Colton Underwood knew he was different at a young age. By the time he was in his early teens, he realized he was attracted to men, but had no idea what that meant for him. After all, he had grown up as a religious, conservative football player, who was always told that being gay is wrong.

And so, Underwood spent his entire life running away from himself — and society.

As a star athlete in his small town, Underwood went on to play college football and then entered the NFL draft. Hiding underneath his football helmet was an easy escape.

When his football career came to a halt, Underwood didn’t know where to turn. He didn’t know how he would possibly continue to conceal his true sexuality. But then, “The Bachelor” came along.

A couple of years after leaving the NFL, Underwood stumbled upon a casting call for “The Bachelor” in Denver, where he now resides full-time, after a tumultuous few years in Los Angeles — living far away from the hoopla of Hollywood keeps him grounded, and he recently bought his first home, close to family, where he lives with his rescue dog, Zooka. Producers took a quick liking to Underwood. Shortly after attending the casting session, he would be a contestant on Becca Kufrin’s season of “The Bachelorette,” which aired in 2018, and then went on to “Bachelor in Paradise,” before becoming “The Bachelor” in 2019.

In this week’s Variety cover story, Underwood reveals that before he was famous, he had sexual experiences with men, but confirms he was, in fact, a virgin throughout his time on “The Bachelor.” While on the franchise, Underwood says he did not disclose any information about his sexuality, but as goes with the nature of a dating show, certain questions were asked, and eventually his virginity took on a life of its own.

“I remember that a producer asked me during an interview, ‘How many girls have you hooked up with?’ And I remember saying, ‘Well, I can answer that on one hand,’” Underwood recalls. Making a fist, he continues, “One hand is zero, so that was always my way. I was very sly because I never wanted to be a liar, but I was.”

When female contestants were arriving in limos in his first episode as “The Bachelor” for Season 23, one woman showed up with a V-card. Another popped a red balloon, or a “cherry,” in his face.

Underwood, who has repeatedly slammed “The Bachelor” in various press interviews over the years, makes clear that he does not want to take aim at the franchise, and he apologizes for his passive aggressiveness toward the show in the past. But he would like to help continue a discussion about the role that the media, at large, plays in perpetuating masculine stereotypes.

“Our media is responsible for this prescription of masculinity that is out there right now,” Underwood says.

“Look what happened to me as the virgin ‘Bachelor’! This is not to take a shot at the franchise,” he says. “But I’m in touch with my feminine side now, and if there would have been a virgin ‘Bachelorette’ and a man went and popped a cherry in her face or grabbed a V-card, well, I think it’s important for people to realize that the things that were thrown in my face for being a virgin would have never been accepted the other way around. I think that is the problem of our society today — men are supposed to be able to ‘take that.’ I got to a breaking point in my life where all of those things crushed me. They drove me into the closet further. It made me emotionless.”

He continues, “Now, this is not an excuse for my behavior and my actions. I just want to say that I am fully owning all of that, but I think it’s important that people realize that what we’re subscribing right now in the media and portraying is very, very dangerous to kids, to youth, to young men, to young women, to everybody.”

Anthony Allen Ramos, head of talent at GLAAD, says there is no doubt that Hollywood and the media contribute to the “very narrow definition” of what it means to be masculine in today’s society.

“We know, however, that not only is this stereotypical definition of masculinity limiting, but it also fails to represent the vast array of experiences of masculinity from all backgrounds and walks of life,” Ramos says. “There’s not just one way to be masculine, nor is there just one way to be feminine, and the more that we can explore those experiences in film and television, the more opportunities we’ll create for people to feel empowered to live as their authentic selves.”

Underwood has received a fair amount of backlash for the platform he has been given, in his coming out process. From a bombshell “Good Morning America” interview last month, to landing his own upcoming Netflix show, to this Variety cover, many critics have wondered why a cisgender white man is being afforded opportunities that other individuals within the LGBTQ+ community are not.

Underwood recognizes his position of privilege and wants to use his platform to help share other marginalized voices. He also acknowledges that he would have never been given this amount of media attention if he did not, quite frankly, look the way he does — in other words, like a straight-presenting hunk.

“I think I got the platform given to me because I had the attention from straight America from being ‘The Bachelor,'” Underwood says. “And I feel guilty saying that because I did deceive and I was inauthentic to not only myself, but also in front of America, but I want those people to know that I am still the same person and I still have the same heart. But, I think that’s partially why I was given this opportunity — because I still have the attention of straight America.”

In his upcoming series, which is slated to launch later this year, Underwood will lean further into his feminine side, he says. For one, he filmed all of his therapy sessions on Zoom, which are fair game to air in his Netflix show (though, footage is still being edited).

“I lived behind so many roles and under so many different masks and lived under the prescription of what masculinity is, and I want to re-define and help our society not have this ‘masculine presenting’ way,” Underwood says. “Sometimes, the perception is that it is negative to be feminine in the man’s world, and I don’t think that at all anymore.”

Speaking passionately, he says: “My softness is my strength, and I genuinely believe that now. I didn’t before because I was taught that wasn’t the case, but now I know that is me. I think that’s why I was so angry. I think that’s why I was always so upset. I was always looking for somebody to blame,” he says, admitting that he was unnecessarily “passive-aggressive” to “The Bachelor” franchise, after he wrapped his season.

“But all of a sudden, as I was coming out,” he says, “Everything started to make so much more sense.”