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''The Real World'' in New Orleans

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With its rich cultural roots, picturesque beauty, and well-deserved rep as America’s party central, it’s amazing that N’awlins wasn’t given the Real World treatment years ago. Still, it was worth the wait, as MTV commandeered the 200-plus-year-old Belfort mansion, located in the middle of the Big Easy’s sumptuous Garden District, for the ninth season of youthful navel gazing and voyeuristic high drama.

The project’s creative honchos, designers Monroe Kelly and Lee Ledbetter, had only 10 weeks to convert the sprawling 3,500-square-foot canvas of raw beams and no floors into a camera-ready monument of antebellum-meets-third-millennium hip — with, adds Kelly, a ”tiny” budget. ”[It] still has the bones and the elegance of a traditional New Orleans house,” he says. ”But it has vibrant colors, plus modern and old furniture. It’s very eclectic.”

David, 21, the cast’s buff, self-professed ”player” from Chicago, recalls crossing Belfort’s threshold with housemate Julie, 20: ”I didn’t know what to look at first. It’s kind of overwhelming. Julie was screaming, and I was like, ‘Yeah, what she said.”’

Meanwhile, Belfort’s embodiment of faded Southern glory held eerie historical associations for Real Worlder Melissa, a half-black, half-Filipino 23-year-old from Tampa, Fla. ”I was like, Oh my goodness, I’m living in a plantation house!” she recalls. ”I was so amazed they didn’t have me in the backyard picking cotton.”

THE KITCHEN
Michelangelo meets George Jetson in the Belfort’s most wackily outfitted room. The team acquired its ”first big statement,” the ornate wooden altar, from a nearby antiques store: ”There’s this kind of New Orleans Gothic thing that Anne Rice has popularized; the altar kind of spoke to that,” says Ledbetter. Also, adds Kelly, ”Eating in New Orleans is a religious experience — that was an undertone for us.”

Georgia native Matt, 21, testifies, ”It’s pristine, Sistine style.” Not surprisingly, it roused strong feelings in devout Mormon Julie. ”I like the kind of Catholic, cathedral feel,” she says. ”It made me happy.” While she was down with the room’s ”cool appliances” — like the hotshot Krups blender stashed away in the tabernacle — Julie was none too kind to the centerpiece painting. ”It’s gross. This fat old man…like, why would I want to eat while I’m seeing that?”

THE STAIRCASE
To offset the red-and-gold warmth of Belfort’s first floor, says Kelly, ”we wanted to bring a cooler idea to these stairs.” Hence, the cascading blue-and-gray runners. Adds Ledbetter, ”It’s an allusion to a waterfall.” And no, that isn’t a jerry-rigged library on the wall, but another inspired design flourish — 504 of them, to be exact — acquired at a thrift store. Over time, remembers David, the wall evolved into an ad hoc bulletin board. ”About midway through, the project [began] wearing on us a little bit, so we just started writing on the books.” The scrawlings took the form of jokes, communiques, wordplayed gripes, and, in one case, cryptic personal advice. ”I don’t even know what that means,” professes Julie. Her roommate Kelley, a 22-year-old from Arkansas, tells Julie, ”Yeah, you do,” and teases viewers, ”Stay tuned.”

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