Melissa Beck Refused to Rewatch Real World: Melissa Beck made her TV debut in 2000 as part of The Real World: New Orleans and quickly captured millions of viewers’ hearts with her deadpan descriptions of life inside, ability to crush jokes quickly, and lightning-fast responses. Melissa’s fans saw the best of themselves in her, yearning to be drawn into her orbit. But back then Beck (then Howard) also had her detractors.
Daughter to a Black father and Filipino mother, she was quick to criticize racist actions and words as well as inequality – something which didn’t always sit well with early-aughts audiences who weren’t yet ready to hear it. Following The Real World, she made a name for herself on college lecture circuit and launched Princess Melissa blog as an attempt to better explain herself. She later joined cast of Girls Behaving Badly, married Glassjaw actor Justin Beck, had some kids – then 20+ years later MTV came calling again!
Like Homecoming: New York and Los Angeles before it, New Orleans is both a celebration of The Real World’s beginnings and impact, as well as an attempt to come to terms with moments, arguments, and depictions that have aged poorly. Cast members offer regrets or justifications for immaturity or sheer stupidity in some cases. Vulture caught up with Beck from Los Angeles where she was getting ready to join fellow New Orleans cast member Danny Roberts onstage at an FYC event to talk about reconnecting and grappling with early-aughts reality-TV stardom.
What were your initial thoughts when asked to join Homecoming?
By the time we were approached to gauge our level of interest in Homecoming: New York, I had already watched it since I am an avid fan of The Real World – even before joining its cast! As both a fan and someone whose life had been forever altered by being on The Real World, I was watching with both eyes open.
As Julie Gentry described during one scene, people would know who she was but she couldn’t turn that attention into a career for herself. I found this perspective on that awkward period before social media and influencers where we had to navigate life as post-reality-TV not-stars incredibly interesting.
I never imagined they’d make it all the way to season nine, as there are so many wonderful seasons between two and eight. So when they called, I thought to myself: It won’t happen! By the time they get here to me, I’ll be 65! When they finally announced our selection, my household was completely turned upside down.
My poor husband kept asking if we needed to discuss The Real World again? And I kept replying that it would be life-altering! I had become so used to my suburban anonymity. After years of making weekly trips to Costco, I had no choice but to consider what this change in lifestyle would entail for me. When looking at streaming options and all the different television shows people can choose from, the thought that no one else was watching made me feel secure; thus, part of my decision was made without anyone watching anyway.
As it turns out, people are watching. It has struck a chord with those same young people that watched it back then in 2000. I had my doubts going in, and I prepared for all the wrong reasons – all the ways it could go awry – yet somehow it all worked out perfectly.
No doubt you were anticipating that New York would attempt to discuss this contentious moment. Did you prepare any talking points or ideas in advance that needed to be shared?
When producers approached me about this project, their attitude was that there would be difficult conversations to have due to revisiting race issues you experienced and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which Danny had become the face of and endured for many years postshow. So while there would be an intellectual conversation to have, producers also promised it would be enjoyable as well; everyone is rebooting everything in television right now so this made sense. So I accepted their invitation with open arms.
I decided not to watch the show again since I only watched it once back then in 2000 when it first aired. Revisiting that time seemed a bit like listening to your own voice on an answering machine, so instead I just went in there knowing there would be talk about the swamp thing.
At first I was worried they’d bring up all those times I flirted with Jamie while now happily married…it could have been an awkward conversation but ultimately everything worked out fine; I stayed within myself as best as possible and got the work done – and here I am still standing!
Did you decide to watch Homecoming or did you opt out?
Ahhhhh…the nostalgia! In the olden days, they would send us VHS tapes in a padded yellow bubble envelope on Tuesdays before the show went public, but that didn’t happen – instead I watched it all live alongside everyone else at 2:30 am Pacific time when Paramount would air new episodes and just consumed them all at once!
Given that New Orleans was the ninth season, you all kind of knew what you were getting into; yet there was still some realism still present. We weren’t yet at full-on hot-tub orgy proportions yet.
One of the things I didn’t anticipate when joining The Real World eight seasons in, was its permanence. Even though we knew what we were getting into, there was one piece left unsaid – how long it would last. Now 45 years old and still Melissa from The Real World! Over the years, recognition for those involved on TV shows has come and gone.
That was something we weren’t prepared for – before social media took hold and allowed people to market themselves as people on these shows. At that point in history, our season felt special because there wasn’t that pressure; instead, I could remain kind of real: I wasn’t going to do the show and then sell you tea to make you lose weight!
Homecoming has been such an affirming experience for people like Kevin in New York or Tami in Los Angeles. While we now understand what happened, at the time many Americans simply didn’t realize it was wrong. How did being asked to become almost a spokesperson for your existence affect you personally?
I experienced two sides of the show. On one hand, people said things like, “Wow, that Melissa little girl on Real World is so funny; she seems like she’d make a great friend,” while on the other hand there were those who said things like, “Man, that Melissa girl on Real World is so annoying; all she ever does is talk about race!” One side of me was infuriated when I called out racism for what it is: an expression of ignorance.
Not to say I was the first person who thought about these topics openly, but on MTV as a young woman still developing her identity and trying to understand how language had changed over two decades… I wasn’t expecting the level of hate that would come my way for having a human emotion after being offended by a racial slur.
It made me insular in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and separating Melissa from The Real World while keeping Melissa Beck as a real person who needs to live this life and raise kids and have a happy marriage proved more challenging than I anticipated.
I was very protective of my world, as I’m blessed with an incredibly kind man and a wonderful life. Yet, before going into Homecoming, I felt respected in conversations with the production people. When asked for caution regarding revisiting racism conversations last time, I said: “I really hope that you can tell a more nuanced story this time and that there are people behind the scenes who look like me who can explain what I’m saying if necessary.” Ultimately, they got it right – my words weren’t misspoken – and that feeling made all the difference for me personally.
On the show, you and Matt often have difficult conversations about race or Matt’s religious aversion to dealing with Danny. These are nuanced adult topics that 20-year-olds in 2000 wouldn’t necessarily know how to have.
Danny and Matt’s conversations were truly about trying to separate the personal from the global. Danny’s ultimate message has always been acceptance regardless of religious doctrine, as well as that religion should teach acceptance. As viewers, it can be tempting to feel frustrated trying to get to the point. Yet at the same time, staying within one’s lane has so many advantages; after all, staying on topic should never even be a conversation! I needed to address the things that I could most thoroughly, yet also support Danny in his quest to ensure a respectful separation. Like, “Matt, I have no issues with you.
I think that you’re an awesome dad. But homophobia is not awesome.” This sentiment was made very clear, yet it still affects how others perceive me – especially given my own experiences living it and trying to understand how people view me now.
Three distinct layers exist when viewing a show: filming, cutting together and perception. My life experience, what happens on the show and our reaction are all distinct; yet for me personally it feels pretty close.
You make an interesting point in regards to “Come On Be My Baby Tonight,” being the first reality-show hit.
Some may think I’m exaggerating, but I honestly don’t care. What Matt said on the episode about “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” was one of those iconic viral moments before they were even popular. With Tokyo going on Dave Chappelle and everyone else seeing The Real World for the first time, many more people got exposed to it than expected; many more watched each episode afterwards too, but for me personally “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” will always remain one of those episodes where you feel like the eighth roommate who didn’t receive all the love they deserved.
Before heading into Homecoming, I went to Tokyo because you never know who people are in their relationships to how they appeared on the show. So I asked if there was anything you didn’t want discussed on camera so that nobody feels uncomfortable. With that being said, I need you to understand that ‘Come On Be My Baby Tonight’ is some iconic material and that requires acceptance.” He responded simply with: “No.”
As someone who used to dislike this song, I can imagine myself getting stuck in my head wondering whether people really enjoyed it or were making fun of it. Or were they making fun then but now really appreciate it? In the show you mentioned Kim Zolciak’s “Don’t Be Tardy for the Party”, which is another song which used to annoy me but now enjoys great popularity – one example being my all-time favorite: now included among my top 10.
I’m sure there’s a television term for it, but “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” has that unique Urkel quality – where you don’t expect to like Urkel but find yourself sort of loving it anyway. That’s exactly the vibe created by “Come On Be My Baby Tonight”.
Even without the pop-cultural impact of that song, Tokyo is truly talented as a musician. His ability to craft multiple earworms from scratch is truly amazing; even just listening to the opening chords of “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” are breathtakingly beautiful! I wanted to tell him, “I have always believed in your talent as an artist; if you don’t believe it, let me tell you.”
On the show, you mentioned “Don’t Be Tardy” and “Money Can’t Buy You Class”. Are you a Real Housewives fan?
Recently, I’ve fallen off the Housewives bandwagon. While Atlanta is my favorite, Orange County started it all for me; back when Gretchen and Slade were still together and when Slade still loved Jo, Housewives of Beverly Hills became my ultimate favorite show until Lisa Vanderpump did her offshoot Vanderpump Rules.
Reading Dave Quinn’s Not All Diamonds and Rose book brought everything full circle; hearing all the producers and executives behind the show discuss how they make television compelling with references made to The Real World made me go “Wow!”