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The OG Real World cast member talks to EW about going back 30 years later, how things have and haven't changed, that infamous argument with Julie, and why Heather is like the Oracle from The Matrix.

By Gerrad Hall
March 03, 2021 at 11:00 AM EST
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They say you can't go home again, but that's exactly what Becky Blasband, Andre Comeau, Heather B. Gardner, Julie Gentry, Norman Korpi, Eric Nies, and Kevin Powell are doing on The Real World Homecoming: New York, which reunites those "seven strangers" almost 30 years after they first became roommates in a SoHo loft.

And they aren't just back in New York, but in the same exact apartment — check out the first three minutes of the premiere below — looking back on the show that impacted pop culture in ways they never could've imagined, and having conversations about things that are still relevant three decades later, from race relations to issues affecting the LGBTQ community.

Powell talked with EW ahead of the six-episode series debut about the reaction to news of the reunion over the past couple of weeks, their surprise at filming in the same loft, his appreciation of the show's significance, how he and his castmates have evolved over the years, and why Heather is like the Oracle from The Matrix.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What has the reaction been in your life since the announcement of the reunion and people seeing just the trailer?

KEVIN POWELL: It has been explosive. My text, email, social media platforms have been blowing up nonstop in the last two weeks and it's been incredible. I didn't expect it. None of us knew what to expect because it was almost 30 years ago — are people really going to really be into this? But I had to take a step back and remember, even if you just focus on Generation X — there's 65 million of us in this country who are Generation X — this is like one of those things like when we were kids growing up and it was The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch, stuff that we watched that affected us. It's the same thing with The Real World. So it's been incredible. [Laughs] And people are like, I'm going to sign up and get the screaming channel. I'm like, Awesome! This is amazing. This is absolutely amazing for me to see the reaction.

As all of you arrive at the loft, there's this genuine shock about being back at the same place you lived all those years ago. What did producers tell you in order to keep this a surprise?

They said "a house." They were being very evasive. I knew it was going to be Manhattan. because that's where we were originally. But they kept saying it's going to be a house… or, they actually said it's going to be an apartment building and I'm thinking Upper West Side, Upper East Side, maybe Chelsea. Not in a thousand years did I think we'd be back in the same place and certainly not in SoHo at 565 Broadway. It was just a fluke that it happened, and when I arrived here, I was like, wait a minute, we're in Soho and we're up the street from the loft — that's pretty cool. And then when we started to walk, they said, "Kevin, can you go that way?" And it blew my mind that that's where we were going, right back to the same place from 1992. It was surreal. I felt like I felt back in '92, which was like I had just won a prize on a game show. That's what it felt like.

Were you nervous the first time around, and what were the emotions and feelings this time walking in?

I was definitely nervous the first time because we didn't know what it was. We were the first season. We were the pioneers, I guess you would call us at this point, of this whole social experiment that became reality TV. There was nothing for us to watch before us, there was no season of anything before us. As a kid, I remember shows like Real People and Candid Camera, and I had heard about American Family on PBS, but I never really thought about it like that. So MTV was the brand was the cool thing to be a part of and so I knew MTV was for young people, which was us at the time, and it was also something that was edgy and provocative. And I just remember thinking to myself, "Well maybe if I get on the show I'll get more writing assignments," because I was a journalist already, and maybe I could get some speaking gigs out of it. Never did I think it would become one of the landmarks of pop culture history in our country, never did I think it would become a game-changer in terms of creating a whole new genre of TV. Never thought that at all.

So then this time walking in, were you just as nervous?

I was ready to cry. I was actually like, Wow, it's full circle, because the whole thing leading up to it… well, I go back. You gotta understand, the castmates, we've been in touch on text. Obviously, we've not have seen each other collectively since the 1990s, but the last couple of years we've been on a text thread together, very quietly just staying in touch with each other, touching base with each other, Julie sharing stuff with me about what her kids were doing as they were getting older. Me and Eric were bonding about spirituality and veganism and stuff like that. So we were connected, but then we also agreed that if we're going to do the reunion, it has to be all seven of us. So it was that kind of anticipation, like, "Wow, we're all finally going to be together in the same space for the first time since the 90s, and we're all now older"… Where in your life can you say you filmed something when you were young, and you got to look at it and people got to look at it, and then you can go back 30 years later and film again and actually reflect on that and also show you have evolved? I felt like we were in a really unique situation that you could not have scripted, honestly, which is why it's a reality TV show. You couldn't have scripted this.

All of you were instant celebrities after the show first aired, but it paved the way for so many things and had an enormous cultural impact. How long did it take you to appreciate that, for lack of a better word, and really be able to separate yourself from the experience?

It first hit me probably in the mid to late '90s when our season got inducted into what was then called The Museum of TV and Radio — I think it's called the Paley Center now. And we were in this institution with I Love Lucy and Carol Burnett and stuff like that. That was the first instance of it. And then, I've literally been to all 50 states in this country as a speaker at colleges, universities, high schools, and I kept coming across people who had either watched the show or written papers on the show, had done dissertations on the show — that's when it started to hit me like, this is a phenomenon. This is a lot deeper than just seven strangers picked to be in a loft. This is something that has actually shaped people's personalities and their lives. Just the way music has. Just the movies have. That's when it hit me. People will still come up to me and, before they knew about the reunion, the last few years they were like, I watched you on this show and I can't tell you the impact of it. Doing things like Black Lives Matter, people are like, Yo, what you guys talked about in your season, that's what I was thinking about." I had no idea. I really had no idea. You have to understand, we did not have cell phones, nor social media back in 1990 — there were cell phones that existed but those were those big clunky things back in the day. [Laughs] And so we really didn't know the impact until years later, honestly, when social media exploded for me and I started seeing people constantly saying, "I've watched you on The Real World and I followed you to VIBE magazine and your Tupac articles and I've read this book and this book of yours." I was like, "Who are all these people?" They were watching The Real World, and we had no idea. We had no idea. Not on that level.

You just mentioned Black Lives Matter — there's another interesting moment in the premiere where you essentially say that you were BLM before there was BLM. We got to see your work as an activist, and you even mention that they thought they had cast one guy but got someone else because they didn't ask the right questions. Do you ultimately think it ended up being a pretty accurate representation of who Kevin Powell was and is?

Well, was at that time — definitely fiery and young. Absolutely. I had been in college at Rutgers University, so I had already been a student-activist, a student-leader. I was a voracious reader; I knew a lot about history; I had experienced all kinds of protests and stuff like that, as you said, long before Black Lives Matter. Keep in mind, months before we got to the loft, the Rodney King incident happened in Los Angeles, and then the L.A. civil unrest happened while we were filming our season in April of '92. So all that was a backdrop for me and it was powerful. Some of the most famous conversations on race and racism in American TV history were literally on our first season of the show, and it opened up a lot of dialogue. People literally have come up to me… black folks, white folks, all kinds of folks [and say], "I never thought about racism until I watched that show." I was like, Wow! Or they would say to me, "You said 'Racism is race plus power' " — I didn't remember that I said that, but I guess I did, and I saw it [in clips from the show]. That's what people have quoted back to me. So it was incredible, and for it to kind of foreshadow a lot of stuff like Black Lives Matter, it's important to me. But I don't want to stop there — I also think it's important, and I talked to our cast a lot about it, how important not just the conversation about race is but the fact that it was a safe space for the first openly gay male, gay person, queer person on national TV with Norman that season as well. And he talked about the things that he had dealt with as a gay male. I also think that what our show lends itself to, our season particularly is a cross-section of all those different things — Julie working with the homeless woman, Norman with issues of homophobia, me around race. They went to a pro-choice rally during the filming of our show, so issues of gender came up as well. And I'm proud of that because we really all were — not just me — at that time who we were. And the beautiful thing about watching the new episodes and being around my castmates is seeing how we've evolved. I mean, for Christ's sake, Julie's kids are hip-hop heads and her daughter is a human rights activist. And Julie uses the term anti-racist now. So it says a lot. I'm someone who believes that we need to listen to each other and not yell and curse and scream at each other — that's what I've evolved into, even if I'm still very passionate about all issues. But I don't just talk about race; I talk about sexism — it's Women's History Month. I talk about homophobia, transphobia. I have to because I think one of the things that our show and other shows — and particularly thinking about Pedro's season 3 in San Francisco — have dealt with some of the major social justice issues in our country over the last 30 years. And I'm proud of the fact that people can point to our season as one of the folks that courageously dealt with these things, even when it makes some people uncomfortable.

We, of course, are reminded of "the fight" between you and Julie all of those years ago. How will that come back around and be addressed in this reunion?

Just casually, talking about it. It happens. If you're talking about the argument with Julia and I, probably the most famous argument about race in American TV history, I've heard it so many times, but people need to understand: we are family, we are family, we are family. And there's a love and a connection that we have to each other that's not going to be separated by people's perceptions. And people need to understand, we are not characters, we actually are real people on a reality show. So you'll see growth, you'll see the evolution. And there are certain things that didn't have to be said, it's just kind of understood. That's what we were then, and this is where we are now, and that's what it is. I just think that people need to see that because I also think given all the divisions in our country that we've seen over the last several years, I think it's gonna be refreshing for people to bookend the original 13 episodes with these new episodes and be like, Wow, here is a really diverse group of people, in terms of seven very different personalities — we're all very different — but somehow or another they have figured out in different ways how to be connected to each other. When Heather and Julie call each other sisters, they mean that; that's serious, that's real for us. When I say that Norman is my brother — I'm an African American heterosexual male, he's a white queer brother — we are brothers. We mean that. That's real to us.

What can you tease about what's to come in the episodes? We see a brief glimpse in the trailer of you and Heather with Norman at the Stonewall Inn at one point, right?

Yes! I think we really get to see — and I think I said this in the original episodes as well — I think Norman is the most multi-talented of all of us, and he's so gifted and he wanted to really share his experiences with us. And I'm so glad that we did because we got to go through the history of Stonewall, and for him to share some things about his past that I didn't know, about how he grew up, the kind of bullying that he had to deal with as a young gay male. And it's really powerful stuff. I hope people will pay attention to it and really think about how we treat folks who are quote-unquote different than us just based on the story of Norman alone in these new episodes.

And can we talk about Heather's traveling liquor case?

[Laughs] Heather is hilarious because in one breath she's very spiritual, she's very much a Christian, she wears it on her chest proudly, but in the other breath she can mix drinks with the best of them and she can cook. I will say this, we ate well because of her cooking and Norman's cooking. I call Heather the Oracle, like in The Matrix, because she's got all this wisdom, and she's funny as heck. So it was really beautiful also bonding with her in a different way that we didn't do the first time. It's almost like we were in the same house but on opposite sides of the house. It was beautiful. It was really beautiful. Heather is forever to me the wisdom and the life of the party for our cast — I'm clear about that.

The Real World Homecoming: New York debuts Thursday on Paramount+.

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