When the 27th season of MTV's The Real World begins, the first thing you notice about Brandon Swift (or simply Swift, as everyone calls him) is that he's wearing a black leather coat. On a dock on the Caribbean island of St Thomas.
In his defense, it was cold when he got on a plane in New Jersey to fly down to the Virgin Islands to meet his fellow cast members/hostages. Still, most people would have taken off the coat as soon as the tropical air walloped them.
Not Swift. "I wanted to style a little bit. Since I'm from the Northeast, I love jackets, coats, blazers. I wanted to show off a little. That was the last time I wore that," he says, laughing.
It's a scorching day in Rittenhouse Square and Swift is again making no concessions to the heat. wearing a dress shirt buttoned to the collar and a cinched tie. "I like fashion," he says. "I like to dress nice. I've been called a metrosexual or a diva at times."
Once you get past the garments, the second thing you notice about the guy on TV is that after about 30 seconds on camera, he feels like an old friend. He's had that disarming quality, his mother says, "from Day 1 of his life."
"I would be in supermarkets and adults would come up to me and say, 'I love talking to your little boy,' " says Linda Childs, a lawyer from Edison, N.J. "Brandon is never reserved. He embraces people immediately. That ability to charm has saved him through school, has gotten him through a lot of things."
It certainly set him apart on this season of The Real World, which premieres at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
"He is such an engaging person," says Jim Johnston, the show's co-executive producer, "He loves to talk and he loves to meet people. He got to know so many of the local people on St. Thomas. He got frustrated that the other roommates were standoffish."
The climate and setting helped make this a unique chapter in MTV's long-running experiment in enforced togetherness. The random roomies are quartered on a small island just off the tourist town of Charlotte Amalie.
"Getting on a boat is an element that's new to the show," says Johnston. "All the conversations and all the conflicts happened on the boat.
"And you never knew when it was going to rain. These tropical storms would come up without warning and be gone five minutes later. The kids would get all dressed up to hit the clubs and all of a sudden get drenched in a downpour."
Of course, "all dressed up" is a relative term. It took Swift some time to adjust to island customs.
"I had to get used to wearing flip-flops. I'm going out to lounges and spots and I'm seeing flip-flops and I'm like, 'People here wear flip-flops out?,' " he says. "So now halfway through I started wearing flip-flops every day.
"When I came back, I'm going out with my friends who were like, 'Whoa, whoa, the thongs? The thongs? Go put some shoes on, Swift.' "
While the 23-year-old really is notorious for making friends wherever he goes, many of his best ones reside in Philadelphia. The plan was for him to graduate from Edison High School and go on to the College of New Jersey, where he would wrestle. But he found the campus in Ewing to be small and sterile.
He prevailed on his mother to visit Temple. She didn't like the neighborhood they drove through to get there and she wasn't too crazy about paying out-of-state tuition. But her son? Well, he thought he had died and gone to heaven.
"Once we got to campus, the student center was packed; the Liacouras Walk was crowded," Swift recalls. "I was just walking around going, 'Yeah! I'm loving the scene.' I wanted to be a business major and I found out the Fox School was one of the top in the country for undergraduates. I figured with my personality and the hustling, bustling campus. …"
In fact, he did make his mark.
Christopher Cabott, one of the city's top entertainment lawyers who had Swift in two courses he taught at Temple, including Sports and the Law, says, "Brandon definitely sticks out in a room. He's very well-dressed, very well-spoken, and very outgoing. I'm not shocked at all to see someone as magnetic as him end up on television."
Actually, Swift's media exposure is something of a fluke.
"A girl I was dating was going down for the [Real World] casting call at Fado [Irish Pub in Philadelphia] and she made me go with her for moral support. I didn't want to do it. She was like, 'Brandon, you promised,' " he says.
"There were over 1,000 people there. I was on line with her for hours. Hours. I thought, 'You know what? I might as well fill out the paper and speak my piece.' When I got inside, I didn't care. I just said whatever was on my mind. I guess they liked that. I got a callback.
"When we got back to the house, the girl was like, 'You got a callback? I didn't get a callback. You didn't even want to do this. Everyone just gravitates to you. They're going to pick you.' And she stopped speaking to me."
That was in September. A series of interviews followed, culminating in a face-to-face with the producers in Los Angeles. Taping began on St. Thomas in February, and Swift still managed to graduate with his class with a degree in business administration, with a major in legal studies. He's put off taking the law school boards until The Real World's tropical storm blows over.
"All day long, it's phone calls and e-mails. 'Host this event. Do this appearance.' It's nonstop," he says. And this is before the show has even aired an episode.
"People ask me, 'Are you stressed out? 'Cause you're always on the phone or on the computer typing this out or typing that out?' and I tell them 'No, not at all.' "
Life is finally moving at the speed Swift always hoped it would.