‘The Bachelor’ made a ‘sideshow’ of its first Black star. Now he’s speaking out

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A man sits on top of a wooden patio.
(Piera Moore / For The Times)

Decked out in a tuxedo that hugged his tall, athletic frame, Matt James looked like a movie star as he embarked on his historic journey on ABC’s “The Bachelor.” He took a deep, anxious breath as a parade of beautiful women, all vying to be his future bride, arrived.

One by one, the contestants approached the commercial real estate agent as he stood in front of the lavish resort that would be the season’s headquarters. Most devoured him with their eyes. Some made a brash first impression: barely-there lingerie, a football jersey with “Mrs. James” on the back, a vibrator. One presented him with a massive homemade meatball, asking: “Can I put my balls in your mouth?”

James was starring in what had been billed as a landmark season for “The Bachelor.” When nationwide protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd erupted, the hugely popular reality franchise, which had been repeatedly criticized for racism and cultural insensitivity throughout its 20-year history, moved quickly to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Disney-owned ABC plucked James from a pool of contestants on the upcoming season of “The Bachelorette” and announced he would be “The Bachelor’s” first Black lead.

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“This is just the beginning, and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise,” ABC Entertainment President Karey Burke declared in a June 2020 statement, adding that the network had a “responsibility to make sure the love stories we’re seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in.”

After pledging ‘real change’ amid last year’s protests, ABC and owner Walt Disney Co. stayed silent as a firestorm over race consumed its reality-TV flagship.

But as James watched his debut with friends and family at his New York apartment, months after filming ended, he began to sense that “The Bachelor” had pulled back from that directive. It seemed that the significance of his presence, and the milestone it marked, had been buried under the series’ usual high jinks, laser-focused on the high drama of finding a happily-ever-after.

“There was nothing to lay the framework — my background, who I was or why I’m here,” James recalled in a recent interview with The Times. “The show went straight into seeing these women doing crazy things. It was very frustrating to watch.”

As the season progressed, the feeling did not abate. He reasoned that producers had shifted gears without telling him, failing to show him as an accomplished young Black man who had overcome many personal and professional challenges. He bristled as members of the massive Bachelor Nation fan base called him bland and boring on social media. Some even labeled him an Uncle Tom.

Two men talk to each other in a forest.
Matt James, left, and Chris Harrison in “The Bachelor.”
(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

The crisis deepened. Graphic designer Rachael Kirkconnell, whom James was clearly smitten with, was swept up in a firestorm when fans discovered she had been photographed at an antebellum South-themed party in 2018 and had “liked” racially insensitive social media posts. Rachel Lindsay, the franchise’s first Black Bachelorette, from the show’s 2017 season, and an “Extra” correspondent, was attacked with racial slurs after a contentious TV interview with host Chris Harrison in which the “Bachelor” mainstay seemed to dismiss the controversy around Kirkconnell.

By the time James returned for the live “After the Final Rose” special, the season had unraveled, Harrison had exited the franchise, and James was mentally and physically exhausted. He felt that “The Bachelor” had botched its opportunity to reverse its troubled history. When he left the stage hand-in-hand with Kirkconnell, whom he had chosen as his mate, he vowed to repair the damage and seize back ownership of his narrative.

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“In my conversion from person to prop, key pieces of me were left behind,” James writes in his new book, “First Impressions: Off-Screen Conversations With a Bachelor on Race, Family, and Forgiveness.” The memoir, which he wrote with Cole Brown, author of “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World,” provides a fuller, more three-dimensional portrait of James as he discusses his life before “The Bachelor” and his experience on the show.

With a tone both conversational and revealing, “First Impressions” details James’ upbringing by a single white mother in Raleigh, N.C., his brother’s encounters with law enforcement, and how his tumultuous relationship with his mostly absent Black father impacted his ability to form lasting relationships. He spotlights his deep spirituality and his “desire to share the lessons I’ve learned from a lifetime of ignoring unlikely odds.”

“I felt like I started writing the book during the show because I was tapping into those places in my past in real time,” said James. “I was addressing things that I had hidden in the darkest corners of my mind and my being that I’ve never wanted to address.”

Fans critical of ‘The Bachelor’s’ controversial season praised James’ handling of the post-finale special but remain disappointed by the franchise’s failures.

James said he was having constant meaningful conversations with the women on the show about race and other serious issues, “but when that didn’t come across on the show, it looked like I lacked substance, I lacked depth. We had the opportunity to have those tough conversations, but the show missed the mark.

“I’m disappointed, not only for myself,” he continued. “Middle America could have benefited so much. So many lives could have been enriched, not only by my conversations with Rachael but with the other women who were on this journey.”

Instead, he writes in “First Impressions,” his identity as “a mixed kid, an ambitious dreamer and a tireless striver” were subsumed by the controversy. (ABC and Warner Bros., which produces “The Bachelor,” declined to comment on this story.)

A man wearing a hat and blue windbreaker poses in front of trees.
“In my conversion from person to prop, key pieces of me were left behind,” James writes in his new book.
(Piera Moore / For The Times )

The missteps started on the first night. James describes how he engaged in a heartfelt conversation with Harrison about the burden he felt and his anxiety over the outside pressure that he select a Black woman. “I poured my heart out for more than an hour, stressing over the impossible choice before me — an openness to love in all of its many forms on one side and a duty to my people on the other,” he writes in “First Impressions.” “It felt impossible to please everyone.”

But when the discussion aired, “it was only a few seconds,” shredding its nuance and ultimately misrepresenting James’ point of view.

Fans picking up “First Impressions” hoping for a sizzling takedown or juicy behind-the-scenes morsels about James’ season should beware, though. His account of the season and tensions between him and Kirkconnell after her antebellum picture resurfaced is a small fraction of the 256-page book. There are only a few pointed references to Harrison, and he is not even mentioned by name.

“I didn’t want to use that story for people to engage with my book,” James said. “There will be another Bachelor, and there will probably be another Black Bachelor, and there will be another tell-all book. I wasn’t interested in that. If that’s what interests fans, and that outweighs the personal things I want to share, then my book isn’t for them.”

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Besides, James said what happened during his season had already been heavily reported and scrutinized: “There wasn’t anything left to rehash. My relationship had been made into a sideshow, a complete circus. Rachael and I have moved on. We’re one of the only couples from that franchise still going strong. The reason is we’re going at things at our own pace. We’re not playing games that a lot of people play just to stay in that circle.”

A new social media campaign is calling on “The Bachelor” to diversify its casting and pledge it will be anti-racist.

He might have been more revealing in the book if he felt more support from executives who had pledged to put a focus on diversity, he said.

“Maybe I would have told that story if the franchise had made a more concerted effort to take part in that conversation when it was at its height,” James said. “That opportunity was lost because everyone was afraid and sitting on their hands. I understand it, but that’s the kind of thing that happens when you bring people of color into your space. If they’re not willing to have that conversation, they should strongly consider not going there in the first place. There are things about being Black that people who aren’t Black can never understand. It’s too much for them to handle. But it’s my life.”

Ashley Tabron, a high school teacher in North Carolina who started watching the show in 2017 when Lindsay made history as the first Black Bachelorette, said that she felt “The Bachelor” betrayed James but that she was proud he emerged triumphant and found love.

Bri Springs, left, and Matt James in "The Bachelor."
(Craig Sjodin / ABC)

“Matt James was thrust into an impossible situation that had lasting ramifications on Bachelor Nation,” said Tabron. “I completely understand his criticism of the show, because he was failed in many ways. Despite this, he was able to find lasting love and use his platform to bring awareness to causes he cares about. I applaud him for getting his story out on his own terms.”

Despite his misgivings, James is philosophical about his “Bachelor” experience and has no ill will against the franchise.

“I took this responsibility head on,” James said. “I knew what I was signing up for. It wasn’t the right audience. My message was not the one that ‘The Bachelor’ was trying to promote across their franchise, which is fine. That’s on me, being naive. Rachael and I were the ones accountable and having the conversations. The franchise is a collection of people. I’m one person. Rachael is one person. How do you hold an organization of people responsible? You don’t.”

Just days after the longtime host departed the reality franchise for good, Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe discussed its “refreshing new start.”

Following James’ season, more changes came to the franchise, including a season of “The Bachelorette” featuring a Black lead (Michelle Young), a Black co-host (former Bachelorette Tayshia Adams) and the series’ first Black executive producer (Jodi Baskerville, who had worked as a producer on the “Bachelor” franchise and other reality series). Still, the struggles with inclusion have continued, with Black finalists from Young’s season passed over as the next Bachelor for former football player Clayton Echard — a move that infuriated many Black fans.

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For his part, with his book and his new love, James has other things to think about besides “The Bachelor.” Asked if he would do things all over again, he had a surprising response.

“I’d do it tomorrow,” he said. “It was still an incredible experience, and so much good stuff came out of it. It was frustrating and disappointing. But there’s another way to look at it. One of the main reasons I went on the show was to find someone who was compatible with me, and I did that despite the show, which is hilarious. I found what I was looking for, which shouldn’t have been the case.”

He smiled. “But I’ll take it.”