Entertainment

'Real World' Star Danny Roberts Saw Himself in Whoopi Goldberg and AOL Chat Rooms

The humble heartthrob has remained a touchstone for many Y2K-era TV viewers, so here are the touchstones that influenced his own coming-out journey.

Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

For many closeted kids watching MTV in the year 2000, Danny Roberts was a revelation. Like Norman Korpi, Pedro Zamora, and Genesis Moss before him, Roberts’ casting on The Real World minted him one of the few openly gay people on television. He was a handsome and seemingly well-adjusted college graduate with a boyfriend, a US Army captain whose face had to be obscured on the show because the homophobic “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was still in effect. That alone made Roberts stand out, as evidenced by the reams of fan letters he received after The Real World: New Orleans aired.

Roberts, who grew up in rural Georgia without access to cable and most other forms of popular media, explores his 22 years as a reality-TV vanguard in the recently released Paramount+ reunion series The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans. “I had absolutely no life plan,” he says in Homecoming‘s first episode. “I was mostly in the closet, but I was seeking a catalyst to be fully out of the closet and embrace being my true, raw self, as scary as that was.” Having survived the MTV gauntlet, the 44-year-old Roberts now has a 6-year-old daughter, lives in a Vermont cabin, and works as a tech recruiter.

If Roberts was an inspiration to a generation of pop-culture-obsessed queer youth, what were his own queer inspirations? During a conversation Roberts described as “meta,” Thrillist asked him exactly that question.

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Whoopi Goldberg

I don’t know why, but she really inspired me as a kid. With all the things working against someone like her, there’s no explanation of why she was able to become what she did. It was an example of someone who could be everything that was not mainstream and still create an amazing life. Now, Whoopi Goldberg is someone very different today, but back then, she rose up against crazy challenges-that’s what it really boils down to.

The Catcher in the Rye

It’s not a direct LGBT reference, but I think it inspired my spirit. It was one of my favourite books growing up. I very much related to Holden Caulfield. That’s where my inner rebel came from. What I took away from it was a teen kid that I very much related to who was questioning everything around him that was being presented to him as the norm-and what is the norm? Why is this the norm?

Norman Korpi from The Real World

Norm was very influential in my story. Norm, from the first New York season, was the first time in my life I ever actually saw a real-life example of someone who’s gay, which was super interesting to young me. It was impactful when I saw Norm because I’d heard plenty of negative talk about gay people in my community. All I ever heard was negative, negative, negative, so seeing Norm made me think, “This guy doesn’t seem anything like what I’ve heard.” That really sparked me, more subconsciously than anything.

Boy Scouts

I didn’t grow up in church life, per se, but I did grow up in the Deep South, where religion is integrated into culture and everyday life, whether you’re actively going to church or not. There’s very little division, even though the people there don’t truly grasp that. It drives the culture there. For your reference, Marjorie Taylor Greene is the rep for my district.

But where my early dabbling came from was my time playing basketball and in Boy Scouts. I think it’s super common, teenage boys exploring. I did not think of it as being gay whatsoever; I just looked at it as friendship and exploration and curiosity. I’d compartmentalize it as, “Oh, this is just a period of life; I’m not gay,” because in my mind, “gay” was very much a horrible, negative thing in the culture around me. Even being cast and going on The Real World, I was still deep in deconstructing that negative picture. In fact, I think it’s been a lifetime of deconstructing that negative picture.

One of them was my best friend growing up, and we’re still friends. He’s hetero. I think that’s such a common story that no one talks about. We go on backpacking trips together almost yearly, and we’ve only once ever talked about it. It was, “Yep, that happened.” He is as confident in himself as a human being can be, and it doesn’t faze him. At the time, I didn’t have the language to understand what was happening, but I was feeling attached in deeper ways than just sexual exploration. I struggled with that as a teenager without actually realizing that’s what I was struggling with. When he discovered girls, I became incredibly jealous-those bitches! I didn’t understand what that was until many years later.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Madonna

Madonna was sort of the rebel that inspired all of us. She was pushing a lot of buttons against organized religion back then, which, from my early days, has been really important to me-it culminates in this Homecoming. I always loved that about her. I had a Sony boom box; that was my outlet to the world. I grew up in a working-class family-not poor, but not quite middle class either-so I didn’t have a lot of access to purchasing media. My journey in discovering what the LGBT world was was super limited, and I honestly didn’t get a peek into that until I got to university, when I had my first access to the internet.

AOL chat rooms

I was at university from ’95 until ’99, and AOL chat rooms turned my world inside out in all the right ways. That is where I genuinely had my first interactions with real-life gay individuals-pretty much mostly all closeted. I was at the University of Georgia, and it was still very taboo to be out. The gay bar was hidden in an alley on the bad side of town. Nobody wanted to be seen going there; it was very dangerous. There were a handful of brave individuals who were out on campus, but for the most part, almost everyone was closeted back then. What people forget today-and one of my biggest fears in doing that original season-was, by being out, you were wearing a huge red letter on your chest that would limit your life opportunities. You could be, and often were, fired if your employer knew you were gay.

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Matthew Jacobs is an entertainment editor at Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter @tarantallegra.

Entertainment

Why the Shocking Twist in 'Bodies Bodies Bodies' Is So Killer

The A24 horror-comedy has a lot to say about how logged on we are today.

A24
A24
A24

This story contains spoilers about the ending of Bodies, Bodies, Bodies.Even if you’ve tried to game the TikTok algorithm to feed you videos from #fashiontok, #foodtok, or whatever else you might be interested in, when you open the app, you tend to be inundated with a whole lot of discourse. In many ways, it’s incredible how attuned young people are in knowing who they are and how comfortable they are having frank conversations. But in other ways, sometimes it can feel like quick-hit platforms have a tendency to deduce real issues or strip things of their meanings-whether that’s teens self-diagnosing themselves with mental illness, or people labelling musicians as “female or male manipulator artists” without ever listening to their music.

A24’s latest horror comedy Bodies Bodies Bodies (out now in theatres) about a group of 20-somethings partying during a hurricane that turns into a hunt for a killer is like a movie downloaded from the current millennial-Gen-Z cusp moment of the internet we’re in. When the trailer for the movie directed by Halina Reijn and written by Sarah DeLappe, based on a story from “Cat Person” author Kristen Roupenian, dropped earlier this year, it made that very clear. In just over a minute and a half, we hear the cast of cool girl breakouts yelling, “You’re always gaslighting me,” “you fucking trigger me,” “you’re so toxic,” and “you’re silencing me.” Even the movie’s tagline is, “This is not a safe space.”

Bodies Bodies Bodies is very much logged onto millennial/Gen Z social media-isms throughout, from lines hilariously pieced together by the Twitter zeitgeist to scenes featuring TikTok dances. The movie operates on a delectable kind of slasher-movie paranoia, making the audience just as unsure as the slumber party gone wrong with who is killing them off left and right. But given how much of a playful satire it is of contemporary youth culture, it ends up being a twist that feels all but inevitable, and couldn’t be more razor-blade sharp.

A24
A24
A24

Once the torrential downpour stops and the sun comes up, it seems as if Maria Bakalova‘s Bee is about to be our Bodies Bodies Bodies final girl, now that she’s realized how much her relationship with Sophia (Amandla Stenberg) is based on lies. As a test to see how easily Sophie can lie-and therefore deny killing all of her friends from midnight until dawn-Bee asks her if she cheated on her with Myha’la Herrold’s Jordan. It’s a fact that Bee already knows to be true, considering she came across a pair of panties in Sophie’s car that matched a bra she noticed in Jordan’s bag. When Sophie denies it, Bee tries to take her phone (which Jordan admitted would have texts about their recent hook-up on it), and the two start fighting outside in the remnants of the storm. Bee eventually pulls a phone out of the mud, and it looks like the WiFi and cell phone service that was gone all night is finally back. Thinking she’ll pull up the evidence she needs-and confirmation to get the hell out of there-she’s surprised when Sophie says, “That’s not my phone,” and even more surprised to see what’s on it.

It turns out that it belongs to David, Pete Davidson’s coked-out rich kid character whose parents’ house they’re partying at and was the first one to die in the movie. They know it’s David’s phone because it opens to a TikTok, soundtracked by the lockdown classic TikTok song “Bored In The House” by Curtis Roach and Tyga, that shows him waving around his dad’s decorative but very real sword (!) to try to open a champagne bottle (!), idiotically waving it towards himself, only to slice right into his own neck. As it turns out, nobody killed David-not an intruder, not Jordan, not Sophie, not Alice’s (Rachel Sennott) older boyfriend Greg (Lee Pace) she knew nothing about (except for the fact that he was a Libra moon), and not their friend Max (Conner O’Malley) who left early the night before. David accidentally killed himself, and hysteria is what killed everybody else. You could say that it’s almost predictable that it turns out to be a clout-chasing TikTok that led to the movie’s murderous spiral of events. Although, that would undercut what Reijn and DeLappe are trying to say with the darkly funny movie with an especially dark, funny twist. Like TikTok or Twitter, the movie is a constant feed of discourse, buzzwords, and blanket statements that snarkily laugh at and with its ensemble. There are many moments in particular that drive this home-like Alice trying to be sympathetic in talking about mental health, only to make the conversation about her, and David ridiculing his girlfriend Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) for getting all of her thoughts from Twitter after she says he “gaslights” her. On top of that, David picks up the sword and tries to go viral to begin with because his masculinity felt threatened by Greg, who did the trick in the first place.

While it would be downright terrifying if a party with people who are supposedly your best friends turned into a slasher flick, in Bodies Bodies Bodies, the horror isn’t a vengeful or heartless killer. Everybody may become a psychopath of sorts when they feel physically threatened or legitimately toxic name-calling and backstabbing ensues, but Bodies Bodies Bodies and its devilish twist is about the humour and horror in the devoid way we can use social media today more than anything else. Like Sophie and Bee’s terrified realization at the end, it makes you want to log off for awhile… right after you post a 100K-worthy tweet about it.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment associate editor at Thrillist. She’s on Twitter and Instagram.

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