In May 2014, I wrote a piece about Amy Kaufman, an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times who’d been uninvited by ABC from press calls and events for The Bachelor because the network disliked the tone of her coverage about the show. The choice to cut Kaufman off was an odd one. As a longtime fan of the franchise, I characterized her work at the time as not quite “glowing,” but noted that she wasn’t tearing anyone to bits, either.
As a result of the ban, Kaufman stopped writing about The Bachelor for the Times, but she didn’t stop watching it, or tweeting about it, and just a couple years later, she snagged a publishing deal to write what would become her new book, Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure. Kaufman is the first author to completely submerge herself into this behemoth of a reality dating empire, which has aired for dozens of seasons and spawned several spin-offs, most notably, the gender-swapped The Bachelorette. The resulting product is a look behind the curtain at how reality television is made, an exploration of why such a truly flawed premise still has smart women watching, and an examination as to why the powers that be that make these shows are so secretive about them. I should also mention it includes lots of sensational stories.
“I’m not sure what the folks at The Bachelor have to hide,” Kaufman writes in the book’s introduction, elaborating on ABC’s decision to block her. “But I’m not here to make friends. I’m here for the right reasons: to tell you how this show is really made and explore why we keep tuning in, season after season.” She certainly did her homework; the book includes details that even I—a person who’s made learning every bit about this franchise a personal project over the past few years—had never read before, like documents outlining how producers plan dates, the brutal notes they take about contestants (“Get her in the house because she’ll drive the other girls crazy—or the other girls will definitely annoy her,” one reads), and excerpts from a diary one former contestant kept during the show. I suspect Bachelor Nation will more than satisfy any fan of this franchise or even reality TV in general, but also that it will end up on the syllabuses of gender, sexuality and media studies classes to come.
A year ago, I spoke with Kaufman as part of her research for her book, on Valentine’s Day of all days. A few weeks ago, I was surprised and amused to find that the blog post I’d written about her tiff with ABC was quoted on page two of the final product, and my name in the back under her list of interviews. Because I like to bring things full circle, I jumped at the chance to talk to her again. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of a recent conversation between myself (a skeptic who loves to be entertained but mostly treats The Bachelor like a puzzle that needs solving) and Amy (who for all her hardcore reporting is a true romantic), in which we discuss how she tackled such a big topic, why this show has such a hold on people, and of course, how crazy the Bachelor Season 22 finale—which airs tonight—will be.
JEZEBEL: I’m going to be honest, I don’t remember—and I’m sure you don’t either, because you’ve done so many interviews—a ton of what we talked about when you interviewed me.
AMY KAUFMAN: Yeah I don’t either. I think it was like, “Why do people like it? Feminists!” Things like that.
But at the point when we spoke, where were you at in the book process?
I was pretty far down the road by then, because I think the book was supposed to be due in March or April and it ended up being a couple months after that. I think I was just finishing up the end point of, why are people so into this? And that was when we were talking.
How did the deal come about? The thing I do remember is feeling surprised that a book like this hadn’t been done, but also thinking, oh you are exactly the person that should do this.
Aw, that’s so nice. It was after I had been banned that I started thinking about it. As I say in the book, because I live in LA and because I’m a journalist, a lot of Bachelor contestants follow me on Twitter, and a lot of my friends are also journalists. So if we cross paths, I’ll be like, “Come to my Bachelor viewing party,” and they like that because they like attention. A lot of people are like, why would they go to a strangers house? You would be surprised.
So when people would start showing up, in the commercial breaks we would always grill them, because it’s a room of journalists, and JJ [Lane, seen on Kaitlyn Bristowe’s season of The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise] I think was really the first person who was telling some stories that I was like, whoa! Okay. Of course people like you and I who are longtime watchers on the show pick up on things that seem to be overly produced, but hearing it from people firsthand, I was like, okay, it would be cool to suss this all out. And so I started searching around [to see] if there were people who would actually talk to me about it, because of course I assumed ABC would not cooperate, which they did not. I did probably seven or eight interviews for the proposal and then I sold it.
You described Bachelor Nation “as a combination of an oral history of the franchise, a cultural analysis of why so many smart feminists are obsessed with the show, and also a lot of juicy, behind-the-scenes tidbits about how the sausage is made.” Did that seem like a lot to try to tackle in one book?
Yeah, because honestly I was most comfortable being a newspaper reporter. The research part was super fun and easy—not easy, but I knew how to do it. Interviewing people, while some people were harder to convince, that was fun. As a fan, finding things, that was great. The hardest part for me was honestly the analytical part of exploring not only my own interests but America’s fascination with it, because I’m not even sure I got to the bottom of it, frankly. In so many of these interviews, I’d be like, “So why do you think we love The Bachelor so much?” And it’s like, there’s a million different reasons.
Who was your intended audience? Straight Bachelor fans, or do you want this to be the kind of book that anyone could read if they have any interest in feminism or reality TV?
I mean, listen, I’m realistic about it. Would I want to read a book about American Idol or some show I didn’t watch? Probably not. So I think the primary audience is Bachelor fans, however, I think I didn’t just write it completely insidery, I hope.
I think if non-Bach fans were to read it, the thing I would hope they would find most interesting is just the way that television is made, and the way that characters are made on reality television, because I don’t think we’re as aware of it as we want to be. And so many people in the back of their mind would want to be a reality star, or at least have a fleeting fantasy of what that would be like, and I would hope after this, people would have an understanding of, it’s not just a quick road to Instagram fame, there’s a lot of negative stuff that comes with it, too.
A theme in the book is the legal threats that come from Warners Bros., NZK Productions, and ABC—small and large in scale—whenever people reveal things about the show that don’t necessarily paint them in the best light. You got one when you were writing the book. What did you learn about how those different entities interact? I’ve been writing and paying attention to this stuff for years and it’s often very confusing to me.
My sense is that—if you were in good with them and covering the show—it would be an ABC publicist who was setting up everything, inviting you to the Men Tell All [when contestants, excluding the finalists, return to the show before the finale to go over that season’s drama with one another and the lead], giving you 15 minutes with Arie [the current Bachelor] if you work on Entertainment Tonight, that kind of thing is all ABC publicists. But when shit gets real, it’s always Warner Bros. The Bachelor in Paradise scandal last summer [Ed. Note: An incredibly confusing situation in which allegations of sexual misconduct between two contestants forced the show to pause filming to investigate, news that Kaufman actually broke. Filming eventually resumed], the Warner Bros. head corporate flack who does not usually work on Bachelor-related content was the one who was fielding stuff on that. So because they actually create the show, anything about how it’s made—like when I wrote about that sexual harassment lawsuit recently that a former producer filed against the show, again, that was Warner Bros. So ABC just does the, let us handle things for you while the show’s on our network kind of thing.
You were very transparent about the work that went into the book. The contracts the contestants sign and show notes you got access to were awesome. What was your thought process when it came to presenting that stuff to the audience?
I thought it gave me backup, first of all. If someone was going to attack this and say, this isn’t how it works and blah blah blah, why don’t I just say, here’s how I got this information. Of course there were some sources I had to protect but I, again, this is coming from working at the LA Times, we really don’t get to do a lot of anonymous sourcing, and so my strategy that’s been drilled into me since J-school is just, if someone has to be anonymous, there better be a really good reason.
And then sharing the legal threats and all of that, of course I wanted to do that. [Laughs] That just shows that they have an issue with something. It indicates there’s something they want to hide.
The more attention I paid to them, the more it seemed like their reactions are more the way a government official would respond to you writing about their work than people creating a dating reality show would. Not that they shouldn’t take their job seriously, and obviously there’s intellectual property involved, but the intensity of the responses that they have given you and other journalists and contestants make it seem like, what is the secret here?
Right. And frankly, I didn’t write the book to tell people not to watch The Bachelor. I still watch it, I love it. I try to be more mindful as I watch it, but there are so many things that have come out that you would think would have been detrimental to the franchise, like obviously the Bachelor in Paradise scandal, the woman who just sued them for sexual harassment, plenty of contestants talking about really negative experiences that they had in many interviews all over the internet. Nobody’s watching the show and are like, oh god, these poor people. It hasn’t really affected the viewership. So it’s interesting.
How did you work? When I was reading it, I imagined this massive spreadsheet that you have with lots of names and seasons and contact information and crazy weird shit like that.
[Laughs] Who would be interested in this but us?
[Laughs] I don’t know, I think the behind-the-scenes of making books is interesting!
I honestly had no fucking clue what I was doing, I just made it up as I went along. It was a spreadsheet. One of the first things I did was—now that it’s over I guess I can reveal it, who cares—I went through all of IMDbPro and then I went through a crew production website called Staff Me Up. Staff Me Up has contacts for every crew member. So if you can see everyone listed on IMDb who was like the gaffer and the second AD, their contact information would be on this other site. I started out with going with these people who hadn’t worked on [the show] in awhile, because I knew that I was eventually going to hear from someone at ABC, but I was hoping that would be later in the process so that they didn’t try to dissuade people from talking to me. I kept a big spreadsheet of all their names and would just say, “have emailed them four times, have emailed them twice.” I did some hardcore stalking.
I can imagine a project like this would require a lot of persistence.
Exactly, yeah. And then it’s like, how far do you want to push? I usually draw the line at three emails, but if I hadn’t heard anything by the third email, it didn’t usually turn.
Something that was just fun to do was the research about how the show started because that really just required me Lexis Nexising every article and review about The Bachelor and The Bachelorette and [show creator and executive producer] Mike Fleiss and [host] Chris Harrison from the early days. That was like doing a research paper in college.
That part was so interesting. I had interviewed the creators of UnREAL and obviously know plenty about Mike Fleiss, but I had never realized how much the dynamic between Constance Zimmer and Craig Bierko’s characters on UnREAL is obviously based on Fleiss’s relationship with former executive producer Lisa Levenson. It was like, oh, duh! [Kaufman spoke to sources who allege Levenson and Fleiss had a complex dynamic, much like the characters of Quinn and Chet on Lifetime’s UnREAL, which was created by former Bachelor producer Sarah Gertrude Shapiro.]
I know, I was like...oh this is pretty similar from everything I am hearing from literally everyone!
I thought particularly the background you gave of the history of dating shows really contextualized the show nicely.
That was definitely not my favorite part, I’ll be real. [Laughs] Just because, I don’t know how old you are, I’m 32. I didn’t grow up watching The Dating Game. I hadn’t even really seen reruns of it. So I was like, is anyone really going to care about this? But ultimately, I think my editor really pushed me to say, this is really important, especially because you can see producers were always doing this gnarly stuff, just in different ways, even back in the ’70s.
How did you decide what to include and what not to include? I feel like it could have been three times the length and I probably would have read the whole thing. [Laughs]
I know. There’s so many things that I wish that I now...like, gosh, I should have done this, or I should have done that. Especially things that are behavioral in terms of what happens every season, like breaking down the limo exit more [which is when the lead meets all the contestants for the first time]. Or why do they say I love you, or how do they interact with the families, why do the families always seem really uptight but then give in to the Bachelor after like four seconds? It was definitely overwhelming because the show has been on for so long. The hardest thing for me was honestly, there’s so many contestants, and obviously producers, too, and people who have worked on the show, that no one remembers who all these people are.
I found myself being like, yeah duh, we know who Sharleen is and then I had to remind myself, no Kate, people don’t know who Sharleen is!
Exactly. She’s an icon! But then I had friends who weren’t watching the show who were like, wait, who was that again? And I’m like, ughhhh.
Going back to the crew aspect of it—I think your book paints the shows behind-the-scenes atmosphere as more professional than it used to be, especially since the early days, which makes sense to me. But given Bachelor in Paradise, it doesn’t seem like it changed too much. I’m wondering what you think if that’s just how making a reality show like this is: messy. Does it have to be that way?
I remember after the Paradise thing happened, I saw a lot of more broad entertainment programs being like, “Will they take drinking out of The Bachelor???” And it was like, no dude. That will literally never happen. It’s one thing, they did that half-assed rule where they said two drinks an hour starting at noon until what, infinity? You can still get hammered. No, alcohol is essential to the show. These people are so nervous, they’re bored. I think people don’t realize how much it lubricates the ITMs [In The Moment interviews] and the environment. So they could never entirely take that out. Did you watch Bachelor Winter Games?
I have not been watching it, but I am keeping up with what people are saying about it.
Oh my god, you have to watch it. It was actually really good.
I’d love to hear about it, clearly.
Last night was the Fantasy Suite moment for the final four couples and one was Ashley I. so of course they made a huge deal, ooooh, is she going to lose her virginity? But now that I’m thinking about it, they made a big show of the guys being very respectful of the women’s wishes. Like Luke and this woman he was with, she was like, “I won’t be able to look my mom in the eye if I do this on television,” and he was like, “I respect you and this changes nothing in our relationship and I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” Two of the couples decided not to sleep together and they showed them not going in the same room and him coming in the next morning into her room. So maybe they are being more mindful of that.
A big part of the book is why women watch the show, and it was interesting to me that you do seem particularly focused on the female experience of watching the show. It really seems to be the lens through which the book is written, and I was wondering if you think that’s because, regardless of whether you’re talking about The Bachelor or The Bachelorette or Paradise, that the lens of the show is always through women.
That’s interesting, and that’s another thing that I, in retrospect, wish I had given more attention to. Because especially with couples, so many couples and some of the celebrity fans talked about that, but not enough of what that experience is like in judging your own coupledom against the show. Do you know guys who watch it by themselves?
I know at least one who I think would but doesn’t feel like he can. [Laughs] You just have to show them that it’s like sports and then they get into it.
Exactly. That’s how I felt—there are certainly men who will watch it but it’s not the first thing a dude will turn on. So that’s, I think, why I paid more attention to the female perspective.
You suggest that by the time you finished the book, you had more respect for the contestants. The way you outlined all the psychological pressure they go through was really smart, in that I knew all of it and you still send the message home that you really don’t know what going on that show would be like until you do it and it’s a lot harder than you think. But I’m wondering if your feelings shifted at all towards the creators of the shows or the people who make the shows.
Huh. I was doing an interview yesterday with—actually, she’s written for Jezebel, Susie, from Road Rules?
Oh yeah, of course.
Susie Meister, who I think is so smart and cool, and I love what she wrote on Jezebel, about all of what we’re talking about, the manipulation. She was really coming down hard on the producers when we were talking about it, and I was like, well what about the contestants? Like, she gave an example of a contestant who had, at the end, in a Bachelor Pad-esque way, stolen money when given the opportunity to, instead of splitting it or whatever. And I was like, don’t you think they take some of the blame? People are exhibiting really bad behavior. And she was like, no, because I think they wouldn’t behave that way if they weren’t pushed to do so.
And I guess, I don’t know, that’s honestly fundamentally the way I feel. These people definitely have responsibility, everything is technically in bounds, beyond a Paradise situation, right? But it all falls down to us, the viewers, to decide, is this ethical? Do the producers have more of a responsibility than it says on paper? Should they just look at the contestants as humans and friends and not just people for entertainment value that they’re trying to get a good sound bite out of? Especially as a journalist, it’s hard to imagine being in that situation because I feel like I’m in that place a lot of times, like where I’ve interviewed someone and they say something and I’m like, oh fuck yeah, that’s so good, they’re going to hate that and their publicist is never going to talk to me again, but it’s an amazing story.
A few years ago, I would say I was much more inclined to just jump on things like that because they were good stories and good scoops and that benefited me. And I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that now, I definitely would, but I do think about it more. These are people’s lives. Especially in the Me Too era and the stories you take on, I think about all that stuff. So I guess what I’m trying to say, in this long wind up, it’s hard for me to think that the producers can just be like, I’m doing my job. At night, I’m wondering if I feel good about my choices.
Yeah, and I think you touched on something really interesting, which is what we’re seeing right now, particularly with women who are actresses in Hollywood, is an increased vocalization about the pressure that they feel like they’re under on a set. But even behind the scenes, whether it’s crew or cast on reality shows, reality stars are a huge part of the industry, and we don’t really consider it professional in the same regard. We don’t consider reality stars actors, ergo it’s not really a real job, even though eventually at least some of them are making money off of it.
Exactly. And shouldn’t we be thinking of it more then, because they’re just quote-unquote normal people? I agree with you, I think it’s something we need to be thinking about.
When you were doing this, were there people—and you don’t have to say who—but were there people you really wanted to talk to that you didn’t get the chance to for whatever reason?
I think I can say I would have loved to talk to Lisa Levenson, because she’s not involved anymore and she was so foundational in the beginning and the sort of UnREAL legend that has been created around her. I would have talked to anyone. A lot of people were like, well, what if Mike Fleiss said he would talk to you? Then I would talk to him. It would be great. I would love to pick these people’s brains. Lisa was probably my number one. Also Alex Michel [the first Bachelor], who is evasive as fuck. No one has been able to find him. I think people know where he lives. He hasn’t done an interview in years, he doesn’t return anyone’s request, including ABC’s. He was sort of my, what is it, my white whale? I wanted Alex Michel to talk to me. He just rebuffed me completely, it’s so sad.
Are you expecting a Chris Harrison or a Mike Fleiss to say something about the book eventually? It feels kind of inevitable that they will, right?
Yeah, I mean, I assume they’ll be asked about it. I don’t know what they say.
Harrison is always so defensive about anybody who says anything that could be critical about the show, which I think is so funny. Because he would come off better if he was just like, cool that they care! But he’s always just like, ugh, fuck them. It’s really weird.
I tried to be really clear about saying, I truly do love this show. I’m not doing this to end this show, not that I even have that power. But that’s not the part that they’re going to probably react to.
I started watching not that long ago, during Brad Womack’s second season [Season 15, which aired in 2011], and even since then the visibility of all of these people after they leave the show has just totally shifted.
Yeah, I don’t like that they know they’re going to be on Instagram. I don’t think it can be pure anymore, honestly.
I sort of do like it because it creates another layer where I feel like there’s a higher chance I’ll know what’s actually happening which is my biggest intrigue in watching these shows.
You mean like they’ll reveal it down the line, or you can find out the background story or something?
Yeah, and there’s just been so many leaks, like, what was that fight you didn’t see aired but know about because someone talked about it on Twitter. But I guess for you, you talk about in the book that you do have this big soft spot for the romance aspect of the show, so it must ruin that part of it for you.
I hope I’m not seen as a representative of Bachelor Nation when I’m talking about this book because I really am a sucker for the romance stuff a lot more than definitely every girl I watch with. Like last night on Winter Games, Clare Crawley got engaged and I was crying. [Laughs] I love watching love. It’s so fucking stupid, it makes me feel good. Even though I know they’re probably going to break up, even though I couldn’t be more aware of the messed up circumstances that these people are in in these situations, it’s like, I just want to believe that it’s real because then it means that it could happen to me. And that’s the sad truth. [Laughs]
I don’t think that’s sad. That’s why we watch, read, and listen to the stuff that we do. A lot of people think the shows are more fun early on, and I actually think once you get down to just a few people, that’s when it’s actually—whether it’s real or not what they’re feeling, they are feeling more emotional. To me, the end of the show is moving and interesting because you really start to spend time with these people, whereas at the beginning when you have 30 women, there’s no time to spend with anyone.
Exactly. It naturally makes sense that you would become more invested as you move along. The first night is so hard for me. I’m like, this is fake, I don’t know these people, what the hell. Do you ever get into the romantic part or no?
Definitely. Going back to what we were talking about before with the Bachelor vs. Bachelorette, is, it’s unquestioned I think that The Bachelorette has been more successful and resulted in more successful relationships, at least so far.
And I don’t know if it’s the women that go on The Bachelorette are more serious about actually wanting to get married and that goes hand-in-hand with their men. I don’t really know if I think The Bachelor or The Bachelorette is more fun to watch the way a lot of people like The Bachelor more, but I will say that the relationships that have moved me the most have been on The Bachelorette, because it just seems so much more likely to me that they would result in actual love.
That’s true. And let’s leave Rachel out of this, but otherwise, I’m going to be like, yeah, she made a good choice. Whereas, the guys I’m going to be like, she sucks.
So by the time your book comes out, the finale of this season of The Bachelor will have aired.
Don’t spoil me! Do you know?
Yeah of course I know. [Laughs]
Is it as good as everyone says?
It’s really crazy.
[Gasps] Ahhhh! Like Jason Mesnick levels? [Ed. Note: Former Bachelor Jason Mesnick famously broke up with his fiancée Melissa Rycroft on live television following his season’s finale, and chose his runner-up Molly Malaney. Jason and Molly are now married and have a daughter in addition to Mesnick’s son from his first marriage.]
Yeah. It’s probably the only reason I’m still watching this season.
I saw Reality Steve tweeting, they should fucking thank me because [viewers are] sticking around because it’s going to be crazy when the season wraps up.
Yeah I think that’s true. I want to talk to you again after it airs.
Email me afterwards! The other day I was like, Tia’s already angling to be the Bachelorette, and people were sending me spoiler-esque remarks back, and I was like, uhhh no!
My only question is, how can you avoid them? It seems like particularly for you it would be hard.
Yeah, it is hard. Other than not following Reality Steve. I’ve been thinking, should I put some sort of disclaimer on my [Twitter bio]. But that doesn’t even work. And then this always happens, probably next week I will hear something about what it is and I’ll be like, fuck, I’ll just read it before the end. [Ed. Note: Unfortunately, Kaufman has indeed found herself spoiled accidentally.] I think it’s more fun to not know. Like, last night I knew that Clare was getting proposed to and it wasn’t as fun.
I was wondering if writing the book has tapped you out on the franchise or kind of kept you the same. Are you going to take a Bachelor break? I felt a little tapped out, which is why I’ve not been very invested in this season. But part of it is just that I started to feel like, okay, this is not going to evolve at the pace that I want it to.
Yeah, it’s not.
They have Rachel [the first black person to helm the show], this incredible, beautiful, smart, diverse lead and then they just go right back to the same old thing that they were always doing.
It’s hard. Now I feel like it’s part of my identity almost, I’m like, fuck, I can’t just stop watching The Bachelor. But then there’s moments like last night where I’m truly like, I fucking love this show, I enjoyed every minute of watching Bachelor Winter Games and I hope all these couples work out, I’m going to follow them all on Instagram. I was like, hardcore in. And then there are other moments, like Arie’s season, where I’m like, oh my god. But who knows, then if the finale’s crazy I’ll be like, yes! The show still has it, you know?
A lot of people have been asking me, what would you do to change The Bachelor, how would you like to see it evolve? And of course a lot of times I’ll say, which I’m sure you’ll agree with, diversifying the body types, diversifying the sexual orientations, diversifying the race, but they also just need to strike a balance between delivering us the things we love, which are fantasy suites, hometowns—things that are tried and true that you know take place every year that we need the routine of, while still finding some way to spice it up. And I think this season with Arie would have been a good opportunity to get outside of the recycling old people trope. [Ed. Note: The show tends to pick as their new leads rejected contestants from the season prior.] Because I feel like they’re at a moment where it’s like that period of time where Mike Fleiss will talk about Matt Grant and Lorenzo the Prince and Charlie O’Connell, and he’s like, we were in a downswing and then we figured out Jason Mesnick and they started that whole recycling thing. That’s kind of where they’re at. They need to do a fundamental shift if they want another 10 years out of this.
Maybe I’m a crazy person and if they tried to make it the show I want it to be, it would be really boring and no one would watch it and it would be killed in a day.
What’s the show you’d want it to be?
I don’t know, where people are treated better...and then I’m thinking, well, is it really fair that one man dates 25 women? No, so maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to, but then that’s the premise of the show! [Laughs]
Right, so then you can’t change that. Also these fucking people sign up for it. They’re not being forced to be there.
Yeah, you can’t forget that detail of it. It’s just funny, your brain really starts to go down a weird spiral.
Right, why are they competing for him?! Because they literally auditioned to!
Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure comes out tomorrow.