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Arts & Entertainment

Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company
Posted at 08:45 a.m. PDT; Thursday, May 28, 1998

It's a wrap for 'Real World' in Seattle
by Melanie McFarland
Seattle Times staff reporter

In the end, the six remaining Seattle cast members of MTV's "The Real World" had no regrets.

How could they? They're not even out of college, and they can already boast that they lived in a custom-designed waterfront loft, worth more than a $1 million on the market. They had a rock-climbing wall, work-out equipment and a Jacuzzi at their disposal, slept in beds that were also works of art, bathed in a Japanese-style bathroom with custom-designed facebowls.

"Real World" members partied with Super Deluxe, rapped with Peter Buck, and befriended Sir Mix-A-Lot. They volunteered at Chicken Soup Brigade and explored more of the city, they say, than people who have lived here for years. All this, and the knowledge that they'll be famous for their part in the documentary soap opera.

As of noon on Monday, they were free of the cameras that had recorded their every move for the past five months. Almost 2,000 hours of footage will be distilled into half-hour episodes for the new season, premiering on MTV June 16 with a special one-hour show.

And the program's candid look at their lives is the price cast members pay for high living. Every day they were strapped with microphones and had cameras following their every move. Each nasty word, whisper and utterance was recorded. Not even phone calls were off-limits, especially since MTV had provided cast members' family and friends with video phones, so they could see each other while chatting.

Cast members aired their deepest, darkest thoughts in a "confessional," and had to answer questions about what would otherwise be private moments in weekly interviews. Their part-time jobs paid each of them between $250 and $295 every two weeks.

"There's a certain amount of insecurity everyone has," cast member Rebecca Lord admitted. "Putting yourself under a microscope is scary because you see yourself for you who are. Yes, there are cameras there, but you have to lose that self-consciousness. You'll drive yourself insane otherwise."

Seattle's Pier 70 is the seventh location for "The Real World." Previous seasons were shot in Boston, Miami, London, San Francisco, New York City and Los Angeles. MTV gets an average of 15,000 applications competing for a spot on "The Real World" each year. Part 20-something bio-dome, part Thunderdome, "The Real World" is a grand experiment in which seven perfect strangers are cast together in a chic living space and try to get along. Most people tune in to watch hormones rage and to look for the inevitable fights.

As always, the Seattle cast is composed of very diverse people, meaning conflicts are typically drawn along racial, cultural and gender lines. This year includes Janet Choi, a 21-year-old Asian-American journalism school junior from Chicago; Nathan Blackburn and David Burns, both 21, white and undergrads at the Virginia Military Institute who were friends before the show; Lindsay Brien, 21, a hyperactive redhead from Aspen, Colo.; Rebecca Lord, 19, a fresh-faced blonde with a soft spot for music; and 20-year-old Stephen Anthony Williams, an African-American University of California undergrad, and a converted Jew. Another cast member, 22-year-old New York native Irene McGee, was forced to drop out of the cast because of complications from Lyme disease.

On move-in day, it didn't take long for the roommates to start "getting real." "Are you a lesbian?" Williams asked Lord out of the blue. When she replied no, he shrugged it off casually. "Just asking."

Later in an effort to bond, Brien confided to Williams that she was "black on the inside," an assertion that didn't exactly help start their new friendship.

In the first episode, romances also seemed to bud, as Burns began making eyes at Brien and Blackburn began showing feelings for Choi. But Burns and Blackburn were already spoken for, as was Lord. Those long-distance relationships, as of press time, were still intact.

"The Real World's" first season hit the airwaves in June 1992. The joint creation of soap opera producer Mary-Ellis Bunim and news and documentary producer Jonathan Murray, "The Real World" quickly became MTV's most-talked about program. Viewers tuned in to watch the nonscripted trials and tribulations of four guys, three girls, a cat and a dog - all strangers - living together in a loft in New York City's Soho neighborhood.

Seven years later the cable channel has seen tremendous changes, not the least of which is a drop in the ratings. "The Real World" isn't exempt; it's becoming a little too familiar and, some would say, unreal, to the people who grew up with it. Even so, producer Matt Kunitz says the show's viewership continues to grow with each season.

That may be why this year's cast received more of a star treatment than their predecessors. Past "Real World" domiciles were simply houses and apartment spaces decorated to suit the program's tastes. The Boston cast lived in a rehabbed firehouse, for example. Seattle's cast, on the other hand, got to live in a 4,500-square-foot space in Pier 70 that was almost completely built from scratch and designed by the upscale firm Two Downtown. With 67 pieces of original artwork displayed throughout the house, custom-designed fixtures and high-society amenities, Seattle's "Real World" digs make the Boston firehouse look like a public bathroom.

"That's why we came here," Williams said. "That's why people send in 15,000 tapes. Because they see the house. They know you're going to get a job. They know they're going to go on a trip. That's the unreal part of `The Real World,' but that's the understood part, also."

"Up here, yeah, there is a Fat Elvis aspect to it," Burns said. "And people are disgruntled. But it's ultra-real."

In typical MTV fashion, the walls are painted with eye-popping primary colors, the halls covered with a dull silver. A totem pole greets visitors in the hall on the way to the stylish restroom.

Instead of a doorbell, the buzzer is hooked up to a silver sculpture of a mechanical bulldog by the door, which rattles and lights up its eyes. One toy hanging from the ceiling is a burnished shark, about 10 feet long, that illuminates and wiggles when fed a quarter. An Olhausen pool table is lit by a long rectangular light fixture above, which lowers to the table to double as a bed for visitors.

Most of the furniture, fixtures and artwork was on loan and will be returned to its owners before the set is struck. Other items will benefit charities. Ikea merchandise will be sold at a discount and proceeds donated to the National Lyme Disease Foundation. The 2,000 books in the house's library will be donated to inner-city schools, and proceeds from the sale of the pool table will benefit Suicide Prevention.

MTV also set up the cast with jobs at KNDD-FM (107.7), positions that enabled them to attend movie premieres and interview bands. Their show aired late nights Mondays through Wednesdays. Burns supplemented his meager income from the radio station by working at a fish market in Pike Place Market, where, he says, he made many incredible friends. Contrast this with Miami cast members, famous for wasting $50,000 of start-up money for a business they couldn't pull together, or the Boston cast, which was saddled with unglamorous community-service work. Past casts went on vacation to places such as Puerto Rico; Seattle's Real Worlders ventured to Nepal.

But they can't take it with them. Oh sure, before they left, a few of the cast members grabbed a frame or a toy or two to remember their time in the house, which will disappear soon after they do. Since the "Real World" digs are located in a commercial zoning area, no one will live there after the cast. (MTV procured a permit designating the loft as a movie set.)

Rumor has it that the spot might be turned into a restaurant, but nothing is certain. Cast members are more likely to miss each other than their living space, no matter how plush it was. "All this," Brien said, waving her hands at her posh surroundings, "All of this is fake. The interactions, that's the stuff that's real. And that's what it's all about, really."

That, and the millions of viewers worldwide who will be watching and talking about them in the months ahead. Tomorrow: The "Real World" backlash.

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Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company