The premise was simple yet intriguing: put a group of strangers in a house and film them as they “stop being polite and start getting real.” The Real World, which marked MTV’s first foray into non-music programming when it debuted in 1992, was an instant success, setting a blueprint for reality docusoaps to come and inspiring multiple spin-offs. A central tenet of the show was its firm and, at the time, radical belief that diversity was integral to its success. Producers positioned difference as a vehicle for social change and “growth” amongst the cast (as well as, let’s be clear, tension, conflict, and dramatic storylines)—but the series ultimately sparked meaningful dialogue off-screen, too.
The Real World: San Francisco, the third season of the show, which aired in 1994, featured a boisterous cast of seven roommates (including notable antagonist David “Puck” Rainey), but it’s best remembered through the legacy of its most beloved star, Pedro Zamora. Zamora, a 22-year-old Cuban American AIDS activist who had been diagnosed when he was 17, made history when he became the first cast member, and one of the first reality TV stars, to openly live with AIDS. He also broke barriers when he and his partner, fellow cast member Sean Sasser, took part in one of the first same-sex commitment ceremonies ever aired on television. While Zamora’s time on the show marked a huge step for on-screen representation, it was also his tireless commitment to fighting the stigma around HIV-AIDS, as well as his efforts to dispel homophobia and misconceptions about queer identity, that helped to change the minds of his castmates and viewers alike. Over the course of 20 episodes, Zamora humanized an epidemic that had long been characterized by fear and ignorance, so much so that then-President Bill Clinton thanked him for his activism. The star, whose condition worsened over the course of filming, died the night after the finale of his season aired. But his legacy as both an educator and a foundational reality TV figure lives on. —Cady Lang
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