People still recognize me every single day. They fall into two camps: Half of them know that, in 1998, I was on the receiving end of what many have dubbed "The Bitch-Slap Heard Around the World" when I was moving out of MTV's The Real World: Seattle house early in the series' seventh season. The recognition is instant, even if some details are fuzzy. For example, these people don't remember if I had lupus or Lyme disease (it was the latter), and some are extra surprised to see me because they thought I died from cystic fibrosis years ago (rest in peace, Frankie from Real World: San Diego). Equally unsettling is when they remember the assault wrong; over the last couple of years, more and more people think I hit a guy, rather than vice versa.
The second camp of people typically think they went to high school or college with me. (I suppose in some ways they did.) I usually just say, “I have a familiar face” to extricate myself, but if they're persistent and I'm forced to tell them why they know me, they say, almost 90 percent of the time, “No, that’s not it. I didn’t watch The Real World” or “I stopped watching after [insert earlier season here].” Which just isn't true: In those years, if you were between the ages of 12 and 30 you definitely did watch The Real World. There weren’t very many other cable stations for young people to care about (Bravo was still focused on fine arts), and no other reality shows on besides MTV's other series, Road Rules. And MTV aired Real World marathons almost every weekend. (Back in 1998, fans would complain that MTV didn't play enough music videos. Except back then, music videos actually made up about 80 percent of MTV's broadcast day. Now they don't play enough.) But even if you did miss me getting hit on my farewell episode's first airing, the network never stopped finding excuses to re-air it. They literally aired it last year. In fact the official MTV Twitter was promoting the slap last March tweeting, “@MTV Irene's slap, Dustin's past. Watch it all go down here,” as a tout for an upcoming classic–Real World marathon. It makes sense: What happened to me was scarring and shocking, but in a way it was just a precursor to the kind of cruelty and violence that has become a necessary staple of reality television.
I wanted to be on The Real World. If you are around my age you too probably wanted to be on it. It was the only reality show around, a real novelty, and who wouldn’t have wanted to take five months, live in a mansion, and get paid to live with hot guys and — bonus points — become famous! There was an open casting call at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., when I was junior at Georgetown University, and I got in line (along with thousands of other hopefuls). In total, I believe over 35,000 people tried out for the show that year. The line for the D.C. audition was packed with 18- to 24-year-olds, and it stretched for blocks. I was wearing baggy, perfectly ripped jeans, an equally holey T-shirt, and Birkenstocks that revealed my silver toe rings. I had no makeup on, not even lip gloss. I was perfectly anti-establishment in that I-don’t-really-give-a-shit, post-grunge way.
I only filled out a few questions on the initial application. I remember they asked what I would bring if I could only pack a suitcase with one thing; I wrote, "my Conair hairdryer, my Paul Mitchell conditioner, and my Paul Mitchell super sculpting gel. There is an underrepresentation of curly-haired people on national television, and if you pick me I’d need my hair products.” I had a midterm at the end of the day to cram for on the Reformation through the Renaissance, and I left my friends to hold my spot in line while I sat under a tree nearby and studied. Occasionally, I would look over at the line of hopefuls not far from me. Most people were dressed up like they were going to a club. Some people had headshots. A dorky kiss-ass brought doughnuts for the entire crew. (He would later end up working for The Real World's production company, Bunim/Murray.)
A few very long hours later, when our time finally arrived I was taken to a table in a different area than any of my friends. It was clear that was a "special" area, as no one else from the tryout line was there. I sat down, alone, and shook hands with the guy at the table, who turned out to be the director of the show. His name was Billy, and he was wearing a T-shirt with the name of the restaurant at which the tryouts were being held, along with a matching baseball hat. I said, “Oh, you’re the big cheese. Do you always dress like the staff of the restaurants where you hold auditions?” He started to laugh and said, “No … well, yes, actually.” It was my first lesson in product placement, although he didn’t call it product placement.
I quickly said, “Listen, I have to go because I have a midterm starting in 30 minutes.” He said "Wait, I have to ask you a question," and then he asked me what my sex life was like. I said, “Do people really answer that when you ask them?" He said, "Yes, almost all of them." We laughed. He told me I was funny. He asked me if I was serious about anything, and I said “Yes, I never joke about being late to midterms. If I don’t make this show, graduating from college is my backup life plan.” I said I really had to go, but that he should call me. I knew from the way he was laughing with me that he would, and that I was going to be on The Real World.
The Real World house was not, as I'd assumed, a mansion. We were living on a dock warehouse, on top of water. Every hair follicle on my head starts to weep a little at the irony of it all: I was representing the curly-haired people of the world — while living on the water in the wettest, most humid city in America. Perfect.
The warehouse was like a tricked-out theater stage set. The walls that separated the rooms didn’t go to the ceiling, which was packed with lights and camera equipment. There were no doors on the bedrooms so that the crew could easily walk in and out at will. I met my roommates: Rebecca, Stephen, Lindsay, Janet, and Boston pals from military school David and Nathan. (Contradicting the show's established slogan of "seven strangers picked to live in a house" by casting two old friends was the show's quaint, late-'90s version of a reality twist.)
Before arriving to the show we had all been given a packet of rules, and we would be reminded of them often: Mandatory interviews with directors once a week; no talking to each other about what we were asked in them, or what we said; no talking about the process; no talking to the crew; no breaking the "fourth wall" and acknowledging in any way that we were aware we were on a TV show; and no wearing any name-brand clothing unless it was clothes we were given, like from show sponsors REI or K2. Same thing went with any product: No eating out of non-sponsor-provided jars, and canned or bottled drinks with non-endorsing labels had to be emptied into dark, anonymous glasses.
It seems naive today, when blatantly manipulated and pre-scripted reality television is a staple of our television diets, but at the time I was shocked by how set up for conflict the Real World environment was. Our cast was put to work at a radio station, which only allowed three cast members to be on-air, which of course led to tension because everyone wanted to be DJs. In our weekly interviews, our directors asked us questions to pit us against one another, and we always left them mutually suspicious. I was upset after my very first “interview” because my director was trying to get me to say mean things about my cast members. Plus, I didn’t sign up to be a commercial for K2 snowboards, but I knew the day we were sent to take a snowboarding “lesson” taught by the K2 snowboard team that I was essentially in a commercial for K2 snowboards. I quickly became disillusioned by the process. I was becoming a puppet for a larger machine, one that wasn’t paying me more than minimum wage for my time on-air.
The environment became so toxic that it was unbearable; everyone was fighting all the time, and these fights just led to more fights. I kept reminding the cast that we would all get along under normal circumstance, but they couldn’t see, or didn’t seem to care, that the producers were setting us up to argue. Things were especially bad between me and Stephen; we had been friends in the beginning, but I think because I kept talking about how fake everything was I started to piss off my roommates, and him in particular. Every time I would talk about the “process” the crew would stop filming, their way of hushing me up. I started to tell the cast we should share what we were asked about in our weekly interviews because they were trying to establish plotlines to make us fight. This did not go over too well with the crew, which sat us down as a group to “talk” to us about the process. I told them, if you want to keep it real, film you talking to us about what you are calling a “process.” Hilariously, a junior director of the show said, “She’s right,” and brought out a camera, and the main director said, “Get that camera out of here. Now.”
Meanwhile, the citizens in Seattle hated us. One night a guy jumped into the booth at a bar when we were taping, landed on my head, and said, “Fuck The Real World.” I remember that so vividly because the crew, worried that this person might have hurt my neck, stopped filming. It was one of the very rare moments when they treated me like I was a person rather than a science project.
Three and a Half Months Down, One and a Half to Go
I went to see Good Will Hunting; I never went to the movies, but Lindsay said, “There’s a hot guy in the movie, you should come." I just wanted to be off-camera for a while, and it was the only place we could go and shut our mikes off and not be filmed. I could barely watch the movie, I was so stuck in my head thinking about how I hated being on The Real World. But after seeing the moment when Matt Damon drives away in the car at the end of the movie, I thought to myself, I have to leave this show.
Bunim/Murray already had hours of footage of me, and I was afraid that if I left they wouldn’t show the truth of why I was leaving, that I was sick of being used. I knew I had a better chance of looking okay on TV if I played nice, but I just couldn’t fake it anymore. I was so torn. About a week later, Stephen sent me a very cruel page (yes, I had a pager, a detail that makes me feel ancient). I don’t even remember what it said now, but I do remember the camera crew filming behind my shoulder as I read it, eagerly waiting/hoping for me to flip out. Just as they were when I got home and found that a bunch of my things were missing, including my childhood stuffed animal. At that moment I really knew I was done, and thought, I am not going to say a thing. I am not going to give them the fight they so desperately want to film.
The next day I told the cast I was leaving, and begged them not to say anything in their interviews about why: If they didn't say anything, MTV would be forced to show the truth, that I left the show because it was fake. I told them, “I know you guys don’t want to believe me, but the crew does not care about you. They are using all of us. Art shouldn’t have to hurt. This is not art.” Remarkably, me saying “art shouldn’t have to hurt” was left in my departure show episode. They even showed the cameras on the ceiling of the warehouse in one shot; it felt like a validating "screw you" — I'd forced MTV to break their verboten "fourth wall." It was a small victory. (Admittedly a very very very very very small victory, thinks the woman still best-known for being hit on national TV.)
The Slap Heard Round the World
As I type the details of this infamous moment, it seems absolutely absurd and ridiculous now that it was all set off by a kidnapped stuffed animal — but at the time Beardog (he was a dog but looked like a teddy bear) meant a lot to me. But here goes: I knew Stephen had taken it, and the day I was leaving I asked him three times to please give it back, and he lied and said he didn’t have it. So, as I was walking out of the house and off the show, I very calmly said to him, “I left everyone in the house a gift, and I wanted to leave one for you too. You’re right, a marriage between you and I could never work out. You know that, because you’re a homosexual, Stephen.” Stephen has since come out of the closet; I heard he got married, and I genuinely hope he is happily married. But that does not change what a terrible thing it was to say to him, when that was not what he was putting forward on the show. It was not kind or polite, and I am not proud of it at all. In fact, it’s one of the meanest things I have ever done to another person in my life.
I got into my friend’s car to go to a hotel, and as we drove away, Stephen opened the door and slapped me hard in the face. I don’t remember laughing, even though I see myself doing so on the tape; I think I was just in shock. I remember crying a lot. The side of my face where he hit me was red for hours. I had terrible nightmares for weeks, seeing a huge hand coming at my face and then staring at the camera crew who did nothing more than film while a female got assaulted in front of them. I get that Stephen was just pushed to a point of extreme anger, but the crew, the crew just stood there and watched. What kind of men just stand there while a female gets assaulted?
When the show was on, I would get VHS tapes of the episodes FedExed to my house the night before they aired. At the time, I thought they wouldn’t air me getting hit in the face, because it would make the show look irresponsible (assault is against the law). But when my last two episodes, called (nefariously) "The Truth About Irene" and "Irene Calls It Quits," came, I watched them twice in a row with horror and awe. We understand editing now, because we have Final Cut Pro on our computers, and have been hearing reality stars complaining about getting a “bad edit” for years now. Back in 1998 that was not the case. I couldn’t believe how those final two episodes were cut. It didn't look, to the average viewer, like I was leaving the show because I hated it, though there were hints. Instead, the narrative was that Lyme disease was making me delusional, which was unfair and cruel: Unfair to people with Lyme disease, and cruel to me. I had to call my family members and close friends and warn them about what they were going to see on television. I cried all night. I couldn’t believe they showed me getting hit. My phone kept ringing from friends and family for weeks. Eleven years later, an early Jersey Shore teaser showed Snooki getting punched in the face. There was such an instant outcry and wave of negative media coverage that MTV announced they would pull that scene from a future episode, and released a statement that said, "What happened to Snooki was a crime and obviously extremely disturbing." Back in 1998, not a single journalist called to cover the story of my slap. And MTV keeps gleefully airing it. Even after they stopped airing Snooki getting hit, they still air me getting hit in the face.
I’m not angry at Stephen, or any of the other cast members. People always ask me if I keep in contact with them. Sure! We have biweekly Google Hangout sessions, and … no, I'm kidding. I really don't think about them very much. Not in a bad, dismissive way: We only knew each other for a few short months during which we were pitted against one another, so my guess is, they don’t think about me either. I hope they're doing great; it's the crew I have no respect for.
People always ask me if I regret being on the show. I don’t know, I can’t say. I was on the show, and my life is forever changed because of it. Even though the show was not for me, I’m really proud I walked off it. That was very brave back then, and if it will be forever misunderstood, so be it.
Reality television has changed so much since I was on The Real World. Today, there is no end to the pain we now witness on reality TV. Cast members don't have to be goaded by producers to fight, physically and emotionally; these wannabe-stars go in knowing that regular screaming, feuding, and hair-pulling is expected of them, and they want to deliver in order to get airtime. And the pain shown cuts much deeper: We actually watch the cutting of human flesh and see real blood, as Real Housewives go under the knife to fix the only thing they know how — their looks. I wonder if my slap could attract Snooki-sized attention if it had happened today — but it's far more likely that it would end up as nothing more than fodder for The Soup.