Danny Roberts on ‘The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans’ and Why Revisiting His Relationship With Paul ‘Needed to Happen’

·12-min read

There are few alumni of MTV’s “The Real World” who have had as lasting a legacy as Danny Roberts. When the Georgia native stepped into the house for 2000’s “The Real World: New Orleans,” he was a strikingly handsome 22-year-old college graduate who was, at that point, still one of the few openly gay people on television. That would’ve been enough to make Danny famous, but his ongoing relationship with Paul Dill — a U.S. Army captain during the era of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy — made Danny a sensation. To protect Paul’s identity, “Real World” producers agreed to blur his appearance, which added to the intensity of their relationship and made the couple overnight poster boys for the LGBTQ rights movement.

Today, however, Danny lives in seclusion in a remote cabin in Vermont. Other than regular posts to his Instagram account, including of his six-year-old daughter, he has largely avoided the spotlight, especially after his relationship with Paul ended badly in the 2000s. But last fall, he agreed to join his other castmates — Kelley Wolf (née Limp), Melissa Beck (née Howard), Julie Stoffer, David Broom, Matt Smith and Jamie Murray — to shoot “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans,” the third in the ongoing Paramount+ series reuniting the casts of “The Real World.”

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For roughly two weeks, the seven former strangers — most of whom fell out of touch with one another after the show — lived together again in a New Orleans mansion. Through a series of edited vignettes from the original series they watched together on the house television, the cast reassessed old memories, grievances, and relationships — especially the one between Danny and Paul.

But as Danny explained in a Zoom interview with Variety, his time with Paul was not something he was eager to revisit, at least at first. He talked about why he was hesitant to return to the show, one of his biggest regrets — and why he was ultimately glad to look back at his old relationship.

How were you approached about doing this reunion? What was the pitch to you?

Hmm. Was there a pitch? I don’t recall it. Jon Murray emailed me last spring to gauge my interest, just because I think he thought I was probably the least likely one to do it. I don’t know if he’s correct, but maybe. He asked me how I would feel about it, and then I needed a lot of time to talk to Melissa about it, particularly, before agreeing to do it.

What did you need to talk out?

Adam, this is a loaded question for the afternoon. Listen, doing reality television back then was a really amazing experience, but also added layers of complication to our lives. And I think, you know, we all worked really hard as adults to move on to our independent lives. And we were pretty much all to that place, you know? Most of us have children, families, this whole other life. And, you know, it’s just not on your radar at this stage of life, to revisit something like this.

Had you watched the other two “Real World” reunions?

No. I saw one episode of the New York one, because I’m a fan of New York — who does not love Heather B.? But I purposely didn’t watch. I also wasn’t super interested. I was a huge fan of the New York one, but I never really watched the L.A. one to begin with.

Were were other people in your life — or total strangers! — asking if you were going to do a reunion?

Yes. From basically the point of the New York one coming out, a lot of people had been asking about that. But I think like most people, we all assumed that it would be in sequence, and that the chances of what was actually Season 9 happening, that didn’t seem reasonable to me.

I’ve seen the first two episodes, and you talk a lot in them about how much you’re a natural introvert and being on the show ended up giving you Complex PTSD. So what fully convinced you to decide to return?

It wasn’t any one thing. It was a constellation of different factors. Part of it is, you know, being an older, wiser adult and having been on a journey of understanding the past, having the language and the frameworks to understand the past. Looking at the past as a parent, I think, is a big part of it, you know, reframing your life experiences as a child. That journey I’ve been on wasn’t just from that television experience, it was the totality of the first 21 years of my life, where I grew up. Seeing life through the lens of being a parent, knowing how children develop and are impacted by things in life, I think that is a key part of that story.

So, in Episode 2, there’s a segment when you all sit down and you watch a recap of your relationship with Paul. And at the end of it, they unblurred his face. I got the impression that you had no idea that that kind of thing was coming.

You mean, in this season? OK, so, I haven’t seen it, so that’s news to me. That’s weird. I mean, that’s interesting. But years ago, we did an MTV News special. It was an hour long about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And that’s where he actually really revealed his face. So I don’t know if you’re saying that they’re implying this time that they’re revealing his identity for the first time?

No, no, it’s when you’re sitting down together with all the other castmates and you’re all watching the TV as it plays a recap of your time with Paul.

Oh! I see. Yes. You’re talking about the couch of doom.

Wait, who called it the couch of doom? How did it get that name?

I’m not sure who first coined the term, but it became widely adopted immediately. It was the couch of doom. But OK, yes, now I understand what you’re pointing to. And yes, the truth is there it’s a little more complex than may have appeared. I actually did not want to revisit that. It’s chapter in my life I had closed. Production really wanted me to go there, but I’m actually thankful they did. It was a nice closure. It was meaningful. And it needed to happen. But yeah, the story there is a little bit more complex than maybe what you saw. Not to ruin the magic.

Well, the feeling I got from watching you during that segment was that the experience of coming back to the show and revising your time with Paul was bringing up feelings for you that were, as you were saying, very complicated.

Yeah, doing this was therapy bootcamp. And honestly, kind of a magic that we all dream of in life, where you get to go back and revisit moments and think of it or relive it in a different way that time. You know, I think we all as humans think that way, often: If I could go back to that time in life, what I would say to that person, or how would I think of this differently? And it was a real life gift to actually get to do that. Most of us haven’t spoken to each other in 20, 21 years. But there were very impactful moments in our lives, and I think in many people’s lives, that season. I think what people loved about that season is it’s a touchstone of the end of an era, maybe of a slightly different, more innocent America, before you know, the internet, social media, warzones, terror, and all the things we’ve been through since — pandemics, etc. — that have changed the world so much. The world was a simpler place at that point, and I think the season takes people back there.

Also in Episode 2, most of the cast goes to a drag bar, and there’s a moment when a gay guy comes up to you, and basically says how important you were to him. And you fall into him in this big hug. What do you remember about that?

Well, I’m a hugger. I give everybody hugs, and I think everybody needs more hugs. But especially when somebody shares something like that, that is very meaningful, it’s touching. It gives purpose to this life. I guess the first thing I want to do is hug those people. I think most any of us who have lived their life as a gay man or lesbian or whatever the story, we all know it’s a difficult journey, and it never comes entirely easy. And I think we all need to remember that about each other and give each other more hugs. And that’s what I try to do.

How often are people people approaching you like that in public when there aren’t cameras around?

Well, you would assume I’m in public often. You may recall that I’m a recluse in a cabin in Vermont! I’m not in public very much, and when I am, I’m around 70-year-old hippies. I haven’t had cable since — never. And that’s the dead truth. I mean, it happens from time to time. Honestly, Melissa and I were talking about this earlier. Because the show was released around the globe at different times over maybe a 10-year period or something extreme, it’s actually people in different countries that this happens with more nowadays. It’s fresher to them. It’s more meaningful. We’re talking about people, a lot of gay men, who are still in countries where being gay is not allowed whatsoever still. It’s those people I hear from the most now.

How much does your daughter understand this part of your life?

It’s funny. She’s only six. So all of this is very abstract to her. And she’s never ever known before that I’ve had any sort of television experience. It’s never been talked about. I don’t even know if she has the framework to understand it. But now seeing these new trailers for this experience, I’m starting to let her watch them. She is so tripped out and doesn’t know what to make of it. She asked me the other day, “What are you doing in a movie?”

There was a period of time in the early 2000s when it is no hyperbole to say you were the most famous gay man in the country for a certain generation of LGBT people, to which I belong. How much did your other castmates grasp just how pervasive and huge that became for you?

I don’t think they knew at all. We had all gone our separate ways so immediately, we had absolutely no understanding of each other’s lives. Melissa and Kelley were the only ones I kept in touch through these years. And for big chunks of time, even we weren’t in touch with each other. So it’s no surprise to me that they wouldn’t understand. I don’t understand what happened to them, either. I don’t even think a lot of people in my close life understand either. I don’t think my own family understands. I don’t think I understood for a long time. I was, you know, a 22-year-old kid trying to act like I had everything under control. But I had absolutely no clue what was going on, in many ways. I mean, I did — I wasn’t a fool or an idiot. But I was very naive to a lot of what was happening, and I didn’t have the inner confidence to be prepared for it.

It’s been roughly six months since you shot the reunion. How are you feeling now about revisiting this experience from half a lifetime ago?

It’s been a gift. It is something I would have never imagined. Actually, the thought of this now, even having already done it, is still a little surreal. I don’t think I believed everyone would do it from the start — until it was done, wrapped, I don’t think I believed that was actually going to happen. But I’m very thankful for it. With everything that’s gone down in the past few years, I think our culture has taken a hard pivot backwards in a lot of ways. The world’s crazy and upside down. I think everybody’s hungry to look back at that nice, innocent period where things made a little more sense, even though, maybe they didn’t really. But it’s nice for us to go back to a period of time where at least we had ourselves believing we had it under control.

Well, Danny, thank you for talking with me. I have to say, you are the reason that I had a soul patch for my early 20s.

And I apologize for that. That was a plague I regret starting.

Well, it was a good signifier for the time.

It was! You know what, it was not original. I picked it up coming to L.A. my first time, for this. It was like, oh, that’s different. And maybe should have remained that way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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