Brave New World
Spoken like a true Yank. The fresh-faced New York University sophomore, a varsity fencer, is one of a trio of Americans in the fourth—and first international—edition of The Real World, the hit MTV series in which seven photogenic young adults are thrown into a funkily decorated communal setting and taped, documentary-style, for 20 weeks. From late January through mid-June, a three-story renovated townhouse in London's trendy Notting Hill was home (rent free) to Ogden; Mike Johnson, 21, who has the blond good looks and laid-back friendliness of a surfer (although he's a car racer), and Jay Frank, 19, a lanky actor described by Real World producer-director George Verschoor as "a sensitive Jimmy Stewart type."
This time there were non-Americans involved too. The quartet (who, along with MTV, refuse to divulge their last names, on grounds of privacy and fostering viewer-pleasing casualness) included Neil, 24, who was taking time off from graduate psychology studies at Oxford to front a punk band; Lars, 24, a cigarette-slim, leather-jacketed party promoter from Berlin; Sharon, 20, a gregarious British singer; and Jacinda, 22, a kittenish Australian model. Lurking in back rooms, meanwhile, was the 25-person production crew. Constantly monitoring the household with concealed microphones and cameras, they could rush in at a moment's notice and start shooting.
The cast members—chosen, according to MTV, from 25,000 hopefuls—got used to being watched even before they left home. During Frank's last evening with his girlfriend in Portland, Ore., cameramen hovered over the sofa as the lovers kissed farewell. "That's the one thing that has bothered my conscience," says Frank, "dragging her into it."
After setting up houses in Manhattan, Venice Beach, Calif., and San Francisco during the three previous Real World seasons, producers chose an international cast and picked the London site to take advantage of the show's growing foreign audience. And, indeed, it is a Brit, Neil, who provides an early highlight: He gets his tongue bitten when, during a rock-club gig, he jokingly tries to kiss a man in the audience. He also fancies Ogden (a "flirtation," she says).
Producers were curious to see in what other ways the multinational cast would click. Or clash. (On the first day in London, Johnson asked a surprised Lars, "Didn't there used to be two Germanys?") But barriers quickly broke down. "If I wanted to go to the pub, I'd get Neil," says Johnson. "If I wanted to go to the park, I'd go with Jacinda. If I wanted to go to a dance club, I'd go with Lars." In fact the London experiment went relatively smoothly, without the drama of last season's San Francisco Real World, in which housemates dealt with Pedro Zamora's AIDS (he died in November) and banished Puck, the obnoxious bike messenger. As Neil observes of the Yanks in the first episode, "They seem to have brains."
Fencer Kat Ogden turned out to be the most open to change. "During the interview process she was interviewing us," says Real World production executive Lisa Berger. One of four children, Ogden was born on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where her father, Fred, works as a commercial fisherman. Her mother, Margaret, is a freelance writer. When Ogden was 8, the family settled on a five-acre spread in Yelm. Kat credits her parents with stressing education. "For years we didn't have a couch," she says. "But there was always enough money for books." And fencing lessons. Following the example of her grandfather, a stunt fighter in '30s movies, she has been a fencer since age 11. In the course of the show, she flies to San Jose to compete in the Junior Olympics.
If Ogden is the group's swashbuckler, Johnson, a business-marketing major at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., is its hell on wheels. "If you want to race," says Johnson, who grew up in Ladue, a wealthy suburb of St. Louis, "you go to England," where most of the world's race cars are built. Johnson was introduced to the sport by his father, Duke, who runs a company that manufactures food-service equipment; he races on the side. (His mother, Terry, is a saleswoman for a paint company; the couple divorced when Mike was 2.) "You have the highest highs and the lowest lows," says Johnson, who regularly races Formula 2000 cars at St. Louis's Gateway International. "I don't know if I enjoy the outright speed as much as the competition, looking at guys you know and pounding them."
But not everyone can stay in the fast lane. Aspiring actor Frank was the quietest, least active one in the Real World house in London. "The episode's going to come up where I sleep in and get called a slacker," says Frank, ruefully. "That's what I'll be remembered for." Not so in Portland, where he grew up. His parents, Linda and Greg Streight, divorced before he was 2; last year he was adopted by his stepfather, Scott Frank, a management consultant. While a student at Grant High, Frank created and performed in a one-man show, Bedroom, about a teenage boy who has both insomnia and an extremely active imagination. Its three-night run last summer netted him $12,000. Frank was also named a Presidential Scholar and got to shake hands in July with Bill Clinton at the White House. "He had a really soft hand," he notes.
All three Americans are now back in the States, getting on with the real world, wondering how friends and viewers will respond to the MTV version. Frank is planning to apply to college music-theater programs. Ogden will be captain of the fencing team when she returns to NYU next month. Johnson also expects to return to school. And, of course, racing is in his heart. On a trip back to St. Louis, he says, "I got a speeding ticket in the first 24 hours."
LYDIA DENWORTH in London