitress and aspiring entertainment reporter who spent eight hours a week following the cast to bars and nightclubs. The list goes on, and that’s not even counting the mainstream media coverage the show received.

Online coverage of the show, which follows eight strangers living together in a house for three months, is nothing new, of course (though Twitter, used by fans to shoot out alerts about cast members’ whereabouts, is). Johnston, whose history with the show goes back to its sixth season, “Real World Boston,” said he’s never before seen bloggers receive the attention they’ve garnered here in D.C.

Their goal, a number of the bloggers interviewed for this story said, was simple: to draw back the curtain and answer the question on everyone’s mind: what’s “The Real World” really like? What does the “reality” in “reality show” actually mean?

***

However welcome this service was for “Real World” fans—and for some, judging by the giddy responses gossipy tidbits provoked, it was quite welcome—Johnston and the rest of the production crew were less than thrilled.

In their eyes, the bloggers were drawing unwanted attention to eight people just trying to go about their normal lives—or as normal as life can be when every conversation is recorded, and every non-cast member they come into contact with must sign a release form, in which they acknowledge that should a late night dip in the jacuzzi become intimate, “BY ENGAGINF [sic] IN SUCH ACTIVITY, I MAY CONTRACT CERTAIN SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED DISEASES.”

“We don’t want news stories out,” Johnston said. “We don’t want people to pay attention to us when we’re shooting. We just want to be left alone.”

That’s the message he passed on to Chris Wiggins, the 29-year-old freelance journalist behind the RealWorldDCNEWZ Twitter feed, at the 5th Anniversary Party of Halo, the trendy Logan Circle gay nightclub. Wiggins, who considers himself pro-”Real World” and pledged not to impede the production, approached Johnston to ask him how he could help the show. (Johnston said that Wiggins “kind of got in my face.”)

“He chuckled,” Wiggins recalled, “and said, ‘What you can do  is you can cover politics instead of covering us.’”

The ire of the “Real World” production crew wasn’t restricted to bloggers either, as WUSA reporter Lindsey Mastis learned on the sunny July afternoon when the cast members moved into their new digs, a $5.7 million brick mansion at the corner of S and 20th St. NW, blocks away from the heart of Dupont Circle.

Mastis said she was just covering the crowd of fans, bloggers, and paparazzi that had gathered to watch the cast move in, and made sure not to come between the cast and the “Real World” cameras. Johnston said some of the observers had interfered with their filming, and that Mastis set up her tripod next to the house’s outdoor patio and stood there for hours, irritating the cast as she filmed them anytime they’d come out on the patio.

At this point, Johnston said, “We thought, what the heck, let’s go shoot them.” A YouTube video of the incident shows a cameraman in an Apple t-shirt and slim black glasses obstructing Mastis’ camera as she attempts to interview Martin Mongillo, a “Real World” blogger, on the sidewalk outside the house.

“D.C. has the most bloggers anywhere, so definitely going to make it a point to give a play-by-play no matter what happens,” Mongillo says as the cameraman tilts his shoulder-mounted camera to continue blocking Mastis’ view.

The eye-for-an-eye approach didn’t end well for the show. The video of the incident spread all over the internet and has now been viewed over 20,000 times on YouTube. Mastis made the confrontation the centerpiece of her WUSA story, in which Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that the “Real World” crew had been “obnoxious.”

Talking about the incident now, Johnston still sounds a little exasperated. “[Mastis] wasn’t a good enough journalist to actually call us and ask us for interviews, and give us some respect, and back off a little with her camera,” he said. “No, she cried foul once we did the same thing to her.”

Mastis likely wouldn’t have gotten anywhere had she called Bunim/Murray Productions (BMP), the “Real World” production company. Members of the press were denied access to the house and cast members as the show was being filmed.

Without a story about the goings-on inside the house, the press turned to the story just outside the house. The watchers became the watched, and several of the bloggers and self-professed stalkers of the show were featured in local TV, radio, and print outlets—ranging from the Washington Post to Hot 99.5 to Metro Weekly.

For Wiggins, this exposure wasn’t an end in itself. “MTV and BMP—feel free to hire me!” he wrote in a post celebrating his “personal exposure” of “three print articles and three TV stories.” Now, Wiggins and Beth Ploger, the recent West Virginia University grad behind “love, elizabethany,” are attempting to pitch an after-show about the Real World D.C. to MTV. They haven’t had any luck so far, though Wiggins said that MTV, unlike the production crew, “loves what I’m doing because it creates buzz.”

***

Regardless of MTV’s feelings about the show’s online following, Wiggins and other bloggers were not invited to the show’s Press Day, which Ploger said caused some resentment within the blogger community.

But while Ploger and her fellow bloggers could not get inside to see the house that they had spent so many hours standing outside, a number of D.C. journalists did. The production crew shut off the cameras on the first Friday of October, and the journalists got a glimpse of the house’s interior, including the kitchen with its stainless steel refrigerator and Subway-sponsored wooden knife block; the round living room full of beanbags, with images of the D.C. flag on the wall; the giant multi-colored mural of the U.S. Capitol by the staircase; and, of course, the fish tank filled with coral and bright tropical fish.

Then there were the interviews with pairs of cast members, who were prepped by MTV with a list of fifty or so questions they could expect from the journalists. (“How real is ‘The Real World?’” “Was alcohol provided or did you buy yourself?” “Did living with roommates alter your previous [sic] held beliefs?”)

Perhaps the cast members were a bit overly prepared for the interviews: some of their answers, while not crossing over from fact to fiction, flirted with the border between them.

For example: how do the legal ramifications of being followed around by cameras affect where the cast goes out at night?

“We’re going to do what we want and nothing’s stopping us,” Emily Schromm, whose cast bio calls her an “athletic tomboy,” said.

“One night we couldn’t figure out where to go, so me and two other of our roommates, we literally walked down Connecticut with a pad of paper, saying, hey, where’s fun to go in this area?” Callie Walker, the “free-spirit vegan” from Huntsville, TX, said.

Johnston confirmed that the producers never told the cast where they had to go, but as far as stepping into a random bar recommended by someone on the street—not quite. “You’re not allowed to go in a place the cameras can’t go,” Johnston said, regarding the cast. If a bar wouldn’t let the cameras in, the producers wouldn’t let the cast go in.

The same was true of people who talked to cast members but wouldn’t sign the show’s release form. “We’ll say [to the cast], sorry, you’re not allowed to interact with that person because the last thing you want to see [on TV] is a blurred face,” Johnston said.

So what was the cast’s relationship with the producers and cameramen like?

“As far as I’m concerned, they don’t exist,” Ty Ruff, the athletic Baltimore-native said. “It’s like mice in your house. You’re like, what the fuck, how do we get rid of these people?”

The cast members might not have paid much attention to the crew the majority of their time, but each spent two to three hours in an interview with the producers each week.

The producers “try to help them understand what motivates them, and why they do the things they do,” Johnston said. “There’s a lot of self-discovery.”

***

One interesting fact emerged from Press Day: the cast was banned from logging onto Twitter, social networking websites, and any other website that mentions the cast or the show. The house’s main computer, which sits to your right when you walk through the front door in an imitation of the Oval Office, blocks those websites.

That’s not to say that cast members didn’t find ways around the restrictions. They could get information about what was being written online in e-mails from friends and family, or access blocked sites on computers at their internships or jobs. The evidence is on Schromm’s personal blog, which displays two posts with dates during the show’s production. (“Bar me up and see what happens, but if it is myself that created the cage, I feel that is when I have lost my heart, my soul, myself,” reads a September 2 post.) Lindley’s Twitter feed wasn’t silent during the production either. (“volunteering with DC Vote,” reads a brief August 19 tweet.)

The producers knew the ban wasn’t always followed but still tried to minimize the cast’s feeling of being watched as much as possible—a slightly ironic objective, with an omnipresent camera crew taking in every moment.

“You want the documentary to be pure, you want their reactions to be pure,” Johnston said. “So you try to limit their outside influences that make them think, ‘Oh, I’m on TV.’”

The show finished filming in mid-October. If the blogs are to be believed, the cast members packed up and left the District a few days before the originally scheduled date because of online speculation about the move-out date.

Now Bunim/Murray is cutting  hundreds of hours of footage down to thirteen, maybe fourteen, hour-long episodes, a process that will continue after the show goes on the air, with each episode ready often just days before it airs.

None of the cast members have seen any of the episodes yet or know what’s going to be in them.

Schromm is planning a party for the night of December 30, when the first episode will air at 10:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, or 9:00 at her home in Columbia, Missouri.

“We’re going to have all my friends come over, and have a big party, and just watch it together,” she said. Her family’s not invited, though her mom, a schoolteacher, is planning her own watch party with her friends.

After initially wavering between watching the show and not watching it, Schromm said she’s ready to see how she looks on the show. “No matter what happens, at least I [will] have my friends right next to me.”

Nervous? Not really, Schromm and Walker, the Texan vegan, both said. This is what they signed up for. They knew what was going to happen from day one.

“I was confident with the person I was before I got here,” Walker said, “knowing that I have flaws, knowing that there are parts of me that I have to work through and I had so much growing to do. But at the end of the day, I’m not ashamed of any of it.”

“Yeah,” Schromm agreed. “Definitely no shame.”



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