Tami Roman swore off reality TV. Until ‘The Real World’ let her finish what she started

VENICE , CA - AUGUST 29: Portrait of Tami Roman, who first appeared in the 1993 MTV show, "The Real World: Los Angeles" at the Venice Beach house where the show was originally filmed at 30 30th Avenue on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020 in Venice , CA. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Tami Roman, who first appeared in “The Real World: Los Angeles” in 1993, photographed earlier this year at the Venice Beach house where the show was filmed. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

Tami Roman swore she was done with reality TV.

In 1993, the 22-year-old aspiring singer was cast in the second season of “The Real World” and was central to its most memorable moments — including an abortion documented by MTV cameras and a physical altercation with her roommate, David Edwards, that led to his departure from the series.

Seventeen years later, as a divorced mom with two children to support, she returned to the medium in VH1’s “Basketball Wives” and later its spinoff, “Basketball Wives LA,” where she spent nearly a decade expertly stoking the drama. Finally, in 2019, she kissed the genre goodbye — for good, so she thought — to focus on acting in projects like the Apple TV+ series “Truth Be Told,” the Lee Daniels-produced sitcom “The Ms. Pat Show” and her popular web series, “The Bonnet Chronicles.”

So when Paramount+ asked her to be a part of “The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles,” she said no. Over and over again. “I am not coming back. I am off reality TV, and I damn sure don’t want to do that with those people I ain’t talked to in 30 years,” she recalled in a recent video chat. Then Roman’s producing partner, Jill Ramsey, put it another way: “She said, ‘Tami, this is where you started. Just go finish what you started.’ That’s when it clicked.”

In August, Roman and her roommates returned to the same Venice Beach house they shared for six turbulent months during Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House. There were long-overdue conversations about race, body image and the blanket-dragging incident that resulted in the “Real World’s” first ejection — all documented in “The Real World Homecoming: Los Angeles,” now streaming on Paramount+.

Roman says the experience was productive — to a point. “I really learned that no matter where you are in life, you have to meet people where they are, and not everybody is upwardly mobile. Some people are still exactly where you left them.” But returning to communal living as a 51-year-old woman also had its drawbacks. “I couldn’t poop for two weeks,” she says with typical candor.

Roman — then known as Tami Akbar — was working at an HIV healthcare center in West Hollywood and performing with an En Vogue-esque R&B girl group when a co-worker told her she’d auditioned for “The Real World.” Roman had never heard of the show but stumbled on a marathon that weekend on MTV. “People are on TV, just, like, living their lives? I didn’t even know that was a thing. And so I said, ‘Well, I could do that.’”

Using a bulky camcorder, she filmed an audition tape and delivered it, in person, to the “Real World’s” production office, where she was told the season had already been fully cast. “I said, ‘Well, I’m not leaving until you look at my tape.’” The strong-arming worked: a few days later, producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray called to tell her she made the cut.

“She had charisma from the first time I met her. She had this amazing ability to be vulnerable and be completely honest about who she is. There was a confidence there that made her incredibly attractive,” said Murray, who was also compelled by her biography: Roman was raised by a single mom and had been homeless for a time, a fact that seemed to fuel her ambition. “There was just a sense that she was going to get what she wanted out of life.”

Tami Roman in blue jeans and a bikini top in 1994

Tami Roman in January 1994, when her participation in “Real World” had made her a star. (Jeff Kravitz / Getty Images)

The cast that season was notable for its discordant array of strong-willed personalities, including Jon Brennan, a conservative Christian country singer from Kentucky, and Dominic Griffin, a spiky-haired Irish writer who drove cross-country in an RV with Roman. (“One of the things we learned from L.A. was that we had to make sure that the roommates had enough things in common to hold them together,” Murray says.)

Feisty and funny, Roman proved she was a born reality TV star before that was even a thing. In a landmark moment for television, “The Real World” documented Roman’s decision to have an abortion. MTV cameras followed her to and from the clinic where she had her procedure and captured the mostly thoughtful conversations she had with her housemates, who held divergent views on abortion rights.

“I wasn’t necessarily trying to be the spokesperson for Roe v. Wade,” Roman says, “but I really wanted to show the emotional roller coaster that a person is on if they decide to make this decision.” Roman anticipated backlash but instead received fan mail from grateful viewers — “women who had gone through the experience and felt like no one would understand,” she says.

In another memorable moment from the season, Edwards tried to pull a blanket off of Roman, who was lying in bed wearing only her underwear. What seemed to be a bit of puerile late-night fun quickly went awry as Edwards dragged an increasing upset Roman, clinging to the blanket and screaming for him to stop, down the hall.

The three female cast members, including Roman, concluded they didn’t feel safe with Edwards in the house and, in a “Real World” first, he was kicked out. The situation was deeply fraught: Some viewers believed Edwards, a Black man, was unfairly tarnished with an ugly stereotype and bristled when housemate Beth Stolarczyk, a white woman, compared his behavior to that of a rapist. Still others thought Edwards had clearly crossed a line, even if the altercation had begun playfully.

The controversial decision is addressed in the first episode of “Homecoming,” and three decades later it’s clear the feelings remain raw — particularly for Edwards, who says his comedy career suffered as as result.

Roman is firm in her belief that when a woman says no, “it needs to be honored.” But she regrets the aftermath Edwards experienced and lays some of the blame on herself for not disclosing certain traumas in her past that contributed to her emotional reaction. “A lot of the story was missing, primarily because I wasn’t as open and as transparent as I should have been,” she says. What Roman didn’t share at the time was that she was a sexual abuse survivor. She also struggled intensely with negative body image. (In a particularly troubling episode of “The Real World,” Roman had her jaw wired shut to lose weight.)

“Body dysmorphia is something I was diagnosed with later on in life. I didn’t know that I had a disorder. What I knew was that I abused laxatives, I starved myself, I was throwing up food,” she says. Having much of her body exposed on camera was “the last thing I ever wanted to happen,” she explains. “David didn’t stop because he didn’t know what Tami was dealing with, in her own mind.”

Roman, whose recent weight loss has prompted concern from fans on social media, says she is still fighting the demons. “When I think I look great, everybody else thinks I look like a crackhead,” she says. “Every day is a challenge for me to get up and go, ‘I love everything about myself.’”

Roman married NBA star Kenny Anderson shortly after filming “The Real World” and spent most of the next seven years in wife-and-mom mode. After they divorced in 2001, she began to focus on getting film and TV work. The “Basketball Wives” franchise, which she joined in 2010, provided a steady paycheck — and introduced her to a whole new generation of reality-TV viewers.

“The only thing I knew how to do was be myself,” Roman says. “And I feel like that’s always been my blessing and my curse.”

Though Roman started out as one of the show’s most reliable drama queens, she eventually grew tired of the contrived catfights, especially in later seasons, which coincided with the rise of Black Lives Matter across the country. “We had to be able to offer something of substance and value to the people watching. And when I saw that wasn’t happening, I said, ‘I don’t need to do this because I actually know how to act.’”

She returned to the audition trail and quickly scored roles in “Carl Webers’ The Family Business,” as well as “Truth Be Told,” where she plays Octavia Spencer’s stepmother. Acting opposite the Oscar-winner and Ron Cephas Jones in the series, which recently returned for a second season, is like “my very own private master class,” she says.

Tami Roman stretches out on a couch on an outdoor deck.

Tami Roman revisits the “The Real World: Los Angeles” house. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

“I’ve been able to transcend [reality TV] because they only showed you a one-dimensional view of who I am,” says Roman, who is now married to former NFL player Reggie Youngblood. “I don’t walk around with boxing gloves on, I’m not cursing people out. And I like to think I’m pretty damn funny sometimes.”

Roman says she gets her drive from her mom, who died of cancer in 2013. “She wasn’t a touchy-feely type of mom, but she always provided. I feel like I’m the same way: All I know how to do is provide and work for my family.”

While still on “Basketball Wives,” Roman started sharing videos of herself wearing a bonnet and sounding off on whatever was on her mind, often between drags of a cigarette. This led to “The Bonnet Chronicles,” a popular Instagram account turned web series in which Roman, as her alter ego Petty Betty, rants about everything from ugly babies to people talking on Bluetooth in public.

A few years ago, Jordan E. Cooper, creator of “The Ms. Pat Show,” stumbled on a clip of Roman griping about grocery story chicken wings in an installment of “The Bonnet Chronicles” and was impressed with her natural comedic timing. When he began to devise “The Ms. Pat Show,” a sitcom that streams on BET+ and follows a formerly incarcerated comedian who lives in small-town Indiana, he wrote the role of Pat’s freeloading sister, Denise, with her voice in his head. At the time, Cooper knew nothing of her reality TV past.

“One thing I’ve learned about Tami is Tami is a hustler. She’s gonna go where the job is. And I think that those were just the opportunities that came along and she excelled at it. But I think that she’s finally coming to where she belongs,” he says of comedy, calling her a “master at taking language and twisting it to be funny.”

Kim Fields was also unaware of Roman’s reality résumé when she directed her in two episodes of “The Ms. Pat Show.” “I was like, OK, this chick has some chops,” she remembers thinking. She even asked a friend in New York theater if she’d heard of Roman. The friend’s response: “You mean Tami Roman from reality TV?”

As Fields would soon discover, Roman had actually trained with her mother, the acting coach Chip Fields, which may have accounted for their instant simpatico. “I grew up on the same thing. I was fed the same food,” says Fields, who also collaborated with Roman on the upcoming fashion-world drama “Vicious,” scheduled to premiere next year on the UrbanflixTV streaming service. As a former child star turned director, Fields says she admires Roman’s ability to evolve in an industry that tends to pigeonhole people.

“Whatever Tami Roman wants to do will be done. There’s no question in my mind about that. It’s just how, when, and how fly is her hair gonna be when the s— jumps.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.