Matt James clambers onto a kitchen counter wielding the world’s smallest knife, the size of a doll’s sword, which looks even smaller in the former football player’s hands. For the last 20 minutes, James has been spearing that tiny utensil into an open jar of olives, holding it up to his mouth, and popping the small salt bombs inside.
This is James’ coming out party for a still-top-secret-at-the-time-of-publishing sponcon event. James, at this point, is famous for two things: Being ABC’s first Black Bachelor and his “CharChutery” boards, which rely more on Lunchables and Teddy Grahams than artisanal cheeses and nuts. This board that he’s making for press is inspired by Titanic; Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack is immortalized here as a piece of purple cabbage (Ithaca Hummus provides the trio of flavoured spread that is the Atlantic Ocean in which Jack ultimately drowns). Between the talk of pirates and Rose’s infamous floating door, James shows genuine excitement about organic produce and, also, earnestly — I swear, his opportunity to share that produce with the traditionally underserved children in his charity, ABCFoodTours, thanks to his commercial dip friends.
Only an ex-Bachelor could so comfortably oscillate between cornball self-promotion and heartfelt appeals. Still, it’s shocking to see James in such an unabashedly low-stakes situation. Just a few months ago, he was a central figure in one of pop culture’s most painful, lengthy, spiritual reckonings, which was kicked off by the reveal that his season “winner” Rachael Kirkconnell attended an Antebellum South-themed party. Now, he’s wearing painted-on jeggings and making art out of cruciferous vegetables.
“The Bachelor” is never simply the Bachelor (a man like Matt James) or even The Bachelor (the show that’s been running on ABC since the Bush era). As it exists, The Bachelor is composed of flagship The Bachelor, spinoff The Bachelorette, horny summer dating fest Bachelor in Paradise, and, when a deadly virus isn’t plaguing the world stage, Olympics counterprogramming like Bachelor Winter Games. Last year, “the franchise” — as it is so often called by sprawling former cast members and the dedicated viewers of the series who call themselves Bachelor Nation — attempted to get into the music scene with dating series Listen to Your Heart. Once upon a time there was Paradise precursor Bachelor Pad. Since its debut in 2002, versions of The Bachelor have been produced in 37 countries, from Canada to Japan. Like McDonald’s and the Kardashians, The Bachelor, as a concept, is one of America’s most influential exports.
But the events of the past year and a half changed things for The Bachelor, like it changed everything for everyone, everywhere. In brief: Fans discovered images of Kirkconnell at that aforementioned “Old South Day” plantation “themed” party; her costume was fashioned after a 19th-century slave owner. On February 9, Extra’s YouTube channel published an interview between ex-Bachelorette (and current host) Rachel Lindsay and then-Bachelor host Chris Harrison in which Harrison spent the majority of the 15-minute conversation defending Kirkconnell, demanding “grace” for the 24-year-old “girl,” as he infantilized her, criticizing the “woke police” who wanted answers, and pretending that racism was not a pressing issue in 2018 when Kirkconnell attended her antebellum bash. Lindsay, the first Black Bachelorette, whose season aired in 2017, stayed mostly silent — not reminding Harrison of all the racial tension and stress that affected her own time as the Bachelorette. Bachelor Nation, however, remembered.
The Harrison-Lindsay segment set off a months-long chain reaction in which a section of the fandom decried the disturbing image of a Black woman having to sit in silence as a white man explained racism (or, from his perspective, the lack of racism) to her. An anonymous cohort of women from James’ season soon released a letter that Bachelor Nation refers to as “union”-like denouncing his comments. Harrison was pulled off of live specials for James’ Bachelor season. Apologies were offered by Harrison and Kirkconnell. Still, Harrison was benched, and ex-Bachelorettes Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe were tapped to host the upcoming Bachelorette season, led by Katie Thurston. James and Kirkconnell split and reconciled (as of publishing time, they are together). In April, Lindsay — lovingly called “Big Rach” by fans — permanently cut professional ties with The Bachelor. By June, Harrison would officially exit the Bachelor franchise. Amid the hullabaloo, former contestants spoke out against the alleged sexual harassment perpetuated by Bachelor gossip king “Reality” Steve Carbone (he published an apologetic statement on his blog). By the end of June, multiple influencers-slash-stars were revealed to have received PPP loans in the thousands during the pandemic.
Bachelor Nation is used to drama. After all, carefully orchestrated controversy is what’s made this reality show one of the most enduring, popular TV programs of all time. But this was something different. After a year of real-world “unprecedented times,” the franchise — a television behemoth that’s become a temple to bland, white, Christian heterosexuality — felt like it was crumbling. Instagram Stories commentator and franchise lightning rod Blake Horstmann even predicted this fall’s Bachelorette season would be the permanent end of the franchise.
But half a year later, Bachelor in Paradise’s 2021 premiere is at the top of the ratings and viewers are hotly awaiting the fall debut of Michelle Young’s Bachelorette season (the first one to ever have a Black executive producer). Bachelor Nation has been rolling in thorns. Now it’s trying to heal.
“Everybody who did write the statement is a powerful woman of colour that wanted change. Not only did they want change, they demanded change. And I think we got it,” Alisha Holloway told Refinery29 from an airport in Dallas in July. A ballet dancer and one of the James’ cut-too-soon contestants, Holloway is one of the women who shared the “union” statement that first portended Harrison’s exit from the Bachelor franchise in February, but has said she was not one of the women behind the statement. “All we can really hope is that it’s a step for the franchise in the right direction,” she continued.
But these issues in the franchise can be traced much further back than that fateful week in February 2021 or even in 2018 when Kirkconnell wore a hoop skirt to a plantation-themed party. “[It’s] been brewing for a long time,” says Bachelor Party podcast host Juliet Litman. Starting in 2017 when Rachel Lindsay was first forced to consider dating a known racist on her historic season, Bachelor producers seemingly intentionally used the prospect of racist encounters and explosion as plot points for entertainment (his fixation on Kenny Layne, a Black wrestler, was an upsetting season plotline). Litman also pointed to the 2018 upheaval around Garrett Yrigoyen, Bachelorette Becca Kufrin’s winner who was outed as the kind of person who liked hateful memes about women as well as a Stoneman Douglas High School shooting survivor. The Bachelorette was clearly embarrassed that Yrigoyen’s online activities — which were never mentioned on the series — threatened to overshadow their carefully constructed fairytale ending for Kufrin, who was advertised by the Bachelor machine as The Pussy-Hat-Wearing Feminist Bachelorette. Yrigoyen and Kufrin split in September 2020.
The Bachelor Nation casting process is famously involved, and boasts personality tests, conversations with private investigators, and approval for a background check. When asked about the motivations behind these casting choices and if they were deliberately stoking high-stakes, painful conflicts, spokespeople on behalf of Warner Bros., The Bachelor’s production company, and ABC declined to comment.
While casual viewers might believe these moments were accidents, the sheer number of them is difficult to ignore. If they were purposefully engineered to mirror the cultural clashes around the nation regarding gender, race, and political affiliation, Bachelor producers miscalculated that these moments would engage more of their expansive audience than they would betray. After 2020’s racial reckoning in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and The Bachelor’s own hasty move to cast a Black man like Matt James, segments of the viewership smelled opportunism, and, understandably, expected accountability (spokespeople for The Bachelor declined to comment regarding the timing of James’ casting).
“There’s a wide swath of people who watch this show. So I think you can't really cater to just one audience,” Litman told Refinery29 over the phone, describing The Bachelor’s unique audience demographic, half of whom hates what the other half loves. But seeing the deep and direct connections between racist behaviours and violent actions shifted Bachelor Nation’s tolerance for this type of craven drama. “It has changed the way people perceive the show,” Litman said.
Another Bachelor Nation podcaster, The Betchelor’s Kay Brown, has painfully real insight into this reality. Brown, a biracial woman with a Black father and white mother, devoted a May 2020 podcast episode to discussing Hannah Brown, who is white and has no relation to Kay Brown, who had recently said the n-word while singing DaBaby’s “Rockstar” on an Instagram Live video.
“Our Instagram and our Facebook page became the most unsafe places I have ever seen,” Kay Brown recalled on the patio of a Santa Monica restaurant where I met her for a late lunch. When the episode aired in the beginning of the pandemic, Kay had been alone in her apartment for months already, and she was dealing with a breakup. The constant stress of the 2020 election loomed ahead. Soon enough, the hate filtered into Kay’s direct messages, where she was called the n-word.
“It was like, ‘How do I escape?’ Because I still had to engage,” explained Kay, who is now a social media manager for the Gap, but still hosts the Betchelor podcast. “I was running the account. But I was numb … And I am a fan of the show. If I didn't love it, I wouldn't be here.” For the first time, she turned off her posts’ comments.
Rachel Lindsay infamously received similar racist messages in the wake of her initial February interview with Harrison. Fans of The Bachelor who didn’t see a problem with Harrison’s comments blamed her for his “stepping away” from the franchise and swarmed her with racist messages. At the end of that month, Lindsay had deleted her Instagram in response.
“I love Rachel so much. I would not have gone on this show if it was not for Rachel,” recalled Kristin Hopkins, who appeared on James’ 2021 Bachelor season. She is best remembered as the contestant who wore a bonnet on a rainy day of filming (“I was not messing up my hair!” she said). In the “union” statement Hopkins and some of her co-stars shared, they specifically threw their support around Lindsay who had spent the last four years acting as Bachelor Nation’s de facto non-white ambassador — and was dealing with the internal and external pressures of the position. “The work that she does is tireless and it’s endless. It’s a thankless job and I think that we all need to tell her that we appreciate everything that she’s doing,” Hopkins told Refinery29 shortly after the letter was sent.
Months later, when I called Hopkins, she seemed hopeful. Fresh off of a July trip to the Bahamas with co-stars Lauren Maddox and Mearg “Magi” Tareke, Hopkins hyped up Michelle Young’s Bachelorette season on the horizon, promising it’s going to be “really, really great.” Hopkins has returned to her job as a full-time attorney in New York City after skipping Bachelor in Paradise filming. While some may assume the tropical vacation that Hopkins — and Maddox and Tareke, who are also Black women — went on, and their absence from Paradise’s Mexican beach at the same time, is due to hostilities following months of racism issues, that’s not the case.
“It honestly was just not even part of the conversation. [Lauren’s birthday] just happened to coincide around the time that Paradise was happening and things were coming out about it,” Hopkins said. “We have our own lives. We have our own jobs. We have our own relationships that don't exist in the Bachelor world. We spend not as much time as you would think talking about the show.”
But that might be the biggest indiciation of all that something has changed. One of The Bachelor’s most powerful appeals is the lucrative contestant-to-influencer pipeline. Besides the main Bachelor or Bachelorette, contestants are often not paid by the network to appear on the show for up to two months at a time, depending on the series (Paradise does come with a paycheck). Many quit their jobs, take out loans, and buy new wardrobes because they understand that even one appearance in the first episode could mean Bachelor-related deals in the form of sponsored Instagram posts and party hosting gigs. Some have been able to turn podcasts into entire media empires. Lest those opportunities dry up, former contestants feel a pressure to continue evangelizing The Bachelor’s value and continue to appear on Bachelor off-shoot shows, because their own celebrity is so associated with the franchise’s success. For Hopkins, Maddows, and Tareke to consider their options outside of something like Paradise hints the series may not have such an iron fist around its contestants anymore — and a more compassionate future could be ahead.
Holloway, who also declined to appear on Paradise, echoed her pal’s straightforward reasoning: “At first, the franchise had been going through a lot of turmoil, I didn't want to be a part of that anymore,” she said. “But then one of the main reasons [I skipped Paradise] is because I fell in love with a beautiful Colombian man. Let me tell you, he is way better than anything Paradise could have offered me.”
Holloway is clearly overjoyed to be in the midst of new love, a return to the ballet stage in a pandemic that’s beginning to end, and multiple charity projects bolstered by her reality TV bona fides.
Currently, Hopkins is looking to find her own relationship outside of the franchise. But if that doesn’t work, she is “definitely more open” to returning to the Bachelor fold than she was back in February. “Things are on the upward trend from what I've seen. So I would stay in the mix,” she admitted, suggesting the Black women she is friends with from the series feel the same way. “I think that we all feel pretty positive and pretty hopeful about what’s to come.”
Bachelor in Paradise, whose seventh season premiered this Monday, stands as the flagship reason insiders and fans alike are hopeful for the next phase of The Bachelor. While The Bachelor and Bachelorette are often overly serious and prone to the franchise’s worst tendences, Paradise is a sunny reprieve (although the show had its own sexual misconduct allegations in 2017 that were eventually dismissed by an internal investigation from Warner Bros. and a contestant’s own legal team). Paradise 2021 boasts nine non-white in its initial, sure-to-grow cast, and the notable omission of Harrison, who previously hosted the show for all of its seven years.
“There is hope. And alumni being like, ‘We're not coming back to Paradise if Chris Harrison's there,’ is part of that,” Betchelor host Kay Brown said.
Still, there is one warning sign hanging over the excitement of Paradise’s return: Victoria Larsen, the “villain” of James’ season. Larsen called a Black woman a “ho,” refused to apologize for the vile transgression during March’s “Women Tell All” reunion special, and insulted multiple women of color in her cast during production, including Catalina Morales Gómez and Brittany Galvin. Larsen famously ripped a crown off of Morales Gómez’s head upon meeting her and labeled Galvin a “slore.” Larsen used the moniker “The Queen” during her Bachelor season. On Paradise, seemingly still lacking contrition for her actions, Larsen is going by “The Goddess.” The Bachelor declined to comment about their reasons for inviting Larsen onto Paradise; whether to redeem her, mock her, or use her for an early-season ratings grab by way of potentially offensive encounters. Larsen’s presence suggests Bachelor producers have not changed as much as its contestants.
“I will never get over Victoria just taking the crown off of Catalina’s head,” podcaster Juliet Litman said. “I guess the question is, why is she going back after the experience she had? There were so many great women from Matt’s season and I’ve actually had the opportunity to meet a few of them. I hope they just get more time. I hope we get to see some personalities,” Litman said, referring to the fact that many non-white contestants are typically given storylines that reduce their humanity to a single quirk, characteristic, or as silent window dressing to prove “diversity.”
The fact that Litman’s sensible request is a “hope” and not a certainty is a reminder that the future of The Bachelor is not certain, and that the series will constantly have to work against its worst casting impulses.
As podcaster Kay Brown pointed out, the day after Michelle Young’s first round of contestants was released, controversy had already begun. “I already got sent this video about one of Michelle's guys,” she said. In the clip, the man in question is wearing a pro-life shirt on his Instagram grid. “Somebody caught it and put it on TikTok. Now it has 20,000 likes and people are like, ‘We have to warn her!’” Brown continued.
As James and Kirkconnell can tell you, TikTok murmurs can quickly become a real-world catastrophe. This fall, we’ll learn if Bachelor producers have learned their lesson — or if they’re willing to forsake these last few months of growth as easily as Rose forgot about purple cabbage Jack in a sea of organic hummus.