What It's Really Like to Speak Out as a Black Person in Bachelor Nation

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Tierney Bricker
·12 min read
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In honor of Black History Month, E! is talking to Black reality show contestants to reveal what it's really like being a minority on TV. The interviews with Tayshia Adams and Mike Johnson were conducted prior to recent events.

The revolution might not be televised, but it will be tweeted.

Because after Bachelor host Chris Harrison's questionable defense of Rachael Kirkconnell's past missteps, Matt James' frontrunner having attended an "Old South" plantation-themed party while in college in 2018, something unprecedented happened in Bachelor Nation: The other women competing for James' heart banded together, sharing a joint statement on social media saying they were "deeply disappointed" by the recent events and "want to make it clear that we denounce any defense of racism."

The following day, the men from Tayshia Adams' recent season of The Bachelorette also released a group message, saying, "The addition of more people who identity as BIPOC has opened up the conversation on race, community, and who we are as people. A conversation that has been long overdue."

Both statements also expressed their support for Rachel Lindsay, who's been helming the narrative for far too long. The franchise's only black lead until Adams handed out roses last year, she was tasked with pushing back against Harrison's justifications of Kirkconnell. But her Bachelor Nation contemporaries made it clear they were cheering her on from afar.

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"Just because she is speaking the loudest, doesn't mean she is alone," the women's message concluded. "We stand with her, we hear her and we advocate for change alongside her."

After years of frequently being the only voice calling out racism and advocating for change within Bachelor Nation, Lindsay has paved the way for the most recent season's contestants to freely and publicly voice their opinions, something previous contestants of color often feared doing.

Bachelor Nation Social Media Desparity, Bachelorettes
Bachelor Nation Social Media Desparity, Bachelorettes

There is power in numbers—especially when it comes to social media. Since Instagram first became popular in 2012, it's had a massive impact on the Bachelor franchise. Many contestants go on the show in the pursuit of clout, content and sponsorships, often going on to leave their real-life jobs as software salesmen or teachers to become full-time influencers.

But it's a transition that's proven easier for some contestants than others.

While she now has close to two million followers after her lauded time as the Bachelorette, Tayshia Adams noticed the undeniable disparity between the follower count for white and BIPOC's contestants when she was competing for Colton Underwood's heart in 2019.

Despite making it to the final three, "I was easily one of the girls with the least amount of followings compared to the girls that were in week five or six," Adams told E! News in a recent interview. "I had much more airtime, my family was involved, I had little one-on-ones and dates, we actually had a connection and other girls had quote-unquote followers. I definitely experienced that."

And it's not just the female contestants of color who've seen that divide.

Just look at Adams' final four men: While white finalists Zach Clark, Ben Smith and Brendan Morais all have over 300,000 followers, Ivan Hall, who is Black, has 162,000.

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And Bachelorette season 15 contestant Luke Parker, an evangelical who infamously shamed Hannah Brown for sleeping with other suitors, accrued nearly seven times the Insta fans as Mike Johnson, the beloved military vet with a megawatt smile and a sensitive soul.

According to Johnson, a 2019 Instagram post claimed he had hit "the brown ceiling"—basically suggesting he had reached the limit a contestant of color can reach on social media—something the author noted can be "hard" to address because of the "backlash" he knows he will likely get.

"It's unwarranted, it's unfair," he recently told E! News, "but how do you expect us to move the needle forward it we can't speak our truth?"

Bachelor Nation Social Media Desparity, Peter Weber's Top Contestants
Bachelor Nation Social Media Desparity, Peter Weber's Top Contestants

And that truth is an uncomfortable one, something that may appear vain or shallow on the surface because, hey, it's just social media, right? But it actually reveals the ugly reality existing just underneath the shiny Bachelor façade of hot tubs, champagne flutes and glistening driveways.

In 2018, Bachelorette winner Garrett Yrigoyen's double-tap on numerous offensive Instagram posts was basically swept under the rug. That same year, Kirkconnell attended an "antebellum plantation-themed" fraternity formal, the photos resurfacing three years later as she was romancing the Bachelor's first Black lead. The difference this time was the "woke police," as Harrison put it, took notice and demanded accountability. (He has since apologized for brushing off the issue during his chat with Lindsay and will be taking a break from the franchise.)

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When Lindsay pushed back, telling Harrison that "the picture was from 2018 at an Old South antebellum party" and was "not a good look," he responded, "Well, Rachel, is it a good look in 2018? Or, is it not a good look in 2021? Because there's a big difference."

As Bachelorette Andi Dorfman once infamously said: It's not OK.

A mindless double-tap, attendance at an "antebellum plantation-themed" fraternity formal and dressing up for the 'gram should mean something, especially when we now live in an age where contestants' full-time jobs often become earning those same likes to rack up lucrative sponsored content once they appear on the show. Followers are currency in Bachelor Nation and contestants of color are basically starting their careers in debt.

"I'm human and I started to think about how other people view you," Adams said of the chasm she noticed during Underwood's season. "You start to question you as a person and that is the toxic side of social media." While she can't speak to why that gap exists ("Maybe it is the fan base watching, I don't know"), she said, "I wish I had the answer to that. If I had the answer to that I could change a lot of things in the world."

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Johnson, however, does have a theory, pointing to conversations he's had with Tyler Cameron, the most-followed male cast member in the franchise.

"I love him because he's not ignorant and he knows that, obviously, if he doesn't have the body he has and looks as good as he does, it would probably be one million, not two million," Johnson mused, "but we've spoken about that fact that if he was Black, it would not be as high. And I don't care who goes against that, that is a fact."

Johnson also pointed to the current season of The Bachelor and the staggering difference between the contestants' follower counts.

Bachelor Nation Social Media Desparity, Matt James' Top Contestants
Bachelor Nation Social Media Desparity, Matt James' Top Contestants

"It's because we gravitate to that we know," Johnson said, "and the audience is predominantly white."

During Lindsay's season in 2017, the audience was 80 percent white, 12 percent Black, and 7 percent other races, according to Nielsen, and the ratings were down in every metric from JoJo Fletcher's time as The Bachelorette the previous year.

"I found it incredibly disturbing in a Trumpish kind of way," series creator Mike Fleiss told The New York Times in January 2018. "How else are you going to explain the fact that she's down in the ratings, when—Black or white—she was an unbelievable Bachelorette? It revealed something about our fans."

Sure, but it also revealed the audience the franchise had cultivated and courted since its inception in 2002: Before Lindsay became the first Black lead, 32 collective seasons had aired and 15 years had passed.

"I'm raring to try it again," Fleiss told The New York Times about bringing in another person of color as their main suitor after Lindsay's tenure. "I think it's important."

But the intended plans to continue diversifying their lineup of leads seemed to stall, with every season that followed having a white lead (though 2020's Peter Weber was the second-ever Hispanic Bachelor after Juan Pablo Galavis, thanks to his Cuban mother Barb Weber).

The Bachelor, Season 25 cast, Matt James
The Bachelor, Season 25 cast, Matt James

The franchise would not cast their second Black lead until June 2020.

In the wake of a racial reckoning that led to increased intention on the Black Lives Matter movement and a viral campaign aimed at holding the franchise accountable for diversity and anti-racism, franchise newcomer James, who is biracial, was announced as the first Black Bachelor. A few months later, it was revealed Adams, a biracial woman who is Black and Latinx, would be replacing Clare Crawley halfway through The Bachelorette's 16th season.

"All of a sudden, we have two people of color as leads," Johnson said. "Anyone with any level of intelligence knows that there was a reason for that. So that is not the warmest feeling, as a fan."

Nor as a Black man who fans had vocally and enthusiastically pushed for to hand out the roses for several seasons running.

While Johnson wasn't upset James was selected over him, he admitted, "The only aspect that hurt me was that I didn't get informed prior to [the announcement]. I know that is kind of, like, 'Me, me, me!' but when you are in my position and literally two years in a row you are screamed at to be the Bachelor—and I'm not saying it from a cocky standpoint—when you win the popular vote multiple times, but lose the electoral vote, it feels a type of way."

But what matters most for Johnson and Adams is what happens in the franchise moving forward.

"This isn't about appeasement, this is about a movement," Johnson said, "and a movement is constant, a movement isn't once and done."

Tayshia Adams, The Bachelorette, Season Finale
Tayshia Adams, The Bachelorette, Season Finale

Changes have already been implemented since the petition for anti-racism in the Bachelor franchise launched last summer. Behind the scenes, James' season saw the addition of a diversity coach to the production team and on screen, viewers are seeing the most diverse casts in the series' history, as well as frank discussions about the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement and meaningful conversations about the politics of Black hair.

"Obviously, there has be a lot of work to be done, but you can see the diversity in Matt's cast alone," said Adams. "The fact that they provide a diversity coach and a safe space to talk about literally anything you want to vocalize how you feel is amazing. What else can I wish for? I would hope that they could highlight more of these real conversations."

Because the franchise needs to foster the sort of safe space that allows their contestants of color to have these real conversations.

"People don't understand the amount of followers we, people of color, lose when we speak authenticity," Johnson explained. "Rachel is a pillar of a leader in the Bachelor franchise because when we say we are losing followers what that equates to is that we are losing money. And we are losing opportunity simply because we are speaking truth and not being disrespectful, which is extremely sad that that happens. And the same thing has happened to me."

In May 2020, season 15 star Bachelorette Hannah Brown came under fire when she recorded herself saying the N-word when trying to remember the lyrics to DaBaby's "Rockstar" on Instagram Live.

Two days later, Johnson, who made it to the final six of Brown's season, spoke to TMZ condemning her actions.

"What Hannah did was unacceptable. Issues like this bring light to the bridge of pop culture and racism within our country," he told the outlet, later adding, "I'm inviting her and everyone to a conversation, in hopes to educate everyone that this type of behavior needs to be changed and is unacceptable. My aim is that in this moment we don't divide, we come together, learn from this and create change for the better."

The day he spoke out, Johnson lost 15,000 followers.

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"I was like, 'I did nothing wrong, she did!' And I laugh about it because it's absurd," Johnson explained. "I remember that day specifically because I was so annoyed with the fans, the ones that were mad at Hannah but calling me out because I didn't speak out against it. I hadn't been on my phone! I didn't see. It's like, 'Bro, come down.' And then I lose the followers, it's like, what?!"

Noting it's "nothing against" Brown, Johnson said she "is just the perfect example to use" to highlight the way Black contestants are expected to weigh in, but then receive backlash when they do, something Adams has experienced as well.

"One hundred percent, it is really sad," she said. "Like, what am I supposed to do, just take pictures of myself? No, I have an opinion and should be able to say it freely."

Unfortunately, it's just not that simple when you are a contestant of color.

"Let's just be honest, if I was white, I could say something completely ignorant and get away with it just by apologizing," Johnson said. "I can't do that being Black."

And being Black in the Bachelor franchise means constantly bracing for backlash every time you speak out.

"Honestly, I was talking to my roommate about whether or not I should even do this interview," Johnson admitted, "because some of the people that read this will say, 'Oh my god, all Mike does it take about race,' which is not the case at all, but that's polarizing."

Thus, the constant balancing act between authenticity and appeasing fans, one white cast members never have to think about.

Rachel Lindsay, The Bachelor, Women Tell All
Rachel Lindsay, The Bachelor, Women Tell All

"Rachel Lindsay has to speak her truth and she has to speak for the Black culture, which is her truth, and that comes before appeasement and that's a very hard thing for someone of color to do," Johnson explained. "For example, if and when we get an Indian lead, there are things that their culture has to deal with that we, as other races, may not understand and may initially not agree with. And that's a hard thing to do as the lead. And right now, when I speak to you, I know I am going to lose followers and people are going to come at me, it's quite frustrating."

But, as one of the few Black contestants from the franchise who has broken through the so-called "brown ceiling," with some 630,000 followers and a Bachelor Nation podcast, Johnson will continue to speak his truth.

As he put it, "I am now becoming a piece of the ladder for the next person to do that."