An Honest Conversation with Danny Roberts

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Daymon Gardner

The Real World: Homecoming leapt ahead in time for its third iteration, jumping over classic seasons like San Francisco, Boston, and Miami and landing in New Orleans. Unlike much of what happens in New Orleans, this was a good decision. From 2000, the ninth season of The Real World has one of the show’s all-time great casts: wise Kelley, wise-ass Melissa, David with the “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” song, a diverse and compelling group of young people in the last season before cast-mates started arriving to the Real World house through the jacuzzi.

At the center of it, there was Danny Roberts. One of very few out gay men on television at the time, and with a military boyfriend whose face had to be blurred so he wouldn’t lose his job under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Danny was at the center of some major cultural conversations at an age when he was still figuring life out. He took a big step back from public life after the show, but just before the premiere of this season of Homecoming, which is now airing, we caught up with him to talk MTV fame, Complex PTSD, mushrooms, and the Deep South. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


Esquire: So you’ve been through this once before. How did it happen this time around?

Danny Roberts: These conversations started actually early of last year. Of course, my first reaction was I don’t think so. Then I had some psilocybin and then I thought about it and then I started talking to Kelley and Melissa. We had to come to some terms amongst ourselves to feel comfortable and safe before we agreed to do it—one of the catches was the whole cast had to agree to it or it was a no go. I am still shocked everyone agreed to it.

Okay, we’ll be coming back to psilocybin. But who were you most surprised signed on?

Honestly, I didn’t think Kelley would have ever done this. I think she did this as a gift to us, to allow it to happen. We hadn’t been in touch with each other, most of us, in twenty-plus years. In my mind, Jamie was some respectable human being these days, off being Mr. Businessman. I never expected him to not only be there but actually happily be there.

What were you expecting coming in?

I purposely decided not to watch the old season. I just wanted to go in with a blank slate, to let the universe let it unfold.

I did have a goal when I went. I’ve been on a bit of a spiritual ride for the past few years, and religion has been a major part of my personal story. That’s been sort of a theme in my life, in my family, in where I grew up in Georgia. The place is still very much the same today. It’s Marjorie Taylor Greene country. That is my district.

Jesus.

You know, the older I get, the more that I am just hyper-aware of what those belief systems lead to, and how they impact people and how they really impacted my life.

I wanted to go back and revisit that topic, because it really got swept under the rug the first run. Two roommates in that story were extremely religious, had very negative beliefs towards anyone gay and they were pretty vocal about it and actually just kind of got away with that. I had a goal of really revisiting that topic in this.

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What was the aftermath of The Real World like for you personally? What was that level of recognition like?

Well, you remember, I met you at The Gap the first time.

Is that true?

We were at a Gap store opening party, loading upon free shit. Those were crazy, crazy times.

Oh wow, yeah. The big flagship one.

It’s really hard for people to imagine now, because young people are like, “What is MTV? What is The Real World?” It was pop culture at that time. It was a hugely popular show. You know, everybody from, now I realize, from like twelve and up was watching it.

I was never super comfortable with it. I don’t do well as the center of attention. You know my ex. We were together for like eight years after we did that show. He was still in the military, so we had to live a very bizarre underground life. I didn’t have the sense or the wisdom to know this then, but that’s a very unhealthy, unnatural way to live, to be so secretive. In an ironic way, I was forced back into the closet, even though I was as open and out as you can technically be. That was super unhealthy, and that was a big part of my twenties.

Where did you end up personally after that show? Where did you live?

For a couple of years, we were still in North Carolina, Deep South, at a time when it was very not okay to be out. That was a big part of what was fricking traumatizing to me. It was not just that I was in this very secretive relationship, where his existence was threatened, but I felt constant fear and being threatened by being as out as you can be but still living in the Deep South. That was very not okay for me.

I was forced back into the closet, even though I was as open and out as you can technically be.

Eventually, we moved to Seattle to be in a more progressive place and a place where I thought I could just live a little bit more freely.

How did you blow off steam when you were in North Carolina?

That’s the problem, I didn’t. The steam built up in me. I did not have healthy outlets. I literally became a recluse in my house for a couple of years. I just didn’t feel safe or okay to be out while we lived there. Not in that time. This is a year or two after Matthew Shepard. Today would be a different story, but not at that time.

Would it, though?

Yeah, not outside of big cities, it’s still not. I don’t think we should gloss over that fact either. We can pretend it’s just hunky dory for everybody everywhere, but it’s definitely still not.

You know, what I notice about the world now is the world for queer people, is in many ways, being shaped by the people in their thirties who grew up having you to look at and look up to. You didn’t have anyone, I didn’t have anyone really.

I know. We were talking earlier how I didn’t grow up with cable. There was no such thing as the Internet or smartphones. I had no context of what gay was. It was something very abstract to me. I did have a gay uncle. I just didn’t realize it at the time. I just thought he had a weird roommate. I didn’t connect the dots until I was like 30. What the hell? He was the black sheep that no one talked about. He did throw a good party.

Well, sure. Did you hear from young viewers when your season was airing? It would have to be, like, by mail or in person on the street back then.

Yeah, you have to remember, at this time, there was not really a way to reach me. We had email but that was private. I did actually create sort of … I don’t even know what you would call it now, because it’s so 1990s Internet but a gay community site called Country to Concrete. There weren’t apps to meet gay people. I created this community site, where my name and my presence was sort of the anchor, but the real intention was to provide a message board where gays could talk to each other, because there just wasn’t a lot of outlet for that, that was safe.

You know, the level of fame that you get from a show on TV is a unique one, because there is a segment of the population that is all watching it, and then outside of that, nobody is. You’re like huge to people within a certain age group, and then to someone six months out of that, they don’t know you at all.

I work in tech, and I work with a lot of twenty-somethings. They have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, why I’ve been away on PTO. You know, from about 32 on, absolutely, they do know. Anybody below that, no clue. But actually the age I think skews younger than I used to believe it did, and I think there were a lot of kids at the time, who were like 12 or 13 watching it. I never realized how many really young kids were watching it at the time.

I think it’s most meaningful to those youngest ones. I think that was the first generation that en masse could imagine a world being out and living an out life. Even if it was still a fantasy, they could start to imagine it. I think it was sort of that age group for the first time that that really started becoming the norm. Whatever that norm is now. I’m not quite sure what any norm is anymore.

the real world reunion tour

From The Real World Reunion Tour: Dan Renzi, Melissa Howard, Jamie Murray, Matt Smyth, Kelley Limp, Jon Brennan, Colin Mortensen, David Burns, Danny Roberts, Julie Stoffer and Puck Rainey; 2001.

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Me either.

I think there’s something super interesting about going back, and part of what inspired me to do it is that in a lot of strange ways, we’re moving back to the past. We’re channeling that era again, and every day I open the newspaper now and you hear gays being referred to as groomers and fluffers, all these 1990s terms. It’s almost surreal that we’re going back there, but we absolutely are. Maybe we all got a little too comfy, too quickly.

How do you account for us backsliding in this way?

I mean, if you want to get deep, I think what’s going on in this country and in the western world, in general, is that the economies of the western world have stopped functioning in healthy ways, decades ago, and people have been becoming angrier and angrier and angrier about it. It’s been widely ignored. People are looking for scapegoats.

It’s a very repetitive story. That’s the really depressing part, that it’s all very predictable. Look who’s being blamed for problems. It is the same groups that always get blamed. I don’t think it’s safe or okay to dismiss it all as just angry, bitter, hateful people either. I think there’s a lot of complex shit going on there and some of it shouldn’t be so easily dismissed … Don’t get me on my soapbox, Dave.

Well, let’s get back to MTV fame then. There’s nobody who teaches you what it is or how to deal with it. There’s no class to take.

No context. I dare you to look for a therapist who specializes in people who are fucked up from reality TV and overexposure.

I bet there’s one now.

They love to take these cases because it’s a fascinating case study for them, but they have absolutely no idea how to manage it. We have gotten to a point where there is enough reality TV that exists, and there’s enough data out there now, there’s very clear themes going on.

Was there a moment that you remember thinking like, This is not healthy?

I’d say about 10 years ago at the nadir of my life, deep in the trough, I had serious regrets for doing any of it. You know, me and my ex had finally split. I went through a couple of series of serious pathological stalkers, one who was a policeman, that really rocked my sense of safety. I had to stop kidding myself that I had the upper hand, that I accepted defeat and humility. It was the first time I realized I really need to have someone help me through some of this shit. What I now have the language to describe, but at the time, I had no understanding of what I was going through. But you start to realize it is not healthy to be incredibly anxious all the time, it’s not healthy to fear being in public, it’s not normal. You know? All these things that I had become numb to and thought were just how we all operate.

So what compelled you to do the show again?

“What the fuck were you thinking?”

Yes. Exactly.

I’ll be totally honest with you and I hope you will publish this. So probably three years before, I had been very lucky to come across a therapist who specializes in Complex PTSD, and psilocybin as treatment. That was life-changing for me.

It gave me both the tools to wipe the tracks clear and have a whole new empathetic outlook again. It also gave me the framework to understand what happened and why, any human would naturally react the way I did. Having those tools and that framework changed my life. Then the pandemic happened and I left New York and I left the rat race and I just went and I spent almost two years in the woods in a lot of silent meditation time and it was life-changing. I don’t think I would have agreed to this had that experience not happened. I wasn’t mentally prepared for it or psychically prepared for it.

I highly recommend that everyone abandon their life and live in the woods for a year or two. It’s good for you.

I highly recommend that everyone abandon their life and live in the woods for a year or two.

So on the other side of all this, looking back now, in 2022, are you glad you did it?

It’s hard for me to say about that first time. I think there’s a level of moral obligation when adults throw children on television and monetize [them]. Let’s be real, those are fucking children. Your early twenties, you’re children.

There’s a moral responsibility there that was not taken by any adults around us. I would never put the young version of myself through that again. That was not okay. I like to think today that kids who are thrown in TV situations, they’re taken better care of. I think there is a higher degree of mental health care in general today, but particularly, for people who have been on these shows, they get the resources they need. I like to think that. I don’t know if it’s true, but I would never put the young version of myself through that again.

The second time, I do think it was a gift and I am so incredibly thankful that we all took the risk we did and put ourselves into the situation. I think the chances were probably 99% against it happening, and somehow it did. It’s a bit of a miracle that it did.

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