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'Real World' star Danny Roberts struggled with the spotlight 22 years ago. Here's why he returned

The "Real World" star opens up to TODAY on revisiting his past traumas in the reunion reboot on Paramount+.
The Real World Reunion Tour
Danny Roberts during The Real World Reunion Tour at Beacon Theatre in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by J. Vespa/WireImage)J. Vespa / WireImage
/ Source: TODAY

On the red carpet at the GLAAD Media Awards in New York City this past May, TODAY asked a bevy of LGBTQ celebs: who was their first queer crush? Numerous stars had one person in common: Danny Roberts from "The Real World: New Orleans."

Roberts became a reality television star before social media really existed, so the game was different then. In a time when the only famous Kardashian was a lawyer for O.J. Simpson and the moniker Snooki was meaningless, the genre was much different than it is today. The internet obviously has contributed to that, but also the formats and the intent of the subjects who go on is enormously different then what it was decades ago.

In 2000, Roberts appeared on the ninth season of “The Real World” set in New Orleans. It made waves on the airwaves at the time, mostly for its representation of gay issues with Roberts' inclusion. An out, boy-next-door jock type, Roberts was redefining what it meant to be gay, and especially, what it meant to be gay on television.

A major piece of Roberts' storyline involved him dating someone who was enlisted in an elite unit of the military. At the time, it was still illegal to be openly out and in service. His boyfriend, Paul, was featured, but his identity was concealed behind a messy collage of granulated pixels. It still wasn’t safe for someone like him to be out. Even though Roberts wasn't the one in the closet, he ended up becoming a poster boy for the controversial mandate, and the ripple effects of its damage.

The 27th Annual People's Choice Awards
Danny Roberts, Kelley Limp, Matt Smith, Melissa Howard, David Broom and Jamie Murray of "Real World New Orleans" in 2000.Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection via Getty

“It was actually pretty dangerous to do what we were doing at the time,” Roberts told TODAY via Zoom. “When taping ended, and the show aired, that fact didn’t (end). When I went off into my regular life, it was still very much the same policy: Don’t ask, don’t tell. There were a lot of eyes on Paul, a lot of friction, a lot of stress in our life that went on for years. It made a massive impact in my personal life and there was a huge cost to doing that. So as time went on and I did regain my sense of privacy and my sense of self, I held on to that dearly.”

That sense of privacy made Roberts weary of joining “The Real World Homecoming,” a reboot of the original series that reunites casts of the trailblazing reality show back together, streaming on Paramount+. 

“My first knee-jerk reaction when they asked me 22 years later, it was a bit of disbelief,” he said. “No way. No thanks. I worked hard to build privacy of my life and put my life together and I wasn’t too interested in shaking things up.”

Roberts made sure to have conversations with producers about the quality of stories that he and the other cast members wanted to create. According to him, the cast was pretty much all on board (except for one person) that they weren’t there to create what people think of as reality television today. The cast was focused on taking viewers back to a nostalgic time and what “The Real World” originally was; focusing on "social justice issues, interpersonal topics and personal growth."

“Those sorts of things that are just important in any human life,” Roberts said. 

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The cast of "The Real World: New Orleans" today.Akasha Rabut / MTV ENTERTAINMENT

Ultimately, Roberts says the cast— whom he didn’t stay in touch with over the last two decades — and production came to a solid agreement but still, Roberts had very specific anecdotes he wanted to share personally about his life.

He wanted to tell his story on his own terms this time.

“One of these was the story of 'don’t ask, don’t tell' and what that actually really did to my life,” he said. “What those sorts of rules do to just people’s lives in general. I wanted to tackle mental health, that was a big part of the show in general, across many people’s storylines. The other one for me, I was very intent on talking about religion and people’s lives and how that impacts many people negatively.”

Producers also convinced Roberts to revisit his romance with Paul. In the years after “The Real World,” the couple stayed together and Paul disclosed his identity in a MTV news special in 2003. A few years later the couple ended things, and Roberts paints their conclusion, that involved Paul cheating on him with a close friend, as "really ugly."

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"That was groundbreaking at the time, being out was groundbreaking and dangerous. People forget that today because the world has changed in so many amazing ways, but it would be incredible to see just the franchise get recognized for that impact.”Akasha Rabut / MTV ENTERTAINMENT

“We hadn’t spoken in 15 years. Actually, we had a really bad ending," Roberts explained. “He did come to visit. It was the first time we had seen each other face to face in at least 15 years.”

That emotional reunion was featured on "Homecoming," as the cast’s reunion with housemate Julia, who had damaged relationships with almost everyone in the group after the initial series. In spite of everyone being older and seemingly more self-aware, drama still ensues right out of the gate when old wounds are re-opened. Difficult conversations follow next, and this contrast of difference and focus on uncomfortable dialogue is a needed return to form, according to Roberts.

“That’s why this this particular ‘Homecoming,’ going back to revisit this documentary style show is really interesting to people,” Roberts said. “It does take people back to that place that they haven’t seen in a while. On one hand, there’s been a lot of amazing progress where yes, there is so much more representation now, but it does seem to be highly siloed like everything in media, arts, etc. Today, everything is highly targeted and highly specific, but we’re reaching a point where it would be incredibly useful to see worlds starting to collide again as they do in in real life.”

'She’s my boss'

One major update in Roberts’ life since the last time he was on television two decades ago: He’s a proud dad to his 6-year-old daughter, Naiya.

"I was never someone that was seeking to be a parent in my life," he said. "That was definitely not one of my top goals in life, but I was always open to it with the right opportunity. I was always only open to adoption, though. From when I was young I had a very strong stance about procreation and adding any more humans to this planet."

Roberts co-parents Naiya with an ex-partner (not Paul). “We lucked out," he said. "She’s just this incredible kid that people think is actually my genetic offspring, but she's not. We’re just so much alike in many ways, good and bad. She cracks the whip on me. She's my boss.”

On whether or not she's aware her dad is on TV, Roberts says sort of.

"We’ve just gotten past her understanding that she’s adopted and she’s super proud of it," he shared. "She’s incredibly proud of having two dads and loves telling everyone she meets which is super cute. Now, the show part is a whole new chapter so one thing at a time. But I did show her one episode and her head exploded. She asked me, 'Why am I in a movie?'”

And the winner is ...

This season of "The Real World Homecoming” is up for an Emmy award in the unstructured reality program category, and despite the franchise being the blueprint for reality TV, it’s never won or even been nominated.

“It’s strange that 'The Real World' was the show that started the genre reality television. It was the original and it became so ubiquitous. People forget that. The show made a major impact in our society and ways that many young people today aren’t aware of," Roberts said.

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Danny Roberts today.Akasha Rabut / MTV ENTERTAINMENT

This season of "Homecoming" not only focuses on that impact the series made on the genre, but also the personal impact it made on the seven housemates, especially Roberts. He reflects on the way his story influenced progress, also while detailing the trauma and PTSD that being in the spotlight had him on when he was still growing up.

“Widespread LGBT acceptance, much of it came from 'The Real World' and I don’t mean just my season but seeing season after season showing real life, LGBT people," he said. "That was groundbreaking at the time, being out was groundbreaking and dangerous. People forget that today because the world has changed in so many amazing ways, but it would be incredible to see just the franchise get recognized for that impact.”

“It’s needed more now than ever because clouds are gathering. The progress we’ve made in the past 20 or so years that has been made is major," he said. "All of that is under threat now and no one should be taking any of that progress for granted now.”