It’s Episode 1 of The Real World: Boston—the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped. The year is 1997. The place is New York’s Penn Station. A 25-year-old law student from Hayward, Wisconsin, ambles on screen; he’s hauling a few duffel bags and a roller suitcase. His name is SEAN, according to the squiggly white caption. He looks as ’90s as anyone possibly could—like a shopping mall Gap mannequin miraculously come to life. White T-shirt. Unbuttoned flannel. Loose, faded jeans. Sage green parka. Round wire-frame glasses. And a mouthful of chewing gum.
Flash forward 16 years, to October 8, 2013. The federal government of the United States has been shut down for about a week. The Republican congressman from Wisconsin’s 7th District materializes on MSNBC to discuss the situation with host Andrea Mitchell. His name is SEAN DUFFY, according to the bold white caption.
“You were asking me about the larger issue of why can’t people resolve this government shutdown,” Duffy says. “We have been incredibly reasonable, making a small ask. And if the president doesn’t like what we’ve…”
Mitchell interrupts. “Do you consider it a small ask,” she says, “that he get rid of the central part of his health-care plan that was upheld by the vote of a presidential election and the United States Supreme Court?”
“Andrea, hold on,” the congressman snaps. “That’s your spin.”
And then, suddenly, it hits you. Republican Congressman Sean looks familiar—and the reason Congressman Sean looks familiar is that Congressman Sean and Real World Sean are the same person.
You check Wikipedia. It’s true. In 2010, the voters of northwestern Wisconsin elected a man who spent five full months of his mid-20s on a deeply revealing reality television show. In 2012, they elected him again. As far as you can tell, Sean Duffy is the first—and only—reality star ever to serve in the United States Congress.
Your next step is obvious. You want to find out what happened when Duffy stopped being polite and started getting real. You immediately start to search for old episodes of The Real World: Boston on YouTube.
So who is Sean Duffy? If we knew him solely as a politician, we might say he’s a 42-year-old conservative Catholic former district attorney, married with six children, who was elected as part of the Tea Party wave of 2010 and who has since caucused with the GOP 91 percent of the time. In Congress, Duffy has been a particularly staunch opponent of abortion, voting in favor of three bills designed to limit funding for the procedure and cosponsoring two more.
But Duffy didn’t really elbow his way into the national spotlight until last month, when Republicans took the government hostage over the Affordable Care Act. After vowing in the 2010 election that he would “not vote to repeal the legislation unless a better proposal was in place,” Duffy has emerged as one of the Tea Party’s most prominent advocates for the whole kill-Obamacare-or-the-economy-gets-it strategy. Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) hasn’t been hard core enough for the Wisconsonite.
The good news is that we don’t know Duffy solely as a politician. We also know what he was like as a 25-year-old. Intimately. This is completely unprecedented. Since the mid-1990s, reality programming has turned in on itself and grown increasingly self-aware; it now stars people who play reality television stars on television. But The Real World: Boston, the show’s sixth season, predated the shift. Duffy was just being himself. So if you’re like me—if you’ve always been curious about who our politicians really were before they ran for office and became the robots we require them to be—then watching Duffy on The Real World is fascinating. No memoir, interview, or profile that I’m aware of, no exposé of any previous politician, is as revealing as having MTV film you for five straight months and then condense the juiciest parts into more than a dozen hours of television.
Not everything Duffy does on The Real World: Boston is flattering, especially if you watch with his subsequent political career in mind. “He’s kind of a jock type guy,” Jason, the alt-nose ring poet, says at one point. (Duffy was already a lumberjack Sports World Champion by the time he was cast on the show.)
“But he likes to party, so that’s cool with me,” adds Montana, the redheaded New Yorker.
Indeed he does. A recurring motif of the Boston season is Duffy drinking, often with Syrus, the African-American ladies’ man from Santa Monica, California. In the premiere, the two of them head out to a club, where Duffy proceeds to dance like a floppy drunken fratboy and shout “I want the money!” at everyone he encounters. (He is attempting to quote Rod Tidwell’s “Show me the money!” catchphrase from Jerry Maguire.)
That bro-ish behavior isn’t always so benign. At one point, Duffy calls Kameelah, the black control freak, a “bitch.” In Episode 18, he and Syrus go out carousing with undergrads in Philadelphia, shirking their responsibility to supervise at-risk kids the following morning; in Episode 19, Duffy drinks red wine in front of the children at a lunch event—earlier, he went skiing when he was supposed to be watching them—and gets suspended from the mentorship program.
Duffy, while both conservative and Catholic, doesn’t seem particularly political or religious on The Real World, either. During the premiere he seems to agree with Montana when she says religion is “really bad for women.” (“Yeah,” Duffy replies, “certain things are bad.”) He also seems to smirk as he interrogates 18-year-old über-Catholic Elka about her faith. (“Everybody in the house’s belief system and religion is different from mine,” she concludes afterward.) And when the future congressman gets a chance to see Presidents Clinton, H.W. Bush, and Carter speak in Philadelphia, he promptly falls asleep.
Duffy’s most pronounced character trait on the show, however, is his raging 20-something horniness. He frequently says he wants to have sex with Genesis, a withdrawn lesbian from Mississippi—he likes her butt, apparently. In Episode 5, Montana and Duffy drunkenly feed each other instant ramen, and Duffy jokingly asks Montana to masturbate in front of him in exchange for food. “Feel my noodle,” he says as he lowers a forkful onto her face. In Philadelphia, Duffy misses his session with the kids because he spent the night with “a local girl.” And later in the season, during the Real World/Road Rules Challenge in Puerto Rico, Duffy hits on and eventually hooks up with Road Rules cast member Erika. “They didn’t just kiss,” says Montana. “The went to town. They went in the bathroom. Had her up against the wall. You know what I’m sayin’?”
(This strategy of using Road Rules as a dating service eventually worked for Duffy; in 1998, during Road Rules All-Stars, he met The Real World: San Francisco alumna Rachel Campos, who had survived a car crash the previous year that killed her then-boyfriend. She too was a Republican; a big fan of Jack Kemp. They have been married since 1999.)
Still, in spite of all the inebriation, irresponsibility, and randiness—or rather because of it, at least in part—Duffy comes off pretty darn well in the end. He’s open-minded enough to go to a drag bar with Genesis, not once but twice. (Quite a feat for a conservative Catholic in 1997.) He wants to know more about Syrus’s experience as a black man in America. He’s generally affable and well-meaning: quick with a smile, at ease with himself, just vulnerable enough. And more than anything else, he’s human in a way that politicians just aren’t allowed to be these days.
It’s refreshing to see a future congressman making mistakes and bending the rules—boozing a little too much, passing out at political events, having one-night stands—without any dire consequences or lapses of character. That’s what most of our representatives did in their 20s, or at least I hope they did, but for some reason we’re all supposed to pretend otherwise. Watching Duffy on The Real World is welcome reminder that politicians are people, too.
And yet, sadly, it’s also a reminder of something else: how politicians tend to stop acting like human beings once they enter the electoral arena.
There’s evidence in the first episode of The Real World: Boston that Duffy wouldn’t be putting a gun to the world economy’s head if he were still being himself, rather than performing in the Tea Party’s current reality TV production. As usual on MTV’s pioneering show, the season premiere is all about sorting out who’s going to sleep where. The cast mates, of course, cannot agree. Syrus, Jason, and Genesis want to bunk together, but that leaves Duffy and Kameelah as each other’s only options—and Kameelah does not want to share her boudoir with a man.
At first, Duffy is peeved by the trio’s refusal to negotiate. “How long you been here?” he says when Genesis insists on the arrangement. “You’re just picking a room!”
But as the standoff intensifies, Duffy starts to search for a workable solution. “You care if it’s us two or these two?” he asks Syrus.
Syrus stands his ground. “I’m bonding with these two right here,” he says, referring to Genesis and Jason.
Duffy senses that the time has come to compromise. “OK, we’ll go to the other room then,” he says—as long as all parties agree to keep a “rotating option open” in case someone has second thoughts. Problem solved.
Kameelah only has one question. “You don’t snore, do you?” she asks Duffy.
If only Real World Sean had gone to Washington—minus the flatulence.