Editor's note This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, June 1, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star
At times over the last five months, Frankie Abernathy has made MTV's "The Real World" a little too real.
In the very first episode she gets drunk and, despite having a boyfriend, snuggles up to housemate Brad in the hot tub.
She suffers from cystic fibrosis, a lung disease, but there she is smoking a cigarette.
When she drops a kitchen knife coming out of the bathroom, we learn she's a "cutter" - she deals with emotional pain by creating physical pain. The episode includes Frankie's visit to a therapist.
In a wrenching "confessional" moment, she talks about how much she hates herself.
And on last week's show, amid a visit from her family and lots of tears, the 22-year-old looked for all "The Real World" like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She said she just wanted to come home, to Kansas City.
On tonight's episode, Frankie just might get her wish.
Fans of MTV's highest-rated series sometimes forget that the "characters" are real people. But it's not hard to see why Frankie, who grew up in Blue Springs, was cast as one of the "seven strangers" in San Diego: Besides being cute, smart and outspoken, she has a look that's all her own (including lots of piercings). She and the boyfriend, tattoo artist Dave Duly, 23, met in an adult video store. For two years she worked at a Priscilla's, the adult novelty chain.
And there's that weird phobia of hers: She suffers anxiety attacks when she's around ships - you know, like the Love Boat. (Naturally, the roomies' job was working on a yacht.)
So, yeah, Frankie's a real person, but also a character - one of "The Real World's" most memorable ever.
She also inspires lots of questions among fans: Did she really dislike her MTV roommates? How's her health? Is she still with Dave? And what's next?
Here's the scoop on all that and more, in Frankie's own words, with occasional side comments from others.
‘I WASN’T GOING ANYWHERE WITH MY LIFE’
Frankie: There was an open call (last spring) at a hotel in Westport for "Starting Over," which is a daytime show for women who just want to get their lives rolling. I had just finished (massage) school.
It was very strange, because there were hundreds of women all in this big room. You're just sitting there and talking and comparing stories, and they take these women in, in groups of 10, to sit with the producer.
You tell your story: why do you want to start over. I was the ninth person to talk. By the time they got to me, I was like, all right, my life hasn't been peachy, but I'm not gonna sit here and tell everybody my story about how awful things are. Because right now, I feel like I'm lucky to even be here.
So what I said was: Remember my name, because whether you put me out there (or not), it doesn't matter, you'll hear it tomorrow.
And then everybody clapped, and there were these 40-year-old women coming up to me and telling me how strong I was. I was just thinking, "This is really weird - I need to go!"
And I made it to finals. I had to do more interviews. Then (producers) Bunim-Murray called me three weeks after my final interview and said, "Would you like to be on `The Real World' instead?" And I was just like, "You want me to be on what? You must have me confused with someone because I'm really boring and I am not an MTV-type person."
And they said, "No, we really like you." So I said OK.
Sasha Alpert, VP for casting, Bunim-Murray Productions: Frankie is a very emotionally available and expressive woman, and she has a very specific outlook on the world. She has a great sense of personal style, and that really translates to the TV screen. I thought she was someone our viewers would like.
‘I NEVER WATCHED IT’
Frankie: When they called me and told me I'd made it, Kevin Lee, the producer, said, "If I tell you that you made it, will you promise me that you won't come out here and change who you are?" And I said, "Yeah, I mean, of course." And he was like, "Because a lot of times people come out here and they see the cameras and they try to put on a show. And we don't want that."
And then he said, "And I don't want you to think that we picked you because you're gonna be the bitch or anything like that." Those were his exact words.
So maybe they did pick me to be the bitch. I don't know.
"Scoops," friend and morning-show producer for 96.5 FM, the Buzz: Of course they were gonna dramatize her life. Yes, Frankie is very dramatic in real life. She's just very passionate, and MTV got the drama they wanted. It really messed with her head, though. She's dealing with a lot anyway, like with her sickness. When she realized what she'd gotten herself into, she left. It wasn't her.
Abbie Hunter, Frankie's mom: She definitely has severe emotional problems, there's no doubt about it. But she can be a very fun, sane, rational person a lot of the time, and they just never showed that part of her at all. Any of it.
Frankie: The show is all real, and it's very much who I am, but at the same time MTV creates a character out of what I've given them. Now you would never imagine that I was a strong woman who didn't want people to look at her handicaps. When people start paying attention to the fact that I have CF (cystic fibrosis), it makes me uncomfortable. And I don't want people to focus on the fact that I'm afraid of boats and they freak me out.
I've been really, really open with my parents my entire life. Really open. They know pretty much everything. And now they know everything. Because I told them about everything they were gonna see on the show that they're not gonna like. The biggest one was smoking. Nobody knew. Nobody knew.
I quit (smoking). I'm done. I quit when I got home. I know it's not a good idea. But I, by nature, am incredibly self-destructive.
Perry Hunter, her stepfather: I can't possibly put myself in her place. But she is so smart. So beautiful. And she has so much potential. Life is just too short to be so sad/mad all the time.
Abbie, her mom: She's had a ton of love her whole life. I really don't know why she is so sad and angry.
‘WHAT WAS I THINKING?’
Frankie: Nothing happened (with Brad in the hot tub). It was just me being stupid and just totally wasted, completely out of my element. We'd been abandoned for two weeks with no outside contact (before filming, they were put in separate hotels). You could call people, so I'd been talking to Dave, missed him like crazy already, got to the house and saw somebody that reminded me of somebody I had a connection with (in Kansas City) at one time.
I'm sure that if two girls had been sitting by me that night in the hot tub, I would have tried to hit on a girl instead. I don't remember it to this day, but I've seen it, and it makes me sick to watch it.
I can't explain the magnitude of what is going on in your head when you're put in that position. Here are all these cameras - they're watching you. Now live here. And I don't know these people. As much as you try to get used to it, it's hard. It's really crazy. I hated it. A lot.
Alpert, the casting exec: After every episode of "The Real World" airs, the online message boards light up with comments. Fans have a lot to say about Frankie. She's such a relatable character; viewers feel like they know her. They wonder what makes her tick.
‘I’M NOT A POSTER CHILD’
Frankie: CF is a potentially fatal lung disease, but it also affects your pancreas. You don't produce the right enzymes to soak up nutrients in food. I was diagnosed when I was 3. Lots of people are talking about how I look so unfit and how I have a big stomach and little arms. That's due to CF. CF will make you look really malnourished because your pancreas doesn't work right.
A ton of people have said that I should've gone out there and represented the population of people that have this disease better, which is ridiculous to me. I went out there and I was who I am. That's it. I just went out there and lived my life.
Honestly, I smoked more out there than I think I've ever smoked in my life, just because you get so stressed. And everybody in that house smoked. Well, Jamie and Jacquese really didn't.
CF doesn't play a role in my life whatsoever. I don't pay attention to the fact that I have it. Which some people say is stupid and idiotic and some people say is the best way I could possibly live my life.
(In terms of life expectancy) I'm gonna make the best out of what I've got. If I just sat here and played the weak person and took these medicines and relied on them and said, "Oh, I can't go out because I'm just too sick," then I am not having a quality life. I am just prolonging my misery.
So I go out and I live it up and have a good time. If that means my life is gonna be shorter, then at least what I had was freakin' amazing.
Abbie, her mom: When she was diagnosed she had a 50 percent chance of living to 20. Back in the day when I still had some kind of control over her, we'd say, "Yes, you can go out if you do your breathing treatment." We used to make her take her pills. I would love for her to do her medicines and take active, precautionary steps to help her be healthier.
Frankie: Both (Dave and I) listen to a lot of punk music, but we both love old blues and we both love rockabilly stuff, and we're taking swing dance lessons. We have a ton in common.
People write me e-mails, fan e-mails: "Omigod, your boyfriend is so cute, you guys are so perfect, omigod omigod he's so cute!" It's like - I know, I know.
It's been very, very rocky (lately). He was with another girl for a little while. I stuck around because I know that I want him, and I had my time to figure out that he is who I wanted. So I gave him time to figure out that I'm who he wanted. So we got back together and everything's going pretty good.
Abbie, her mom: She kinda obsesses right now about Dave. In some ways it's sad for Dave because he gets the brunt of a lot of her neediness, her anger, etc. I don't know if they're right for each other or not, and I don't know whose fault it is. It's nobody's fault.
‘IT’S NOT ABOUT SUICIDE’
Frankie: (Cutting is) an addiction, like anything else is. The way I'm dealing with it, which isn't right for everybody, is almost like I have a sponsor. So every time I feel like I need to cut myself, I talk to my sponsor. Lucky for me, my sponsor is a cutter, so this person knows exactly what I'm feeling.
There's something switched in my brain. When I have a problem, I have to think extra hard about it because if I don't think about what I'm gonna do, then I act irrationally. I start acting before I start thinking. There are times when I get really emotional and I want to (cut), but you put the knife down, you take a deep breath and you call your person.
When people come up to me and say, "I really related to you," I know why. I think I've brought attention to it as a problem.
Kevin Lee, co-executive producer, "Real World": The fact that Frankie is a cutter did come up during the interview process, but it was as something from years ago, rather than a current issue.
Perry, her stepfather: Of course the cutting was pretty tough to watch. Made me feel like a dumb parent. She'd been doing that since she was 15 and I didn't know it. Duh. I believed her when she said her cat kept scratching her.
‘GOOD FRIENDS NOW’
Frankie: (The cast) all went to L.A. and saw each other (at a seminar on how to give speeches to college students). And I worked things out with Robin. We're all over (the fighting) now. We've all seen our shining moments and our not-so-shining moments (on TV). We realize we were all victimized at certain times. I know there are times when Robin was like, "Oh, man, that was not how things happened."
For a long time I really regretted doing the show. I just feel like I really screwed up a lot of people's lives by going. My sister (Mamie) has to hear about it at school all the time. She's like "Frankie's Sister" now, and that's gotta be hard.
Perry, her stepfather: I think it's been the hardest on Mamie (who's 12). She really is the one who is always on Frankie's side. She's her biggest means of mental support. So I think it's tough to be the older sister, mentally, when you are really the younger sister, physically.
‘CARRYING A MESSAGE’
Frankie: It sucks sometimes when people think they know me and they hate me.
On the other hand, there are tons of 13-year-old girls out there now who tell me, "I wanna be like you. People don't like me at my school. They're the preppy girls and I hate them." I feel like I'm really carrying a message to them, that they're OK the way they are. They don't have to change. They're beautiful for being themselves. I think I have delivered a really valuable message to a lot of people in today's youth, and that's the only way that I feel even remotely like a celebrity. And it's the part I like the most.
Frankie spent three weeks in a hospital earlier this year recovering from what may have been pneumonia. The median life expectancy for people with cystic fibrosis is about 32 years.
Frankie is looking for a job. She doesn't know yet if she'll be in demand on the college lecture circuit.
She reunited with the cast at the end of filming in December to do promo spots and again in April. She does plan to take part in an "RWSD" reunion show; it will be taped later this month in New York.
Her hair is no longer pinkish-red. It's a combo of black, blue, purple, pink and teal. She did it herself: "Nobody's touching my color."
This, the 14th season of "Real World," is on track to become the most-watched season of the show.
To reach Tim Engle, features writer, call (816) 234-4779 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.