Ari Fitz. She's not the wildcard of MTV's 29th season of The Real World, not the racist, the rich kid, or the hot-tempered hulk. She's the voice of reason in a setting where grease-throwing is a form of communication and hooking up while wearing bear suits seems cute. She's perhaps the most rational thing to hit the once-unprecedented reality TV series since, well, who knows? Initially recognized for its provocative young adult narratives, The Real World is now unequivocally known for showcasing nonsensical debauchery. This go-round, the difference is the previously absent substantive layer Fitz delivers.
It happened in San Francisco over 15 weeks last summer — the taping of The Real World: Ex-Plosion, the season MTV hopes will save the formerly relevant reality show from years of declining ratings. The twist: 30 days into filming, the exes of all seven cast members decide to plunk their suitcases down and move into the Tenderloin flat to add fuel to the already wild house fire.
Sounds fun, right? Fitz didn't think so. She agreed to play herself, not "one-half of the lesbian couple." And over the next three months, viewers will watch the whirlwind intensify while she sits at the eye of the storm.
Fitz (whose real name is Arielle Scott) is 24, black, gay, a model, a techie, an artist, an Aquarius. She's a Bay Area native, born in Vallejo, an Oakland resident for seven years, a frequenter of the city's streets before she was ever allowed in its bars.
She submitted her Real World application last spring and as she completed each stage in the three-month casting process, the concept of being selected felt steadily less ridiculous to her. Then she found her incentive. This past year, Fitz jumped into suspense and horror filmmaking, and when MTV promised to follow her as she created her second film, she was sold. A visceral storyteller at heart, Fitz brings to life storylines that highlight uncomfortable plots and themes, like killing her girlfriends, and blossoming queer polyamorous attractions.
"I've been a hustler all my life," she says, "always proactive about what I want to do. I imagined doing the show would be good for my filmmaking career. There are opportunities that can be built off the platform of The Real World. I don't need MTV's help because my stories are provocative and interesting; it's about expanding my reach. I went in to party but I also went in to work, and that's what I did."
Unapologetic about her aspirations, and shameless about every other aspect of herself. Real World haters might even find themselves tuning in every Wednesday just to watch her dominate the other roommates with her IQ, charisma, and an "old-soul" quality that's both endearing and challenging.
That's the thing: Fitz challenges. She plays herself. By doing so, her roommates and viewers alike are forced to confront their own ideas about what it means to be black, gay, and androgynous. Maybe that was the role she was handpicked to play.
"It would be a huge lie to say I know nothing about the stereotypes created by reality TV," Fitz says. "A family member told me I shouldn't go on to avoid being labeled the 'angry black girl.' But I really believe the network wanted something different, someone who didn't fit into boxes you can easily put people of color in. I think they're trying to reach an audience that's been turned off by stereotypical tropes of queer people and people of color. It was just my job to be me."
She certainly seemed placed as the contrasting archetype for the other roommates to bounce off of.
There's Jay, 26, a Bronx-born Italian who, within the first 15 minutes of episode one, asks to touch Fitz's natural black hair. Cory, 22, a personal trainer from Michigan now working in Los Angeles, does not handle conflict well, especially under the influence of alcohol — the consumption of which, on the show, is substantial. Jenny, 23, is another L.A. transplant by way of Kansas City, an unabashedly raw aspiring actress and the show's "voluptuous blonde girl." Texan tennis teacher Thomas, 22, claims he's not "a snobby rich kid." Jamie, 22, is also from Texas, a tattooed bartender who used to tour with her ex-boyfriend's rock band. Then there's Ashley, 23, from West Virginia, a San Francisco resident before she was cast. She says things like, "My family could buy and sell your family."
Throw them together, add alcohol, a jacuzzi, clubbing, and libidos against backdrops of the Golden Gate Bridge, Muni, Q-bar, Temple, and Dolores Park, and you get, well, an "ex-plosion." Surprisingly, Fitz says, there were no cue cards, teleprompters, or even soft-scripted scenes. This Real World was real. Or at least "real."
"We all watch reality TV and think, 'Really? Did that person just say that? Or did somebody feed them that line?'" she says. "I've been on both sides of reality TV, as a skeptical viewer and as a participant, and I'm amazed at how effortless it was for us to be that batshit crazy. Within the first 24 hours, all the producers did was try to calm us down."
Fitz stays calm, though, even against the absurdity of Real life. When drunk Ashley throws hot oil in Fitz's face for no discernible reason, Fitz finishes her burger, leaves the kitchen, and decides to have a sisterly and sober one-on-one with Ashley the next morning.
There's also been talk of Fitz being a transgender woman, a subject that hasn't been aired on the show yet, but probably will. Fitz says she's not transgender, she's cisgender, meaning her gender identity matches her assigned sex at birth — female. (A transgendered person's gender identity would not match their birth-assigned sex.)
"If people think I'm trans, it's not an insult," Fitz says, "but it's important to understand what that actually means. Sometimes people don't know how to describe me, so they use whatever word they've last seen on the Internet."
Ready for Gender 101?
Gender identity is people's internal sense of their gender. Gender expression is the external communication of that gender identity. Fitz's gender identity is female and her gender expression is androgynous — a magnetic mixture of masculinity and femininity presented through her style, physical features, and mannerisms.
"When people label me as trans, I think they really just mean androgynous," Fitz says. "It's an issue of language and a problem in education."
Maybe we can't whittle it down to just vocabulary deficiencies. The public's thirst for a juicy controversy is, after all, enduring. Fueled by Fitz's 5-foot-10 height and lean frame, rumors will no doubt persist. Through it all, she's learned a thing or two herself.
"I've read the rumors, seen them online," she says. "It even came up when I was out with the roommates. Through hearing those terms thrown around, I've realized how much I actually don't know. It's been an opportunity to expand my own knowledge."
It's unlikely that Fitz will turn around the series, especially when the environment and the plots (think tearful Jacuzzi confessions) around her lean so heavily on the trash of past seasons. If anything, she's the last glimpse of what initially made the series revolutionary — interesting stories of compelling and nuanced individuals.
For those of you who watched the show... Would you go to an erotic dinner with your partner?
ON THE OTHER HAND...
Excerpts from "From Groundbreaking to Gimmick: How "The Real World" Face-Planted on Its Way Back to San Francisco"
[...The world has changed, and The Real World no longer holds the cultural or social relevance that it once did. While cast members might still experience individual success, the infamous, generation-defining moments are no more. Gone are standout scenes like Eric Nies and Kevin Powell’s conversation about race in the show’s inaugural season, which vaguely mirrored what led to an unlikely bond between Coral Jean and Mike "The Miz" Mizanin on The Real World: Back to New York. Gone are instances like a young Tami Roman’s abortion on the show’s second season and Stephen Williams' "Slap Heard 'Round the World" of Irene McGee on The Real World: Seattle. The thrill and the impact have vanished.
There will likely never be another moment more significant than HIV/AIDS activist Pedro Zamora marrying partner Sean Sasser on the first Real World: San Francisco—the first same-sex commitment ceremony ever aired on television. That season is credited with cementing the show as a hit, and Zamora—who died at the age of 22, just hours after the show's season finale—as an icon. Then-President Bill Clinton commended Zamora for his work, and while I could very well be jumping the gun here, I highly doubt any of this season’s cast will do anything worthy of President Obama’s attention in the immediate future.
How would you save the Real World ONTD?