I wasn’t allowed to do much as a teenager. I couldn’t date boys or go on overnight trips in groups where boys would be present—I wasn’t even allowed to cut my own hair (which made me all-the-more alluring to said forbidden boys).
I grew up in an ultra-strict household, ruled by my abusive, alcoholic Greek immigrant father who had irrational views on child-rearing in 1990s America. Never mind that my mother (the sweetest, kindest woman you could ever know) was American and had been raised in a household with few rules, yet turned out as prim and proper as one could hope. Never mind that I was an honors’ student who had skipped a grade, never got into trouble and possessed an IQ that qualified me for Mensa membership. Never mind all of that. I was pretty, so therefore would certainly ‘sin’ if given the chance.
Around age 16, as a junior in high school, I began considering colleges for a future escape. Learning that I was investigating schools close to home in Oregon, my older sister gave me perhaps the best advice I’ve ever been given: “Go as far away to college as you possibly can—something not within driving distance. Get away from him.” And as the Universe so often does, once that seed was planted, it began conspiring to make it happen.
Soon I was writing for a regional student newspaper, working in the newsroom of the city’s daily paper, The Oregonian, and solidifying my plans to pursue a career in journalism. One of the “perks” of this new role was the opportunity to represent the West Coast at a journalism workshop that summer in Washington, DC, where I’d live in a dormitory at George Washington University with fellow teenage journalists from around the country and work on a national student newspaper.
In the months leading up to that trip, I took solace in one of the few things I had total freedom to do: Choose to watch whatever I wanted to on television.
I chose The Real World on MTV, which ran on an almost continuous loop from May to August that year. It was the perfect coming-of-age show for me, as I could identify in some way with each of the cast members, all of whom were just a few years older than me.
I was a dancer like Julie—captain of the dance team at school and enrolled in private lessons for my true love, ballet.
I was a writer like Kevin—captivated by poetry and journalism alike, he was discussing the things that mattered and doing so in an eloquent way that I aspired to emulate.
I was musical like Heather, Andre and Becky—blessed with perfect pitch and years of playing the flute, I was always singing or performing in some capacity or another.
I was a model like Eric—my first jobs were fashion shows for my local Nordstrom store, which evolved into additional work as I got older and more comfortable in my own skin.
I was an artist like Norman—though not professionally, I offered my best attempt at watercolors for anyone who would observe.
The original Real World was nothing like the trashy shows we associate with reality television today. It was an unvarnished look at seven young artists trying to make their way in New York City, living with a group of people completely different from them, yet also so alike in many ways. It was most profoundly a metaphor for life: We are all constantly navigating the world with people very different from us, but yet, whether we see it or not, people who are very much the same.
I wanted so badly to have an experience like theirs—and in a way, I did. The journalism workshop made me take my first solo flight (which began a compulsive travel habit that only paused for the pandemic) and delivered me to a group of soon-to-be close friends from the Midwest and East Coast who were of different faiths, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.
The workshop itself was life-changing—the first conversation about the still-recent Rodney King trial and resulting rebellion led to very uncomfortable (but necessary) conversations amongst the students; my time with a mentor from the Hearst Newspapers taught me interview skills I still use today. And it nudged me to take my sister’s advice, moving a year later to Columbia, Missouri to attend Mizzou for their award-winning journalism program.
But I could never shake the emotional attachment I had to the seven people I watched repeatedly in my youth, at a time when I needed them most, which is why when they returned this year for The Real World: Homecoming, I literally cried. I’d thought about them all over the years, catching various reunions they filmed and Googling them every-so-often to see where there lives landed, but this was different. They were moving back in, to the same loft in New York City, with the same people.
I had apprehension, as I didn’t want the sanctity of the original to be compromised, but thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all. This new production captured all of the magic of the original by showing us how the individuals had evolved (or in one case, regressed) and most importantly vibrated with the love they all still feel for one another and their shared experience.
After a year of almost complete solitude (my only visitor being my 80-year-old mother), curling up to watch these six sacred episodes felt like more than a guilty pleasure binge. It felt like a reminder to reflect on how far I’ve come from that damaged, naive young girl from the rough side of Portland and give thanks for the continued learnings about race, spirituality and love that our present world brings.