Entertainment

Danny Roberts rebukes ‘Real World’ for cutting HIV status

When Danny Roberts decided to return to reality TV after two decades to film The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans, he made it clear to the producers that he wanted to share his experience of living with HIV.

Finally, Roberts knows the importance of media visibility. During the original series of “The Real World: New Orleans” in 2000, his relationship with Paul Dill, an Army man (who appeared with his face blurred), revealed the personal cost of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” politics and became a pivotal moment in the representation of LQBTQ in pop culture.

His diagnosis was no secret either: Roberts, who learned he was HIV-positive about a decade ago, went public in 2018 and spoke about the importance of fighting the stigma that still carries the disease. While filming Homecoming late last year, he had lengthy conversations about his diagnosis and the impact it was having on his life.

As such, Roberts was disappointed when he finished watching the eight-episode revival and found that while his relationship with Dill (which ended in 2006) was much discussed, including an on-camera reunion, it was never mentioned once by him became HIV status.

“I just kept waiting, ‘Are they going to see this through to the end?’ And then I realized, ‘Wow, this is the end.’ And they absolutely nailed it,” Roberts said by phone from Vermont, where he lives with his 6-year-old daughter, as he took a break from gardening. “It feels like a huge missed opportunity.”

“So much of what I talked about after New Orleans was the nightmare of our healthcare system, the nightmare of not having access, the nightmare of cost,” he added, “and the amazing downside of the power of these drugs.” [that can prevent and treat HIV]. There was so much to unpack.”

The omission was particularly surprising given the seminal way The Real World put a human face to the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s by introducing viewers to Pedro Zamora, a charismatic young Cuban-American activist who died in 1994 He spoke openly about his health issues and even exchanged vows with his partner on the show – a first for television – before he died at the age of 22, hours after the season finale aired on MTV. His influence was enormous: As President Bill Clinton said at the time, “Now no one in America can say they never knew anyone living with AIDS.”

Bunim/Murray Productions, the company that has produced “The Real World” since it premiered in 1992, issued a statement to The Times saying it has “never shied away from sharing stories about HIV and AIDS ‘, citing Zamora as an example.

“Although Danny spoke about his HIV status during filming of ‘The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans,’ he also spoke extensively about the mental health issues he struggled with after filming the original series and how he overcame those challenges has mastered.” Statement continued. “The ‘Homecoming’ series ultimately focused on Danny’s mental health journey, which he shared publicly with all of his former housemates for the first time.”

Roberts said he was told by a producer that the storyline was cut for legal reasons, as it could involve a former partner. “Your reasoning is so silly,” he said. “I’m not buying it for a second.” (Although Bunim/Murray conducts legal reviews of its productions prior to airing, the company declined to comment on specific business and legal matters.)

Danny Roberts, Kelley Limp, Matt Smith, Melissa Howard, David Broom and Jamie Murray of "The Real World: New Orleans"

Danny Roberts, Kelley Limp, Matt Smith, Melissa Howard, David Broom and Jamie Murray from The Real World: New Orleans

(Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty)

Roberts, 44, who grew up in rural Northwest Georgia — in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district, he notes wryly — recalls the influence Zamora had on him as a youth who hadn’t yet come to terms with his own sexuality .

“At that time we all had negative, terrible prejudices about the disease. There was so much ignorance and fear about how you got it. And then you saw this guy humanizing it in so many ways. As a little boy watching, I thought, ‘This guy doesn’t agree with anything I’ve been told about gays or HIV,'” he said. “He helped me change my perception. This story should be remembered.” (He was also impressed by Norman Korpi, a gay man who appeared in the first season of The Real World.)

But Roberts said that an intense fear of HIV, which was the leading cause of death for men aged 25 to 44 in the early 1990s, “made me withdrawn and resistant to my true self throughout my adolescence.” “We were all so scared. You died, and not a nice death either – a terrible death.”

Since then, sophisticated antiretroviral therapies and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs have made treating and preventing HIV infection much easier, at least for those who have access to medical care. It has allowed a new generation to grow up without equating sex with death and disease. Roberts sees the producers’ decision to omit his HIV storyline as part of a larger issue of cultural amnesia surrounding the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

“It traumatized a generation. We’ve lost a lot of people, but now we’re in a time where medicine has progressed to the point where there’s a great forgetting,” he said. “So it’s probably easier to make a leadership decision to leave out that dark story and just not touch it, in the service of great oblivion.”

In recent years, the likes of Pose star Billy Porter and Queer Eye host Jonathan Van Ness have made their HIV status public. But TV portrayals of people living with HIV/AIDS have declined, according to GLAAD, a decline that contributes to stigma and may increase risk. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has also fueled public distrust of science, and high-profile figures like rapper Da Baby and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have provided a platform for AIDS disinformation.

“Medicine should not be politicized or feared,” Roberts said. “Thank God for that. What I’ve been through during the pandemic drives me so crazy as someone who is now living on medicine.”

Roberts believes that while the producers have expressed an interest in his HIV storyline, they “made the final decision that the Julie circus is more important to them.”

Roberts is referring to his co-star Julie Stoffer, whose erratic behavior — including falling on her face while drunk, accusing her black roommate Tokyo Broom of assault and sharing intimate photos of her husband — occupied much of the season and castmate Kelley Wolf drove to leave the show before production was complete.

Roberts isn’t exactly surprised that the revival leaned towards sensationalism rather than the social issues they once highlighted. “I think a lot of people who produce and run this industry are very attached to formulas,” he said. “They see the cast as products and lose touch with the humanity of the stories.”

Roberts auditioned for “The Real World” on a whim during an aimless time right out of college, when he was living on his ex-girlfriend’s couch and still had one foot in the closet. He saw the show as “the catalyst for me to fully show myself and the people around me,” he recalled. “I saw it as a dividing line.”

Three roommates are sitting in a living room

Melissa Beck, from left, Julie Stoffer and Danny Roberts in The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans.

(Akasha Rabut/MTV Entertainment)

It changed his life in ways he could not have foreseen, turning his relationship into Exhibit A in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” case. With an appealingly laid-back personality and the dreamy looks of a boy band member, he’s become a celebrity, gracing magazine covers and red carpets. But as he describes in “Homecoming,” that visibility meant he and Dill lived in constant fear of discovery. Roberts and Dill broke up before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was lifted, but the psychological scars of the experience still remain.

Roberts was diagnosed with HIV about a decade ago; He’s not sure of the exact date because “there’s a part of this period of my life where my memory gets shot,” he said.

He was ill for months with what he assumed was mono. He had blood drawn, which led to the discovery that he was HIV positive. With medication, his health improved rapidly. Roberts’ viral load has been undetectable for years thanks to a daily regimen of a single Advil-sized pill.

But it took him longer — at least two years — to come to terms with the complex mix of grief and shame that came with the diagnosis.

“There’s still so much crazy stigma, which is bizarre because so much of it is from the ’90s. Much of this is unconscious, especially in the gay community. Raising awareness of this stigma was also very important to me. When you talk to someone who’s been diagnosed, they go through a period of mourning,” he said. “A big part of my own journey has been realizing, ‘Wow, this bias runs very deep inside me.’ It was like a second coming out process, processing the shame, accepting it, and coming out the other side.”

Roberts works in tech and is “well taken care of,” but is aware of the barriers to care faced by many of the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. “The scariest part is knowing that you are now forever a slave to our medical system,” he said.

Despite his frustration with “Homecoming,” Roberts is grateful for the love he’s received from viewers, and most importantly for the chance to reconnect with his roommates and discuss life in reality TV together after many years. bubble thinking. d lost contact and shared their memories.

“We all just badly needed it for our own well-being,” he said. “We are the only people who understood this experience.”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2022-07-01/danny-roberts-hiv-positive-the-real-world-homecoming-new-orleans Danny Roberts rebukes ‘Real World’ for cutting HIV status

Sarah Ridley

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