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Entering ‘The Real World’ in Austin

More than 35 cameras greet the new roommates
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jim Johnston, supervising producer of the 16th season of “The Real World,” is swaggering back and forth like a rancher directing his hands to cover the herd, calling out commands on a walkie-talkie to three camera crews.

It’s move-in day for the MTV show, the day when seven attractive strangers begin living their lives in front of cameras and, starting 10 p.m. ET Tuesday, the world.

Confronting Johnston is a wall of video monitors, each beaming images of the latest reality TV homestead to a behind-the-scenes enclave a few feet away. “The Real World” control room is more makeshift than typical TV stations — and definitely more voyeuristic.

There’s one camera pointed at each bed, two facing the dual-head showers in the bathrooms and 35 others in various nooks and crannies. There’s even an underwater camera in an indoor pool in the living room.

‘This is a documentary’It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: There’s nothing real about “The Real World,” the granddaddy of all reality TV shows.

Three larger monitors, reserved for images captured by free-roaming camera operators, are blank. They’re too far to transmit to the control room. Somewhere in downtown Austin seven 19-to-24-year olds have been strategically placed in interesting locales, waiting to be picked up and plopped down in the warehouse-turned-reality show set on the corner of San Jacinto Boulevard and East 3rd Street.

“This is a documentary,” Johnston insists to The Associated Press between directing the crews. “This is the only time we tell them what to do.”

Timing is everything for the seven strangers’ first “look-at-this-place!” moments inside the neon-laden palatial pad, which includes a 20-foot fluorescent cowboy named Big Tex. A trolley that picked up the first two cast members in front of the state Capitol has been driving around downtown for nearly two hours. Johnston is stalling while frantic crew members spray the living room’s home-on-the-range neon sculpture with some sort of chemical that Johnston hopes will take the edge off the neon light’s on-camera harshness.

Eventually, the crew clear out of the house. For several minutes, the once vibrant monitors are now eerily devoid of human life. Johnston isn’t totally satisfied with the spray’s results, but there’s nothing more that can be done.

Squeals of delight
He gives the signal for the trolley to release Rachel, 21, a loudmouth U.S. Army nurse from Philadelphia who once served in Iraq, and Nehemiah, 19, an intense college student from Mesa, Ariz. On the larger monitors in the control room, the pair’s image fuzzes into existence as they bounce to the front door.

“It’ll take them a minute,” Johnston, who also worked on “Real World” season No. 6 in Boston, knowingly warns. “They’ll fumble with the keys.”

He’s right. They do.

Both take flight once they enter the warehouse’s expanse.

Rachel squeals. She immediately begins critiquing the place as if she’s one of the “Queer Eye” guys, but her review mostly consists of the words “cute” and “good.”

Nehemiah is quieter, more in awe.

Although the warehouse is more than 20,000 square feet, the cast will live in only about 8,000 square feet of that while the production staff operate in the remaining space.

Rachel and Nehemiah completely overlook the indoor pool, the costly and cumbersome house feature that interior designer Joel Mozersky was buzzing about the day before. Instead, the duo focus on the seven pairs of boots and cowboy hats placed on the side of the pool, a “gift” from Mozersky, who hand-picked each of the duds although he’s never met the roomies. Rachel is miffed the “cutest” pair of boots isn’t her size.

Mozersky created the oh-so-fabulous abode for the cast to inhabit during their four-month stay in just six weeks, but series co-creator and executive producer Jonathan Murray has spent 13 years building and perfecting a giant invisible fourth wall — called “the line” — between cast and crew. Only certain crew members are allowed to speak to the cast. After 16 “Real World” seasons, 13 seasons of spinoff “Road Rules” and 10 seasons of “Real World/Road Rules” challenges, Murray’s Bunim-Murray Productions — founded with late partner Mary-Ellis Bunim — has reality TV down to a science.

Back in the house, Rachel and Nehemiah find the stable-themed bathrooms, which features a trough sink, swinging saloon-style shower doors and three commodes, only separated from the outside world by see-through doors.

Everything but ‘liquor and coffee’Rachel says she “can’t believe” the roomies will have to use the toilet in front of each other, although her actual word choice probably wouldn’t make it past MTV censors. Neither realize the bathroom doors are actually made of glass that turns opaque at the flip of a switch. Rachel moves to the bar, next to a plastic-encased patio whose sole purpose is to house one gigantic hot tub. The bar is not stocked. The fridge has all the fixings except coffee.

“How did they put everything in this house except liquor and coffee?” she screams.

Despite the myth reality TV cast members are liquored-up by producers, no booze was provided to these “Real World”-ers, although drinking hardly seems discouraged. On top of the bar is a chess set composed of shot glasses instead of royal pieces. And the house is only three blocks from Sixth Street, Austin’s nightlife mecca lined with 30-plus bars.

All this booze and coffee talk makes Rachel have to go. Bad.

She instructs Nehemiah to go at the same time, and he complies. They enter separate bathrooms; neither flips the fog switch. She sits. He stands. The cameras don’t miss a drop, even their microphones crisply capture the sound of trickling.

The small group of control room inhabitants laugh so hard that a producer shushes them, reminding those watching that the door separating backstage from “the house” has not yet been soundproofed.

Eventually, Wes, 20, a blond jock from Kansas City, Kan.; Johanna, 21, a sassy Peruvian-born student from Riverside, Calif.; and Lacey, 24, a shy stylist from Tallahassee, Fla., plow through the front door.

Rachel immediately whips the trio with questions — Where are you from? Are you single? Are you Jewish? — as the three quietly take in their surroundings. She drags the new arrivals to see the see-through doors. Lacey notes the switch that turns them opaque.

Rachel complains there’s no liquor. So Wes presents a flask of vodka to the group, later insisting he doesn’t go anywhere without it. He takes a swig while Rachel pours orange juice to concoct screwdrivers.

The final two roommates — Danny, a sensitive 21-year-old from Billerica, Mass., and Melinda, 21, a wild child from Germantown, Wis. — pull up in a yellow taxi. When they enter, one of the roommates comments that they “look like brother and sister.”

Roommates get personalNow that all seven are here, they each begin a series of personal disclosures. It’s fast and curious. Johanna says she doesn’t like people who sleep with the fan on. When asked what he does, Wes proclaims, “I don’t do anything but party.”

They quickly get bored with the group discussion and split into smaller groups.

Away from the others, Rachel and Melinda decide to share a room. Danny tells the others, “Let’s get some alcohol.” In the control room, a producer responds with an optimistic and slightly sleazy “Perfect!”

Johanna calls a director from a wall-mounted phone — nicknamed the Batphone — which is discreetly hidden in a hallway. The control room goes silent. With the tone of a guest calling the hotel concierge, she asks where she and her six new best friends can find a liquor store. The director tells Johanna he thinks they should “go explore.” Every time the cast want to leave the house, they must use the phone to prepare production staff.

“Look at the phone book and give us 10 minutes,” the director says.

Wearing their cowboy hats, the seven strangers enter the confessional room, the domain where producers have instructed them to reveal their inner thoughts to a small camera mounted across from a chair bolted onto the floor at least once a week. The group mumbles something about being the best “Real World” cast ever. Then all seven stampede out the front door in search of the closest liquor store. Both the house and the control room fall silent.

“I’m surprised they didn’t mention the pool,” says Johnston when asked about his first impression. “I’d love to have a pool in my house.”