In 2014, Amy Kaufman, an LA Times entertainment journalist and frequent Bachelor blogger, learned that she would no longer have access to Bachelor-related activities or talent. According to an ABC publicist, producers had deemed her coverage “too negative,” and didn’t want her anywhere near show-sponsored events. Miffed, but not discouraged, she continued watching the show as a fan, tweeting about it and even writing a weekly email for a few dozen of her “smart lady friends.” In some ways, without the deadline of a recap looming overhead, her appreciation of the show only deepened.
Now, less than four years later, Kaufman has written the first definitive, unauthorized cultural history of The Bachelor, aptly titled Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure. The timing of its publication is fortuitous: tonight is the first three hours of a whopping five-hour season finale (the final two will air Tuesday), wherein race car driver-cum-Scottsdale real estate agent Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s love-sojourn will come to what I am certain will be the show’s most dramatic conclusion to date.
Notably, Kaufman wrote the book without the permission of The Bachelor, who, along with their obvious corporate interests, may imaginably perceive the book’s veil-piercing as a kind of existential threat. The Bachelor has always sustained itself, in part, on the strength of its own mythology, an outmoded, Disney-ified fairy tale full of long stem roses, helicopter rides, scenic vistas, untouched candlelit dinners and tacky fantasy suites, where the crude reality of sleeping with several women (or men) on near-consecutive evenings is euphemized as a natural plot point in a grandiose narrative of capital “L” Love.
“When we’re watching it, I think most viewers are at least somewhat savvy that things are manipulated in some way,” Kaufman tells me on the phone. “But we really don’t know how much and how far it goes. Just as a viewer, that was something I wanted to clear up for myself.”
Featuring a colorful patchwork of candid interviews with former producers, assistants and castmates, Kaufman gives readers a glimpse of just how far the producers go to create good drama. Some revelations are more surprising than others. You may not be shocked to learn that the producers create binders of women, pre-categorizing them at length with brief notes, like “fragile as glass” or “Jewish.” But you will be mortified to discover that, at least early on, the producers allegedly kept track of the girls’ menstrual cycles, so they could schedule in-the-moment interviews (ITMs) accordingly.
Then there are those morally complex producers themselves, who serve as professional confidantes to the contestants, and stars in the show-behind-the-show Kaufman describes in Bachelor Nation.
“You have to draw this weird line where you’re kind of their friend, but you’re not their friend,” Ben Hatta, a former assistant to the show’s creator Mike Fleiss, tells Kaufman in the book. “You do care for them, in a sense, because you’re learning all about these things about them, and they’re human. But at the end of the day, you are making television.”
Lisa Levenson, a former producer who many believe is the inspiration for Constance Zimmer’s character on Lifetime’s scripted series about the making of a Bachelor-like reality show, UnReal, was known for her uncanny ability to get women to cry on camera.
“If we needed tears, she would get them,” former supervising producer Scott Jeffress says, in one of the book’s juicier quotes. “First, she’d walk out there and just give them a big hug. Then she’d give them a shot of tequila. If they wanted a cigarette, they’d smoke a cigarette. Maybe one more shot of tequila. Then they’d start talking and Lisa would go, ‘Oh, honey, I know, I know,’ and hug her again. And the girl just breaks. It happened hundreds of times.”
Despite the conflict of interest, some contestants have maintained strong ties with the show’s producers—particularly Elan Gale, whom Kaufman portrays as something of a Bachelor-whisperer.
“I would always be weirded out when I would see someone who was a villain from a season posting about how much they love a producer,” Kaufman told me. In the book, she writes, some former contestants refused to talk with her, for fear of damaging their relationship with Gale.
“As a human being, you don’t want to believe that you go on the show and someone who tells you that they care about you, and is spending all this time trying to help you say things that are going to help you come across well on TV, is bullshitting you,” Kaufman continues, when I ask her why this is the case. “I think you have to kind of cling to that idea that the friendship is real. I’m not saying it can’t be. It can. I just think that there’s never a scenario in which the producer is not thinking about the show and making something that has entertainment value.”
Interestingly enough, relationships between the producers and the suitors can be as tricky as those between the suitors and the Bachelor or Bachelorette: in both cases, cast members are constantly teasing out what’s real and what’s part of the show. The irony, of course, is that there’s nothing unreal about the feelings on The Bachelor; it’s just that the conditions in which they’re engendered—dubbed “the bubble”—are optimized to make people fall in love through a combination of extreme isolation, suggestion, priming, alcohol and dopamine-enhancing dates.
“If you go on The Bachelor, you’re fucked,” Kaufman concludes in the book. “In other words, even if you don’t think you’re susceptible to producer manipulation, even if you swear you’re just not attracted to that guy and his cheesy suits—you’re probably going to feel like you’re falling for him. Your brain is working against you.”
It’s a testament to the potency of those forces that so many who have found love on the show break up so soon after. Although sometimes there’s another force at play: the editors of The Bachelor, who, from loads of raw footage, more or less piece together the narrative as they please, swaying public opinion in favor or opposition of a particular contestant—or couple.
This current season has been particularly puzzling. Many viewers were shocked to learn that Arie, a few episodes ago, was already falling for Lauren B., a 25-year-old tech salesperson from Virginia Beach, whose screen time has mostly consisted of blank stares and looking bored at various picturesque locales. It’s not exactly the kind of edit you’d expect the show to give a woman who may very well become Arie’s fiancé Tuesday night (over Becca K., the other remaining woman).
“I feel like the last few years the edit has worked against the couple,” Kaufman, who was equally baffled by the Lauren B. quagmire, says. “For Bryan and Rachel certainly, nobody was rooting for them. Jojo and Jordan...everyone thought Jordan was fame-hungry. Nick Viall and Vanessa—I guess people were sort of rooting for them, but Raven had the more fun edit. The show is purporting to create an environment where two people can find a real soul mate and a lasting marriage, and yet they’re actively working against them at the same time, because you have to overcome so much public perception once you make it past the finale.”
Knowing all Kaufman knows about The Bachelor, one may reasonably expect she no longer enjoys the show as much as she used to. But that’s not really the case.
“As I say in the book, a lot of my friends cover entertainment or work in the entertainment industry,” she says, noting that she can hardly get through an episode without someone pointing out a case of producer intervention. “I wouldn’t say it’s been a quote-unquote ‘pure’ experience in a while. But honestly, I still surprise myself.”
Indeed, Kaufman recalls “shedding tears” during the finale of Bachelor Winter Games, a spin-off that aired over the course of three weeks just last month. Bringing together veterans of Bachelor and Bachelorette iterations from eleven different countries, the special was a goofy cross between the Winter Olympics and the franchise’s popular summertime bacchanal, Bachelor in Paradise, equal parts “love conquers all” idealism and “let’s make out in a hot tub” silliness. At the close, it appeared that not one, but four couples had found something real on the show.
“Even though I know all the crazy personality and casting synergies, at the end of the day there’s just something fulfilling for me in watching those relationships happen, and believing that they can work out against all odds,” Kaufman says. “A few weeks [from now] I’m going to forget who they are, but in that moment it feels really good to watch.”
I think it’s safe to say that most everyone who watches the show shares a similar sentiment. Contrary to what the folks at The Bachelor may believe, knowing how the sausage is made doesn’t necessarily make it taste any worse. Because in spite of the show’s anachronistic narrative, its regressive view of gender roles and standards of beauty; in spite of its tackiness and cheesiness and snark-inspiring vapidity; in spite of its shady manipulation tactics and ruthless editing; in spite of the fact that its cast members may increasingly be seeking fame or Instagram followers or FabFitFun sponsorships—in spite of all that, the show has almost always succeeded in producing a love as real as any can be, if only for the time before the couple leaves the frame.