Last night Danny Roberts, who participated in “The Real World: New Orleans” in 2000, appeared on Bravo TV’s “Watch What Happens Live” to talk about his experience on the show. In case you missed it, we caught up with Danny, who is now a recruiter for Redfin, to get an inside look at life within “The Real World,” and to see what he has been up to since the show.
What were you doing before you were on “Real World: New Orleans?”
I had just finished college, and had no idea what I wanted to do. In that regard I can really relate to what Glenn Kelman said in his “Advice for the Lost Ones” post on LinkedIn. In college I had studied foreign language education, and had an idyllic image that I was going to teach foreign languages, but after college I realized I wasn’t ready for that. Three months after graduation I moved to Atlanta, and they happened to have tryouts for the show there, so I went and was cast. It gave me an outlet for adventure, and I really thought during the filming that I would figure out what I wanted to do in life.
Were you a huge fan of “Real World” before you auditioned?
I had seen it, but I didn’t have cable for a long time so I hadn’t seen a lot of it. I grew up in a small town in Georgia and really wanted to live in a big city. I was caught up in the first New York season and liked the idea of living that lifestyle.
What was it like to be on the show?
It really was like being on “The Truman Show.” You are absolutely living in a bubble; even though you aren’t physically separated from the outside world, you are psychologically separated. It’s an isolating experience; most people don’t want to be on camera, so they don’t want to hang out with you. And when you call someone, the first thing they hear is that they’re being recorded, so most people don’t want to continue the conversation. Then there were the people who wanted to be your friend BECAUSE you were on camera, which wasn’t good either. You really depended on your roommates as a social lifeline. I lucked out with my roommates, they were decently sane people. A lot of future cast members are not people I would want to live with at all! I think my season was popular because of that – we were a likeable cast. Our season was the last of its kind; the show really started to change after that.
Since we’re all obsessed with homes here at Redfin, what did you like most about the house they filmed in?
It was an old historical mansion, on St. Charles Ave, the main street in New Orleans where all the mansions are. It had a crazy history; at one point it was a mortuary, but nobody told us that while we were filming! Nothing creepy happened when I lived there, unless you count the creepy things my roommates did.
Do you think reality TV was different back then?
I get told that a lot; a lot of people could relate to us, but then they stopped watching after my season. In 2000 all the other reality shows were popping up and “Real World” started to take a different turn. After that it was about competitions, sex and drinking. It used to carry a social message; it exposed the audience to different types of people and new ways of thinking, but then it became about people fighting.
Did the producers manufacture drama, or direct the show at all?
There was some element of orchestration that went on. The producers wrote a storyline based on the personalities that they had cast. If they needed to massage that to make it happen, they would. Part of what the public doesn’t see is that you’re taken away from the house to do 1:1 interviews with the producers. When you see someone on a show talking directly to a camera, it’s usually part of those interviews. The interview questions would steer the conversation, and steer people’s viewpoints to meet the expectations of the producers. What happened with later seasons is that kids who watched the show their whole life were cast, and they were the ones who were bringing the manipulation into the show. They were steering the conversation, steering the plot. I can see why some people make a job out of being on reality TV; it’s fun, easy work. You get to travel, and there’s adventure in it. But at some point you have to realize it’s not a career, it’s a dead end road.
One of the most memorable parts of the show was your relationship with your boyfriend, who was in the military at the time. Did you expect controversy over that when you joined the show?
Now there seems to be a gay person on every show, but at that time it wasn’t common for gay people to be “out.” I met my boyfriend only a few weeks before the show. I didn’t even tell him about the show before I left to go to New Orleans. The producers didn’t expect that he’d be part of the storyline, and I didn’t expect it to be the scandal that it was. Since he was in the military, it was illegal that he was taking part in the show, because of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. To be on the show was a huge taboo, so his identity and face was blurred. A lot of young people nowadays don’t understand that that was the policy at the time. A lot has changed since then!
I was so caught up in the fact that I was just coming out myself, because at the time I wasn’t out to my friends or family. I had a lot on my mind, and was ignorant of the military’s policies; I learned at the same time that the viewers did how serious the rules were. My boyfriends’ voice was very distinct, so if you knew him you would recognize it. He was a high ranking officer, so it was even more serious because of that fact. A lot of people that he led in the military saw the show, and knew it was him. But fortunately he got a lot of positive feedback; it didn’t change their views of him. He was an outstanding leader to them, and they learned that the stereotypes don’t fit what they saw in him. Eventually he did come out, after he left the military.
Was it hard to deal with the instant celebrity after the show?
It was. I wasn’t solid in my own skin or head yet. I had just come out, and I was supposed to represent that to the country. It solidified my old friendships, but it was difficult to make new friends. I constantly questioned someone’s motivation. There were a lot of sketchy business proposals! I know a lot of the “Real World” cast members fell for that; it’s easy to get used.
What did you do after the show ended?
I couldn’t wait to get out of New Orleans. I ran back to Atlanta as fast as I could. Then I did many many short-term things. I went through some painful soul searching in my life. I slowly figured out a lot things that did NOT fit me. The show opened a lot of new doors for me, but that made it even more difficult to decide what I wanted to do. For five or six years I did public speaking at educational forums and universities. I talked about sexuality and “coming out,” current events, and social policy, very much geared around the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” issue.
How did you end up working for Redfin?
It’s during my public speaking period that I started getting into real estate. I loved properties and I loved looking at homes, so I knew it was an industry I wanted to get into. I got my real estate license and started working in a small office for another real estate brokerage. I was managing the office, and wore a lot of different hats, including HR and recruiting. What I found was that it was incredibly difficult to be successful in real estate at traditional brokerages. You have to drum up new clients all the time. There’s so much uncertainty, you never know when you’ll have clients, or when you’re going to close a deal. You could put a lot of hours into a client, and then have them walk away. I also discovered I have a few stalkers who wanted to work with me because they knew me from the show and wanted to hang out!
Through the entire “Real World” experience, the interviewing, and the media coverage, I fine-tuned my people skills and came to understand what drives and motivates people, which is what got me into recruiting. I ended up doing HR for Microsoft after leaving the real estate brokerage.
When I saw the recruiting position at Redfin, I thought it was perfect; the two worlds of real estate and HR collided. One of the reasons I wanted to work here is that it’s something I believe in – it has a mission to change the real estate industry in the consumer’s favor. It’s important for me to work for something I believe in, and can put myself behind. It’s not just a job or a paycheck. I love the CEO, Glenn; he’s amazing. I love how passionate he is, I love that he gets people behind the mission in a genuine way. It’s important to have people in leadership roles with those characteristics, and he completely embodies that. That hasn’t been the case in my past experiences.
How did your experience on “The Real World” prepare you for your job at Redfin, or career in general?
It fine tuned my ability to be empathetic with people. I swear that half the time in my role it’s not recruiting, its public relations. We only hire a small percentage of all the people I speak to, but we need to tell everyone about the company. My public speaking experiences and media experiences through the show helped me fine tune messaging. Recruiting was a crash course in psychology; you have to know what drives and motivates people, what makes people tick. I love that there’s a psychological element to it. There are mindsets that are positive and what we are looking for, and mindsets we’re trying to avoid.
Now that you’re a recruiter, if someone you were interviewing had reality TV experience, would that affect how you view their hiring potential? What if they did something crazy on the show?
Whatever they did on the show would probably not affect my perception of them, unless it was something like an extreme HR violation. I take it with a grain of salt. People grow, learn and evolve from those experiences. But it does typically take a crazy mindset to end up on one of these shows, especially in the more recent reality TV shows. If you weren’t crazy going in, you’re probably crazy going out. So it would make me cautious up front; I would probably review them more thoroughly than a typical candidate.
What advice do you have for recent college graduates?
Don’t give up on giving new things a try. Continue listening to your gut and instincts. Don’t settle for something that doesn’t feel right. It may mean you are unhappy for a while, but don’t give up on trying to find the right fit. Once you get into something that’s right, you’ll know it. It took me eight years to figure it out. Most people have no idea what they want to do until they get out in the workplace. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Do what you have to do to pay the rent, but do the work behind the scenes to find your fit. You’ll learn that no one wants to work around unhappy people. That’s one thing I love about Redfin, it’s full of really great people who actually want to be here.
Do you still get fan letters?
I still get messages and letters to this day. I came along at the right time and since I grew up in a small town, a lot of people thought I represented “mainstream America.” Many people have told me they came out because of the show. They could really relate to my experience. Every now and then I’ll have a terrible day, and will get a message on Facebook about that, and it will make me feel lucky to have been able to influence people in a positive way. It’s not an opportunity many people get.