Launched into 22 weeks of fame on MTV's The Real World, Melissa Howard of Valrico and Hollywood, Calif., wonders where life will lead her. So do her fans, no doubt.
By ERIC DEGGANS and BABITA PERSAUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Watching her 1,000-watt smile light up the Acapulco Restaurant, it's hard to believe there was ever a time when Melissa Howard wasn't the center of attention. Ensconced in a distant corner of this gussied-up Mexican restaurant, she's a stone's throw from her new job at the WB network's The Jamie Foxx Show, a gig she landed in July after appearing on CBS's Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn, begging Hollywood for work.
Just back from a promotional trip to San Francisco, she giggles while dishing on former Diff'rent Strokes star Gary Coleman's attempt to charm a date out of her on the Foxx set. Already, she has appeared on the cover of TV Guide and taped a small role on theFoxx show.
It's a life light years removed from her roots in the Tampa Bay area, where her electric personality drew crowds in Ybor City's club scene.
The biggest difference between then and now is fame: the kind of immediate, white-hot notoriety that comes with status as a featured player on MTV's The Real World, a cinema verite look at seven young twentysomethings packed for five months into a two-story, New Orleans mansion.
Thanks to her spicy wit and willingness to do just about anything for laughs (and for the camera), Howard often steals the show: dancing topless in a go-go joint one night, turning over a chair while arguing with a housemate the next.
As the episodes air, her high profile on MTV's signature series seems a double-edged sword. On the plus side, dreams of success in the world outside her Valrico hometown now seem closer than ever.
But because she chose to reveal herself to the world, her life may never again be completely her own.
"If I had it to do over again, I think I would have censored myself a lot more," Howard, 23, says, picking at a plate of refried beans and salad.
"Not because I'm ashamed of anything I did, but because I have no internal thoughts anymore," she adds. "It's all out there."
The toughest part so far: Howard's statements in the Aug. 15 episode that suggested some of her emotional quirks may stem from a drinking problem her father, Maurice "Shorty" Howard, had during her early childhood. Howard's father didn't talk to the St. Petersburg Times, but her mother denied there was much of a problem.
"The environment I was in was not exactly loving . . . very traumatic," Melissa Howard told roommate Jamie, noting that her father's problems were in the past and repeatedly proclaiming her love for him. "That explains why I constantly try to be funny. That is my means of survival."
As the episode progressed, Howard grew increasingly agitated. Stressed by the constant camera coverage, emotional conflicts with roommates and her own inner turmoil, she considered leaving the show. Later, she was shown visiting a therapist in New Orleans.
For Howard, the telecast highlighted a long-standing gripe: her belief that production company Bunim/Murray insists on showing only the most extreme sides of her personality.
"I begged on my hands and knees, literally, with tears streaming down my face for them to not expose my father as an alcoholic during my childhood, and I was given a promise and obviously it has been broken," Howard notes in a recent e-mail to the Times, saying the company offered to pay for eight visits to a Los Angeles therapist.
"My parents know my story lines are carrying the whole season," Howard says. "They say, "That's just part of being the star of the show, Melissa.' Their unconditional love . . . it's amazing."
A spokeswoman for MTV denied the company promised not to air the footage.
"Going into this, they all know they will be living in a fishbowl in which anything they say can become part of the show," reads a statement from executive producers Mary Ellis Bunim and John Murray faxed to the St. Petersburg Times. "Melissa is a remarkably open . . . and intelligent young woman who . . . we will continue to support in every way."
Still, Howard seems to have a love/hate relationship with The Real World, now about halfway through its 22-episode season. For an aspiring performer, it's a tremendous opportunity. But at what cost?
At times, she's a mass of contradictions. Passionate about race issues as a half-Filipino/half-black woman, she admits she is uncomfortable dating black men and is totally assimilated into white culture. Despite lots of talk about sex, she is one of the few Real World cast members who never "hooked up" with anyone.
And now, as MTV broadcasts her honest, sometimes painful efforts to sort through issues of race, relationships and family history, Howard must cope with standing emotionally naked before an audience of her peers.
"Oh my goodness. I live in a plantation house."
That's how Howard described the Belfort, a two-story white house on tree-lined Charles Avenue in the Garden District of New Orleans. It's a short trolley ride to Bourbon Street and just a few blocks from author Anne Rice's house.
The mansion was filled with nearly $300,000 worth of art, most created by New Orleans artists. Along the staircase, dozens of books were nailed, almost crucified, to the wall. "It's a big wall, we had to fill it up with something," said Real World producer Andrew Hoegl.
From January to May, Howard lived there with six strangers under constant camera surveillance -- MTV's time-tested formula for Real World's onscreen fireworks.
Over 124 days, Howard traveled with her new roommates to Africa and worked on a public access show in New Orleans, The Real 7. Her parents visited the Belfort and seemed delighted at the surroundings.
"I could have been fornicating all day and they're like, "Yup, my daughter's famous,' " Howard says. "To Mom, it's a soap opera. And I let her believe the lie."
But after watching the shows, Mercy Howard says she's well aware of what her daughter was doing.
Calling herself an "old-fashioned" mom, Mercy Howard admitted that some of Melissa's actions have "disappointed" her and other family members -- but she chalks much of her daughter's behavior up to homesickness and her outspoken nature.
"We were kind of worried about it, because she never been away . . . that long," she says, her words flavored by her Filipino accent. "She worried I (would) be disappointed with her . . . but it's her life. I think it's good experience for her."
At the Real World house, lights were always on. Cast members slept with eye masks.
Since the mansion was wired with microphones, Howard would mouth words silently when she wanted to have a private conversation.
Eventually, the pressure got to her: "The therapy . . . was also brought on by the awkwardness and sheer mayhem of being filmed 24 hours a day," she says now. "Of course, they edited that part out. I really could not deal with the cameras."
The Melissa revealed on the show is not so reticent. Onscreen, she is easily the most uninhibited cast member, dancing with drag queens in crowded clubs one moment, propositioning roommate and guy pal Jamie the next. This, too, is a time-honored Real World tradition: Find the group's spark plug and keep putting him or her on screen to entertain viewers.
Still, like many former cast members, Howard chafes at what she says is MTV's one-sided depiction.
"Real World Melissa is the edited down, "firecracker' version of me," she wrote in an e-mail posted on the fan Web site, Tubescan.com.
"You will never hear me say anything intelligent. No one cares that I am a graduate with a journalism degree, that I minored in black studies, that I made straight A's (or) that I have worked every day of my life since I was 15."
But didn't Howard help create that problem, telling her roommates she doesn't like to perspire during sex and dancing through the house in her underwear?
"Maybe she's playing up to the camera, but that is Melissa," says Bob Clark, a bartender at the New World Brewery in Ybor City who knows Howard from her club-hopping days. "I wasn't surprised by any of it."
It's one slice of her personality, counters friend Milton Chapman, guitarist for the Tampa band Hank Shaw, who visited Howard in New Orleans.
"She's a fighter," Chapman says. "I think somehow she will rise above (her image) on the show."
"I will never say that what you see is not me, I will say it is 1/220th of who I am," says Howard, who hopes to set the record straight by talking directly to fans during a 15-school college tour next month.
"Real people have loads of emotions, and real people change their minds and say wonderfully wise things and do ridiculous things," she adds. "Sure, (what viewers see) is not always the best person I can be, but it is always the most honest person I can be."
Nowhere has Howard's honesty surfaced more than in discussions of race, where she has ignited some of Real World's most intense conversations.
A recent example: her fury when a local swamp tour guide pointed out a bird he has dubbed a "red-beaked n--- stork."
Other cast members urged her to forgive his words. Instead, Howard spent the rest of the episode schooling her housemates on why any use of the n-word is likely to incense a person of color.
"I get this feeling that, being a person of color on the show, you're automatically thrown into the role of teacher," says Howard, citing dozens of e-mails from fans responding to her dialogues about race on the show.
And though some accuse her of being "racially fixated," others find strength in this scrappy, biracial young woman's struggle to find her place in society.
"I didn't want to perpetuate any stereotypes," she says. "I was very conscious of the "angry black person' thing . . . perpetuating the notion that black people are always angry . . . (and) throwing around the race card. But until people can start talking candidly and openly, we're not going to be rid of (racism)."
Always sensitive about how Real World has handled issues of race, Howard fears that roommate David, who is black, is mostly shown as an angry, oversexed cipher while she's the wisecracking, overemotional woman who always talks about her skin color and sex.
And she's still angry about a poll posted on Tubescan.com asking, "Who has the hardest time being a minority?" -- as if racism's pain could be quantified and compared.
One sign she's making an impact: e-mails from a 13-year-old, half-Japanese girl who says Howard's Real World appearances have taught her she doesn't have to choose cultural sides in high school.
"She opens her locker every day to a picture of me and the e-mails we've been trading," Howard says. "I brought race to the forefront (on the show), not realizing how many people had a hang-up about this . . . or how much it shaped my life. I never thought I could change people's perceptions or help them stop skipping school . . . and that's why this all matters."
Valrico is a community like many across the Tampa Bay area; suburban with a rural edge, filled with neatly trimmed lawns and middle-class homes sandwiched next to fields of grazing horses and sprawling farmland.
Calm. Secluded. Unassuming.
Given her taste for urban adventure, it's no wonder Howard couldn't wait to get out of there.
Howard is an Air Force brat born in Japan to Maurice, who is black, and Mercy, who is Filipino. After stints living in the Philippines and North Dakota, she and her family moved to Tampa when she was 9.
Shorty and Mercy Howard now live in a suburb of Valrico; Dad works for the U.S. Postal Service and Mom is a hotel housekeeper. Their unassuming ranch-style home sits in a solidly middle-class residential area, blocks from a nearby mobile home park and farmer's market.
Raised with a younger brother and older sister, Howard remains ambivalent about her Tampa Bay area roots.
"I had no idea of the gravity of racism until I lived in what I consider the Deep South: Valrico," says Howard, who still remembers the whispers from her white fourth-grade classmates when Shorty dropped her off for the first day of school.
These days, Howard's old neighborhood is more diverse. But when her family moved there, she says, Shorty was one of the first black people in the community and Mercy was the first Filipino.
In 10th grade, someone asked, "Don't you hate having big watermelon lips?" As a freshman entering a black studies course at the University of South Florida, she was asked if she had the wrong room. Later, people sometimes asked if her Filipino mother eats dog.
"People don't think of Tampa that way . . . they think of teal and green and Publix and palm trees," she says. "But it's not always that way."
As an escape, she began hanging out in Ybor City, drawn to buddies heavily into hard-core and alternative bands. Her list of fave spots included the Masquerade, the Atomic Age Cafe, New World Brewery and the now-closed Blue Chair.
She would stroll into a bar, shout, " "Hey, what's up?' and go nuts dancing," says her friend Chapman.
"It wouldn't be unusual to see Melissa at a bar, a group of girls around her," he says. "You won't see where all the noise is coming from because she is so short. But there will be Melissa, telling her outrageous stories that are somewhat self-deprecating. She makes fun of just about everything."
Time spent earning a bachelor's degree in communications from USF couldn't dampen a growing restlessness in Howard, who says she felt hemmed in by her journalism classes and the fact that she commuted to school from home.
After landing a clerk's position last year at the Wilkes & McHugh law firm in Tampa -- efforts to get jobs at the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times didn't work out -- Howard began to wonder if there wasn't something more to life.
"Okay, I have a job and I'm out of school," she told Chapman. "But I feel so unfulfilled. I go home and I realize I have no life now."
Through high school, college and now beyond, a desire burned to get out of her hometown and make an impact. At first, she thought of fleeing to Atlanta, but then a better idea hit.
The Real World.
For the application, Howard plopped her 5-foot-tall, 97-pound frame before a camera, sitting cross-legged on a couch in jeans and a tank top: "Hi, I'm Melissa . . . from Tampa. My dad's black and my mom's Filipino and together they spawned three very odd kids . . . one of them is me. "
Also on the tape, she talked about her mother putting items like underwear on layaway. She talked about being biracial and she talked about sex. The videotape was one of many: about 35,000, according to MTV.
Would it catch the music channel's attention?
"What we look for are people with a strong point of view and people who are unafraid to express that point of view," says Hoegl, who also serves as Real World's casting supervisor. "Yes, Melissa is sometimes wild . . . (with a) very extreme sense of humor and personality. I think ultimately, she is really relatable."
Another thing Howard said on her tapes: "Get me out of Tampa."
Months later, MTV did.
After her stint on Real World ended, Howard headed west to continue pursuing her dream.
Her Tampa employer, Jim Wilkes, a nationally known pioneer in nursing home litigation who once knocked around as an aspiring rock and country singer, paid for the move, including a plane ticket and the cost of transporting her car to Los Angeles.
"It's my own little endowment to the arts," says Wilkes, who remains an adviser to Howard as she evaluates projects offered by Real World producers Bunim/Murray and MTV. "I knew she didn't have the resources to make the move . . . (and) I didn't want her living in a bad area," adds the attorney, noting that Howard is officially on leave of absence from his firm and still has health insurance there. "She's paying her dues . . . doing it the hard way. That's why we're supporting her."
When she got to California she didn't have much of a plan. Just a simple plea.
"I totally need a job," she said during a June appearance on Craig Kilborn's late-night CBS talk show. "If anybody is watching this, I'd peel shrimp, I'd do anything."
The next day, producer Drew Brown from The Jamie Foxx Show called, offering the next best thing: work as a production assistant. It might be the lowliest position on staff -- highlights can include getting bagels and making copies -- but it was also a paying show biz gig to help justify the move west.
Still, she's not exactly anonymous.
An Aug. 13 trip to Disneyland ended abruptly as she was mobbed by tourists seeking pictures and autographs. While she was bar-hopping during her first week in Los Angeles, fans kept offering drinks -- hoping the woman who pressed dollar bills to her bare breasts in New Orleans might reprise that landmark TV event in person.
"I realized these people . . . just want to see "Stripping Melissa,' " she says. "Now . . . I don't drink heavily when I go to bars, because I'm not going to re-enact this Real World episode for you. Catch it in reruns."
Instead, Howard's working it in Hollywood. She's enrolled in a comedy improvisation course offered by Los Angeles' prestigious comedy troupe the Groundlings (alumni include Friends star Lisa Kudrow and former Saturday Night Live star Phil Hartman) while helping boss Foxx plug his Soul Gear clothing line.
She also hopes to someday write a book -- not about The Real World, but about growing up biracial. Still, with so many opportunities within reach, Howard can't help feeling torn between the benefits of Real World stardom and its drawbacks.
And she's sure about one other thing. In addition to the fame and opportunities, The Real World has been "five months of free therapy."
- Material from Times wires and the New York Post was used in this report