The Real World franchise began its 22nd season in Cancun, fans knew what to expect: sex, drama, and the controversial LGBT roommate. This season’s gay roommate would prove to be different than the last. Enter Derek Chavez: a sweet small-town boy from Arizona whom the roommates simply couldn’t help but love. We caught Derek just as the new season started and his star began to rise.
David Goldberg: What is it like to go from small-town student to celebrity?
Derek: It’s different. From my small town to going to Arizona State University which has 65 to 70 thousand students in it, that was a huge transition. There are more people living in my dorm than in my town. Then, to go from being a student to someone that’s recognized on TV is another huge transition. It’s just crazy now, because people are recognizing me everywhere I go.
A lot of people saw you while you were filming. Was it hard to keep it “real”? Did you feel like you were putting on a show sometimes?
No. I never once felt like I was putting on a show. When people saw us and asked us what we were doing, we always had to say, “We can’t talk about it” or “We’re filming a documentary.” We actually had fun with it. We’d say, “We’re doing porn down in Cancun” or “We’re doing Guys Gone Wild.” Nothing was ever a show. It wasn’t like, “There’s people watching us, so we need to start the drama! We have to start fighting in public.” It was all real.
Was it harder for you to be gay in your hometown of Loving, New Mexico, where everyone knew you, or to have to fit in in college?
Back home I didn’t know I was gay until I was a senior in high school. I wasn’t really ashamed of being gay; I was just scared of being not welcome in a small town where everybody knows your business. I was scared that it would be uncomfortable for me there. In college, I was out and open to everybody. People were more accepting. There’s different kinds of people and there’s different kinds of characters. That’s the place to be yourself.
What is the population of Loving, New Mexico?
Maybe 1,200, 1,500?
Why did you want to do The Real World?
When I was younger I would always watch MTV, so it was always something that I wanted to do. People always told me, “Derek, with your personality, you are perfect for the show.” In high school, I won “Most likely to be on TV.” It looked fun. I actually always wanted to do the challenges.
You want to do The Real World/Road Rules Challenges?
I do want to do them. I wanted to do that first, but I knew that you had to do The Real World to get on it.
My roommate got this invitation to skip the line and go down to the interview with a friend and she told me to go. I was like, “I’m not going to miss the opportunity to get on. So let’s see what happens.” I made it.
Are you signed on for any challenges?
As for the moment, no, but there are always opportunities available. It’s something that I always wanted to do before it comes to an end. It can’t go on forever.
Just be careful. I fear that if you do a challenge, you may get punched by CT on the first episode.
It’s funny, because I used to work with Adam [The Real World: Paris] at Saddle Ranch here in Scottsdale. He was on it [The Real World/Road Rules Challenge] and got punched the first night. We were talking on the phone with Adam yesterday, because Jonna and I were just asking for advice, and my boss told him, “You better be quiet or I’m going to get CT on you.”
When you revealed yourself as the gay roommate in the first episode of the season, your roommates didn’t flinch. Is that what you expected?
I thought MTV was going to stick me with someone completely homophobic and ignorant to the fact that there are other people in the world other than straight people, so for four months I was going to be in a fight every day to be comfortable to live there. But going into it and realizing that everybody was accepting of it, it just let me put my guard down. I was able to say, “I can be myself and I can get along with these people.”
Overall, were your roommates tolerant?
There is not one person against the fact that I am gay. Bronne said that he was pushing for it, because he wanted someone to help him dress, and that’s what I got to do every day. He came to me every time that he got out of the shower. I would say, “Bronne, I’m busy right now.” He would say, “Does this go good?” And, finally, he kind of got what goes together.
Do you think MTV would have preferred for there to have been drama? It seems unusual for a gay roommate to fit in perfectly.
I don’t know. They cast us for a reason, like they do every season. I’m not sure that they wanted to create drama between a homophobic guy or girl and a gay guy. CJ and Bronne and Joey have never actually had real gay friends. They’ve known people that were gay, but they’ve never had real gay friends, so I think because in their interviews they said, “We’ve never dealt with a gay guy before,” they were going to put me in there and see how they reacted. But I don’t think they were doing it on purpose to cause drama.
It seems that a gay housemate used to be more controversial. What kind of an effect do you think you will have on viewers?
What I’m hoping to get out of this is to be somewhat of a role model to young kids who are gay and maybe in the closet still. I know not everybody is going to like it, that there’s always going to be those homophobic ignorant people out there, but kids seeing me being open and having friends will help them transition out. I’ve already had e-mails come to me. Even the first episode, and hopefully my story throughout the whole season, will show people its okay to be yourself no matter what. I’m proud of being myself, and I’m proud to be a gay man living in today’s world.
Why do you think you were cast? What about you appealed to MTV more than your sexuality?
I don’t know. Obviously I had that going for me, and no matter what I’m going to try to do with my personality, I’m the token gay guy on The Real World. I’ve already accepted that. But I think it’s my ability to entertain people without trying too hard and that they are able to just talk to me. MTV put me in it just to be the median for everybody, so that if there was drama, they’d have someone to rely on to talk to. I didn’t get into any huge altercations on the show, and I was there for everybody and listened to everybody’s side of the story.
The show took place in Cancun. There was a nice cast that got along. Was it real or a fantasy? Do you think it represents what people your age are going through?
Yeah, of course. I think it’s not what we are going through throughout our lives, but it’s a part of our lives, and that part is spring break. Our season is for college students. Brooklyn did serious issues about the past, like what happened with JD and his father. Ours was a season where we were going to have fun. People experiment and people travel, and I think that’s what we are representing.
So you partied heavily in Cancun?
Oh, yes. It’s Cancun. We were there during the entire United States’ spring break, which started at the end of February and ran until April.
As an out homosexual, did you have any problems being received by locals?
No. We even attended the local gay bar there, and all that was there was locals. We went during peak week of spring break, and I thought I would get to talk to someone American, but every time we went there it was local gays. There was a whole block that was gay. On our first guy’s night out, we went to a gay club.
Would you recommend Cancun as a gay resort?
No. I think I saw two other gay Americans there. It’s not really the gay hotspot. Playa Del Carmen is more for the gays.
Now that you are a celebrity, how will you be involved in the LGBT community?
I want to be an activist for the LGBT community, because I haven’t really had the opportunity to do that before. This has opened the door, and I’ve already had offers to do stuff for colleges and go to speak as an LGBT representative. I’m doing research to see what is going on around my community in my area. I know Proposition 8 is going on in California, but we have our own here in Arizona, Proposition 102. I’m looking forward to getting my foot in the door as a public figure.
This season took place in one of the world’s most fabulous resorts, Cancun. Where should the next season be?
I don’t know. I like the trend that MTV is doing now. They did the season in Brooklyn which caught a new demographic of viewers. Then, they came back to ours which is the party season. Hopefully, wherever they do next is going to be a serious city season again. I don’t think they should do it somewhere out of the country. They need to have more U.S. exposure.
How are the roommates keeping in touch?
I keep in touch with them every day. Bronne will call me late at night, because he is three hours ahead of me in Philly, and he’s like, “I’m so drunk, and I miss you, and I need you in my life! Do you even know what I’m wearing tonight?” I text them and we talk on Facebook and BlackBerry messenger.
One of your roommates, Jonna, lives near you. Have you seen her?
I see her every day. We work together still. We are bar-tending together. Being on the show made us closer. She’s my besty.
Are you back to school as well?
No, for the whole experience, I took the year off just to see what happens. I’m already starting to do appearances and speaking, and I figured I’ll let this play out before I go back to school.
I’m just glad that people are enjoying my being on TV as much as I hoped they would. It’s just the first few episodes, but the fan base right now is awesome. I’ve heard a lot of people saying that I’m going to be the Baya of last season, meaning I’m not going to get much airtime, because I’m the nice guy and the nice guy is boring. From what I remember, I had a say in everything that goes down. So hopefully that plays and I’m not forgotten. I want my side of the story to be told as well.
The Real World: Cancun airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on MTV.
David Goldberg is a freelance writer for Out-Smart magazine. He interviewed Chloe Dao, winner on the second season of Project Runway, for our October 2008 issue.