The British Invasion

As producers considered 25,000 applicants for this season's cast, they found some people all too willing to re-create the show's often-contentious spirit. ''You wouldn't believe some of the pitches — 'I'm a total bitch, and I'll scream and yell, I woulda punched that goddamn Tami [from the L.A. Real World],''' says producer-director George Verschoor. ''It's like, 'Look, this isn't Studs.'''

The lucky seven picked to live in a 6,000-square-foot, Gothic-grunge pad in London's Notting Hill Gate for five months starting in January were largely unfamiliar with the show. Two all-American boys chosen to help appease the home audience — Jay (The Thespian) and Mike (The Race-Car Driver) — had seen only a few episodes and were none too impressed. ''I made fun of it,'' Jay says. And Mike says he channel-surfed past it: ''I was like, 'This is stupid. I want videos.'''

This ignorance kept the roommates from aping their predecessors, but some may wish they had studied the show more closely. ''The promos say it's a reality-based soap opera, which is something quite different than what we were told going in,'' says Jacinda. ''They said, 'It's going to be your life.'''

On a muggy spring evening, over a dinner of curry and cheap red wine, Neil entertains a group of his Oxford University chums at the Real World house. ''How much longer are you doing this?'' one asks.

''Two months,'' answers Kat, who has joined them at the table.

''Two months too long,'' Neil grumbles.

Neil's lack of enthusiasm is understandable — he's in an awkward situation. Almost as soon as they moved in, Neil and Kat began a flirtation — one complicated by Chrys, Neil's girlfriend of five years, who ended up sending Neil a pig's heart with a nail in it for Valentine's Day. Kat says MTV is blowing her relationship with Neil out of proportion by making it the season's first major plotline: ''In the large scheme of everything I've done in England in six months, that is like that big,'' says Kat, holding up her pinkie. ''That's how much it concerns me and Neil.'' (He declines to comment.)

Most of the roommates back up her claim — ''Nobody gave a s--- if one person fancied another,'' says Jacinda. But Kat's fellow Americans tell a different story. The couple ''tried to hide it from the cameras,'' says Jay. ''The directors got all pissed off about it. It brought an uncomfortable element to the house.'' Neil and Kat, concludes Mike, ''lied to all of us.''

The Real World would have you believe Mike's just jealous — the first few episodes show him sulking as Kat and Neil make goo-goo eyes at each other — but Mike says that's also been exaggerated: ''I'm not attracted to her in the slightest.'' Kat calls the insinuation that Mike had a crush on her ''rubbish.'' But, she says, ''we understand that makes a fairly good story.''

Besides, how real can the show be when its subjects are asked not to talk about a major part of their lives — the constant filming? Producer-director Verschoor says he doesn't want it to be ''a program about being on a program.'' But Jay, for one, found that topic hard to ignore. In the frequent on-camera interviews, he says, ''I'd tell them all this stuff about the show, and that's not what they want. But it was what I was going through.''

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