Yasmin Almokhamad spent three months holed up in a house with six strangers, cut off from her old life, and constantly monitored by cameras.
The long-running MTV realty show (a precursor to, well, every reality TV show) has developed a reputation for drunken fights, blurred-out cuddling sessions, and love polygons (as opposed to love triangles). But the 33rd season of The Real World, of which Almokhamad is a part, is more social experiment than Gen-Z bacchanal. The Real World, airing weekly on Facebook Watch, has become a place for challenging, meaningful conversations over the American divide. How's that for a plot twist?
The Real World is not, actually, real — which is what makes the show valuable. In today's America, there's no way Meagan (a conservative Christian virgin), Dondre (a Black pansexual Trump supporter), Justin (a Black Lives Matter activist), Tovah (a social worker), Clint (a farmer-turned-Instagram influencer), Arely (a DACA dreamer and teen mom) and Yasmin (a queer artist raised as Christian and Muslim) would ever live together.
As the group has tense conversations about hot-button issues like immigration, racism, homophobia, and sexual assault, 27-year-old Almokhamad often takes on a mediator role. Infectiously confident and refreshingly no-nonsense, Almokhamad lives in the light. She tries to shepherd the others there.
We spoke to Almokhamad about the challenges and rewards of attempting a real life in The Real World.
Refinery29: You're watching the show now. Has anything surprised you about the way you come off on screen?
Yasmin Almokhamad: "I thought they were going to show me walking around naked, burping, gossiping, and eating Cheetos. Instead, watching the show makes me proud that I chose to navigate the space the way that I did. I realized I gave people space to share. I didn't even know that I did that. It's motivating me to be even more empathetic, more mindful."
Which is probably not an end result that people would expect from a reality TV show.
"Nobody expects it. When I was going on the show, my friends said it was going to be trashy. I’d have sex and sleep with strangers and be crazy. But no. That wasn’t the truth. I was just living my normal life."
Was there a point where you craved a wilder experience?
"We we aren't a crazy group. We're older. We’d drink and be tired for five days. Because of that, we’d feel pressure to have more intense fun. Or we'd be so tired of debating in the house for 48 hours we’d say, ‘Let’s not be mad at each other. Let's go out and have the best time that we can.’"
Were you encouraged to go out and have fun by producers?
"They'd definitely be like, 'Why are you guys sleeping all day long?' But we were never really pressured to do anything. We just actively lived our lives. The clips are pretty short — so I don’t feel bad that we slept for two thirds of the show. The good stuff is there."
What makes this environment ripe for conflict?
"We're with people we wouldn’t be actively around in our personal lives. Everyone’s on defense. I have control over my personal life in New York — my community is all activists, supportive women, queer people of color who have similar points of views about things that are important to us. But people didn't share these things in The Real World. You almost automatically feel rejected by these people. We had to realize that just because have a different point of view, we’re not rejecting a person. We're accepting our own experience. That's the difference."
You’re proactive in facilitating those conversations and making sure they happen but not in a gossipy way. Can you talk about the role you took in the house, especially during those heated moments?
"A lot of people in the space were either emotionally immature or just lacking in communication skills — and I’m obsessed with communication. It’s my number one skill in life. I’m able to see both sides even if I don’t agree with one of them. I kept saying, ‘People are hurt.’ Their trauma is coming out in different moments."
Did it ever get exhausting being the conduit for those conversations? Or being the mom of the house in such a big way?
"I was constantly tired, for sure. It’s emotional labor. As a woman and as a woman of color — women do emotional labor all day long even if we don’t know it. We’re raised that way throughout our lives to do it for men, to do it for our families. Sometimes you have to set up a boundary. I'd say, 'I’m not having this conversation.' Or 'Let’s just agree to disagree.' I did a lot of painting and art to isolate myself from a space that could very frantic at times."
You take Meagan, who suffers from a real lack of confidence, under your wing. But she also expresses doubt that any kind of coupling aside from a man and woman is acceptable. How did you move past that?
"It's an ignorant point of view — but that's what she was raised believing. She didn’t know better. More than anything, I felt bad for her that she actually believed in that. I could see that her perception was changing. She started to get confused, which is more challenging and painful thing than knowing what you believe. Your identity is stripped from you, right in front of you ,in front of millions of people. You have to find your truth. That can be difficult."
It seems like you had a positive experience.
"There were moments when I hated it. Sometimes I was like, I made a mistake. I want to leave. Get me the fuck out of here. What is this insanity. This is stupid."
When did you feel like that?
"I felt I was stuck in a house of stupid people. Or I was like, we aren’t allowed to do anything we want. What am I doing? Is this even my purpose? I could be at home living my life with my partner, happy, cooking organic food. going to my job at the detention center and helping kids instead of sitting here and arguing with these idiots all day long. Other times I was like, Oh my god, I realize why I'm here: We’re sharing these bonded moment of clarity that we would never in our life have the opportunity to have unless we were in this space and in that moment in time."
What did your partner think of you going on the show?
"He hated it. He keeps calling me an actress."
Do you watch it with him?
"No, I keep that separate. If he watches that on his own accord, that's great. He did tell me he’s proud of me and how I was on the show. ‘I expected something very different. I’m proud of you actively supporting people in the home.' But he works in the industry so he feels like it’s tacky. Which is fine."
Was it something you talked about before the show?
"Yeah, I almost didn’t go because I thought it would fuck up our relationship. I was crying. We first started dating and I didn’t want to leave him for all these months. He was like, ‘You’re young. Do what you need to for yourself. Just make sure you feel good.’ I was pissed when he said that. I was like, ‘Why aren’t you begging me to stay?’ But also, thank you for supporting me to be a free, independent individual."
Were you and your partner in an open relationship on the show?
"We were, initially, open. Partially through the show we had a big talk and decided to close it because some things happened."
What kind of connection to the outside world did you have?
"We were the first Real World to have phones. We’d have access to information about what was happening in the real world. There’s so much happening right now. We couldn’t be in this house and not know about abortion, immigration, and all these different things. We’d be able to talk to our friends and family on our phones. And even talk to each other at the house."
Were you allowed to read books when you were there?
"We weren’t allowed to read books or magazines. I barely got them to let me bring my tarot cards. We weren’t allowed to do anything that distracted us from one another."
That sounds difficult thing to ask of people.
"We were super frustrated about it. We had to make up games. We’d write poems and songs and charades. All these things you do at camp."
Sometimes people say good things can come of boredom.
"Honestly it reminded me a lot of jail, to keep it 100."
Have you served time?
"Yeah, I was in jail for — on and off — for basically two months. While I was there, I was like, this is the same as jail but very fancy."
Did you use the same tactics you developed in jail to get through The Real World?
"No, because there were cameras there. In jail, it was so much easier. You can isolate. You can take a nap. You don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. You can just sleep the whole time and you have a schedule. Here, it was like, Create whatever you want, but you're with all these people and you still don’t have freedom. It’s almost easier having more restriction because then you know what you can and cannot do."
So jail is easier than The Real World.
"I definitely felt that at moments, yes."