After 18 years and 25 seasons, “The Bachelor” finally has its first Black star. The all-too-late, but historic, casting marks years of promises from producers of the juggernaut ABC reality TV series for greater diversity — and widespread disappointment from both critics and fans up to now.
This week, Matt James, a 28-year-old real estate broker, started calling the shots on the “The Bachelor” by doling out roses at a quarantined luxury resort packed with female suitors — and for the first time, the cast members of color outnumber the white contestants.
“I don’t want to piss off Black people. I don’t want to piss off white people. Because I’m both of those,” James told host Chris Harrison in the season premiere that aired this past Monday. The episode featured James mingling with his female suitors, having significant date conversations about diverse love stories — a stark contrast to the surface-level small talk of past seasons.
James, whose mother is white and father is Black, told Variety in an interview earlier this week this his biracial background has shaped his views and experiences within the dating world, and as a Black man, he knows his future children will face a similar reality, he says. Because of his unique perspective, James is hopeful that his time as “The Bachelor” will help normalize the narrative surrounding interracial dating, but he admits he knows not all viewers will be on board right away.
“I felt that pressure — I’m not going to lie,” James says of taking on the role as the first-ever Black Bachelor.
His casting is significant for a franchise that still generates more than 6 million same-day viewers in primetime, making it one of the top-rated series on network television, not to mention a prominent touchstone of pop culture.
Against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, James’ turn as “The Bachelor” could not be timelier. As politicians and lawmakers reflect on racial inequalities, so too are reality TV producers, who are finally admitting that diversity matters and not just in the form of cliched stereotypes.
Over at Bravo, network executives cast Eboni K. Williams as the first Black housewife on “The Real Housewives of New York City,” which has been airing for more than a decade. And “The Real Housewives of Atlanta,” which since 2008 has featured mostly Black women as part of its highly rated ensemble, is formalizing a training program with production company Truly Original to ensure that the crew of the show reflects the diversity of its cast. Modeled loosely on the DGA Trainee Program, the paid program will launch for Season 14 of “RHOA” in 2021.
There’s never been more at stake in reflecting the audiences watching at home. According to a recent study by Nielsen, Black viewers watch more than 35 hours of live television a week, a figure that is well ahead of other demographics. And advertisers are looking to reality TV for a more realistic depiction of America.
When “The Bachelor” premiered in 2002, its first leading man, Alex Michel, was a white Stanford Business School graduate seeking love among a pool of primarily Caucasian women. The next year, the female-led spinoff, “The Bachelorette,” debuted with star Trista Rehn, a runner-up on the first season of “The Bachelor.” The hit shows fit in perfectly with television’s then (and largely still) whitewashed landscape, both in scripted and unscripted content.
As ratings soared throughout the years, it wasn’t until 2017 that “The Bachelorette” featured a Black lead — attorney Rachel Lindsay, who has become one of the franchise’s most vocal critics.
“It took too long,” says Brooke Karzen, executive vice president and head of Warner Horizon Unscripted Television, which produces “The Bachelor.”
“Some of it is antiquated thinking,” Karzen continues. “This show was always supposed to be like a fairy tale — but what’s your fairy tale? It’s different for every person. Why did it take so long? I’m not proud of it. None of us are proud of it. I’m just glad that we’re here.”
When James was announced as the new “Bachelor,” some questioned the timing, given the racial unrest amplifying across America.
“I don’t think Matt James or casting a Black Bachelor was a knee jerk reaction,” Karzen says. “Everybody realized it just needed to happen. Matt James had been on everybody’s radar for quite some time,” she says of the lead, who originally auditioned to be part of Clare Crawley’s season of “The Bachelorette.”
The studio executive — who has been with the franchise from the start and helped launched “The Bachelor” in 2002 — says though it took too long, the network, studio and producers had made a commitment “in their hearts” to cast a Black star of the flagship show for the milestone 25th season, before they had actually cast James. “There was a commitment to having a Black Bachelor and to have a more diverse, representative cast,” she says.
Previous seasons have introduced many people of color, who’ve become fan favorites, like “Bachelor In Paradise” alum Mike Johnson (who will begin co-hosting a new podcast for Bachelor Nation next week). But while many contenders were in strong consideration, they were never ultimately cast in the top spot, which generated considerable backlash on Twitter with criticism that the show is targeted towards white audiences.
“To the notion that the producers were producing the show for white people, I think that’s a little overstated,” Karzen says. “If they were, it wasn’t conscious, so maybe it was unconscious bias, and that’s what everyone is taking a hard look at right now.”
In recent seasons, “The Bachelor” franchise has been playing catch-up. Tayshia Adams became the second “Bachelorette” of color earlier this year, after Lindsay, and as a Latinx and Black woman, she’s the first-ever biracial lead on the dating series. The most recent season of “The Bachelorette,” which wrapped in December, ended with two engaged interracial couples: Adams and Zac Clark, plus Crawley and Dale Moss.
Adams tells Variety she has had a positive experience on the franchise and never felt singled out throughout her seasons, which she says represented all ethnicities and gave her the opportunity to date men of all backgrounds, something she says she might not have had access to in her own life, off-screen. But she isn’t giving producers a free pass.
“If I’m being honest, what the heck — it’s been 25 seasons. How could it not have come sooner?” Adams says. “And why hasn’t there been an Asian ‘Bachelorette’? I can say that with all minorities. I think there needs to be more change, and I’m happy that we are now finally getting there.”
She adds with a sigh: “I don’t know. I think as 2020 has shown, a lot of people are still learning.”
Adams says she was provided with resources, should she have ever needed to utilize a diversity coach to help vocalize her thoughts throughout her season or while doing press, and says she always felt supported on-set.
“When Black Lives Matter was at its peak this past summer, so many people were looking to African Americans and people of color to have all the answers or to shine light on things,” Adams explains. “I feel like there was such a strange sense that people were demanding that. At that point in time, it was really hard for me to put those feelings into words.”
During her season, on a date with contestant Ivan Hall, who is Black, Adams had a conversation about the protests happening around the country. The scene was filmed in the summer, shortly after the murder of George Floyd, and the moment stuck out as one of the first conversations regarding race to air on the franchise. The dialogue came up organically, as it would during real-life dating, without any nudging from producers.
“Conversations about social issues are a huge part of getting to know someone when you are dating,” says ABC’s top unscripted executive, Rob Mills, who oversees the “Bachelor” franchise at the network. “I don’t think producers are encouraging these conversations, per se, but when you cast contestants who are of the caliber of Tayshia and Ivan, which I think we will, then these conversations will happen.”
The most recent season of “The Bachelorette” not only addressed race, but featured discussions about mental health, suicide and addiction. James’ season will also address issues surrounding race head-on.
“Just in general, there’s no education without conversation,” James says.
Speaking to his biracial background, the new “Bachelor” star adds: “If people weren’t open to biracial relationships, I wouldn’t be here. So, my stance on that is different and my life experience is different because I’m the product of that, and I look at it differently than someone who’s never been in that type of relationship. I get it if someone is uncomfortable having that type of conversation, and I don’t hold it against them. I want to have it so that we can normalize that type of thing, and hopefully throughout this experience for me, it becomes something that people are more open to and it does normalize it.”
But it’s not just the subject matter on-screen that needs to become more inclusive. Aside from making a commitment to casting leads and contestants of all minorities, reality television is beginning to diversify behind the camera and provide more opportunities in television for people of color.
Employees on the “Bachelor” franchise have been in workshops with diversity experts, and are working with consultants who are recruiting more people of color across departments, from set design to casting. As part of the hiring process, recruiters are approaching students from sororities and fraternities at historically Black colleges and universities.
Unusual in the television landscape, “The Bachelor” is proud to have had some of the longest-tenured employees in the industry with many producers who have been with the show since day one, and have climbed the ranks from production coordinator to executive producer. But the show’s longevity and loyalty to its staff may also be one of its problems.
“On one hand, it’s been a great machine for raising people from within, which is something we have a lot of pride in,” Karzen says. “I’m not saying that to make an excuse because that’s a flaw for when you want to bring people in at a higher rank, who haven’t come through the system. We’ve got to find that balance of bringing people in from the outside, and our people at the top are working hard to make sure that they have a team behind them that is representative of our society.”
After starring as “The Bachelorette” three years ago, Lindsay criticized the franchise for not having enough Black people behind the scenes, and called for systemic change on the show. Last summer, she threatened to break ties with the franchise if change did not occur, saying: “It’s ridiculous. It’s embarrassing. At this point, it’s embarrassing to be affiliated with it.”
Karzen says that producers have had conversations with Lindsay to address her concerns and ask for her guidance. “It’s important to have people like Rachel in your family because they keep you reflecting on who you are,” the executive says. “They make you take a minute and ask yourself, ‘Are we doing enough?’”
Today, Lindsay is still part of “The Bachelor” family, as host of a Bachelor Nation podcast, and recently appearing on an episode of Adams’ season of “Bachelorette.” (Variety requested an interview with Lindsay for this piece, via Warner Bros., who was unavailable due to scheduling around the holiday season.)
Earlier this year, an episode of “The Women Tell All” aired in an effort to promote anti-bullying and support cast members of color, with Lindsay reading aloud racist comments she received on social media.
Adams has been overwhelmed by the positive impact her platform has provided on social media. “Growing up, when you have to check boxes of what ethnicity you are, it’s not always an option to choose your two or three ethnicities, and for so long, so many people identified with one,” Adams says. “There are so many people who look like me, and it’s such a beautiful thing for people to feel like they are being represented.”
Executives say that the franchise made a commitment that Lindsay would not be the last Black lead, and they are also committed to continuing that obligation after James’ season.
“There haven’t been enough people of color, up until this last year,” Karzen says. “It’s a reflection on the unconscious bias that we have carried with us, and a lot of us are trying to learn and break free of. We’re making strides. It’s not enough yet, but every day, every month, every season is going to get better and better. Not only is the franchise committed to making sure that were representing across the board, but this is not just a moment in time. This is a commitment for life. If we’re just placating a cause, then shame on us.”