When Danny Roberts decided to return to reality TV after two decades to film “The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans,” he made it clear to producers he wanted to share his experiences as a person living with HIV.
After all, Roberts understands the importance of visibility in the media. During the original run of “The Real World: New Orleans” in 2000, his relationship with Paul Dill, a man in the Army (who appeared with his face blurred), showed the personal cost of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy and became a defining moment for LGBTQ representation in pop culture.
Nor was his diagnosis a secret: Roberts, who learned he was HIV-positive about a decade ago, went public in 2018 and has spoken about the importance of fighting the stigma the disease still carries. While filming “Homecoming” late last year, he shared lengthy conversations about his diagnosis and the effect it has had on his life.
So, Roberts was disappointed when he finished watching the eight-episode revival on Paramount+ and discovered that, while there was much discussion of his relationship with Dill (which ended in 2006), including an on-camera reunion, there was not a single mention of his HIV status.
“I just kept waiting: 'Are they going to shoehorn this into the end?' And then I realized, 'Wow, that’s the end of it.' And they absolutely cut it,” Roberts said by phone from Vermont, where he lives with his 6-year-old daughter, as he took a break from gardening. “It feels like a huge missed opportunity.”
“So much of what I went to New Orleans to talk about was the nightmare of our healthcare system, the nightmare of not having access, the nightmare of the cost,” he added, “and the amazing flip side of the power of these medications [that can prevent and treat HIV]. There was so much to unpack."
The omission was particularly surprising given the groundbreaking way “The Real World” put a human face on the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s by introducing viewers to Pedro Zamora, a charismatic young Cuban American activist who starred in the San Francisco-set season in 1994. He opened up about his health struggles and even exchanged vows with his partner on the series — a first for TV — before dying at the age of 22, hours after the season finale aired on MTV. His impact was massive: As President Bill Clinton said at the time, “Now, no one in America can say they’ve never known someone living with AIDS.”
Bunim/Murray Productions, the company that has produced “The Real World” since its premiere in 1992, provided a statement to The Times saying it “has never shied away from sharing stories around HIV and AIDS,” citing Zamora as an example.
"Although Danny did discuss his HIV status while filming ‘The Real World Homecoming: New Orleans,’ he also spoke extensively about the mental health challenges he struggled with after the filming of the original series and how he has coped with those challenges,” the statement continued. “The ‘Homecoming’ series ultimately focused on Danny's mental health journey, which he shared publicly with all his former roommates for the first time.”
Roberts said he was told by a producer the storyline was cut due to legal concerns it might implicate a former partner. “Their reasoning is so silly,” he said. “I don't buy it for a second.” (Though Bunim/Murray submits its productions to legal vetting before they air, the company declined to comment on specific business and legal matters.)
Roberts, 44, who grew up in rural northwest Georgia — in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s district, he wryly notes — recalls the influence Zamora had on him as an adolescent who had not yet come to terms with his own sexuality.
“At that time, we all had negative horrible biases about the disease. There was so much ignorance and fear about how you got it. And then you saw this guy who humanized it in so many ways. As a young kid watching, I was like, ‘This guy does not align with anything that I've been told about gays or HIV,’” he said. “He helped change my perceptions. That story should be remembered.” (Norman Korpi, a gay man who appeared in “The Real World’s” first season, also made an impression on him.)
But Roberts said that an intense fear of HIV, which in the early 1990s was the leading cause of death for men 25 to 44, “kept me closeted and resistant to living my true self” throughout his adolescence. “We all had so much fear. You died, and not a pretty death either — a horrible death.”
Since then, sophisticated antiretroviral therapies and preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications have made it much easier to treat and prevent HIV infection, at least for those with access to healthcare. It has enabled a new generation to grow up without equating sex with death and disease. Roberts sees the producers’ decision to omit his HIV storyline as part of a larger problem of cultural amnesia related to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s.
“This traumatized a generation. We lost a lot of people but now we're in a period where medicine has advanced so much, there's a huge forgetting,” he said. “So it's probably easier to make an executive decision to leave out that dark story and just not touch on it, in service of the great forgetting.”
In recent years, people like “Pose” star Billy Porter and “Queer Eye” host Jonathan Van Ness have gone public about their HIV status. But TV depictions of people with HIV/AIDS have dwindled, according to GLAAD, a decline that helps feed stigma and may increase risk. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has also fueled public distrust of science, and high-profile people including rapper Da Baby and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) have given a platform to AIDS disinformation.
“Medicine should not be politicized or feared,” Roberts said. “Thank God for it. What I went through during the pandemic is so maddening to me as someone who is alive now because of medicine."
Roberts believes that while producers expressed interest in his HIV storyline, “the ultimate decision was made that the Julie circus was more important to them.”
Roberts is referring to his co-star Julie Stoffer, whose volatile behavior — including falling on her face while drunk, accusing her Black roommate Tokyo Broom of assault, and sharing intimate photos of her husband — consumed much of the season and drove castmate Kelley Wolf to leave the show before production was complete.
Roberts is not necessarily surprised the revival leaned into sensationalism rather than the social issues that once made it stand out. “I think many people who produce and run this industry become very attached to formulas,” he said. “They think of the cast as products and lose touch with the humanity of the stories.”
Roberts auditioned for “The Real World” on a whim during an aimless period right after college when he was living on his ex-girlfriend’s couch and still had a foot in the closet. He saw the show as “the catalyst for me to fully come out to myself and the people around me,” he recalled. “I saw it as a dividing line.”
It transformed his life in ways he couldn’t have anticipated, turning his relationship into Exhibit A in the case against "don’t ask, don’t tell." With an appealingly laidback personality and the dreamy good looks of a boy band member, he became a celebrity who graced magazine covers and red carpets. But as he discusses in “Homecoming,” this visibility meant he and Dill lived in constant fear of discovery. Roberts and Dill broke up before "don’t ask, don’t tell" was repealed, but the psychological scars of that experience still linger.
Roberts was diagnosed with HIV about a decade ago; he’s not sure of the exact date because “there’s a chunk of that period of my life where my memory is shot,” he said.
He was sick for months with what he assumed was mono. He went for blood work, which led to the discovery he was HIV-positive. With medication, his health rapidly improved. Roberts' viral load has been undetectable for years, thanks to a daily regimen of a single, Advil-size pill.
But it took him longer — at least two years — to deal with the complex blend of grief and shame that surfaced with the diagnosis.
“There's still so much crazy stigma with it, which is bizarre because so much of it lingers from the '90s. A lot of it is subconscious, particularly within the gay community. Calling attention to that stigma was really important to me too. When you talk to anyone who is diagnosed, they go through a mourning period,” he said. “A huge part of my own journey was realizing, ‘Wow, this bias is very deep in me.’ It was like a second coming-out process to work through the shame of it, to accept it and come out on the other side.”
Roberts works in tech and is “well taken care of” but is acutely aware of the barriers to care faced by many of the estimated 1.2 million Americans living with HIV. “The scariest part is knowing that you are now forever a slave to our medical system,” he said.
Despite his frustrations with “Homecoming,” which concluded its run last month, Roberts is grateful for the outpouring of love he’s received from viewers. It has also been healing for the cast to reconnect after many years and reflect on life in the reality TV bubble.
“We all just desperately needed it for our own well-being,” he said. “We are the only people that understood that experience.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.