IRONWOOD, Mich. — Norman Korpi and the six other former strangers picked to live together in 1992 — an MTV experiment to find out what happens when people "stop being polite and start getting real" — returned to the same 6,000-square-foot space on Broadway on Jan. 6, the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol building.
The news was a fitting icebreaker for the original cast of “The Real World,” the first season’s roommates known for being candid about topics like class, race, sexuality and politics.
“We were on fire when we came in through the door. Kevin was, like, ‘Are you watching the news? Someone was shot at the Capitol,’” Korpi recalled recently at his family’s bakery in Ironwood, Mich., where the artist-reality show pioneer-entrepreneur was, just 20 minutes earlier, popping a tray of pasties into an old-school oven.
Korpi’s move from Los Angeles back home to the Upper Peninsula got an episode-worth of attention during “The Real World Homecoming: New York,” a six-part reunion that reconnected him with the crew he lived with for three months: Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather "Heather B." Gardner, Julie Gentry and Kevin Powell. Eric Nies tested positive for COVID-19 before they began filming and was beamed into the loft via video from his nearby hotel room.
The series, available for streaming on Paramount+, offers a look at where each of the cast members has landed, and revisits the heated conversations that sometimes spilled from the living room, to the sidewalk, to the restaurant tables — much of it centered on race and privilege.
When the roommates first connected in 1992, the four police officers charged with using excessive force against Rodney King — and caught on video — were acquitted, leading to a historic uprising in Los Angeles.
“And here we are filming the show now in the middle of Black Lives Matter, after what happened to people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” Powell told The Root in a recent interview.
And then, on move-in day, another historic moment.
“We were all jolted in,” Korpi said of the Capitol riot. “We couldn’t believe what was happening.”
In 1992, Korpi and his castmates were a mix of early-career artists, curated with a John Hughes-ian eye: a dancer from Alabama who assumes that a Black woman with a beeper is a drug dealer; a cool indie singer dressed in black; a long-haired rocker with a gig on Staten Island; a hip-hop artist with an eye for fun; an activist-poet bent on teaching his roommates about race; a model who, early in the season, goes on television to defend his sexy ad campaigns.
The cast spent 13 weeks living in SoHo at 565 Broadway, a five-bedroom loft built in 1859, recently owned by Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, Edwina Sandys, though reportedly it was recently sold for $4 million, a “tragic-low price,” according to the New York Post.
They were paid $100 per episode, according to Korpi, and the success of the show came as a surprise to its creators.
“We built dialogue that no one could think of; we built storylines that no one could think of,” he said. “The show became so successful, it caught them off-guard. You then see a trajectory of gay and lesbian stories, along with many people’s stories, over many series — once they realized what they had. They realized you could actually provide the location and the lubrication, and these people would be the other ingredient.”
The series offered Powell's reminders to his roommates that America was a different place for a Black man. It showed Gentry visiting a homeless camp and Nies' probation-ordered community service. While Korpi's trips to drag shows didn't make the cut, he is shown with rainbow flags and in an intimate moment with another man.
In a recent article in Time magazine, Judy Berman imagines a world where reality television would have remained thoughtful and engaged instead of being a showcase for people who wanted to be famous for being famous.
“But maybe the past 29 years of American life would have played out differently if the emergent reality-TV genre had emulated the most redeeming parts of early ‘Real World’ seasons — blunt conversations between real people about pressing social issues, engagement with politics in story lines that confronted everything from homelessness to reproductive-rights activism to the ’92 election — rather than the tawdry ones,” she writes.
Korpi was in his mid-20s, an artist in New York City with a production company named for his dog, Gouda. He was living in a warehouse in Brooklyn where artists rotated in and out as they completed their schooling.
The spot was listed as a film location — Guns N' Roses made a video there — and “The Real World” producers toured it. They didn’t want the space for its brand new series, but they did want Korpi.
He is shown onscreen as lean with pretty eyes, playful and funny. Approachable and a little geeky. His iconic moments include a bubble bath with Blasband and roller skating with his roomies.
He was a queer pioneer — the first openly gay man on reality television.
“Norman didn’t really come out and say … ‘I’m bisexual, how do you feel about that? Gather around, we’re going to discuss my sexuality,’” Gentry said in 1992. “It just sort of surfaced, and it’s great getting to be around him.”
But while he was breaking barriers in living rooms, getting to that space hadn’t been easy. Twenty-nine years later, he told his old roommates about how he was targeted in high school and would have killed himself if he hadn’t transferred to a different school.
He didn’t have a concrete sense of what the finished product of "The Real World" would look like — the producers were envisioning something to butt up against “90210” — but he knew there was a power to it.
“I knew for just myself that being part of a show that was going to have an openly gay person on the show was going to make huge noise,” he said. “The gay guy is hanging out with the cool Black girl. It’s not a shun-y thing, let’s not keep calling him nasty names and beating him up, like my experience when I was in high school.”
He'd been heard. After the show ended, the cast discovered a hallway full of fan mail. Korpi recalled lugging out boxes' worth and reading words from people drawn to his story.
“I would get these very passionate (letters),” he said. “I could see there was no outreach for gay people. I became, literally, the Gay and Lesbian Center of the United States — or pretty much the world.”
When the SoHo loft went up for sale, "The Real World Homecoming" producers took the opportunity to revisit the space, according to Korpi, which is why the show is airing 29 years later rather than after 30 years, a more marketable milestone.
It’s those blunt conversations of yesteryear that drew Korpi back together with his old friends, especially Powell, who was teaching his roommates about inequities he had experienced.
“I think it was important to go back and revisit Kevin’s story,” he said. “After seeing his story played out, there was always something where I felt like he got this weird public scarlet letter.
“What he was saying back then really made sense.”
And, when the original series became available again for streaming, Korpi felt like he still had things to say, too. He wasn't sure new audiences were realizing the significance of what the original cast was able to do. He had told himself that if he had the chance to revisit the conversations, he would take it.
"Or I was going to have to do a damn book," he said. "This saved me from having to do a damn book."
A weird April Fools' joke
In 2019, HGTV took the Studio City, California, home that served as the exterior for “The Brady Bunch” and reconstructed the floor plan, design, the teeter-totter in the yard, to look like it did when the show originally aired in the early 1970s. Interior scenes, at the time, were filmed at a studio and not at 11222 Dilling St.
“It was so interesting to watch,” Korpi said. “I would literally cry. Here is the remaining cast of the show, them slowly opening a door to see how it worked in this actual house.”
He described the experience of walking into that SoHo loft on Jan. 6, 2021, as a similar feeling. It was a space he didn’t imagine he would be in again.
“We go in, and the sound of the room, the smell of the room, the marble floor … and then hearing the cast and the crew,” he said. “It would trip me up. It was almost like I was on ‘Fantasy Island.’ It was like a weird April Fools’ joke in a way. It would take so much money to reconstruct something from your past and then put people from your past in that place — I don’t know if anyone is ever going to get an experience like that in life. I can’t quantify what it was like.”
The first episode acts like a traditional reunion — hugs, snagging sleeping spaces, conversations and drinks from Gardner’s portable bar. By the second episode, there is one of the show’s signature conflicts.
Blasband sparred with Powell in a conversation about race, and Korpi tried reminding the former what this would look like on TV before dropping a “shut up” to his old friend.
Ultimately, Blasband left the loft and stopped filming. She wouldn't return messages to any of the cast members aside from Gentry, even shutting out Korpi, whom she was probably closest to.
Months later, Korpi said they remain friends, but he’s trying to reframe his comment to her.
“‘Shut up’ is the new ‘Thank you,’” he said. He’s envisioning it with the "up" in capital letters — like in "UP."
Back in Michigan
After the original series aired, Korpi stayed in the MTV world for a bit. He has been part of two seasons of challenges — in which the show’s former stars return to compete in physical competitions. He has had meet-ups with others from the series, including creating the mockumentary “The Wedding Video” with other “Real World”ers such as Heather B., Cory Murphy, and his friends, Sean Duffy and wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy.
He created the Aero Tray, an adjustable laptop holder that drew coos from his roommates when he showed it off during the reunion.
When the pandemic hit the United States, Korpi’s financial resources dried up, he explained on Episode 4 of “The Real World Homecoming.” His roommates responded by rallying: a group outing to the art supply store, a push toward a social media presence. Comeau plays guitar while Korpi sits at a kitchen table creating images of chocolate bunnies on recycled paper bags.
Meanwhile, Korpi, who is frequently seen on the new episodes wearing a shirt designed with the outline of the Upper Peninsula, moved back home and was offered a job at the bakery where he is surrounded by family and seemingly passionate about the shop's pizza: the homemade dough that can be frozen and maintain its integrity when reheated, the cup-style pepperonis, the Italian sausage, the cheese.
Recently, he had received his first piece of fan mail sent to the bakery: a manila envelope with a Beverly Hills, Calif., return address. He just bought a house around the corner for $25,000, he said. He spends his mornings working and his nights at home painting.
Rigoni’s is a popular drop-in spot for Ironwood locals, who filled the tables during a recent lunch hour, and a destination bakery for travelers to the Upper Peninsula. It’s known for its pasties, cream-filled donuts and, if Korpi has his way, pizzas.
It’s owned by Korpi’s uncle and aunt, Robert and Paula Rigoni, who bought it in 1972 and continue to have family working behind the scenes — and dropping in for lunch.
“One of my cousins is coming in over there” — Korpi had been talking about the tendency to revert to a former self in a reunion scenario, but was distracted by a relative crossing Suffolk Street. “Hey, Gary.”
Enter Gary Jackson, a photographer who captures brilliant sunrises, snow-painted trees against brilliant blue skies, the sun moving from dark trees through a daub of orange. He regularly submits images to WDIO-TV.
Jackson isn’t actually Korpi’s cousin, but they are related.
“This is the best pizza, I swear to god,” Jackson said after Korpi offered him a piece. He declined. He was meeting a friend for pasties.