David Burns was my first “celebrity” crush who was not a real celebrity. In the summer of 1998, as I teetered between middle and high school, The Real World: Seattle premiered and there was David with his slicked-back hair, weathered leather jacket, and multi-colored eyes (one blue, one brown). He had a penchant for black turtlenecks, which softened his raised-fist, tough guy veneer. The rest of the roommates stuck to their assigned job at a local alterna-rock radio station, while he opted for a gig at the infamous Pike Place Fish Market, unpacking seafood at the crack of dawn with a crew of surly men in bright-orange jumpsuits.
I started recording episodes on VHS, which I rewatched and rewound over and over until the tape started to skip. Then I made a fan site for him, pilfering images I’d found on MTV’s website. I hardly went outside for the rest of the summer.
I was a sheltered 14-year-old girl living in Berkeley, California with a cable TV subscription that allowed me access to the real world—meaning The Real World, meaning David, who had grown up unsheltered in a rough neighborhood in Boston. That was enough, but then came his secretive, star-crossed relationship with casting director Kira. Early on in the season, the fourth wall was knocked down when it was revealed that David and Kira, who interviewed him extensively during auditions for the show, had fallen for each other. A wrenching romantic epic ensued and my pubescent heart swelled.
I’d obsessively watched all of the previous six seasons of MTV’s groundbreaking show depicting “the true story of seven strangers, picked to live in a house... and have their lives taped,” but David brought something different than previous cast members. He was a perfect archetype of the sensitive bad boy, a type I had chased throughout my feverish years of online fandom in the ’90s, which took me from Leonardo DiCaprio, with his motley crew of tortured fictional characters, to AJ McLean, the tattooed, floor-humping Backstreet Boy with the kooky facial hair, and then to David, a regular person who was neither playing a role nor performing choreographed humpage. David was part pop-culture creation, part real-life man.
Over the past two decades, I haven’t thought much about David, who, unlike many Real World cast members, did not keep chasing the reality TV spotlight. Then, late last year, I realized that he was, um, kind of a coworker of mine? He’s worked in media for years, including recently as global head of Originals & Content Licensing at Univision, Jezebel’s now-former parent company. He’s since left, but an idea was sparked. I tracked down his email and wrote to him: “Two decades ago, I ran a short-lived fan site for you. Now, here I am, a professional journalist, and an alleged adult, looking to exploit my job in the interest of realizing a teenage dream.” He gamely agreed.
Amid a flushed pubescent flashback, I spoke with David about his experience being on the other side of obsessive ’90s fandom and the lingering “what ifs” around Kira(!). More importantly, he suggested we grab a beer the next time we’re in the same city. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: What was it like for you when The Real World: Seattle started airing in 1998?
DAVID BURNS: It was a complete shock for me. I had gone on a study abroad trip to Morocco five days after we wrapped shooting. I went and lived in Fez and Marrakesh for an entire summer. I was in a different headspace. I actually kind of forgot that I had done the show. Then, when I got back, I got off the plane in JFK Airport and I was swarmed by people outside of customs. I had no idea what the fuck was going on. My buddy Charlie was standing next to me going, “What’s going on?” I’m like, “I don’t know!” We literally ran out of the airport.
I just wasn’t aware of the cause and effect. It was 1998. I didn’t have any ambitions to go on reality TV. I had studied abroad four times before that. In my mind, this would be another cool adventure with cameras around. But in those times, I literally couldn’t walk the streets without being physically mobbed.
So you knew going into it that you were going to be on TV, but you didn’t anticipate the actual impact it would have on your life.
I didn’t. I’d spent a majority of my life in all-boys schools and boarding schools. So I didn’t have TV. I just played sports, studied, and then in the summer, I was playing in tennis tournaments or studying abroad somewhere. So I definitely had an unconventional late adolescence where other people were watching Real World. I wasn’t even around girls. I was a perfect cast member for them because I really had no frame of reference.
How did you end up auditioning, then?
I was coming home from a tennis tournament in Georgia and my team’s bus parked in Richmond, Virginia, and there was a giant line of girls outside a bar. I was like, “Holy shit.” We went up to the line and started talking to girls because we just didn’t see many of them. I had no idea what was going on. I was talking to a bunch of girls in the crowd and they were talking back. They told me, “I’m here for The Real World,” and I still didn’t get it.
Then one of the executive producers of the show and the casting director, Kira, come up and they’re like, “Who the fuck are these guys cutting in line and talking to everybody?” They started asking me a bunch of questions, and I was like, “What are you, a cop or something?” They were asking me questions like, “Do you know The Real World?” and I was like, “I know of it, I’ve never seen it.” Then I went to leave and they were like, “Hey, hey, don’t leave. How do we get in touch with you?” It was very quickly expedited after that.
They saw a kid with two different color eyes from a housing project in inner-city Boston that’s going to school at an old military institution on a tennis scholarship and he sounds like a fucking Irish gangster. You gotta cast him. It was a no-brainer for them.
So after the show you’re mobbed on the street by people. What were those interactions like?
You have to go back in time. People’s context for reality TV—there was none. It was one of the few times they could watch TV, which was an important medium in their lives, and the person wasn’t acting. They saw the person’s warts, they saw them happy, they saw them sad, they saw you doing the same things they do on Saturday nights and then they felt this instant connection with you. Now, people want to become an influencer. They want to go on TV with a goal: I am going to be famous. Back then, for fans, and for someone who experienced it first-hand, there was no precedent.
The letters I would get... They would deliver trash bags of letters to my mom’s house. It was like being boy-band-level famous, but not rich. There were people stalking my mom’s house. Girls would hop on trains from Arizona and then camp out in the bushes across from my mom’s house. One time I was changing in a Banana Republic while shopping with my mom and some girl busts through and jumps into the changing room. My mother grabbed her by her hair and had to pull her out. It was nuts. There are hundreds of stories like that. It was really surreal for a 21-year-old kid. I haven’t talked about it in decades.
What did the people who approached you on the street want from you?
Kiss, hug, photo, shake my hand, touch you, talk to you, tell you how much they love you. It was overwhelming. I don’t think people had a context for that experience. They had seen actors or athletes, but they were performing a craft. Someone just living on a show was something you could really connect to. They felt like they knew you, so they would literally lunge at you. It got old really fast.
A lot of people look for recognition, whether it’s recognition from their parents that they never had or recognition from their partner or they want validation at work. I’m so glad I got that fame thing out of the way at such an early age and saw it for what it was. I never had to deal with that moving forward. I was always happy going about my work in relative anonymity. That can be a monkey for some people; they’re chasing an old ghost. But it was really positive for me. A lot people in that first wave of shows, and even now, got swept up in it and were never able to recover.
I wonder if there was anything about the fandom, or even about being chosen for the show in the first place, where you felt objectified as, you know, a character or type?
I mean, I learned about editing. I learned about storyboards. I learned they can film you all day and then they obviously create a story that fits between seven people in twenty-two minutes. I learned that three or four months in: If they were asking specific questions, they must be building a story in this lens. A lot of the people who go on tons of reality-TV shows—The Miz is great at it, CT is great at it, Coral and Veronica—they were like, “Without a doubt, I’m going all in on the storyline.” I wasn’t one of them.
I knew that they had a storyboard and came to that realization real quick that they’ve got a job to do, they’ve got money to make, and drama sells. Whatever little I’ve seen of the episodes, I cringe. I’m like, “Oh my god, they twisted it in that way?”
As a teenager, The Real World was what I studied for how to dress and act, what to say and how. It felt like a guidebook to the adult world awaiting me. It doesn’t sound like you had any kind of similar pop cultural guidebook.
No, I didn’t. My influences were street people in Boston, firefighters, organized crime, my coaches, my professors. My influences were parochial and street. My movies were Goodfellas and The Godfather. I was pretty one-dimensional in that way. I got an education in how to dress, act, handle yourself, and deal with the world around you. I just didn’t get it from TV.
Do you ever return to a state of normalcy after The Real World, or are you always followed around by it?
I am. It follows me when I shave my beard and take off my glasses, because I still kind of look the same. I’ll walk into a pitch meeting and people will be like, “Oh my god, fucking David.” It’s usually people in their 30s or 40s, and usually executives at media companies or brands and they’ll share a story. You have friends who bring it up, and it’s a little bit embarrassing. I’ve learned the soft skill of how to avoid it over the years.
Important question: Do you still wear black turtlenecks?
I do from time to time.
I don’t even know why I started dressing like Dieter [from the Saturday Night Live skit] “Sprockets,” but I do rock black turtlenecks here and there.
I’m glad. So we have to talk about Kira, obviously. How was the romance sparked, exactly, amid casting interviews?
It was probably the spark that a lot of people feel when they meet each other and there’s something visceral between two people who immediately click. I had no context for really what the casting process was. I think one of the only reasons I opened up to the experience was I was so attracted to her, and she was a good soul. It was almost cathartic to be able to tell her my story, and I almost forgot that there was a camera or that they were monitoring this and had a clinical psychologist analyzing me, you know what I mean? We both fell in love, really hard and deep. It got destructive.
When they cast me, they said, “Oh, David’s going to be great to hook up with so-and-so.” They probably had that in their mind. They had me on the show, and I’m pretty disciplined, and I get a job at the fish market, and I’m deejaying and working out all the time, and they’re like, “Where’s the girls?” They knew something was up. They chased it for a while, and I lied to keep it off. I forget how it broke, but I think someone betrayed Kira on her end. Even when they confronted me, I denied it. It’s a terrible place for a relationship to blossom: on the set of a television show.
How did you secretly maintain the relationship during those first weeks in the house while you’re being recorded all the time?
You get out. I’d fake checking into work [at the radio station where the cast worked], and I’d put my microphone and geo-tracker and stuff in a locker, and then I’d hop out the back door and go and play in Seattle. Then I’d call her. I actually snuck down to L.A. a couple times and they didn’t know.
They didn’t know that you had left on a flight to L.A.? (Here I am scandalized and half-yelling and suddenly 14 years old again.)
They thought I was doing a double-shift at work. I was such a bad kid on the show. Mary Ellis and John [from the show’s production company Bunim/Murray] hated me for years. My sense of authority was off. I was coming from the Virginia Military Institute, and that was real hard authority, like Lord of the Flies stuff, and the neighborhood I grew up in, that kind of authority is very serious. So some executive producer telling me something, I’m like, “I’ll slap the shit out of this guy.” It was a healthy lack of respect, because they could have talked me into a lot more on that show.
Kira eventually came clean to the producers.
She did, and there was nothing I could really do after that.
And then she ended up on the show.
I haven’t talked about this in so long. I don’t think I’ve ever really talked about it.
I’ve always avoided it.
I don’t know. It was tough. When you’re young like that, everything is amplified ten-times in its drama. I don’t think you really have a bigger vision, because there’s a lack of experience to compare it against. You can remember when you were 20 years old—it’s so dramatic, it’s the end of the world. And then holding it together while you’re on a TV show? It’s kind of black, I don’t remember much. I remember how stressful it was; I remember how deeply I felt for her.
There’s also a big “what if.” That is the big “what if” for me: If we did stay quiet, which I really wanted so that we could continue our relationship after the show was over, what would have been different, you know? It’s not something I ponder on all the time, but it’s something I think about from time to time.
You wonder if the relationship hadn’t been revealed, if she hadn’t ended up on the show, if things might have worked out?
Yeah, because that was the plan, right? “I’ll talk to you after I get off the show.”
You feel that it was so irreparably damaged because of her ending up on the show and losing her job that the relationship didn’t get its chance?
Tracy, you have to understand: There is no other reality TV show to compete with this. Do you understand how public this was? You’ve got an African-American woman with a white kid professing their love for each other and it’s a taboo relationship that crossed a [professional] line, and it’s the only reality TV show on at the time. The ratings and compelling drama around it were insane. She couldn’t go anywhere for years. I’ve made a note, really, not to watch reality TV since. There was a lot of stuff to unpack for years—probably more so for her than me. It affected her livelihood, too.
One of the things that made an impression on me as a teenager was the scene with Kira, where you were arguing in a car amid the turmoil of her lost job and the question-mark hanging over the relationship, and you hit the dashboard while yelling, “I love you, it kills me.” At the time, I thought, you know, how intense, how romantic. Now, as an adult, I’d have a different reaction to it. But I wonder how you think of that scene now?
We were so shocked that even made it on TV. That’s when we found out that you can never turn the microphone off. We were in a remote part of Seattle and thought we were alone, and they were able to track us, and they had a production crew sneak up and put a microphone under the car. They shot it from a ditch in a construction zone. We had no idea that they had the footage until they aired it. You want to talk about a fucking punch in the gut.
Emotions were running high. You’re a 20-year-old kid, you punch the dashboard. It was so dramatic, it was so heartbreaking. Oh my god, I haven’t talked about this in so long. It was probably the most dramatic thing that happened up to that point. I had emotions that I’d never felt in my entire life. I have a loving family right now, and I have a wonderful marriage, and I also know that what I felt for her at that time was extremely profound. I can still feel that viscerally. It was real. It was my first love, but it was my first love put in the environment of a cauldron.
I can’t talk about this season without talking about your roommates Stephen and Irene and, as MTV dubbed it, “the slap heard ’round the world.” [To recap: Irene told Stephen that he was a “homosexual,” and he then slapped her across the face and threw her teddy bear off a pier into the bay.] How do you think that scene ages?
I was gonna kill him. The crew immediately sequestered me coming out of work. I was covered in fish guts, and they were like, “You can’t go back to the house right now.” I watched my mother go through domestic abuse. I just have no tolerance for that and everyone knew. Poor Irene and Stephen, though, they have still never lived that down. They are forever intertwined together. When it comes to narratives, people remember you for it. We also had the longest Real World of all the Real Worlds, just to give you context. Most are three months, but ours was six-and-a-half months. The mental fatigue really got ahold of people. What happened with them was probably a result of that.
I happen to know from my copy of the 1998 coffee table book In the House: The Real World Seattle that you predicted that in 25 years—which would be 2023—that you would be “kickin’ back in St. Croix with my kids, and running a fishing business with my boys from the Pike Place Market.”
Oh my god, this is so fucking funny. Tracy, thank you so much for finding that. That brings so much joy to my heart. So, I have family in St. Croix and I’ve been going down there ever since I was a kid. That’s funny, a fishing business. Maybe that’s a harbinger for things to come.
Are you on track to reach that goal? You still have time.
I think I have the resources. I think I know enough good fishermen. I just need to know the health of our seas at this point, right? I didn’t mean to darken that one, but that is fucking great.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)