09/11/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Julie Stoffer was getting annoyed. Sitting in the cramped living room of her off-campus Provo, Utah, apartment last December, five Brigham Young University classmates were warning her of the temptations—drinking, cohabitation, sex-cast members face on the hit MTV series The Real World. (The show brings together seven young strangers, sets them up in a house in a large city and videotapes their interactions.) Then, as if on cue, the phone rang. The show's producers were on the line with news that the then-20-year-old Stoffer had been chosen to be on the show. "I started screaming uncontrollably down in a fetal position on the floor," recalls Stoffer. "I was so happy—but no one [else] was."
The moment marked a turning point for Stoffer. For while her decision to spend four months in a New Orleans mansion with six other twentysomethings—four men and two women—was liberating, it not only upset her parents and members of the Mormon community, it led to a yearlong suspension from BYU.
"It's about whether she upheld the university's code of ethics," says a BYU spokeswoman of the honorcode committee's decision. According to Stoffer's parents, the college asserts that Julie's relationship with men in the house—including sharing a bed—violated school policy. "To insinuate that I was sleeping with a guy, or having sex, is totally false," she has said. "This changed my opinion of BYU in a big way," she adds.
With her mix of religious beliefs, wide-eyed innocence and thirsty curiosity, the lanky blonde has been one of the show's most intriguing characters. She shocked her black roommates by calling African-Americans "colored," then broke down in tears of shame when upbraided for the gaffe. She also surprised a homosexual housemate with her cluelessness about gay culture. "It didn't make sense why people were that way," says Stoffer.
Stoffer's naïveté was just what the show's creators were seeking. "A lot of our audience comes from simple, insular backgrounds,"-says executive producer Jon Murray. "Julie's experience makes for a relatable story."
Religion has long been a focal point in Stoffer's world. Born in Provo to BYU alums Jan, 45, a corporate trainer, and James Stoffer, also 45 and an electronics engineer, Julie moved 11 times before the eighth grade, when the family finally settled in Delafield, Wis., near Milwaukee. The oldest of five children, she set her sights on BYU, maintaining a 4.0 average in high school and memberships in the Spanish club and on the cross-country and volleyball teams. "If you were a Mormon kid, BYU was the epitome of where you go," she says. "It seemed like Utopia to be around all these Mormons."
Reality proved otherwise. After enrolling in 1997 and eventually majoring in business, Stoffer was feeling restless by her junior year. "The guys were run-of-the-mill—not at all titillating," says Stoffer, who has had little experience dating. She was about to take a semester off when she heard about the Real World campus auditions. Having watched the show only a couple of times—BYU blocks its transmission on campus—Stoffer applied on a whim, along with hundreds of other students. She kept the application a secret from her parents, breaking the news not long before flying to Los Angeles for the semifinals. "I wanted to get out of Provo [for a while]," she explains. Not surprisingly, her parents were opposed. "I was worried about Julie living in a house with boys," says her father. "I was afraid people would attack her faith," her mother adds.
Despite her parents' initial objections—and threats to cut off financial assistance—an eager but nervous Stoffer arrived at the Real World house Jan. 11. "At first she was intimidated by everything," says her roommate Kelly, 23, an aspiring TV host from Fayetteville, Ark. "Julie came with closed-minded views," says Danny, 23, a model from Rockmart, Ga., who is openly gay. "But she was so willing to open up and learn about different people." That honesty and courage impressed her housemates and led to friendships.
And while acknowledging that the household was sexually charged—"We were all checking each other out," Stoffer says—she adhered to the rules of her faith, attending church and avoiding alcohol and sex. "Nothing that went on was immoral," says her father, who found Julie's behavior exemplary and has become a fan of the show.
Her family's support—plus a job on MTV's Real World Road Rules Challenge (airing in early 2001), a competition between alums of Real World and Road Rules, a similar show—has left Stoffer exultant. Calling her New Orleans stay a "life-altering experience," she returned to Wisconsin in May. Since then she has managed her parents' Wholly Cow malt shop, given several press interviews and created her own Web site (planetjulie.com, before hitting the road with MTV in July. And although BYU suggested Stoffer, now 21, reapply for admission, she'll likely transfer to another college. "The Real World turned out to be a godsend to me," she says. "It was the answer to my prayers."
Barbara Sandler in Delafield