Melissa Beck burst onto MTV in 2000 as part of the cast of The Real World: New Orleans and quickly won over millions of viewers with her deadpan descriptions of life in the house, quickness to crush, and lightning-fast jokes. Melissa’s fans saw the best of themselves in her while yearning to somehow be sucked into her orbit. But at the time, Beck (then Howard) had her detractors as well. Daughter to a Black father and a Filipino mother, she was quick to call out racist actions and words as well as inequality, something that didn’t always sit well with early-aughts audiences who weren’t ready to hear it. After The Real World, she hit the college lecture circuit and launched an early blog called Princess Melissa in an effort to better explain herself. She joined the cast of Girls Behaving Badly, married Glassjaw’s Justin Beck, and had a few kids. And then, 20-odd years later, MTV came calling again.
Like Homecoming: New York and Los Angeles before it, New Orleans is a celebration of The Real World’s origins and impact but also a coming to terms with moments, arguments, and depictions that have aged abysmally, with cast members offering apologies (or shitty justifications, in some cases) for their immaturity or just plain stupidity. Vulture caught up with Beck from Los Angeles, where she was preparing to join fellow New Orleans cast member Danny Roberts onstage at an FYC event, to talk about reconnecting and reckoning with early-aughts reality-TV stardom.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What were your initial thoughts when you were approached to do Homecoming?
By the time we were approached to gauge our level of interest, I had already seen Homecoming: New York because I have always been a fan of The Real World, even before I got onto the show. I was watching the show as a fan but also as a person who actually had that highly specific experience where your life is changed forevermore by being on The Real World. So when I was watching scenes where Julie Gentry was explaining how she would go on auditions and people would know exactly who she was, but at the same time, she wasn’t able to leverage that visibility into the career of her dreams, that really spoke to me. I really enjoyed getting their perspective on that very weird in-between space before social media and before influencers where we had to navigate life as post-reality-TV not-stars.
I didn’t think they would jump all the way to season nine because there are so many amazing seasons between two and eight. So when I got that call, I was like, It’ll never happen. By the time they get to me, I’ll be 65. When they finally did say that we were chosen, I tell you what, it turned my household upside down. My poor husband was like, “Oh gosh, do we have to talk about The Real World again?” I was like, “You don’t understand! It’s going to be life-changing!” I have been so comfortable in my suburban anonymity. I’m very attached to my Thursday Costco run, so I had to think, What is this going to mean for my day-to-day life? But then when I did the calculus of streaming and how many options people have in terms of what they want to sit down and watch on TV, I really comforted myself with the idea that no one was going to watch, and so that was part of the decision.
But as it turns out, people are watching. It has resonated with those same young people that watched it in 2000. I had a lot of trepidation going into it, and I prepared the completely wrong way. I prepared for all the ways in which it can go wrong, and it went really right.
Having watched New York, you’d have to know, Oh, they’re going to try and talk about this heated moment. Did you prepare talking points or ideas that you wanted to make sure got out?
When producers approached me about it, their whole thing was like, “There are going to be hard conversations because we’re going to revisit the racism conversations that you had. We’re going to revisit ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” which Danny had to become the face of and endure for many, many years postshow. So I understood that there was an emotionally wrought intellectual conversation to be had, but I also was told it would be genuinely fun. They wanted to really touch on nostalgia, which, if you look at the landscape of television right now, everybody’s rebooting everything. So I understood that.
I did not watch the show again. I’ve only watched the show one time and that was in the year 2000 when it came out. I really did not want to revisit that because it’s like listening to your voice on an answering machine. So I just went in there raw and understood that we were going to have to talk about the swamp thing. I was thinking, Oh God, they’re gonna bring back all the times that I was flirting with Jamie and here I am now happily married, and that’s going to be a weird conversation. But it was fine. I stayed inside my body as best I could and got the work done. I’m still standing.
Did you end up watching Homecoming, or did you shy away?
Oh my God, of course. In the old-school days, they would send us a VHS tape in a padded yellow bubble envelope. So I was hoping to get a little email link every Tuesday before the show went out into the world, but we didn’t. I watched it in real time with everybody else. I’d stay up until 2:30 in the morning Pacific time, when the episodes would show up on Paramount, and I just devoured it.
Given that New Orleans was the ninth season, you all sort of knew what you were getting into, but there was still some realism to it. We weren’t yet at the level of full-on hot-tub orgy.
That’s one of the things! The show had been on for eight seasons by the time we got on, and we kind of did know what we were getting into, but the piece that I didn’t understand was the permanence of the choice. I’m now 45 years old, and I’m still Melissa from The Real World. Throughout the years, the recognition has waned, but it ebbs and flows. That’s something we were really not prepared for. It was before the onslaught of social media and all the different layers of being able to market yourself as a person who was on this TV show. We were at the tail end of that era. So I do feel like our season was special in that we didn’t have that. We could still be kind of real. I wasn’t going to do the show and then sell you a tea to make you lose weight.
Homecoming has been so validating for people like Kevin in New York or Tami in Los Angeles. As viewers now, we can say, “Oh, that was very wrong,” but at the time, a lot of America just didn’t realize they — and you — were being shit on for very horrible reasons. How did the experience of being asked to become almost a spokesperson for your existence affect you?
There were two sides of the show for me. There was the one side where people were like, “Wow, that little girl Melissa on the Real World is so funny. She seems like she’d be a good friend.” There was also, “Wow, that Melissa girl is so annoying. All she ever does is talk about race.” I was completely disliked on one side because I called out racism for what it was. Not to say that I was the first person thinking about those things openly, but on MTV, in that form, as a very young person who was still learning about her own identity, who was still trying to sort through the language that has evolved in so many ways in the past 20 years … I was not prepared for the level of vitriol that would come my way for just having a human emotion after being offended by a racial slur. It made me insular in ways that I didn’t know could affect my emotional health as much as they did. Figuring out how to separate Melissa from The Real World and Melissa Beck, the real person that has to live in this life and raise kids and have a happy marriage, that’s work.
I was very protective of my world because I’ve got a very good man, I’m happy as shit, and I’m having a great life. But I also felt very respected in my conversations with the production people before going into Homecoming. I voiced my opinion and said, “I want you to be careful with the storytelling around revisiting those racism conversations because there were some blind spots last time. I really hope that you can tell a more nuanced story this time, and in so doing, I hope that there are people behind the scenes that look like me that can explain what I’m saying if you don’t understand it.” And I do think they got it right.
Some of the conversations that you all have on the show, whether they’re about race or Matt’s religious inflexibility in dealing with Danny — those are very nuanced adult conversations. Those are not conversations 20-year-olds in 2000 would necessarily understand how to have.
One hundred percent. The conversations that Danny and Matt were having were literally about trying to separate the personal from the global. Danny’s ultimate message has always been acceptance regardless of religious dogma, and also that religion should teach acceptance. It should not even be a conversation. So I think there was some frustration trying to get to that. At the same time, sometimes when you’re watching these discussions as viewers, you’re like, “Why didn’t this person jump in and say this?” But there’s really so much value in staying in your lane. I felt like I needed to speak to the things that I could speak most thoroughly to, but I also wanted to support Danny in his quest to make sure that he was separating, like, “Matt, I have no issues with you. I think that you’re a nice guy. I think you’re a great dad. But homophobia is not awesome.” I think that was made clear, but I also lived it and I don’t know how people perceive it.
There are three different layers, really. There’s the filming of the show, there’s the cutting together of the show, and then there’s the perception of the show. What I live, what happens on the show, and how we receive it are all three different things. But for me, personally, I think that it’s pretty close.
You make a good point in the series about “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” being the first reality-show hit.
I mean, some people will probably think that I’m putting a little extra on it, but I don’t care. I really feel this way. “Come On Be My Baby,” as Matt so concisely said on the episode, was a viral moment before viral moments were a thing. When Tokyo went on Dave Chappelle, the scope and reach of The Real World got into the faces of people that might have not been watching it. A lot of people were watching it, but “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” was one of those things where you could watch only that episode and you would remember Real World New Orleans. I always think of “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” as kind of the eighth roommate who didn’t get the love that he deserved.
Before going into Homecoming, I went to Tokyo, just because you don’t know where people are in their relationships with how they appeared on the show. So I was just like, “If there’s anything you feel that you don’t want to talk about on-camera, let me know, because I don’t want to make anybody feel uncomfortable. I want you to be able to feel safe talking about whatever it is. Having said that, I need you to know that ‘Come On Be My Baby Tonight’ is some pivotal, iconic shit, and I’m gonna need you to accept that.” He was just like, “No, no, I get it.”
I have to imagine that, if it were me, I would be in my head about it because I wouldn’t know if people really loved the song or if they were making fun of it. Or were they making fun of it then, but now they really love it? You mention Kim Zolciak’s “Don’t Be Tardy for the Party” in the show, and that’s definitely a song that I once hated but now I love.
I’m sure there’s a television term for this kind of mechanism, but it has this Urkel quality, where you’re not supposed to like Urkel, but you kind of love Urkel. That’s what “Come On Be My Baby Tonight” is.
Honestly, even outside of that, like, let’s get away from the pop-cultural impact of that song: Tokyo is genuinely talented as a musician. It’s a skill set to make multiple earworms off the top of your head. That’s crazy. The way that his mind works, his musicianship, the way he can play the piano, it’s genuinely beautiful. If you just listened to the opening chords of “Come On Be My Baby Tonight,” they’re beautiful. They’re beautiful! And I just wanted to say to him, “I have always believed in your talent as a musician. If you don’t believe it, I’m telling you.”
You mentioned “Don’t Be Tardy” and “Money Can’t Buy You Class” on the show. Are you a Real Housewives fan?
I fell off recently, but I am a Housewives person. I have watched them all. Obviously I love Atlanta, but I started with Orange County. I’m that deep. I’m talking about when Gretchen was still with the old guy. I’m talking about when Slade was still with Jo. I stayed with Housewives of Beverly Hills, but when Lisa Vanderpump did her offshoot, Vanderpump Rules, that became my absolute ultimate favorite show. I also read Dave Quinn’s book Not All Diamonds and Rosé. Hearing all of the producers and different executives behind the show and all the references that they made to The Real World in terms of how to make this kind of television compelling, I was just like, “Wow, it’s a total full-circle moment.”