Now he was seated near the back of a theater inside The Strand, a smut shop at 35th Street and Troost. The place was a grotto of stale air and worn seats in too-tight rows. The movie -- World's Biggest Prick Teasers -- offered larger-than-life views of men in leather and a rhythmic soundtrack of grunts and slaps and moans.
For Renzi, a star of the 1996, Miami-based season of MTV's The Real World, the darkness meant anonymity.
When a man inside the theater propositioned him, Renzi shooed the shadow away, saying that he wanted "self time."
Which he was getting. "I thought I was treating myself," Renzi tells the Pitch. Just for a little while, he could do whatever he wanted without being observed.
Renzi belongs to a new class of celebrity: the former reality-TV star. (Kansas Citians joining him after recent seasons are Shandi Sullivan from America's Next Top Model, Melana Scantlin from Average Joe and Frankie Abernathy from the current Real World installment.) More than 50,000 people apply for roles on the series each year, MTV spokeswoman Eileen Quast tells the Pitch. This year's Real World: San Diego averages 4 million viewers an episode, she says. (According to Nielsen ratings, 2.7 million viewers watched The Real World the week ending June 20.) MTV says The Real World is the most-watched basic-cable program in its time slot for 12-24-year-olds.
Originally from Overland Park, Renzi was Real World: Miami's scene-stealer: a good-looking gay guy from conservative Kansas. Previous seasons had featured gay cast members. Norman Korpi in New York and Pedro Zamora in San Francisco defined their sexuality as something political. The 21-year-old Renzi, though, was flamboyant, bitchy and unrepentant.
"The whole reason they picked me was because I have such a blasé attitude on being gay," Renzi says. "For everyone else, it was still an issue. It was this idea of, 'Let's put someone on the show who doesn't give a shit.'"
Since then, Renzi had converted 15 minutes into a full-blown career. Topped by a picture and his vital statistics (6 feet 3 inches tall, 190 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes), his résumé lists MTV spinoffs: Love in the Real World (Real World Hook-ups), 19 Degrees of Reality, The Real World 10th Anniversary Special, Real World/ Road Rules Battle of the Sexes, Kathy's So-Called Reality, MTV's Extreme Challenge 2001. He's done side projects such as Son of the Beach (a Baywatch parody) and Coming Out Party (a gay comedy special). He's acted in risqué comedies with titles such as My Boyfriend, Sleeping with Straight Men and Making Porn. He has studied public speaking with late-night infomercial guru Tony Robbins.
Last November, Renzi moved from Los Angeles to Kansas City to help his sister-in-law raise her two toddlers while his brother, a dental-supply salesman, was away on business. In April, when he met with the Pitch at Broadway Café in Westport, he carried a cell phone with a Los Angeles area code -- an industry trick to keep Hollywood types thinking he was still on the coast.
But he was tired of waiting for his big break, he said. He'd hosted MTV's 2003 Spring Break Bahamas special but had turned down the opportunity to appear on the Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Inferno, hosted by BMX biker Dave Mira in Acapulco, Mexico.
"I have other things to do, like laundry," he says.
Renzi's pants were at half-mast when an officer from the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department's vice squad turned on the bare light bulb in the Strand's projection booth. Across the aisle, a plainclothes cop in a T-shirt, ball cap and jeans flashed his badge.
"He was pleasuring himself, exposing his genitals. That's probably the easiest way to put it," Sgt. Brad Dumit tells the Pitch.
Officers escorted Renzi and two other men past fun booths and into the lobby. Renzi later described the events on his blog (www.danrenzi.typepad.com):
"Because the charges are minor, the cops just gave the other offenders 'arrest' citations to sign, and then they were let go. ... They wrote one of these citations for me, too; but then a cop yelled 'YOU WERE ON THE REAL WORLD!' to the whole room -- and after a quick discussion amongst themselves, they decided they needed to bring ME to the police station, so they could hold me in a cell, take my mug shots, and make me post $500 bail. ... Even though our charges were all the same, I was the only one actually brought to jail. ...While he was putting the handcuffs on me, the cop asked 'So, was being on The Real World fun?' When I replied, 'Asking me these questions while you're arresting me isn't fair,' the cop got huffy."
Dumit says that Renzi had a California driver's license and explains that it's standard procedure to take out-of-state offenders into custody for processing. He says the commotion actually erupted after he took Renzi outside to wait for a police van.
A TV news crew was doing a story on cigarette sales at the Conoco station across the street, Dumit says. "Apparently Renzi thought they were here for him. He started drawing attention to himself. He started running across the parking lot, and a camera guy recognized him. Otherwise, no one would have known. ... They called me and asked me if we'd arrested -- and then they named his name -- and to be honest with you, I didn't even remember the guy's name, so I had to go back and look."
"The first thing I said was, 'If you bring me down and take my mug shot, it's going to wind up on the Internet,'" Renzi recalls. In 24 hours, Renzi was thrust into the ranks of the overexposed alongside Pee-Wee Herman and George Michael.
And the attention offered him a second chance at stardom.
Actually, the arrest was a production made for TV comeuppance. Showing his collared shirt, wire-rimmed glasses and perfectly tousled hair, Renzi's impish, wide-eyed mug photo resembles a head shot. At the KCPD holding tank on Linwood Avenue, a scene out of Mayberry unfolded.
"I sat there, and all the people at the police station came in and looked at me like I was a goldfish, and then they stood and pointed and asked me for my autograph," Renzi says. "A cop stood there, and he put his hands on his hips, and he said, 'Dan,' and I said, 'I know,' and everyone started laughing."
Renzi called a friend to bail him out, then rushed to Mi Cocina on the Plaza, where he knew a manager. The manager flipped a flat-screen TV to the local news. But there was no story.
Now Renzi faced a conundrum: Should he tell all and look like a media whore, or should he wait until the story broke and look like he had something to hide? He called an old Hollywood friend for advice on spin control.
"You admit it immediately," Renzi says now. "If you don't own up to the fact that you're a little tacky, people are going to think you committed a crime. I'm not embarrassed by what happened. It happened. I'll pay the consequences."
He didn't need an attorney -- he was dating Jeff Jarrett, the lawyer behind one of the largest speeding-ticket and DUI clearinghouses in the city.
"I don't think everything happens for a reason," Renzi says, rejecting the philosophical view many people take when bad things happen to them. But, he says, "As much as God can't stop it, he can get you ready. If you're going to get arrested, God will introduce you to the biggest sleaze lawyer in the city two weeks before you get arrested."
Within 24 hours, he'd called his friends, his boyfriend's friends and his mom to warn them. At 5 p.m. on May 6, KMBC Channel 9 flashed Renzi's police-issue glam shot. The story was replayed at 6 and 10 p.m. MTV picked it up within days, then Entertainment Weekly and Us Weekly and MSNBC.com.
Renzi complains that local reporters never called him to ask for a comment. "The local news, what a bunch of fucking slackers," he says.
On the evening of May 6, Renzi made a smart PR move, posting on his blog a copy of his mug shot and a lighthearted true-or-false quiz with items such as:
On Cinco de Mayo, I like to drink margaritas. (True.)
When I drink, I get frisky. (True.)
I'm blaming this on alcohol. (False, false, false. I wasn't drunk. Besides, drunk or sober, you own your actions. But let's face it -- the tequila helped things along.)
I like watching porn with guys with nice butts. (True true true. Straight guys: insert "girls with big boobs" here, and it's the same thing for you.)
There were guys with nice butts in the movie. (True.)
I was charged with jackin' off in a porno theater, by an undercover vice-squad cop. (True.)
Even though our charges were all the same, I was the only one actually brought to jail. (True. Convenient, hmm?)
While he was putting the handcuffs on me, the cop asked "So, was being on The Real World fun?" (True.)
On tonight's news, the newscaster said "A reality-tv personality got a taste of the real world yesterday ..." (True. Sad and pathetic, but true.)
A female friend just called me and said "Damn, I thought waking up naked with a sombrero on my head and cocaine on my face was bad. But you win. You had the best Cinco de Mayo ever." (True.)
In an effort to show support, all my male friends have let me know that they jack off to porn too. (True. Thanks, guys.)
I'll never be naughty again. (False.)
Barricaded in Jarrett's midtown spread, Renzi ordered pizza and watched comments flow to his Web site from Australia, Austria, Holland, Israel and Taiwan. As he clicked the refresh button, the on-screen counter eventually climbed to 15,000 hits a day, he says.
The following Thursday, Renzi quipped about the incident on-air with a Chicago morning-show DJ and locally on KRBZ 96.5 (the Buzz). By then, supportive e-mails from men and women, gay and straight, had maxed out his Hotmail account. His fan base included college kids, Internet porn stars (who sent pictures), soldiers and locals who offered condolences or solicitations, requested autographs or asked for advice.
On May 10, Renzi's site made the Popdex.com "Top 100," a list of the most-visited sites on the Internet. He ranked 63rd, beating MTV's announcement of an Apprentice spoof (No. 65, Bignewsnetwork.com) and a transcript of Donald Rumsfeld's hearing on torture of prisoners in Iraq (No. 74, Washingtonpost.com). A porn producer contacted Renzi and told him that now was the time to bare all. Renzi said no. Organizers from the Toronto Gay Pride Festival called to ask if he'd headline at Yuk Yuk's, the biggest comedy club in Canada, for their gala. He said yes.
"I was like, give me some money and I will," he says.
That weekend, Renzi ventured from his house to the Velvet Dog, where he had an awkward run-in with a former fan.
"This little bitch came up and sat down and said, 'I really love The Real World,' and then she went back to her friends, and they started whispering and pointing, and then she got this look on her face of complete horror," he says.
"I don't really care, because it's such a stupid charge. People in Kansas City got a little tight because they didn't know what happened. The whole point of it is, it's a funny story, and people in KC didn't get the joke."
In a stand-up routine for Coming Out Party (Ariztical Entertainment, $19.95), Renzi provides his adolescent back story. As a kid, he performed tap-dance recitals in the driveway for his neighbors. He liked Cher. He would take off his pajama bottoms and wrap them around his head to pretend like he had long hair. His first I-might-be-gay moment struck while he was using a pair of binoculars to watch his shirtless neighbor mow the lawn. His first homosexual experience was with a fellow choirboy after they had dropped off their dates after the senior prom:
So we go home into my basement, and we stand there, staring at each other, you know, like two cowboys. And he reached over, and he turned out the light. I said, 'I don't want to do this.' [Then Renzi shouts] And I heard: ziiiiiiip!
An honor student, he'd hung with the choir and theater crowd at Blue Valley North High School, acting in school plays such as Funny Girl, Annie Get Your Gun and All My Sons. He played a Russian bottle dancer in a Theatre in the Park production of Fiddler on the Roof. At a theater-intensive summer camp in Wichita, he earned his first lead as Harold Hill, the con artist who can sell anything -- most important, himself -- in The Music Man. He and a girlfriend had a side gig dressing up as clowns, Bubba and Weenie, entertaining at suit-and-tie events such as the annual Bacchus Ball.
His sign-off in the 1992 Blue Valley North yearbook: "For once, my friends, I have nothing to say."
His life, it seems, was always dramatic.
After graduating in June 1992, he decided to celebrate his 18th birthday by taking out a personals ad in a well-known alternative weekly. Renzi described himself as an eighteen-year-old bisexual male seeking companionship. He left a friend's mailing address. "I was living in Johnson County and was bored as hell," he tells the Pitch. "I just wanted to see what would happen."
Renzi says he contacted only one responder, a tattoo artist who worked in Westport. "It was sort of like, you're gay and so am I, so let's be friends," he says.
One night, Renzi's boyfriend threw a party on the roof of his tattoo parlor, near Torre's Pizza. Renzi had read an article about meteor showers and was craning his neck skyward to take in the view when he backed off the roof, falling more than 20 feet into the alley below. He landed facedown, cracking his skull in nine places and causing massive trauma to his central nervous system. Renzi was unconscious for three days at St. Luke's Hospital, he says.
When he woke up, Renzi had trouble remembering friends' names. He had rapid mood swings and chronic, sobbing breakdowns. While he was recovering and in a wheelchair, his mom became his caretaker, driving him to classes at Johnson County Community College. While cleaning his room one day, she discovered a response from the personals ad and learned that he was gay.
As soon as he could, Renzi fled. In the fall of 1993, he transferred to Rutgers University in New Jersey to pursue a degree in environmental policy. Living openly gay there, he became president of his dorm council and wrote a weekly column for a campus rag. He worked full-time as a singing waiter at a Macaroni Grill franchise and as a manager at the student center. On weekends, he'd hop the train to party all night in New York City.
When he heard about The Real World's upcoming Miami season, he decided to make an audition tape.
"I knew I could get on," Renzi says. "Gay guy from Kansas? Sold!"
The tape starts with Renzi closing down the campus center. "Are you ready?" he asks off-screen. Then he jumps in front of the camera. "Hi!" he says. He leads the viewer on a sarcastically narrated tour of the center, cooing about its boring architecture and the "gorgeous" 1960s paintings lining its drab walls. Then he gives his impression of Miami in a nutshell: The Golden Girls, flamingo lawn ornaments, lots of old people. At the end, Renzi unlocks a display case and steals a handful of candy bars, making munching noises for the camera. He never mentions he is gay, but Renzi tends to overemphasize his dramatic affectations.
"There was a distinct lack of pretense," he says of his own work. "It's not what I said. It's how I said it."
Renzi made the cut and had 10 days to withdraw from college, notify his parents and ship off to Miami.
"The casting director told me, 'Just so you know, they're going to make a real big deal out of things, pick the most extreme parts of your worst days and edit things the way they want them.' I said, 'I don't care. It's just a TV show.'"
In his book about the experience, Livin' in Joe's World, Renzi's former castmate Joe Patane describes the house as essentially a soundstage with a separate wing reserved for recording equipment. Producers trimmed reels of footage until Renzi and his roommates each represented a stereotype: the all-American (Mike), the evil temptress (Flora), the gossip (Melissa), the entrepreneur (Joe), the ghetto transplant (Cynthia), the eternal kid (Sarah) and the narcissist (Dan).
Producers gave the roomies $50,000 in start-up cash to create a business. Their ideas included a coffee shop, a fashion line and a dessert delivery company, none of which ever got off the ground. Dan's series highlights show up on various DVD compilations. In Episode 12, Melissa opens Dan's mail without asking. He calls her a bitch. She calls him a faggot. They have a 7-minute oh-no-you-didn't shouting match (see MTV's Greatest Fights, $19.99). In episode 17, Mike, Melissa and a waitress have a threesome in the shower. Dan tries to watch (see MTV's Hook-Ups, $19.99).
"I don't think I was portrayed poorly," Renzi says. "It was difficult, of course. I was a gay guy, so they got about every queeny thing I said and did and put it on the show."
After the show wrapped, he spent the next four years modeling in Milan, New York and Paris. By 1997, Renzi was back in New York, commuting to Rutgers to finish his degree. In 1998 he returned to Kansas City to work as an HIV counselor with the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department. He also hit the streets to raise AIDS awareness with Condom Crusaders. Meanwhile, he says, he modeled for Donna Karan, Hugo Boss, Diesel, Todd Oldham and Tommy Hilfiger. But the business was brutal: Prada rejected him, a Donna Karan stylist insulted his body, and after tripping on one runway, he showed up on a Bloomingdale's blooper reel as a "fall fashion" highlight.
By 2000, MTV had figured out a way to recycle its former reality stars, recruiting cast members from Real World and Road Rules (The Real World on a Winnebago) for obstacle-course competitions against each other on TV specials. Renzi contacted MTV to get involved. A year later, Dan from The Real World became a household name again, appearing on MTV's Real World vs. Road Rules Extreme Challenge, a tour de force that hit Montreal, Prague and Berlin. On the show, he won a 2001 Toyota Celica, which he now drives.
When the show ended in Los Angeles, Renzi decided to stay. He milked side projects, speaking on the college circuit, hosting other MTV projects and acting in plays. He wrote a "Fashion Police" column for Us Weekly, free-lanced pop-culture pieces for The New York Post, New York Press, The Advocate and Gay.com, and made a guest appearance on the Style Network's home remodeling show, Area.
"All this stuff kept happening. I wasn't going out and looking for this stuff," he says. In October, though, he grew reflective. He was a college grad who had never held a 9-to-5 job. "I've had fun over the past years, but what the hell did I do? When I was young, people said, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' This is not what I would have said."
Renzi had used his fame to make money, but he was growing tired of the public eye.
"You know who I am, so clearly I'm famous enough," he says. "Americans as a group rate and categorize -- pseudo-celebrity, quasi-celebrity -- and they don't realize how offensive that is. If you're going to chase me down and interrupt my day but then let me know that I'm not famous, then why not leave me alone? ... It happens to a lot of MTV people.
"But whatever," Renzi continues. "I did it to myself. You can't complain. You have to live with it."
After the arrest, Renzi retooled his résumé to focus on his writing and counseling experience. By June, he had landed a sales position at the Gateway call center in the West Bottoms. Hawking computers and tech advice over the phone, he could interact with others anonymously. To get the job, Renzi assured his bosses that he was ready for full-time work -- he wouldn't participate in further Real World events.
This spring, he also had joined a city gardening club and was helping Jarrett prep his manse for the Kansas City master gardeners' tour. He contacted the Kansas City Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, volunteering to help with voter registration. And he started working on a Peace Corps application. He says he wouldn't mind spending a few years in a place where there's no cable.
But just after he started with Gateway, a Showtime cable network flak dialed Renzi's 310-area-code cell phone and asked him to come by his Los Angeles office to audition for a CSI-style pilot about a police hate-crimes task force. Renzi explained that he was in Kansas City at the moment. Then he called a local videographer to make an audition tape.
It's past 11 p.m. on June 4, and three blocks of Main Street from 18th to 21st streets have become a party zone. Kansas City's Gay Pride Festival is bookended by beer trucks, with beer tents, carnival concession stands and a dunk-tank game next to a line of port-a-potties. Revelers mix with business-casual dilettantes who've lingered after First Friday. A DJ in a muscle shirt and a baseball cap spins dance music on top of a bus-sized soundstage plugging the intersection of 19th Street and Main.
Standing ramrod-straight, arms folded across his chest, Renzi waits alone in the center of a nearby crosswalk, looking for his friends. Earlier he attended a gallery opening at the restaurant Twenty 20, where he was cornered by a fan who wanted him to pose for a picture. After that, he kept moving. Someone bought him a corn dog. Someone else bought him a beer as he circulated.
Renzi's appearance at Gay Pride is awkward. Around town, Renzi has acquired a reputation as a diva. Locals report spotting him seemingly tipsy and pretending to be a host at Il Centro in Brookside, strutting self-importantly at Gold's Gym in Westport, holding court with young guys at Bistro 303 and avoiding eye contact with everyone at the Empire Room's Monday-night parties. He's done work on behalf of gay rights -- at Rutgers, on national Gay Pride radio spots, as a spokesman for Michigan's 1998 AIDS walk and in Kansas City as an HIV counselor. And that was him working on behalf of a lubricant brand at one late-'90s Kansas City Gay Pride festival -- shooting revelers with a Super Soaker full of lube and wrestling with them later in a kiddie pool. But Renzi says he feels slighted by Kansas Citians, gay men in particular, and attributes that to the fact that he was on The Real World.
"Maybe it's because I'm from here that people took it real seriously ... I came back here two years later, and people told me what a bad job I did on the show and how people didn't like me, and nowhere else has that happened," he says. "Gay men have always judged me harshly in this city. I'm only asked out by guys who don't watch MTV."
A skinny guy in a brown, sleeveless shirt approaches, and they give each other a quick hug. This man was the boy who fooled around with Renzi after the prom.
All night, Renzi has been surrounded by a wall of white noise: the click-whrrrl of cameras mixed with people shouting: That's Dan from The Real World! Is your name Dan? Oh, my god, you are such a cutie! My friends were like, That's Dan from The Real World ... Are you that guy? You never get that, do you? So I'm like, There's the guy from The Real World ... Hey, Real World guy! Dan, I just want to shake your hand. You're my favorite.
"I'm sure you get this a lot," says a young fan from Iowa, who informs Renzi that he's working as a summer choraleer at Worlds of Fun.
"That I'm cool?" Renzi responds sarcastically. His arms are still laced in front of him. "That I'm gorgeous?"
A girl in a red shirt and a blue bandana throws her arms around Renzi's neck, almost tackling him. She asks him to speak at her gay youth group, Passages, on Sunday.
"Oh, my God," Renzi says, sincere this time. "What a great honor."
He arrives at Passages fashionably late. The support club for gay teenagers meets in the basement of the lesbian and gay community center in Westport, a room decorated by Christmas lights encircling the exposed pipes.
At 15 minutes past 7, Renzi and Jarrett enter the teen hangout to cheers. Tonight's theme is "Hero Night," in honor of Gay Pride, and fliers bearing idols' names and deeds hang from clothespins clipped to a wire along one wall -- Eleanor Roosevelt, Melissa Ethridge, Chastity Bono, Rosie O'Donnell, Mark Bingham (a passenger who reportedly helped storm the cockpit on 9/11's Flight 93), Pedro Zamora.
The kids decide they want to interview Dan from The Real World by spoofing a talk show, and Renzi makes his entrance by prancing around the room, laying his hands on audience members and mouthing faux gratitude as though the camera is rolling.
He sits center stage, facing his host, Jay, an African-American teenager wearing a white-checkered suit and a purple tie. Both are in lawn chairs. Nearly twenty teens sprawl on couches and chairs, watching.
Renzi speaks in a deep baritone that crests and troughs like a broadcaster's, his statements ending like questions to keep listeners piqued. His heroes were his friends, he says. His friends and, of course, Madonna. He still has her Blonde Ambition Tour poster in his boyhood bedroom in Overland Park. For years, his mom was convinced that it helped turn him gay.
His first memory of gay people was watching a pair of older men laughing together on the street. "My father said, 'If you ever choose a life like that, get ready for a lot of public humiliation,'" he says.
How did he know he was gay? He answers with a nearly verbatim watching-the-lawn-boy snippet from his Coming Out Party routine.
How did his parents react? Weeks earlier, Renzi had told the Pitch that his parents were "very supportive" but in an odd way. "It wasn't my parents' forbidding me to tell people I was gay. It was just this hush-hush thing," he had said. Now he suggests, for storytelling purposes, that he was kicked out of his parents' home. "They thought I was going to bring AIDS into the house," he says.
He regales the teenagers with modeling stories, prostrating himself on stage and gesticulating wildly. Twice, his cell phone rings and goes unanswered. Renzi tells the crowd that he's not technically living in Kansas City, because he moves around a lot. He talks about his headlining gig in Toronto, about how he recently agreed to speak at the freshman orientation at Boston University. He reiterates that trying to be an actor is a fool's errand. "It's like everyone from a 250-person town picked one person, and they are in L.A. waiting tables."
Asked about his view on politics, Renzi says that George W. Bush has used the gay-marriage debate to distract voters from the Abu Ghraib prison-abuse scandal.
Scheduled to speak for about 20 minutes, Renzi gives the kids more than an hour. Answering each question with a monologue, his responses expertly lead Jay toward the next subject he wants to riff on: Never apologize for yourself. Never compromise yourself for others. Opportunity is knowing when to grab good luck. Don't get caught up in appearances -- aren't we all beautiful inside?
The kids in the audience are mostly riveted, occasionally breaking into hoots and claps. To these members of The Real World's young demographic, Renzi's clichés are new and inspiring.
No one mentions the arrest.