Features & Columns

Reality Chick

Santa Clara's Ashley Lindley of MTV's The Real World D.C. is a new kind of anti-celebrity.
Photograph by Felipe Buitrago

It's difficult getting into Sabor tonight. The general admission line is long, and many people standing outside are worrying about the dress code after a bouncer fades a guy wearing baggy pants. No one seems to be aware that Ashley Lindley, the local-girl star of MTV's The Real World: D.C. is set to appear.

A few people mill around on the outdoor patio, and inside is a dark crush of bodies on the dance floor, where girls in very high heels and very short skirts are squealing excitedly. Some of them weave through the crowd carrying glowing green specialty drinks that look like something out of Blade Runner.

Ashley isn't drinking tonight. She prefers to be on her game when she's working. She has become a national sensation, this season's big thing. The producers have cast her as the Bad Girl (the Bitch), a loose cannon who creates a lot of drama. Since taping of The Real World wrapped in October, she's been paid by clubs to make appearances like this a few times a week. But at Sabor tonight, she blends right into the crowd after slipping in around 11:30 though the side hallway whose walls have been autographed by previous celebrity guests. She pauses briefly to admire Lady Gaga's signature.

The Real World was a novel television concept when the show premiered in 1992, ushering in the American era of reality TV. Now in its 23rd season, it's difficult to separate one season from another. Aside from a few variables, it's consistent: seven strangers picked to live in a house together and have their lives taped. Seven strangers times 23 seasons equals 161 people that have been quarantined for four months at a time in houses all over the world, then re-released into the real real world. For Ashley, that meant coming back to the South Bay, where she spent her high-school years.

"It freaked me out," Ashley says after the Sabor appearance, speaking of her transition back to normal life. "I felt like a Kenyan man coming to America for the first time."

She found The Real World experience similarly disorienting. Though there might not have always been a cast mate in the house with her, there was always at least one cameraman, whom cast members aren't allowed to talk to. "The first time my roommates left me alone in the house, I was a wreck," she recalls.

The cameras were on "all the time, 24/7, even when we're sleeping. There are cameras in every corner of every part of the house." she says. "You're constantly miked from the minute you wake up in the morning until you go to bed. Except when you shower. There's no camera in the shower, but they're right outside of the shower."

It doesn't take long to forget the cameras are there. "For four months, you"re not going to go, oh my god, my grandma's going to see that. You just forget about it."

The show has been running for almost as long as Lindley, 23, has been alive. Now, she's one in a very long line of pseudocelebrities spawned from the show and the dozens of reality shows that followed—a slew of castoffs wandering California and beyond. Many of them appear not to know what to do with themselves except more TV, taking second-rate roles as they desperately clutch their mini-stardom. Even the winners of shows that promise careers, like America's Next Top Model and Project Runway, are often launched straight into obscurity after production wraps.

Ashley knows she wasn't a celebrity going in; she says wasn't a celebrity during taping, and she isn't one going out. She may be the only reality star to beat the system.

LIVING IN PUBLIC: Ashley Lindley (left) joins long-time friend Veronica Jackson on the dance floor at Sabor. "She just wanted to be normal," after the taping ended in October, Jackson says Photograph by Dave Cabebe

Home Away From Home

Ashley lives in the back of a sprawling apartment complex in Santa Clara with her two best friends from Santa Clara High School, where she took honors physics and performing arts classes and was a cheerleader. "I loved Santa Clara High School," she says, her eyes widening.

On a recent gray Thursday, all is quiet behind the community's automated locked gates. There are landscapers roaming the grounds with tools, and two of the ducks that usually congregate in the man-made ponds scattered across the complex have made their way into the community swimming pool.

In her apartment, most of the lights are off. Lindley is in her very pink bedroom, getting cleaned up after a morning workout and packing for a trip to Los Angeles to film the after-show for The Real World, a tradition that involves a televised cast reunion, and, she says, "three hours of taping for a half-hour of television."

Ashley says she doesn't really have a hometown. On the show, she admitted to strained relationships with her biological family that left her free to bounce around from the valley to Los Angeles, where she worked at the Disneyland resort and did a test shoot for Playboy magazine, to Houston to live with a boyfriend for three years to D.C. for the show and now back to Santa Clara. Right now, her friends are what matters. "They actually got to me before the show," she says of her roommates, one of whom is sitting in the front room, cursing at the video game he is playing. "Santa Clara is where most of my family is; it's where my friends are."

"I feel comfortable here. I think I'm understood better here. I think I'm very similar to most Nor Cal women. I'm not similar to East Coast women, I can tell you that. I'm proud to be a Bay Area kid."

She's standing in the bathroom, which smells like shampoo and soap and the burning residue of hair product on a curling iron, with smears of foundation on her face. In person, she's not mean at all—she's very well-spoken and looks people straight in the eye when talking, which probably scares less-confident folks. She's tall, slender and striking. She never went to college. And she knows what she's talking about.

In her MTV.com biography, which has been copied and pasted all over the web, Ashley is referred to as "the most politically aware" in the house.

"I grew up with a civics teacher," she says of her stepdad. "The only time we really hung out was when he was grading papers." At the dinner table, she was regularly quizzed on presidents and asked to name their contributions to the American political landscape.

"Thomas Jefferson was probably my first inspiration, at age nine," she says. "In high school I was the girl who would never come to class and then show up and ace all the tests." And her love of politics persisted. In 2008, Lindley served as an Obama delegate to the Nevada caucuses. "I heard he watched our show," she says about the president, whom she still supports though she thinks the Nobel Peace Prize was a stretch. "Oh my god, I thought, my hero knows that I exist. It was an unbelievable feeling just to know that even for just a second, he saw my face."

She says, however, that she has no interest in pursuing a career in politics. "Absolutely not," she says. "I love it too much. I think I would lose my love for it if I did." She once wanted to go to law school but changed her mind after dating a lawyer.

The microblogosphere is content in believing Ashley's a bad person, even though, watching the show, the case against her is weak. She hasn't physically attacked a housemate. She didn't get kicked off the show. The worst she did was pilfer a few random items from the set on the last day—a blanket, a door hanger and a plush bald eagle that her roommates' puppy, Mia, is tussling on the floor with as she packs. In the great pantheon of Real World housemates, she's tame.

However, every story needs a villain. She knew going into it that the show was entertainment, and that around 3,000 hours of her life would be condensed into a few short hours of escapist enjoyment for the world to watch. "It's not me," she says. "It's the edited version of me."

In one celebrated episode, Ashley appears to be hurt and surprised when a roommate she kissed on camera, Mike Manning, hooks up with a guy. "I found out that Mike was bi on the bus. We got into that conversation on the way to the place. I roomed with him on the assumption that he was gay. Everyone assumed that I wanted to be with him," she says.

"They didn't show all of the volunteer work we did. We worked with DC Vote, served food to the homeless and participated in Pinktober to raise breast cancer awareness. No one wants to watch that. It'd probably be pretty boring. They just show when you drink and get angry.

"To be perfectly candid, if I watched, I wouldn't like me either."

The comments on her recent guest blog for the Huffington Post, and on social media sites, are vicious and relentless.

"It's so funny—and I don't say this to rag on Huffington Post in any way—but when they approached me, I assumed they asked me to write for them because, you know, I'm liberal, I'm politically aware, and I have an opinion," she says, blending her makeup. "They asked me for topics, and I gave them a list of, like, 20 topics, and the topic they chose was the one about sex."

The lack of opportunity to flex her political muscles only fanned the flames for the trolls. "Oh God, it was awful," she says, picking up some pink eye shadow out of a box full of brand names. "They say I'm a bitch, I'm stupid, that I should just kill myself and get it over with." She barely cracks a smile, and shakes her head as she digs around in her makeup box.

"You know what? Fine. I'm misunderstood then. At first I got really upset about it. And I cried about it. I was kind of heartbroken. I was like, I don't want to be the girl that everybody hates. And then I realized, I'm at home. I'm surrounded by my friends. I'm surrounded by my family. If everybody hates me, everybody hates me. At the end of the day, what can I do about it?

"I'm a control freak. and this is the one thing I can't control. At some point you just have to let it go. So I'm letting it go. If y'all hate me, y'all hate me. Whatever. I'll be the coolest bitch you've ever met."

"I think people confuse that immaturity for bitchiness. I'm a young person, and sometimes I act immaturely. And I need to learn from that, Most people don't go through that process of learning with the whole world watching. I am."

SIMPLE LIFE: Having grown up humbly, Ashley is now learning about privilege, paparazzi and caviar Photograph by Dave Cabebe

Reality Reality

Growing up with a mom who married and divorced twice during her childhood and moved around a lot, Lindley's upbringing wasn't of the silver spoon variety. She attended 10 schools before moving out of her home at age16. She says her father, with whom she doesn't maintain contact, lives in a trailer park in the Nevada desert. Dining before the club appearance at Le Papillon restaurant, the waiter brings out a bent spoon with crème fraiche and trout roe. As she contemplates how to eat it, she says, "I've never tried caviar before, so you can't make fun of me."

A Twitterholic, she tweets what she ate for dinner from her Android before leaving the restaurant. "I tweet all day," she says.

Living in the District of Columbia as part of a television production is an experience she says she'll never forget. "I've never lived in such a nice place before. Ever. I've never seen such a nice house.

"I've never been to a soccer game and been VIP. I never sat front row at a basketball game. Opportunities don't happen for people like me that often. Big opportunitites like that. So I don't take it for granted."

Back at Sabor, the place is so packed, and her VIP table, recessed into the wall, is so snugly fit into the back of the room that no one appears to take notice. She doesn't have a huge entourage in tow, just a few friends. She isn't dressed like a star—she wears a simple black dress and black pumps—nor does she carry herself as one. No one approaches her, though that might be due to the protective rope surrounding her table and the hefty security guard presiding over it.

Some event photographers take her picture, and if they recognize her from TV, they certainly don't let it show. When she's not living up to her Real World persona, she's hard to recognize. In real life, she's more like the pieces of her personality that were left on the cutting room floor.

She says she doesn't regret a thing. "I can say with honesty that The Real World is the best thing I've ever done," she says. Though there are things she can't say or do, due to a contract she signed that's "the size of War and Peace," she's confident that The Real World accelerated a sea change in her life.

"It is true, I used to be mean just to be mean," she says, shuffling around her room, gathering dirty laundry in a pink hamper to wash at her mom's house in before she gets on her flight to L.A. in the morning. "It used to be a defense mechanism." After being picked to live in a house and have her life taped, there's not much to hide anymore, and not much to be mean about.