Manny MUA And CJ Perry On Joining VH1's Revival Of The Surreal Life - Exclusive Interview

Back in 2003, VH1 introduced a wild new series that put a celebrity spin on the "Big Brother" concept, sequestering a group of celebrities inside a house that had been equipped with cameras and microphones to capture their antics. Viewers watched all the drama, hilarity, and more that unfolded when these celebs were forced together into close quarters. Airing for six seasons, the third proved to be particularly memorable for the unexpected attraction between rapper Flavor Flav and "Rocky IV" star Brigitte Nielsen, which continued in the 2005 spin-off series "Strange Love."

More than 15 years after the original series ended, VH1 is mounting a comeback with a revival season featuring eight new stars: flamboyant NBA great Dennis Rodman; porn star and presidential scandal subject Stormy Daniels; former "Malcolm in the Middle" star Frankie Muniz; R&B singer and songwriter August Alsina; Kim Coles of the beloved 1990s sitcom "Living Single"; Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Tamar Braxton; makeup artist extraordinaire and YouTube star Manny MUA; and CJ Perry, known to WWE fans for her butt-kicking ring persona Lana.

In an exclusive interview with The List, MUA and Perry opened up about their experience in the new revival of "The Surreal Life," sharing what it was like to be filmed 24/7, how they dealt with having celebrity roommates, and what they wound up learning about themselves.

How Manny MUA and CJ Perry wound up on The Surreal Life

For both of you, how was it that you came to be involved in "The Surreal Life" reboot"

CJ Perry: I was a fan, so it was crazy when my manager called me and said, "'Surreal Life' is interested in you being on the show." It was actually a day after I got released from WWE, so I was going through it. It was an understatement. I was like, "Whoa, this must be a sign for me."

I'm shocked — absolutely shocked — and honored and grateful to be able to get this opportunity. I'm sure they considered a lot of people. I'm very, very thankful that I was able to get this opportunity to meet so many wonderful people such as Manny and my other cast members.

Manny MUA: I would say the literal exact same thing other than not being released from WWE. It's not my vibe as much ... I was shocked because I was like, "Oh my gosh, I'm a digital creator." That's what I do. I'm a YouTuber; I'm a beauty guru. I was thinking, "Oh my gosh, me being in this house full of celebrities ..." 

I watched 'Surreal Life' too back in the day and I loved it. I was like, "Are they going to know what I do?" I was so nervous because I was like, "Am I going to be the only social media person?" Turns out I was, in a way. But it was really fun, and I was truly shocked when my manager emailed me. I was like, "You know what? I'm down. I'm going to do it."

CJ: By the way, everywhere we went, Manny was always recognized, always helping people. That was interesting to see. [He] definitely had so many fans constantly looking up to him. It's crazy.

Why being part of The Surreal Life was, well, surreal

CJ, Manny said he was a big fan watching the show ... How familiar were you with "The Surreal Life" when it originally aired?

CJ: The one with Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen, I was obsessed ... That's how I first came about knowing Brigitte Nielsen. Then I went and watched "Rocky IV" because I'm like, "Who is this person?" That's where I actually pulled inspiration in WWE, in my character — that was from Brigitte Nielsen. It all looped around. It was crazy.

What with Manny was saying too is I don't look at myself as a celebrity. I wanted to call my mom and be like, "I made it." It's crazy. It's so wild.

The one with Chyna I watched too, because of wrestling. I watched every single week; I would run home to watch it.

What was it like for you to live in close quarters with these celebrities? "Surreal" sounds like a pretty good explanation for it.

Manny: It was wild. It was honestly freaking wild. It was surreal. If anything, I've never in my life had roommates. To literally go from that to having two roommates in my actual room, I'm like, "Y'all are going to see my ass cheeks."

I didn't know what to do. I was so confused. I was like, "Wait, do I have to clean up after people? I don't like to cook." There were so many aspects that I was like, "I don't know what to do with these grown-ass, seven other people." It was very interesting because I've never had roommates before.

CJ: You're an only child too, right?

Manny: Well, I have two brothers, but we've never been roommates.

These weren't just any roommates either. Who were your roommates?

CJ: Roommates with a lot of personality and a lot of sass. I was like, "Do I have to turn up my b***h meter or what?" And I did.

There's no privacy in The Surreal Life

There are some pretty big personalities in this season. What was it like navigating that, all of those egos and the type of people in there?

CJ: It was wild. We have no doors. Let me put that in perspective — you have no doors. Living with anyone randomly with no doors is like, "Whoa, this is a lot." On top of it, having a roommate — not just a housemate, a roommate — is also like, "Whoa."

Then it's a stranger. Then on top of it is a famous person. Then you have cameras everywhere, mics everywhere — in the bath, everywhere. I don't even know how to exactly describe in one word how you feel. Maybe Manny can use a word; I don't know.

Manny: Totally. I completely agree. I'm such an absorber and an observer; I like to see my surroundings, see the vibe, see what's going on. Especially in the beginning, I was super nervous because I was like, "I don't know what I'm getting myself into. I'm the social media person. Are these celebrities going to even get what I do?" I didn't know what to think of the situation.

I'm like, "You know what? I'm going to be the house mother" — not in the way of cooking for b***hes, because I can't cook, but in the way of [being] that person that people can come to for advice, or when they have problems and things like that. I knew that about myself. I felt very much like the gay bestie in a way, because that's always a role I play in my life.

I'm like, "That's something I do. I do it well. That's going to be my thing." It didn't matter who it was or who I was talking to. I've met so many celebrities in my career. I knew that I was able to still be myself and come off authentically as me.

Why CJ Perry didn't 'over-strategize'

CJ, did you have a strategy going in, or was it more play it as you go?

CJ: Definitely play it as it you go. You can't over-strategize that. [After] doing three seasons of "Total Divas," you can't. You got to be in the moment and try to not body slam a b***h. That was my only strategy, being like, "Okay, don't punch anyone in the face, and don't suplex anyone, and I might be good."

That was a big part. The show brought awareness to myself and my own anxiety that I deal with, and also that I should and have been focusing a lot more on mental health. I had a couple full-on panic attacks on the show, so that was interesting. I would have not always categorized myself as dealing with anxiety, and in that situation, it manifested ... I'm thankful for that now, because I've realized, "Oh, yeah, my anxiety." I start talking a lot more [when] I get nervous.

Mental health is a big thing. Being on the show, not just with myself, but with Tamar [Braxton] as well, brought a lot more awareness and that we have to work on it ... Manny was always blowing my mind every single day as how calm he was — and such good people — and he's completely sober. I'm taking shots; that's how I'm coping with my anxiety. It was really inspiring, and I'm very thankful for that.

Being in The Surreal Life house felt like 'a pressure cooker' for Manny MUA

To be fair, you're in an environment where you're being filmed 24/7 with mics, and everything you say and every move you make is being ... How could that not cause anxiety?

CJ: For sure.

Manny: Exactly.

What was that experience like, though? Did you get used to that over time? Was it something you were always aware of?

Manny: It's something you're always constantly aware of. You're literally in a ... You're in a pressure cooker. The situation we're in, it's literally this little pressure cooker. You have roommates. You're being recorded 24/7. Things are going on. Personalities are personality-ing, and you're like, "What the f*** do I do?"

There are moments where you're like, "I want to have a break for myself [and] have a mental decompress." Those moments don't really happen when you're being recorded 24/7, so you're like, "Am I going to bust?"

There's moments where you literally have to be late. For me, it'd be at nighttime, I'd be laying in my bed. I'm like, "You're strong, you're brave, you're beautiful," in my head. Like, "What the f*** am I doing here in this crazy house?" You have to steal these moments for yourself, truly, and then reconnect and reassess. You're like, "B***h, you're sickening. You're fine."

CJ: It's interesting what he's saying because I felt that toward the last couple days, all of a sudden. I started to feel like this is my family, slightly dysfunctional. I'm starting to enjoy these people, truly enjoy, and not just, "Okay, we enjoy each other" ... I ended up starting to bond with Tamar. We were roommates, and that was fascinating to me, because when I left the house, I missed everyone. I'm texting Manny, like, "Why is it that I'm missing my family?"

Manny: For weeks.

CJ: Like, "I want the whole family." It's crazy. Whether it's WWE or if it's "Surreal Life," you're put in with all these different personalities and people drive you crazy, and then you learn to love that, just like family. That was pretty wild to me, and it's a very interesting social experiment. I wish we could have a reunion so I could see everyone again.

Manny: She would.

"The Surreal Life" premieres Monday, October 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT with back-to-back episodes on VH1.

This interview was edited for clarity.