In this age of Kurt Hummel, Emily Fields and the dozens of other gay characters prominently featured on some of the most popular teen-skewing shows, it might strike twenty-somethings as crazy to hear there was a time when gay men and women were tougher to find on TV than a speck of glitter in a haystack.
Reality TV was one of the first mediums to actively capture the gay experience and share it with the world, particularly The Real World. From Pedro Zamora of The Real World: San Francisco to Genesis Moss of The Real World: Boston, MTV was breaking LGBTQ ground and educating America by putting a face to this long-overlooked portion of society long before their network counterparts.
Danny Roberts became one of the most beloved members of said community when he starred on The Real World: New Orleans in 2000. The adorable, then-22-year-old basically became the insta-crush of every gay (and girl) in America -- and Hollywood took notice, offering him acting and modeling opportunities that cemented his status as a gay icon.
ETonline caught up with Danny Roberts (now 36, and still charming as ever) earlier this week as he was preparing to enter the Bravo Clubhouse for tonight's episode of Watch What Happens Live. We reminisced about his time on The Real World, what life was like when he had to re-enter the actual real world and how it felt to be the face of young gay America at the dawn of the new millennium.
ETonline: First of all, can you believe it's been almost 15 years since you filmed The Real World?
Danny Roberts: Whoa, well, not quite that long just yet [laughs]. Close but not quite. It's pretty surreal how long ago it was. But what's most surreal is that it feels like we filmed the show just yesterday.
ETonline: Do you remember what made you want to audition?
Roberts: I'd just graduate college, had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I just knew that my goal was to travel and have some adventures. This was the perfect ticket.
ETonline: This was 2000 and you were dating a military man. Looking back, do you think you were naive about how significant that was?
Roberts: I don't think it was a conscious naivete, I think it was complete cluelessness. Military life was nothing that ever entered my life before that, so I had no idea what the policy was, what the application was, what it meant; it just never crossed my mind. I kind of learned about it as viewers did. My naivety was more about the response it would bring about from people. At the time, he was a brand new boyfriend and I really didn't think it would garner that much attention -- much less start a dialogue about the issues around it.
ETonline: Looking back, was The Real World a good experience for you?
Roberts: It was a really great experience overall. It definitely took me down a different road in life and exposed me to people I would have never met who have been incredibly influential in my life. It definitely made me think about myself as a person, and how I interact with people. I grew so much as a person through that whole experience.
ETonline: How long has it been since you watched an episode from your season?
Roberts: Oh my gosh, several years ago. It's been a long time.
ETonline: Is that a time in life you're glad has been recorded for posterity?
Roberts: Not necessarily [laughs]. It would be nicer if they'd captured a point in my life where I was a little more mature [laughs].
ETonline: There's a perception that your season was one of the last that represented the original intent of the show. Would you have auditioned for The Real World as it exists today?
Roberts: No. When I think about Real World I still think fondly about the early days; the first New York season and the San Francisco season ... maybe not so much the L.A. season [laughs]. The ones that really reflected society at the time and exposed people to new concepts they wouldn't have normally been exposed to.
ETonline: Is that why you didn't participate in further installments of The Challenge after winning Battle of the Seasons?
Roberts: In a way, yes. I definitely had an amazing, fantastic experience. But I also knew that it was important to move on because it's like a drug; it's so easy to get trapped in that cycle. I knew I had other goals in life, so I made a conscious decision to not be involved with it at a certain point and do other things in life. A big part of that was made easier by the fact I related to the kids on the seasons after mine less and less. Now, I have nothing in common with the people I see on The Real World. Not that I judge the people who do Challengeafter Challenge. I get the draw, I really do: it's a lot of fun, the travel opportunities are amazing and it's easy money.
ETonline: After your time on The Real World a lot of opportunities came your way, from acting to modeling. What was that time in your life like?
Roberts: It was very surreal. I would probably describe it as a period of exploration, but I would also describe it as a lost period. I got pulled in a lot of different directions. Already being a young person who was kind of unsure as to what he wanted to do with his life, this opened a lot of other doors -- but it took walking through each door to know it wasn't the right path for me. I definitely took some major detours during that period. None of it was bad, but I spent a lot of my early twenties going in circles.
ETonline: Was acting an aspiration of yours before The Real World?
Roberts: Absolutely not. In fact, I took an acting class in college to get over my fear of public speaking and I hated the experience. The professor despised me. I'm pretty sure it's because he knew I was gay and he couldn't stand that the class liked me even though I wasn't open about [my sexuality]. I felt like he had a total vendetta against me. Although, the best thing he pulled off was, as a final for that acting class, he chose me and the hottest -- hot, hot, hot -- jock guy in the class to act out a gay scene where we were in bed, making out. That was not by chance, it was very much by his design. I hated every minute of that class, and I hated that guy [laughs] -- he had it out for me the whole time. So, after that I had zero interest in acting, but the opportunity was there. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't curious, and part of the reason I think acting is so appealing is because I've always been interested in psychology. I think there’s a really interesting element in acting that involves psychology, so that's part of the draw -- even now.
ETonline: Of all the things you got to do as a result of being on The Real World which was your favorite?
Roberts: It's funny, I was just thinking about this because I was in New York during Fashion Week and I once got to walk in Fashion Week. They had a bunch of really cool people model for Nautica -- which is hilarious to think about now. It wasn't pretentious at all, it was just a lot of fun cool guys, many of whom have gone on to become kind of huge names, but at the time [the angle] was that they were all up-and-coming entertainers. And then we did this peripheral photoshoot that Beyonce was in! At the time she was barely known. Isn't that hilarious. She was like 19 at the time.
ETonline: Oh man, if you had only known what the future held you could have totally become "her gay."
Roberts: [laughs] I know, right! And she loved our season! I totally could have, so looking back, it's like, "Oh man ... what could have been."
ETonline: As a result of your time on the show you also became a very visible face of the gay community. What kind of interactions with young gay people did that afford you?
Roberts: Honestly, that was the most amazing part of the experience and it still goes on to this day. Less now, obviously, but there was a swath of several generations I happened to be at the right place, at the right time for. I think because of my background, I was very relatable to the mainstream. I came from a conservative background, and I was coming to a cognitive understanding of it all during that time. For the first time in our country's history, you had a lot of people pushing boundaries and being gay was starting to get into the mainstream. Before my generation, the idea of coming out was really, really extremely scary and only happened for a certain portion of the population. I think I was in the right place at the right time.
ETonline: And how long was it before you had to pay for your own drinks at bars again?
Roberts: [laughs] Oh, those were the good old days. The days when I would board a flight and the gay attendants would take such good care of me.
ETonline: What about the flipside; what were the drawbacks to being such a visible gay man at that time?
Roberts: I could not tell people's true intentions for a long time and that really messed with my head. Some people were harmless, but others were really damaging. I, unfortunately, came across some bad ones early on, including a few really psychotic stalkers. That was the most bizarre experience. One of whom was actually a cop and he abused his police powers to track me down. He befriended me and then manipulated the hell out of me. I just didn't feel safe for a while. For the most part, this has been a really positive experience, but there are truly crazy, psychotic, demented people out there, and for some reason, television is a medium that brings those people out because they really think they know you. The cop was so damaging because he was also in the closet at the time, so he was a head case anyway -- and when you throw police powers on top of that, it's scary.
ETonline: When you emerged from all of that, what did you end up doing with yourself, professionally? And what are you doing now?
Roberts: I do recruiting for a very cool, West Coast real estate company called Redfin. It's a very values-riven company, which I love too. I have to say, what got me into this line of work was that through my [Real World] experience; it fine-tuned my judgment of people and their motivating factors. It gives me an edge I wouldn't otherwise have. I also still do some acting for fun. I did this show called DTLA.
ETonline: Right! I saw that earlier this year on Logo. How did you happen to start acting again?
Roberts: I actually said no for a long time, but I became friends with the producer and he convinced me. He decided to [film] it during a period when I wasn't doing anything, I had a lot of free time and was moving between cities so I decided to do it and it's a lot more fun now because I don't take it seriously at all. It's purely for fun. And the pressure of what the public will think is gone. In the past, I felt so much more pressure to represent so many different ideals. When I was young, there was so much pressure to represent the gay community, to be this perfect face of the gay community -- that was an enormous amount of pressure to have at that age. I don't feel that pressure now, so I was able to have fun with it.
ETonline: And what about your personal life? Are you single?
Roberts: Actually, I just got married in Washington State three months ago. We'd been together for about 7 years now. Originally we met in college.
ETonline: Please tell me it was that jock from acting class!
Roberts: [laughs] Could you imagine? We were both very closeted [in college]. He was a domestic exchange student and then we didn't see each other for over 10 years, but we both happened to live close together in New York.
ETonline: Are kids on the agenda?
Roberts: Yep, that's all part of the plan. We'd love to adopt in the next few years. Otherwise, getting married had never been on my radar, but it's an important piece of making a family and that's our goal. Just living the domestic American dream [laughs].
The Real World special edition -- also featuring C.T., Ruthie, Paula and Beth S. -- of Watch What Happens Live airs tonight at 11 p.m. on Bravo.