The waitress at the Paramount hotel bears a pot of fresh coffee and a look of dread. She recognizes the man at her table, the one with the mat of blond spikes. ''You're the guy that doesn't shower,'' she says.
She gingerly leans forward. Her nose hovers half an inch above his hair. She takes a whiff. ''You smell all right.''
So it seems. But the target of this olfactory investigation, 26-year-old David ''Puck'' Rainey, is giving off some sort of scent at this swank Manhattan nesting place for the rock & roll elite.
While rapper Tupac Shakur brushes through the lobby, it is Puck feasting on a plate of berries who draws the flock of waiters and the funny looks.
Puck is not a rock star. He's not an actor. He's not a VJ. He's just a bike messenger from San Francisco. Although he seems to handle the stares and sniffs with the ease of an old pro, Puck has been on television only a few weeks, as a member of The Real World, MTV's docusoap about an ethnically mixed group of twentysomethings stranded for five months in a not-as-big-as-it-looks San Francisco house. Call it the rainbow collision: a med student, an AIDS activist, a rapper, a Republican, a cartoonist, a bubbly blond. Plus Puck (by his admission ''the grossest pig in the house''), a feral dude known for his aversion to soap, his passion for fast wheels and gonzo storytelling, and his habit of scooping fingerfuls of peanut butter right out of the jar just after picking his scabs. Like the Shakespearean sprite whose name he bears, Puck is on a mission to wreak havoc on the theatre verite of The Real World. By the Aug. 25 episode, his outraged cohorts will cast him out of the house though the cameras will continue to trail Puck's snot-rocketing flights of fancy. And as the show builds in popularity more than 2 million people watched this year's debut, nearly tripling the 700,000 who caught the premiere two years ago viewers are bracing for the crash.
''Are you the unpopular one in the house?'' asks the waitress.
''No, I'm the totally popular one in the house,'' Puck puckishly decrees, ''and therefore all the roommates hate me.''
A second waiter joins the fray, and Puck is caught in a shower of inquiries.
''Do you bathe?''
''Did you ever end up getting separate bathrooms?''
''Your character has the most dimension.''
''You're playing yourself, right?'' asks the waitress. ''It's not scripted?''
''I'm not playing myself,'' Puck replies, a bit taken aback. ''I am myself.''
So goes the conundrum at the heart of The Real World. Folks hiss and moan about the ''characters'' as if they were the catty, conflicted, and fictional denizens of Melrose Place. It's easy to forget they're not. ''People come up to you every day and say, 'Wow, I know you,''' says roommate Mohammed. ''There's been maybe four episodes, and you know me?''
People get harsh. ''What's great about watching the show,'' quips Michael Krugman, coauthor of Generation Ecch!, a comic guide to life in the 20s, ''is that you get to watch seven of the most appalling people you've ever seen in your life, and you can't take your eyes off them.'' It's that voyeuristic itch that has turned Real World into one of MTV's top shows, with ratings ''just a smidgen behind Beavis and Butt-head,'' according to Doug Herzog, MTV's senior VP of programming. ''It really started out as a grand experiment,'' he adds. ''Now it's a franchise.''
The experiment began four years ago. MTV wanted a soap opera, but executive producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray both fans of the seminal 1973 PBS documentary An American Family proposed something different: a series that would capture the lives of real kids, from big dreams to fridge mold. When it eventually debuted in May of 1992 with seven seekers in a Manhattan loft, complete with a rock soundtrack and Cuisinart-quick editing, The Real World proved to be anything but a stodgy docudoze. (A fourth Real World is already in the works; they're talking London, Miami, Chicago, even Des Moines.)