The Real World premiered in 1992, and with it, seven strangers were put through an experiment that eventually became the blueprint of reality TV. Since then, the genre has gone through an evolution, where excess is celebrated, storylines are heavily produced, and branding is at the forefront of people’s minds. Back when cast member Kevin Powell arrived at the Soho loft, it was all about capturing the authenticity of seven strangers living under one roof. Now, 30 years later, original cast members Kevin, Becky, Julie, Eric, Andre, Norman, and Heather reunited at the same loft for the ultimate Homecoming experience.
This time around, the cast members were filming in the middle of COVID, with Eric quarantined in a hotel due to testing positive for COVID. The Homecoming season was an opportunity to look back at the explosive fights that occurred in the original series and a chance to address old wounds and forge new connections with each other.
Back in 1992, there was unrest from the Rodney King verdict, and now, almost the same conversation repeats itself, but under the shift of Black Lives Matter and the universal outrage over George Floyd’s death. Like in the original season, race relations are still a hot-button issue that not everyone sees eye to eye on. One of the most talked-about moments of this season was the clash between Kevin and Becky. Things came to a head when Becky refused to acknowledge her white privilege and ultimately decided to leave before filming finished.
For Powell, an accomplished writer, activist, and author, both seasons have a throughline rooted in growth. “The magic of our season, both the original and the new episodes, it shows the different forms of communication and what’s possible. There’s an evolution,” said Powell.
“What I knew [back then] was just my world — and I always hold tight to that because I’m always going to fight against racism. I’m always going to fight against any oppression. I learned that you have to continually make sure you are open to conversations and understand where other people are coming from. What I realize now, from this show, is that part of our job is to teach.”
Awards Radar spoke with Kevin Powell about returning to the Soho loft, activism, and the special bond with his old roommates.
Niki Cruz: I love that as a writer, you’ve used pop culture and music to talk about activism. The two intersect so well.
Kevin Powell: Thank you, I really appreciate it. I think you have to meet people where they are, and we love sports and entertainment. I didn’t plan it. Like a lot of folks, I just grew up as a pop culture kid, which is kind of the irony of being on a TV show. It wasn’t part of my plan, but it just worked out that way. You get to talk about big issues, which has been incredible.
NC: When you were starting out as a writer, were you primarily interested in writing about music?
KP: I wanted to be an investigative journalist like Woodward and Bernstein. I was a political science major in college — I loved politics, and I loved social issues. I was really fascinated by how these journalists took down the Nixon and Watergate scandal. I only got into pop culture because I needed more money as a freelance writer [laughs]. Someone asked if I wrote Hip Hop, and I said, “Yeah, I do,” but I didn’t, and that’s how it started.
NC: Switching to talk about The Real World. It was a coming of age for the people on it, for the viewers, and even though the medium has radically shifted, it was the blueprint for reality tv.
KP: It’s profound. It’s been really interesting with these premiere episodes because now we have the benefit of social media and emails, but we had no idea the extent of the impact of the show, especially when I meet people who were born in the late 70s, and early 80s who are younger than we are from the cast, and they say we grew up with you all. It’s humbling and shows the power of pop culture, like you said, and it really revolutionized. It’s really incredible to be a part of this history.
NC: Yeah, you guys were the science experiment, and now reality television is this heavily produced juggernaut.
KP: We did this in the 1990s when Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, and you fast forward to these new episodes, Donald Trump is leaving office, and Joe Biden is coming in, and it’s a very natural part of America and Global TV. I’m just blown away by the way things have and haven’t changed since the 1990s, and it’s been wild to experience this, and we’re grateful for the opportunity. How often do you get the opportunity to document your life twice in such a public way?
NC: When you got that call that they wanted to reunite the NY cast, were you hesitant or were you interested in going back and getting closure?
KP: We were connected and had our own text thread. One of our original directors, Rob Fox, died a few years ago, and it prompted me to start a text thread. No matter what we’re connected to each other for the rest of our lives. I said at the very least, let’s stay in touch, and we had all talked about different ideas like maybe we should do a documentary, but when this popped up, it was kind of stunning because it was in December, and we’re still in the middle of COVID. So, we wondered, what is this going to look like? And it turned out to be an incredible experience.
NC: Did you have any expectations on how walking into that loft would feel? It’s probably like visiting a college dorm.
KP: Oh my God, and I haven’t been to my college dorm since I was in college! [Laughs] I kept asking the producers, where are we going to be? Is it going to be in Manhattan again? I’m thinking Brooklyn because as you know Brooklyn has become the spot now for everything. So when we got dropped off, I said, wait a minute, we’re going to be in Soho again? No one had been in that loft since 1992. All of the memories rushed back — I remember when we first got there in the 90s. I felt like I had won a game show. All of a sudden, you’re young creatives, and you’re now living in this up-and-coming area of Soho, and we took full advantage of it, thankfully.
NC: The world is having this reckoning with race and white privilege, and it parallels with everything you were talking about in 1992.
KP: I think the beautiful thing is you can see my evolution — Julie’s revolution. Julie’s talking about raising her daughter as an activist, and I certainly approach conversations around racism and social justice issues very differently now. The sad thing is even with our own individual growth, we still have these tragic things happening in our country, and it’s not just racism; it’s sexism, homophobia, all of it. Look what Norman has had to deal with his whole life as an openly gay man. For our first season, it’s really a microcosm of our society. Here’s what’s happening, and here’s what’s possible — you have a white sister and a black sister, who have been friends for 30 years at this point. It says what’s possible.
NC: These conversations about race and white privilege usually go down with a person of color hand holding a white person through an uncomfortable space and having the burden of educating them. And we saw that pattern repeat itself in Homecoming. Were you surprised by how that convo went down with Becky?
KP: I was sad, but it’s also indicative of a lot of folks in our society. We knew we were going to be seeing clips from back in the day, but I was expecting the clip between Julie and me because that’s the most famous argument in TV history [laughs], but for whatever reason, the clip with Becky came up. I was hoping we could have a conversation. The original 13 episodes, we had screaming matches, and no one left the loft. We went through it till the very end, but this wasn’t that at all. There are people who are able to have these conversations — like Norman and me. We just wanted Becky to listen, and that’s what a lot of people of color ask for — can you be an ally? Sadly, not everyone is in the same place, and some people can’t see how privilege operates.
NC: The thing that struck me is that you were so compassionate and patient with Becky when you would be in the right to shut it down. What made you want to FaceTime her after she left?
KP: I believe in council culture, not cancel culture. Also, we do love each other — we have a bond. So, that’s why I wanted to do the FaceTime piece. I wanted to see, can we have this conversation, and I also knew how the perception of that moment was going to be. I knew she was going to come off as a “Karen.” I get why people dislike that term, I get it, but unfortunately, that is what people are labeling folks who don’t understand their privilege. I wanted to talk through it and have some peace here but that doesn’t happen if both parties aren’t listening.
NC: On the other side of that, it was nice to see you and Julie connect. The episode where you all celebrated her birthday was heartwarming.
KP: We had a ball. I had never seen a cake like that with all of that candy! We wanted to celebrate each other. When we got to the loft, we sat down and said, okay who’s birthday is coming up so we can celebrate, because it was COVID.
I did go back and watched the original 13 episodes, and people remember the arguments, but I remember Julie being the little sister. She was 19 years old, and we were older than her, and I remember the joke they played on me where I thought she lost her virginity — that was the dynamic. These were real relationships being forged…Who we were is who we were, and that remains to this day.
NC: If you could sit down with your younger self back in 1992, what would you tell him?
KP: Wow, that is a great question. I would tell him, there’s nothing wrong with anger, but there’s a difference between pro-active anger and reactionary anger. Always tell the truth and never stop fighting for justice for yourself and all people, and never forget that love is going to be the thing that changes this world. I would say, never forget, as you’re using your voice and putting forth righteous anger, which you should, that you also have a responsibility of letting people know what they can do if they’re serious about working for change.
The Real World: Homecoming is currently available to stream on Paramount+.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]