Twenty years ago today, MTV premiered its documentary series “True Life.” The first episode, “True Life: Fatal Dose,” explored the lives of heroin addicts in Plano, Texas, amid America’s growing opioid epidemic.
This and other episodes over the past 20 years serve as time capsules, preserving the stories, circumstances and sentiments of people around the world from the time they were taped. Some episodes made us laugh, others made us wince, and almost all of them made us empathize with other human beings. And today, with a world segregated and compartmentalized according to our differences, the driving themes of “True Life,” which continues its run, have never been more prescient.
From its beginning, “True Life” set out to convey a diverse world and bring its inhabitants together by highlighting our shared experiences.
Episodes in the show’s 1998 inaugural season ran the gamut from working as an adult entertainer to living with HIV. One focused on the anti-gay hate crime that took the life of Matthew Shepard that year.
The show marked an important foray into long-form reporting for the network. The ensuing two decades would see “True Life” broaching equally vital discussions of sexuality, addiction, mental health, domestic and foreign strife, and love ― not all of which were always artful or entirely accurate but many of which served to usher important topics into the national dialogue.
HuffPost talked with some of the most memorable “True Life” subjects and participants to see what they’ve been up to since their episodes aired. We also asked about their experiences on the show, its cultural significance, where it succeeded, and where it fell short.
Drag the slider tool to view “then and now” photos of various “True Life” participants.
Lynn Smith McKay
“True Life: I’m on Ecstasy” (2000)
“‘True Life’ was a lifesaver for me. I got out of New York City barely alive, you know, from just destroying my body through drugs, alcohol and all of that. And when I got back, I’d — two days before — gotten out of a psychiatric ward I’d been in for two weeks.
And I got back to my little hometown in Pennsylvania. There I was, stuck in this, like, farm town that I worked so hard to get out of, and I felt so alone and just lost, and I don’t know why. I’m sure it was, like, the hand of God or a higher power — something telling me to go to MTV’s website, which I’d never gone to. It said, ‘ECSTASY: Tell us your story,’ and I didn’t even think about it. I just hit that button and started writing, and I didn’t even reread what I wrote. I sent it, not really thinking anything about it. It was just therapeutic for me to even type things out, because it was so raw, I was so in it, and I felt so alone.
And then, within 24 hours, I got a call from a producer, and I was like, ‘What?’
I was in such a place where I wanted to know that I was gonna be OK, and I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone in what I was experiencing.
I was wondering if this was real, and I’m glad that it happened so quickly because I think if I had overthought it or if I had too much time to think about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I probably would have been embarrassed or wanted to move on with my life. But I was in such a place where I wanted to know that I was gonna be OK, and I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone in what I was experiencing. And that’s really what started it all.
A huge turning point in my life was agreeing to have MTV film my life and come to Pennsylvania — come to the hospital with me. The first time I saw my brain image was the first time the viewers did, too, because everything was recorded as it was happening.
I didn’t realize at the time how powerful a moment that was, but six months later it aired and then it was wild: I’m talking thousands of emails from parents, kids, teachers — every walk of life ― telling me, ‘Thank you for sharing this. This is what I’m going through, and now I don’t feel so alone.’ I’m telling you, it was the biggest life-changing moment for me. Sharing that dark side of your life that most people hide taught me to be honest about myself.”
“True Life: I Live a Double Life” (2004)
“I was living in New York and working as a dental hygienist and one day I walked up the subway and there was smoke. There it was: Sept. 11. So when that happened, my office was destroyed and we lost over 80 clients in the attack — I was a dental hygienist in Manhattan. So after that, I was on unemployment, I’d just bought my apartment and my first mortgage payment was due.
But throughout my life, people had been coming up to me on the street with magazines asking me, ‘Will you sign this?’ I’d look down and it was this gorgeous woman who looked just like me named Anna Nicole Smith. So when 9/11 happened, I knew I looked like her, and I knew my first mortgage payment was coming up, so I reached out to ‘The Howard Stern Show’ because he was one of my dental patients. I said, ‘Do you have any work for me?’ And he said there were Anna Nicole and Vin Diesel look-alike contests at Planet Hollywood, and that I should enter.
So many women reached out to say they were living double lives, too.
I obviously won the Anna Nicole contest that day and that got me booked at parties around the country. So one day I was sitting at a restaurant in Los Angeles — still dressed like her — and people would walk up saying, ‘Anna, we love you!’ So that’s how it happened: Someone from MTV noticed me there and thought my story was interesting.
I’m telling you, this show gave me so many opportunities, and I’ve used that platform to help women. Anna Nicole had a very abusive childhood and I believe that if she’d had more help and understanding, she’d be alive today. So my goal in life is to help women, and it’s inspired by that MTV show of mine.
So many women reached out to say they were living double lives, too. You know, ‘My kids are acting out’ or ‘My husband is hitting me.’ When I taped ‘True Life,’ I was happy when I was with my family or in public, but you can see in the episode I’d go to my hotel and cry. And that’s what all these women were reaching out to tell me: They were experiencing something similar in their personal lives and that’s powerful.”
Jeanine wants to continue working as a resource for women in need. You can follow her on Instagram here.
“True Life: Matthew’s Murder” (1998)
Author’s note: The Shepards did not appear in MTV’s “True Life” special or contribute to the MTV film about Matthew Shepard, released in 2001.
“My emotions have really been a mixed bag. My initial interactions with media — including MTV — pretty much soured my view of the media as a whole. There wasn’t any one thing in particular, but I came to an understanding from the first press conference I did that when you start to cry, flashbulbs go crazy. It’s about grieving mothers and grieving fathers, and it should be about more than that. We’re trying to effect change here. So that’s why our media appearances were so selective in 1998. For the first year, we were kind of limited in what we could talk about and how much we could talk, because the prosecuting attorney and both judges asked us to keep a low profile, and that’s what we did.
But independently, when the time was right, we went about telling our stories and talking about Matt, because what began to happen around that time was that Matt was becoming somebody in other people’s eyes who was not our Matt. He began to look like this unattainable icon or whatever people, maybe, needed Matt to be.
But it was really important to me and [Matt’s dad] Dennis and Matt’s brother and Matt’s friends that people really know who Matt was. He was a human being. He was a person with flaws, and it was critical to us that that be known.”
You can learn more about Matthew Shepard and the Matthew Shepard Foundation here.
“True Life: I’m the Big Girl” (2011)
“When filming started, it actually wasn’t for ‘True Life,’ it was for a documentary about female football playing. And when the people who made the documentary started shopping it around, MTV was more interested in the weightlifting aspect and the fact that I was larger. But then, from there, they bought it and turned it into what it was.
People judge me off of my body whether or not it’s the subject of an article, so it’s just something you have to get used to when you’re someone who’s not the average. The title of my show could have been ‘Holley Mangold Tries To Go To The Olympics’ or ‘Female Football Players’ — whatever it was, the comment section and people’s perceptions would’ve all been about my weight, so being under a microscope in that way really didn’t bother me.
Overall, the feedback was definitely good. There are a lot of large female athletes and we’re kind of underrepresented — we’re not really the image you think of when you think of an athlete. So a lot of people contacted me to let me know how happy they were to see that the stereotype of being large doesn’t always fit — it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not also an athlete.”
Holley currently works as head coach at a barbell club in Dayton, Ohio. You can follow her on Instagram here.
“True Life: I Have Embarrassing Parents” (2003)
“In filming the stuff, and in some of the situations that my son and I found ourselves in throughout the episode, I gained a better understanding of how my son felt about religion; how he felt about his hunting; how he felt about life; and how he felt about my love for Star Wars. And he came to understand better that it wasn’t just a love for movies, but that my love for the franchise was about a friendship and kinship with all these other people who are also fans. He realized that there’s more to this than just dressing up and wanting to be a Jedi.
We changed the world somehow — a little bit of it, but we changed it.
When the episode aired, that’s when our lives really changed, because the outpouring of responses we got was just … phenomenal. It was something I never expected: People walking up to me in Walmart going, ‘You’re that Jedi who was on MTV.’ And the number of guys who said, ‘I wish you were my Dad’ was incredible. I had a kid contact me from another country ― I don’t remember where ― but all I remember was his English was very poor. But basically, someone had smuggled him a copy of our episode because he was a big Star Wars fan. He mentioned that where he was living, he could be killed or beaten for watching this stuff, but he watched and he was contacting me to let me know how awesome it was.
And I’m like, ‘This is crazy stuff.’
Another guy was contemplating suicide the night the episode aired. He said he watched the episode and changed his mind. Because he saw hope. And that’s when I called my son Charlie and said, ‘Son… we did something big here. We changed the world somehow — a little bit of it, but we changed it.’”
“True Life: I Want the Perfect Body” (2003)
“I think my episode was important because it put natural bodybuilding on the map. Natural bodybuilding, at the time, wasn’t really a thing. It was a thing in the underground competing world, but it wasn’t really known that there was an opportunity for people to compete without the use of chemicals or any kind of over-the-counter supplements. But I see, now, a lot of younger kids making careers out of natural bodybuilding through social media, and a lot of them will say, ‘I saw your episode, and it really opened the door for me to know that I can compete as a natural competitor.’
And the episode also showed what really goes into being a competitor. I was 23 at the time and so engulfed in this process of becoming a professional bodybuilder, and I wasn’t getting paid for it. It was basically a hobby, and I knew going into it I wasn’t going to make a lot of money from the sport, but it was a part of my life that enabled me to be more disciplined in my work ethic ― it enabled me to have better relationships because I was more self-disciplined ― it was like an outlet for me. And I think, overall, our episode put the sport and the process out there for people to see.
I don’t want to be known as the guy whose dad shaved his ass on national television, you know?
But I’ve never wanted to use my body as the only means of marketing me as a personality. So, yeah, it opened some doors and it got me some notoriety and respect in the industry, and, again, a lot of these younger cats will say, ‘I saw you on MTV!’ That alone is good, for me; I’m grateful for that. But I don’t want to be known as the guy whose dad shaved his ass on national television, you know? (Laughs) I’m more than that.”
“True Life: I’m a Pro Wrestler” (1999)
“The crazy thing about pro wrestling is that a lot of the time, opportunity arises from someone else’s mistake. And what happened was that the individual MTV initially brought from Chicago to do this episode ended up having drug problems. MTV actually gave a camera to him, and he ended up selling it to a pawn shop. The whole ‘True Life’ thing was supposed to be about one person in the beginning of their career, one guy just about to make it to the mountaintop of the WWF, which was Triple H — it’s amazing to see what he’s become — and one guy at a crossroads in his career, which was [Hall of Famer] Tony Atlas.
So when the first guy was let go, they were about to scrap plans for the show, but as they were interviewing people in Cincinnati who’d traveled from all across the country to train as professional wrestlers, they talked to me. I was about nine hours from home — I’m from Watkins, Iowa, a town of 100 people! But they liked my story. I was just a kid who had worked two and a half years in a factory to go live his dream. I was the kid who sat down and watched wrestling every Monday, and I had to find out if I could do this or not.
Honestly, I went a lot of time without receiving any recognition, but the episode changed that. And it just tells a great story about a melting pot of personalities who are all driven by the desire to be under that bright spotlight in the ring.”
“True Life: I’m a Financial Dom” (2016)
“I really do believe the show made a big difference because it made it so much easier for people to come out and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m into,’ as opposed to this being an underground little world. Everybody loved the idea that the episode showed people actually enjoying this — like, real people.
I never went to a casting for the show or anything like that. People had been talking online about MTV putting this episode together, and someone posted the name of the person who’d started reaching out. So I emailed him and said, ‘I see you’re reaching out to the local dom in New York City, and you’re reaching out to the wrong person. You need to do this with me.’
And what ended up making me the right fit was the fact that I’m a real person with real dating struggles I was having at the time, so people were able to see themselves in me as opposed to viewing me just as some dominatrix who does these crazy things for a living. No, I was actually going through some normal experiences in trying to find someone I could be with. That’s what allowed women watching to relate and understand me better.
And honestly, the show coming out made it really easy for a lot of the other women in the industry to come out, communicate with me, and tell me they were going through the exact same thing. But since it’s not something we can take to our particular fanbase and start venting about — the struggles of dating given our lifestyle — it’s not something we’re able to talk about. Everyone says, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful, you’re able to get whoever you want,’ and if you tell that to your social media following, they don’t believe it. They don’t want to think you’re not able to find someone, since you are this incredible idol to everyone following you.
So a lot of women came out and said, ‘You’re not the only one.’”
Jasmine has continued working as a dominatrix. You can follow her on Twitter and access her websites here.
“True Life: Save My Teen Marriage” (2015)
“Before I can even begin talking about my journey on ‘True Life,’ I have to say how deeply saddened I am that my ex-husband James passed away in a car accident in June 2017. Life has not been the same for my son Semaj, his only child.
My episode was a ‘True Life’ special. James and I had been married for six years when it started to get rocky and we weren’t sure if our marriage was going to last. We had infidelity and trust issues in our marriage at the time. James had cheated and it wasn’t easy for me to forgive him for his actions that horrible night I caught him. When we heard MTV was casting for married couples who got married when they were teens, it was the perfect show for us to try to work out our marriage.
There were people who, from the start, predicted it wasn’t gonna work because ‘y’all got married too young and haven’t experienced enough life to want to settle down at such a young age.’
I was the so-called ‘bad girl’ at the time of the episode, so some people would watch and reprimand me: ‘How could you not take your husband back and work things out? That’s why you shouldn’t have married young.’
But in hindsight, I think shows like ‘True Life’ are important because you get to see other people who may be going through the same thing as you.
I had young people who wanted to get married young reach out to me and tell me how I saved their life because they were 19 and engaged, and once they saw our episode it opened up their eyes to see they should wait for marriage.
They were able to see us go through obstacles and watch what we had to do to overcome them. It’s not always someone you know personally who inspires you like that. Sometimes, just watching someone go through what you’re going through takes a burden off your chest.”
“True Life: I’m Questioning My Gender Again” (2013)
“The overall experience, for me, was therapeutic.
I think the topic of detransitioning, in general, is taboo in society broadly but it’s definitely taboo within the transgender community, so it was important for people to see that there is no gender book. There’s no wrong or right way to be transgender, and sometimes, it doesn’t always work the way we expected it to. So we have to take a step back and re-evaluate our transitions. I think sometimes we get so caught up in the physical transition that we forget about the mental aspect and everything that goes along with it because we’re so [concerned] with the visual and what people can see.
So I think it was important for people to see that I am detransitioning, but it doesn’t make me any less transgender or any less of a human. It doesn’t invalidate my transition. Life is like a book and there are many chapters; that was just a chapter in my gender journey.
With production — and I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but I have mentioned this in the past — I did speak about how I felt … (sigh) what’s the word? I did feel a lot of pressure from the production company. There was a moment during production when I was like, ‘OK, maybe I need to stop. I don’t know if I want to remove my breasts. I don’t know if I want to cut my hair.’ So there was a point when I wanted to slow down and production pressured me to go through with everything. They were like, ‘There’s a lot of money on the line, etc., etc.’ So there was definitely a pressure factor involved in filming, but at the end of the day, it all worked out for the best.
But you take the good with the bad. I kind of feel like I got thrust into a position of leadership within the transgender community and a lot of transgender people were upset because they thought I wasn’t portraying the transgender community in the most positive light. They felt like I was playing on the stereotype that all transgender people are confused, and I always tell people: I’m not necessarily representing the transgender community as a whole; I’m just telling my story. But a lot of people were grateful to see someone else going through what they were going through. Filming wasn’t always peachy keen, but I’m thankful for it.”