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Drunk fights, hostile crowds and loving the Gayborhood: Secrets of ‘The Real World: Philadelphia,’ 10 years later

Yes, just like the millions of people who watch the “Real World” and think WTF, sometimes the cast members cringe, too.

“Oh yeah… There was one episode or two that was hard on my family, and they were just like, ‘wow,’” recalls Landon Lueck of the on-screen partying during “The Real World: Philadelphia.” “But with respect to MTV they told me that. They’ll show the highest of highs and lowest of lows and everything in between.”

That about sums up every season of the “Real World,” and the Philadelphia cast was no different. It featured a jock in M.J. Garrett, the party animal in Landon, two gay men for the first time on the “Real World” in Karamo Brown and Willie Hernandez, a developing relationship between Landon and Shavonda Billingslea, as well as Sarah Burke and Melanie Silcott.

The last episode of “Real World: Philadelphia” aired just more than 10 years ago. The seven strangers have gone from college kids to adults. They’re mothers and fathers. One still works in showbiz, recently hosting a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Another is a lawyer. They’re actually in the real world.

After the show

As their time on the “Real World” ended, one director told the cast the best thing they could do was return to their normal lives. Landon found out it wasn’t so easy.

He tried going back to college at the University of Wisconsin. Before the show aired, he went through his regular routine of class and going out with friends. Then September 2004 came, and everyone saw him on TV. Landon started receiving calls about making appearances at bars to party or to speak at college campuses.

“Pretty soon I was traveling all the time and trying to keep up with my studies, and it became essentially impossible,” Landon says. “Eventually I had to drop out of school because I had straight F’s because I was never in class.”

The campus and bar circuit can be lucrative, particularly for men who appear on the show. Shavonda says “Real World” stars can make anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000 for an appearance, depending on the location and their individual demand.

“You get there and someone entertains you and picks you up from the airport,” Shavonda says. “They bring bottles to your private room or whatever. Then you go out there. …The guys have it made. All you have to do is party. And then you’re done. You get paid in cash.”

Shavonda and Landon dated briefly during the show but broke up shortly afterwards. She’s now married to Shaun, the man she was dating when she went on the show, and living in San Diego. They have one toddler, and Shavonda, who is a homemaker, is pregnant with their second child.

For Melanie and Sarah, life basically was routine. Sarah says she made a few appearances but otherwise went to the University of Florida for law school. She now works as a lawyer for Butler Pappas in Tampa, her past TV life unknown to all but the most hardcore fans who might recognize her.

“My boyfriend watched the show,” she says, “and he didn’t put it together.”

Melanie finished college at UC Santa Cruz, got a master’s degree there and has spent the last several years working as a teacher and a bartender in San Francisco and traveling. She’s also married.

Karamo experienced the biggest shock of all after the “Real World.” A couple years after he left Philadelphia, he found out he was the father of a son from a previous heterosexual relationship. He petitioned for full custody and later adopted his son’s half-brother, too. With both sons now in their teens, Karamo, living in Los Angeles, has been trying to get back into the entertainment industry. He has hosted a show for the Oprah Winfrey Network and has appeared on HLN.

None of the cast members keep in touch with M.J. or Willie, and Billy Penn could not reach either for comment. Willie appeared on an interview at “Ian Drew’s The Interview” in 2012 in New York City but didn’t discuss anything about what he was doing now. M.J. was featured in a Vanderbilt alumni article in 2011. It stated he had helped found a Nashville transportation company called Grand Avenue. The operator for Grand Avenue said nobody with M.J.’s name worked at the company.

“M.J. and Willie just kind of fell off the map,” Melanie says.

After lots of appearances throughout the country on Real World/Road Rules Challenges, Landon works as an equipment and technology specialist for Benco Dental in San Diego. His presence on the “Real World” acted as less of a hurdle for getting his current job than it did for an attempt to remain in the entertainment industry.

“I remember right when I got off I was thinking about modeling,” Landon says. “Adidas was like, ‘No, we don’t want anything associated with you getting shitfaced in Philly.’”

Behind the scenes

The drama began before MTV filmed a single minute of “Real World: Philadelphia.” Unions were pissed MTV contracted nonunion workers to renovate the house — something MTV had done throughout the history of the show — and picketed the house, located at the northwest corner of Third and Arch streets. MTV announced it would no longer film the series in Philadelphia because of the complications. About a week later, the city and MTV agreed to terms, and “Real World: Philadelphia” was on once again.

Not feeling welcomed became a recurring theme during their stay. Somebody threw a chair at M.J. at a bar. Police once interrogated Karamo because they wrongfully thought he had a weapon. Landon says the cast received a “mixed audience” when they went out, with friendly people excited for Real Worlders to be out and others who wanted to antagonize them.

Shavonda remembers they got so tired of dealing with hostile people the cast started playing board games all the time, afraid of going out. Typically, she says, the production crew wouldn’t interfere with any of their actions. But MTV made an exception when the cast didn’t want to party anymore.

“They came out and said, ‘you guys have got to go out and experience the city,’” Shavonda says. “‘You can’t just stay inside all day.’ I believe they got us like a private police escort who stayed a few steps back.”

Favorite parts of Philadelphia

Any time you saw the cast members engage in “spring-breakish type behavior,” says Shavonda, they were probably out on Second Street in Old City. That also happened to be the area where they encountered the most problems with rowdy Philadelphians. For a calmer time, they’d go out in Manayunk or Rittenhouse Square. Landon says they also went to Fox and Hound.

With two gay roommates in Willie and Karamo, the cast often went out in the Gayborhood and frequented a Northern Liberties bar called Shampoo that closed in 2013.

“A lot of the friends I met in the city were mainly in the gay community,” Sarah says.

Adds Karamo, “One thing I did not experience there was homophobia. Not saying it doesn’t exist. I didn’t feel scared walking the streets…I never got called the F-word. I did get called the N-word.”

Cast members enjoyed Stephen Starr restaurants, particularly Continental, Pod and Jones. Landon couldn’t get enough of Jim’s Steaks on South Street.

“Whenever I meet people I say there are few real deals,” Landon says. “You go to Belgium and have waffles, go to Versailles and have crepes. You go to Philadelphia and you have a cheesesteak. No one else can make them like that.”

During one episode, the other roommates, mainly Landon and M.J., called out Melanie for having a secret place. MTV had two camera crews, and she had learned that they would generally only follow groups of at least two to three people. A cast member could sneak away for a quick bite, a drink or to go to the gym. Melanie started going on her own to Drinker’s Tavern.

Everyone interviewed except Shavonda has been back to Philadelphia at least a couple of times since the show. All five enjoyed the city. Melanie remembers being bummed out when she found out she’d be on the show in Philadelphia. She wanted to be in Hawaii, New York City or a place she considered more exotic but fell for the city after finding her niche.

Karamo has visited several times since the end of the show. Free of the cameras, he’s seen a lot more of Philly than he ever did, from Center City to South Philly.

“When you have cameras in your face, Philadelphians can be a little harsh,” Karamo says. “They don’t want you invading their city. Now going back each time I get to experience the warmth and who the true Philadelphians are.”

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