Life has taken a surreal turn for the 21-year-old Parma native. His frat-partying days are light years behind him. Now, he's traveling the country, thinking about a move to either New York or Los Angeles -and contemplating whether he should try to make a go at a big-time, WWF-style wrestling career. Really.
The 1999 Normandy High School graduate was among seven young people chosen in December 2000 to spend six months in a Greenwich Village brownstone and have his life taped around the clock for the 10th season of MTV's phenomenally popular "The Real World" television series. The documentary-style program, launched in 1992 as an experiment of sorts, is the forebear of the "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "Temptation Island" wave of reality shows that have flooded the American mainstream during the past 18 months. MTV selected a group of young strangers and plopped them together in a New York City loft to, as the show's introduction says, "see what happens when people stop being nice and start being real." What happened is people watched.
The Parma kid was infamous from the beginning. In the first episode of MTV's "Real World 10" — the episode mailed to television critics across the nation for review — he angered two of his African-American roommates by making a comment he swears was innocuous.
Trying to relate to his new roommates, Mike shared that a relative had a problem finding African-American workers for his business because "black people don't necessarily get as good an education." Not exactly the best way to endear yourself to your roommates, your city or young America. "It wasn't a racist comment," Mike claims in his defense. "Maybe I shouldn't have said it in front of them. But we were all talking about education, and I was on their side."
Coral, one of Mike's roommates, "took it as I thought black people were dumb," he remembers. "I never said that."
The controversy eventually faded on the show, though Mike admits it took a couple of months for all of the hard feelings to disappear. Back at home, he hasn't taken much static from strangers for bruising Cleveland's image. His father, on the other hand, who visited New York City during the taping and made offbeat comments about Cleveland race relations, hasn't been as lucky. Mike says his father's downtown storefront has been vandalized since the episode aired.
From the first day, MTV painted Mike as the cast member who would be changed most by his "Real World" experience, which included a midseason trip to Africa and a job promoting bands for Arista Records. "It takes your growth and accelerates it by like 20 years," he says. "I was looking back at my casting tape the other day, and I thought, Wow, what a dumbass."
And even if viewers did not notice Mike's personal transformation during the series, his family has seen a change. "I think he's become more open to everything and more mature," says his mother. Barb. "He's always had high morals and actually he's been a very good kid his whole life, but he's learned a lot of different aspects of culture. I truly believe he's learned a lot in a good way — in a very good way."
After graduating from high school, Mike worked on a business degree at Miami University and later joined Theta Chi fraternity. When he saw a casting call for the 10th season of "The Real World," he sent in a videotape. After a lengthy interview process that included "digging deeper and deeper inside of me, trying to find issues," he was invited to Palm Springs with 25 other applicants for a four-day final interview process to be aired on MTV. "At first, I was like, This thing is so lame, it is so fake,' " Mike recalls of the December 2000 desert excursion. "Everyone was putting on a big front for the cameras."
On the last day, he was chosen to travel to New York City, where he would learn whether he was spending five months in the posh "Real World" house or a shorter excursion overseas in the "Road Rules" Winnebago as a cast mem¬ber of MTV's other reality-television show. What happened after that has been seen on MTV Tuesday nights and Satur¬day mornings for months. Now that the show is over, Mike is asking himself the question everyone else asks about the "Real World" experience: Where do you go from here?
"With The Real World,' you only get fame for about a year," he explains. "That's the only time you can make real money off it, because you don't get paid that much originally." (He says the MTV stipend essentially covers living expenses.)
Aside from the upcoming challenge airing on MTV this month, Mike's only other work prompted by the show has been a photo shoot for Men's Exercise Magazine and some college speaking engagements. He envisions himself even¬tually returning to college at a large metropolitan university, but studying communications this time around rather than business. It's either that or using his 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame and the con¬nections he forged through the "Real World" production company to hook up with a West Coast wrestling school.
For now, though, he is still living in Parma, weighing his options and appar¬ently not letting the fleeting fame go to his head too much.
"People tell me I should find an agent in L.A. and New York," he says. "I don't know how to do that. I'm just a regular guy from Parma, Ohio, who got lucky. People come up to me and ask if they can have my autograph. I remember when I was a little kid and went to baseball games and saw a player it was the same way. The difference is I have no talent. I just live my life on TV."