Getting ‘real’ with former MTV reality stars

Allison Corneau

For the thousands of people nationwide who audition for reality television programs each year, there are those lucky few who make it, and are able to live out their reality for millions to see on cable television.

This was the case for Veronica Portillo and Syrus Yarbrough, two of a chosen handful of reality stars who participated in MTV’s “Real World/Road Rules Challenge: Battle of the Sexes,” which last aired in 2003.

A more recent edition of the “Challenge” premiered Monday night, with Portillo returning to take part in her sixth installment of the show, which teams 36 former “Real World” and “Road Rules” cast members on same-sex teams to compete for a $60,000 cash prize. Yarbrough sat this edition out, but is still touring the country on a lecture circuit to speak on his experience starring on “The Real World: Boston,” which was filmed in 1996.

The reality TV duo appeared at Quinnipiac recently to encourage voter activism as part of the “Rock the Vote” tour, and sat down with The Chronicle after the lecture to explain the true reality behind two of MTV’s most popular shows, and to dish a little behind the scenes dirt on the newest season of the “Challenge.”

Starring in one of the first reality series on television was memorable for the two, but they realize that such TV fame is fun but temporary. Since his MTV stint in 1996, Yarbrough has created a lifestyle around these (college) lectures and “Challenges,” adding that he expects to get recognized but hopes that those who recognize him have been positively influenced by his time on television.

He remains humble, however, and now looks to give back to those reality television fans who watched his shows, this time by serving as a casting director. Most recently, Yarbrough helped cast contestants for “Joe Millionaire 2” and “Renovate My Family,” airing now on Fox.

“It’s great,” Yarbrough said, of his work as a reality casting director. “I want to give [future reality stars] what was given to me. My life changed because of my show and I’m here to change other people’s lives and hopefully they enjoy the experience.”

While Yarbrough found it easy to jump back into the “reality” of life after his MTV stint, Portillo, who originally appeared on MTV’s “Road Rules,” had a different experience. Participating in the season that first aired in 1999, Portillo and five teammates explored the world as part of the national Semester at Sea program. In addition to attending college classes on board the floating classroom and dormitory, the cast also participated in various challenges while docked in order to receive a reward at the conclusion of filming.

Traveling through times zones and exposure to numerous cultures on her trip led Portillo to return home with reverse culture shock, so much so that she retreated to Iowa for the summer following her show to clear her head. Years later, she continues to lecture and travel nationwide to share her “Road Rules” experiences. Participation in subsequent “Real World/Road Rules Challenges” has let Portillo realize that some of her MTV reality counterparts often allow fame to go to their heads.

“I don’t think I’m cool because people know who I am,” Portillo said. “[Former cast members often] move to LA because they think they’ll be the next Lindsay Lohan.”

Temporary notoriety and the obligatory cash stipend [of approximately $12,000 in Yarbrough’s case] cast members receive after filming are nice, but as Yarbrough explains, the experience can be worth much more. “[Being on “The Real World”] is very therapeutic [and is] a growing experience. I did the show for six months and I’m still waiting for something [in life] to compare to that,” Yarbrough said.

Yarbrough tells The Chronicle that a common viewer misconception of the series is that scenes are scripted, leading fans to become skeptical of the credibility of the real-life documentary series. In cast interviews throughout filming, participants were often asked “pointed” questions by show producers to elicit a certain response, suitable for dramatic effect in later episodes.

“You’re forced to be humanized. You never know how you’re going to be portrayed,” he said, adding that he often hid his emotions from the camera during his time on “The Real World: Boston” for fear of an out-of-context portrayal.

Such real-life drama is tough to take at times, but is often what viewers crave at others. Portillo promises viewers a refreshing change on this month’s “Challenge,” as group obstacles are not as physical, which has been the norm in past seasons.

“This competition’s completely different. It’s not about being a strong competitor, it was actually not so much for fun for me because I like to be physical,” Portillo said of the series, which was filmed in New Mexico. “The games I was frustrated with, and I was frustrated with the rules because they were stupid and it was like good people were leaving the game.”

Portillo was tight-lipped about the outcome of the battle of the sexes competition, but did disclose that viewer favorites Coral Smith and Abram Boise are returning for another season, this time in love. Reality TV veteran Eric Nies [“Real World: New York”)]also makes an appearance on the male team, and Portillo told viewers he will often be toting a jump rope to promote his latest fitness video.

As for the juicy backstabbing and cat-fights typical of such “Challenges,” Portillo reveals that another cast favorite, Katie Doyle [“Road Rules: The Quest”] returns, much to Portillo’s chagrin. The two female competitors have been the center of many confrontations over the years, but this time their time together was a little different.

“I like to think I was on better behavior [this time around], [but MTV] still got their dirt, they still got the drama,” Portillo told The Chronicle.

Viewers can judge the latest drama for themselves as MTV’s “Real World/Road Rules: Battle of the Sexes 2” airs each Monday at 10 p.m.