A year ago, Beth Stolarczyk was just another young woman chasing the Hollywood dream in Los Angeles. The Ohio State graduate scraped by doing grunt work on music videos, dreaming of some day stepping in front of the camera as a celebrated actress.
Today, she is still grabbing work as a production assistant when she can get it and still yearns for her big acting break--only now she can't go grocery shopping without strangers yelling out her name across the frozen food bins.
"It happens every day. They scream, 'Beth!' and come running up to me, and they talk to me like they know who I am," said Stolarczyk, 23. "It's freaky. They're talking to me like I'm their next-door neighbor and they know everything I'm doing, and I want to say something back, but I've never seen the person before."
A year ago, Dominic Griffin, 24, was a struggling free-lance music writer and television critic, attending local rock shows and peddling his reviews to a couple of industry trade magazines.
Today, he is still selling his words to any publication that will buy them and, dressed in a ripped pair of Levis, he said he still can't afford a new pair of jeans. But he's become a mini-celebrity on the Los Angeles club scene. Pretty models and actresses approach the gregarious, spiky-haired Irishman to say hello, and when Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes walked up to him one night as an enthusiastic fan, Griffin had to spin around a few times to make sure the rock singer was really talking to him.
What happened? Only this: Stolarczyk and Griffin were among the seven young adults selected by MTV to take up residence in a $2-million Venice, Calif house for six months to appear in the cable channel's soap-opera documentary series, "The Real World." For the past 13 weeks, their rather contentious adventures have been unspooling on national television in weekly installments, like a soap opera.
No one told them it would be like this.
"Oh, I'm sure that maybe once in a while someone will recognize me from the show, but there's no way this is ever going to turn me into some big celebrity," said Aaron Behle, a 21-year-old graduate of UCLA, another of the housemates chosen for the second season of "The Real World."
That was in an interview last June. Taping of the series had been completed, but the first of 22 half-hour episodes was still a few days from appearing on MTV.
While several of the four men and three women hoped that the exposure would give them a boost toward realizing their show-business aspirations, all back then echoed Behle's belief that the show wasn't likely to change their daily lives much.
None of them anticipated that the television exposure would make them so recognizable that they can't walk down the street without being asked for an autograph or grilled about why they behaved the way they did in the series.
"It's a lot of fun, but it's crazy sometimes," said Tami Akbar, 23. "I get people stopping me in shopping malls for an hour at a time. . . . And it's strange. Some people don't understand that it was our real lives that were taped in that house. They come up and say, 'Why did you kick David out of the house? Was that part of the script? I mean you acted like such a bitch, and now you seem so nice.' "
Stolarczyk said that some strangers insist on knowing "my real name. They whisper, 'Come on, you can tell me. I can keep a secret.' I guess they are so used to everything being fake on TV that they just assume that this must be made up too."
Griffin said that when he went to an MTV shoot recently to tape some promotional spots for the program, even one of the company's own sound technicians asked him how many takes they did during certain scenes to get the sound right.
Their lives have become fodder for debate and second-guessing. Irene's wedding, its impact on Jon, Akbar's abortion (she permitted the MTV cameras to follow her to and from the clinic where the procedure was performed), Beth's decision to embarrass Aaron with a male hunk calendar he'd posed for--these are the topics that people want to grill them about. Most of all, however, what they want to discuss is "the incident."
David Edwards, 20, a self-described "black comedian from the streets of Washington, D.C.," was living in the YMCA and sleeping on friends' couches in Los Angeles when he was offered the chance to be part of the second season of "The Real World." When he moved into the fancy home that MTV had rented, he found that the producers had selected for his roommate an 18-year-old, Bible-quoting, country singer from a small town in Kentucky who wanted to hang a Confederate flag in their bedroom.
"Why would they do that unless they wanted turmoil?" Edwards said of the producers. "Why stick me in a room with someone who wants to hang a rebel flag? Conflict. And conflict is ratings, and that's fine except they try to make the black male look like he's an animal."