Dan gives MTV viewers a 'real' look at his life

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
September 1996

I was at a loss when I interviewed Dan Renzi, this season's hot young gay guy on Real World V, taped in Miami. Having just moved to San Francisco, I don't yet have a TV. But I have always been a fan of the show since its inception, despite the constant debate on whether it's actually 'real' or just bullshit. Who cares? We all know how it works, believe what you want.

I have been talking to gay teens for the past five years. And each year of The Real World, MTV has been good about serving up at least one gay character to its large, young demographics. (Well, okay, they did stiff last year, and it was excruciating waiting the whole season insisting Jay, who was oh-so-fine would finally come out, despite his constantly referencing his girlfriend.)

But aside from the London "cast," each year we have had a chance to peek into someone's queer life and see how they live, how they've adjusted and how things are going for them. I personally know many people whom the late Pedro Zamora and his boyfriend Sean gave the courage to come out, or to accept their gay feelings.

So, I know the impact can be very real, despite whether you think the show is or not. But this year, I've missed seeing the new season and I've only heard bits and pieces about the new 22-year-old gay guy, Dan. I knew he was hot, I've seen enough pictures to know that much. But, I didn't have the benefit of seeing what he was like.

"Don't worry about it. It's nothing exciting," Dan tells me. "I'm not that interesting, I don't think. Some people seem to think so, though."

This I did know. Prior to the interview, I did what scant research I could by looking online for Real World discussions. I found out that aside from Flora, the female cast member everyone seems to call a bitch, Dan ranks as the second most talked about cast member this season. So, I told him what I found.

He laughed wildly when I told him about the teen-aged girl who posted that she still plans to droll over him "even though you're gay," and that, to her, he ranks second only to Brad Pitt. More severe laughter occurred when yet another person complained about how Dan "talks so damn much." In a sign of the times, the person who suggested the show be called "Real Dan 5" quickly added, "I have nothing against gay people, though."

The most telling comment came, as usual, from an anti-gay poster, who once again ragged on Dan's inability to stop talking. But this message knew why Dan can't keep quiet.

"Homosexuals are like that, though," the message said. "Because they've got an oral fixation, if you know what I mean..."

Dan again laughed wildly, and agreed he had a fixation.

"Yep. I talk and talk and talk until someone shoves a penis in my mouth, and then I shut up," he said.

But then, he offered advice to people spending their time complaining about him: "If I'm annoying, turn the channel, that's all you have to do, instead of ragging on me on the Internet or in person."

'I'm going to be on this show someday'

Dan says being on The Real World was something he knew he would do the very first time he saw one of the episodes from the first season.

"When I was in high school, I started watching the one in New York, and I saw Norman [Korpi]. And when you saw Norman, you knew there was so much more to him than they were showing. He was gay and they were kind of tiptoeing around it.

"And, I remember distinctly, I came in from mowing the yard, and was sitting in front of the TV. It was the first time I had seen it, had no idea what it was and figured it was a documentary or whatever. And I said, 'I'm going to be on this show someday,' and turned it off and walked away.

"You know how you just know something? And I didn't watch it for the rest of the season. I was waiting for my turn. I eventually watched it in reruns and that's when I saw more of Norman, an actual honest-to-God gay man ... living in Kansas I had never seen one of those, because we were all bisexual," he says, laughing.

"So, he was unlike anyone I had ever seen, because he was on TV and just doing whatever, and they trivialized him a little bit. And I knew he wasn't a straight actor pretending to be gay, because I can always tell," he says. "The more I watched it, I was like, 'This sucks! He's not doing anything! I'm sure he's doing things and they're just not showing it.' So, I said 'I'm going to go on there and give them something to show.'"

But Dan went beyond planning to show how he lives his life, he insisted on it being shown -- or else.

"I put in the application that I'm going to go out and lead a life, and if you don't put it on the show, I'm going to be really pissed off. Translation: it's going to be a public relations nightmare for the show. I was in the semi-finals when I was saying this," he says. "In the finals, the director was telling me the gay population's really visible and we want to explore that a little bit. And I looked at him with a straight face and said, 'Why the hell do you think I'm applying for this show, Tom?' And he just smiled, and said, 'OK, good.' I was like, do you think I'm going to go in the closet?

"That's my favorite thing, when people say, 'You're really gay?' and I say, 'Yeah.' And they go, 'Well, are you gay on the show?' And I look at them and say, 'Do you think I'm going to be in the closet for five months with a camera in my face 24 hours a day? How the hell am I supposed to do that?"

'We had sexual needs'

Dan says having cameras follow him around actually helped him find cool people to date and with whom to become friends.

"The thing with guys is that they would either run to me when they saw the cameras, because they wanted to be on the show, or they would run away," he says. "And, there were so few people who would look at it and accept it for what it was and say, 'Oh, you're on a television show. I guess I'm going to be, too, if I talk to you.' And those are the people that you were friends with, the people who don't really give a shit.

"[My boyfriend] Johnny was one of four people I talked to who really just didn't care. And that's just the kind of person he is, a real mellow guy," he says. "He was much more interested in who I was, rather than the cameras. So, it was really good at weeding people out."

The MTV publicity machine is milking the fact that Dan will start dating, but his boyfriend's "in the closet." Johnny was his boyfriend, who was not in the closet. MTV has its story wrong, Dan says.

"Arnie was in the closet and he was not my boyfriend. The show is describing him as my boyfriend, but he was someone with whom I was friends with and we had sex," he says. "Arnie is a wonderful human being, and to trivialize that sounds negative toward him. He was great, but we were not dating. We were going out, but dating other people. We were just sleeping with each other. It was a really close friendship. We really liked each other. And I still have a lot of respect for him. I'm not too sure he can say the same about me."

Dan would left the apartment when he had sex, to avoid the cameras.

"Originally, there was a rule that you were to sleep in the house every single night. Within a week, both Flora and I broke that rule. I had met Arnie, and his apartment was a good place to go to get away from the cameras, because they never really followed me over there. They didn't care," he says. "So, once you start sleeping out, [the producers] started trying to pressure us into staying. They were really good at intimidating us into doing what they wanted us to do. But in the end, they couldn't fire us. If we wanted to go someplace that they couldn't come, there was nothing they could do.

"So, therefore, when we wanted to have sex, we would go someplace where they weren't allowed in and they would get really pissed off. So, we ended up making a truce with the director, and we agreed we had 'sexual needs' and it would be okay if we stayed out of the house one night a week. And I was like, 'well, I don't care if you think it's okay or not, I'm going to do it.' If we had sex in the house, forget it.

"People did end up having sex in the house and then they complained that it was on film. And Arnie was never comfortable with being publicly affectionate. The only place I could even give him a kiss was in his apartment, because he was in the closet."

However, Dan said the crew did take great pains to make sure he and Johnny got comfortable being around the cameras.

"Anytime Mike brought home girls, they ran after him and trailed him like you wouldn't believe and try to get every detail. As soon as I started getting remotely affectionate with Johnny, they would leave me alone. And it was obvious they were trying to get me comfortable with it, and one time Johnny and I were in the hot tub and for the first time, it was month three, they quit taping. They said, we're going to leave you two alone, and they had never done that before," he says. "Another time, Johnny and I were in the bathroom, because that's the only place with a door on it, but we had the door open and I was sitting on the counter getting ready and we were just talking and kissing and the camera snuck in. I didn't even realize they were there until I came up for air. You know, our clothes were on and everything and as soon as the cameras saw me notice them, they left. I would have kept going. It was totally cool.

"Every time I kissed him good night, they would hide in the bushes. And with everyone else, they would just stand there and stare at them. They didn't want a porno movie. They wanted to show us as human beings," he says. "They were clear they wanted to show it in a positive, romantic, respectful way."

'I'm not ashamed'

Dan doesn't have any regrets about being on the show, even though he said there are some moments he wished weren't on tape.

"I embarrassed myself every day, but I'm not ashamed of anything. Because you should never do anything you're that embarrassed about anyway," he said. "I'm embarrassed that while playing truth or dare and I was wearing a pair of red bikini underwear, shaking my balls so [one of his house mates] could see them swing. That was the thing, she wanted to see them move. Yes, that's embarrassing, but it's not degrading.

"I never did anything that degraded myself, I don't think, but other people in the house did. And they're pissed off now and they want the rules changed. They're saying, 'I don't think that's fair and I don't want that on TV.' Well, then you shouldn't have done it. Flat out. You signed a contract. You should not have done it. It keeps you honest. Flora sleeps around with a couple of guys and is totally unapologetic. She says, 'yeah, that's how it is.' That's what she wants to do."

Dan says it can be difficult having a camera in your face almost constantly for five months.

"You overanalyzed everything you do. There was a fight when Melissa was a little bit drunk and screaming at me. She had a bad habit of reading people's mail. Flat out, she just did. She always went through people's shit, even went through my computer files a couple times. It was just so infuriating, because that's my pet peeve. My parents found out I was gay because they went through my mail, and I have a huge problem with people going through my shit," he says. "So, we started screaming and I called her a bitch. And she had never been called a bitch in her life. Ever. And she had no idea what to do, so she wigged out. I wish that it hadn't happened but there was no other way to handle it.

And little arguments, once on tape and edited properly, can take on a life of their own, despite the reality of the situation.

"That's what's going to get ratings, and I totally understand it. And I did it, so I'm not complaining. I'm not ashamed, but it's a bummer it has to be portrayed that way because no one looks good. Everyone loses. Everyone looks stupid. Even the look on my face said that was a mistake," he says. "The next day we totally made up, and I'm glad. I think the director was pissed off we made up that quickly. I think Melissa was being fake about it and playing up the melodrama."

'I thought I was asexual'

Growing up mostly in Kansas, Dan never thought he was gay.

"I never really though about sex. I figured it was because I grew up in the Midwest and was never exposed to that. I wasn't attracted to women, so I thought I was asexual," he says. "For me, one day, I was watching MTV (he quickly says 'duh!,' noting the irony that he's now doing publicity for MTV) and I saw this guy and said 'wait a minute, I think I'm attracted to this guy.' And it just hit me. I think I'm gay. It was no big deal.

"The only thing I had problems with was several years down the road when I started thinking back and I realized that I did have crushes on guys. When my best friend in high school started dating woman, I was so pissed off. But I couldn't figure out why," he says. "I thought I was an asexual person, planning my life to be single and never do anything. It just made me bitter because no one ever told me. I had to figure out on my own that that was something you could do. I missed out on so much when I was a little kid, all my childhood crushes and everything. And that's just fun. I just didn't know I was going through it."

And now, just a few short years later, he is becoming one of the best known gay youth in the country. He's turned his Real World stint into a modeling career, which began while he was on the show. He recently did a bunch of runway shows in New York for Tommy Hilfiger, Hugo Boss and DKNY. "I'm just making money for school right now. I'm just working and trying to play this up and get as much money as possible," he says. He plans to return to Rutgers University in the Spring, where he was the editor of the school paper and politically active.

Dan says the one decision he did make before going on the show is to be political about being openly gay and give the producers total access to his life.

"I figured the most political thing I could do is not be political at all, and to go out, live my life, not talk about it as an issue, but yet show my life and I gave them free reign of everything. The producers thanked me, because I left them into everything. Except sex, obviously," he says. "I went and got an HIV test, they went with. I got dumped on camera. Arnie ended up dumping me, brought me in front of the camera and said he never wanted to see me again, and I got so pissed off. I started to cry, and I hope they show that, because I hope it shows that I'm not a walking sound byte. I'm an actual person. Even people who are walking sound bytes, they're still people too, but they lose their humanity because they're so filled with rhetoric, and I just couldn't do that because that's what people are going to expect. So, I just toned it down a bit and tried to be a quote-unquote normal, whatever normal is, guy."

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.
©1996 Oasis Magazine. All Rights Reserved.