‘The Actual World’: Julie Gentry says she was ‘naive’ on race

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In December 1991, Julie Gentry was driving residence for Christmas break after a semester of school. She had simply reached town limits of Birmingham, Ala. and was flipping over a cassette tape within the automotive stereo when she heard an advert on the radio saying a casting name for a brand new MTV sequence.

Gentry, then an aspiring dancer a number of weeks shy of her nineteenth birthday, confirmed up the following day and pitched herself as a unique sort of Southerner than folks had been used to seeing on TV. She even confirmed off her clogging abilities.

“It actually made an impression,” says Gentry.

Apparently so. Gentry (née Oliver) was solid within the inaugural season of “The Actual World,” which as anybody over 35 can readily recite, instructed “the true story of seven strangers picked to dwell in a loft and have their lives taped.”

The groundbreaking actuality sequence altered the course of tv historical past and, arguably, American politics, by proving that unscripted programming might make for gripping and profitable leisure with a profound cultural impression.

And Gentry’s spur-of-the-moment determination would flip her into one of many earliest examples of a now-ubiquitous breed of superstar — the truth star — effectively earlier than there was a roadmap for one of these fame.

Julie (née Oliver) Gentry in a black turtleneck and dangly earrings.

Julie (née Oliver) Gentry in 1992, when she was a solid member on Season 1 of “The Actual World” on MTV.

(MTV)

After practically 30 years, Gentry has reunited together with her solid mates in “The Actual World Homecoming: New York,” a six-episode sequence for the newly launched Paramount+ streaming service. For a lot of nostalgic Gen X-ers, the information is as thrilling as a “Pals” reunion, and “Julie from Alabama” is their Rachel Inexperienced.

Gentry by no means anticipated any of it.

Her motivation for taking part within the unique sequence — pitched merely as a documentary about younger artists — was modest: “Any individual is gonna pay to maneuver me to New York? I get three months of free hire? That is actually understanding!” Gentry remembers pondering.

She is talking through video name from her residence close to Birmingham, which she shares together with her husband, Joshua, a restaurateur, and two youngsters. Now 48, she appears hardly any totally different than she did at 19, although she has traded the pleated Hole khakis for streamlined denim.

Gentry might need had low expectations going into “The Actual World,” however she grew to become the de facto protagonist of the primary season: The pilot episode follows her as she travels from Alabama, arrives on the Soho loft and meets her roommates, who embody a mannequin, a poet, a rapper, a painter and two musicians.

Jonathan Murray, who created “The Actual World” with Mary-Ellis Bunim, noticed Gentry — the youngest within the loft and the one one new to town — as “the stand-in for all these youngsters who’re watching the present all around the nation.”

“While you’re telling a narrative, you wish to enter the world via somebody’s eyes who hasn’t seen the world earlier than,” says Murray, who was impressed by the PBS docuseries “An American Household,” Michael Apted’s “Up” movies and youth-oriented nighttime soaps like “Beverly Hills 90210.” “Julie was consultant of loads of younger individuals who had not been to New York, who had not had that have to dwell with plenty of totally different sorts of individuals.”

Gentry was “a producer’s dream,” he provides. “She actually threw herself into attending to know her fellow solid members and absorbing something she might about that have.”

The cast of "The Real World" pictured in their loft in 1992

The solid of “The Actual World” in 1992.

(MTV)

Gentry suggests there have been extra sensible causes she was featured so closely within the sequence: She was simply at residence extra usually. “You’ve acquired to make a narrative out of the footage that you’ve got,” she says, shrugging.

She fashioned an particularly shut bond with two of her roommates, Heather B. Gardner, a hip-hop musician and now radio host, and Norman Korpi, an artist who additionally occurred to be homosexual (although he was described as “bisexual” on the present) — one of many first real-life LGBTQ folks on mainstream American tv.

“Our ‘Three’s Firm’ dynamic is basically distinctive,” says Gardner, who lived with Gentry for a time after “The Actual World” ended and was the maid of honor in her marriage ceremony. “Julie was across the loft loads, and we had an opportunity to speak, and he or she was simply into stuff. She would say ‘What are you doing, and what’s happening?’ And I keep in mind telling her, ‘Yo, this lady Mary J. Blige, she’s going to explode!’”

On the time she made “The Actual World,” Gentry was a virgin, one thing steadily mentioned on the present. She says she was uncomfortable with the deal with her romantic inexperience: “I’m not positive I might advise any younger individual — or older individual — to place that type of delicate and private data in another person’s arms.”

However Gentry was additionally savvy sufficient to comprehend that producers had been hoping she and roommate Eric Nies, a mannequin who later hosted “The Grind” on MTV, may spark a romance. “If we began to speak and get actually shut to at least one one other, the cameras would go ‘whoosh,’” she says, making the sound of a zooming digital camera. “We favored watching everyone soar once we would do this, however there was by no means something between us.”

In later years “The Actual World” grew to become extra related to sizzling tub debauchery, however the early seasons balanced youthful antics with weightier social points. The primary season was filmed from February to Could 1992, towards the backdrop of the Rodney King beating, the L.A. riots and a presidential marketing campaign marked by tradition conflict skirmishes. Over the course of the season, Gentry befriends a homeless girl named Darlene and attends an abortion rights demonstration.

A 1992 cast photo of "The Real World."

The unique solid of “The Actual World” pictured in 1992. Clockwise from prime left: Kevin Powell, Julie Gentry (Oliver), Eric Nies, Heather Gardner, Andrea Comeau, Norman Korpi and Rebecca Blasband.

(Chris Carroll)

Race was a prevalent theme all through the 13-episode run. And Gentry, open-minded but in addition unaware of her personal biases on the time, was usually on the middle of those discussions.

Minutes into the premiere episode, Gentry asks Gardner, who’s Black, why she has a beeper. “Do you promote medicine?” (Gentry now describes the remark as “a poor try at humor. I by no means truly thought Heather was a drug supplier.”)

In maybe probably the most memorable second of the season, Gentry and her roommate, author Kevin Powell, have a disagreement over use of the phone that erupts right into a heated dialogue of racism and white privilege that feels prefer it might have occurred in 2021. Whereas in quarantine earlier than manufacturing of “Homecoming” started in mid-January, Gentry reluctantly rewatched her season for the primary time because it initially aired. She says was bothered by a number of the issues she mentioned to Powell .

“I keep in mind being upset and not likely having the phrases to say, ‘I’m attempting to determine this out, and I simply wish to be judged for who I’m.’ I didn’t know sufficient to grasp there’s much more at work right here,” Gentry remembers of their combat. “I used to be glad that I acquired to return again as a 48-year-old and say, ‘, I used to be fairly naive.’”

On returning to the unique loft, the conversations continued, not at all times to the purpose of decision:“Once more, we don’t all agree 100% on every little thing. However I feel the seven of us are OK with that,” Gentry says.

However within the aftermath of the rebellion on the Capitol on Jan. 6., the violent final gasp of a racially divisive, reality-TV presidency, elements of the unique sequence made Gentry uncomfortable — like B-roll of a Accomplice flag that reveals up lower than a minute into the primary episode, instantly after she says, “Hello, I’m Julie, and I’m from Birmingham.”

“Would they actually really feel nice placing that in there right this moment?” she wonders. “You didn’t discover that flag at my home.”

After “The Actual World” wrapped in 1992, Gentry stayed in New York to pursue dancing however discovered that her visibility made it more durable to land gigs. It was particularly irritating when she’d get requested for her autograph after being rejected.

She additionally did a stint on the West Coast, dwelling with Korpi — who “at all times has the perfect actual property,” she says — across the nook from Norman Lear in Pacific Palisades. She took lessons on the Groundlings and waited tables hoping for an additional showbiz break. However years earlier than Kim Kardashian, there was no blueprint for monetizing actuality TV notoriety, whilst “The Actual World” aired in seemingly perpetual marathons and continued to reap tens of millions for MTV.

"Real World" star Julie Gentry petting her dog Martha.

Julie Gentry, together with her canine Martha.

(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Occasions)

“It’s no secret we weren’t paid some huge cash,” says Korpi, who directed Gentry in a spoof film known as “The Wedding ceremony Video.” “We bonded as a result of we all know that nobody else can get what we went via and the way we watched society change round us.”

A low level for Gentry got here when she was turned down for a task as an exterminator in an Orkin industrial as a result of, as she remembers, “‘Julie from ‘The Actual World’ can’t be right here to spray for bugs.’”

When her now-husband — a church buddy she’d recognized since she was 15 and began relationship throughout a visit residence for the vacations— despatched her an beautiful selfmade birthday cake in a single day, she took it as an indication.

“Norman was like, ‘Nobody in Los Angeles is gonna do that for you,’” says Gentry. “And I simply began feeling like, am I gonna keep in Los Angeles and maintain auditioning to be the lady subsequent door on a sitcom once I’ve already been the lady on a sitcom, mainly? I simply couldn’t determine what I used to be pursuing.”

Since returning to Birmingham, she has raised two youngsters and labored as a group gardener and outside training coordinator. She and Gardner are in fixed contact. She repeatedly sees Korpi and roommate Andre Comeau throughout visits to L.A. And all seven solid members keep in contact through a gaggle textual content.

They generally commiserate concerning the unintended ripple results of their little “documentary about artists.” Gentry says Comeau joked that they need to file a public service announcement apologizing for Trump: “This isn’t our fault!”

And though Gentry has maintained a low profile post-“Actual World,” her notoriety has lingered. When her son was within the first grade, he got here residence from faculty crying and confused as a result of classmates had been taunting him: “My mother says your mother was on TV!”

Gentry’s son is now 19 — the identical age she was when she moved into the loft — and lives with a various group of roommates in Atlanta. Her daughter, 17, has gone via youth management coaching on the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “From a really younger age she would inform me, ‘I hate studying the historical past of this metropolis. What are we doing right here?’” says Gentry.

Nonetheless, a husband, two youngsters and some careers later, Gentry has held onto the inquisitive spirit that made “Julie from Alabama” an MTV star within the period of Madonna and Kurt Cobain, when the community was on the peak of its affect.

“Folks usually say, ‘Nicely, how did “The Actual World” change you?’” Gentry says. “I don’t know that it modified me, nevertheless it impressed me to maintain looking these experiences out and to maintain searching for folks totally different from myself.”

‘The Actual World Homecoming: New York’

The place: Paramount+

When: Any time

Rated: TV-MA (could also be unsuitable for youngsters underneath the age of 17 with an advisory for coarse language)

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