On Aug. 14, 2013, Gia Allemand, a New Orleans-based 29-year-old swimsuit model and former contestant on ABC's reality show The Bachelor, called her mother, Donna Micheletti, to say good-bye. In a state of panic and dread, Micheletti called Allemand's boyfriend, NBA player Ryan Anderson. He rushed to Allemand's apartment, where he found her unconscious, a vacuum cleaner cord wrapped around her neck. Micheletti immediately flew to New Orleans; Allemand was pronounced brain-dead at the hospital, and Micheletti made the decision to take her off life support. "She said she was so tired of being hurt," Micheletti told Dr. Phil a few months later.
Three years earlier, Allemand had been sitting in front of Chris Harrison, host of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, as he prepared to reveal the winner of Bachelor Pad, a spin-off in which 19 former Bachelor cast members team up to compete for $250,000 in prize money. Harrison asked Allemand about her relationship with Wes Hayden, another competitor on the show. Allemand had a relationship back home and didn't want to jeopardize it, but the show's editors created a romantic narrative - a showmance - between Allemand and Hayden. "You were in a tough spot," Harrison said. "Do you still have your boyfriend?" Allemand's face noticeably dropped. She took a deep breath before answering, "No, I don't."
The live audience cheered, but what they didn't know is that Allemand's boyfriend had dumped her after seeing earlier episodes of Bachelor Pad. "They portrayed her and Wes as a couple," says Micheletti. "It made [her boyfriend] look bad, so he dumped her. Gia loved him so much; she just lost it." Allemand spiraled into depression; after she threatened to throw herself out a window, Micheletti hospitalized her daughter, where Allemand was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), a condition that can lead to deep depression during a woman's menstrual cycle. (PMDD was added to the most recent version of the DSM, the official statistical manual used in psychiatric medicine; suicide is a risk of the condition.) Allemand never sought treatment.
This wasn't the first time a contestant from the franchise had attempted suicide. Julien Hug, who competed on The Bachelorette's fourth season, suffered from severe depression and took his own life in 2010. Then, on Feb. 16 of this year, Alexa "Lex" McAllister, a contestant from season 14 of The Bachelor who was eliminated in the first episode, died from a drug overdose in an apparent suicide.
Neither Micheletti nor Hug's family blame the show for the loss of their children. ("It is of the family's opinion that his son's death had nothing to do with The Bachelor," a spokesman for Hug's father wrote to Cosmopolitan.com. McAllister's family, ABC, and The Bachelor's production company, Warner Horizon Television, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) And it's not as if droves of the franchise's over 400 contestants have come forward to claim the show caused them emotional distress. "The Bachelor franchise glorifies and promotes reckless attachments and unsustainable relationships," says Shauna Springer, PhD, a California-based psychologist who has written about The Bachelor for Psychology Today. "However, any assertion that the show itself causes contestants to attempt suicide would be overreaching." But when you're watching a show that ends almost every episode with a contestant crying in the back of a limousine, it's hard not to wonder about the real-life emotional toll.
While everyone loves a good drama - and The Bachelor franchise does create fun, goofy TV - even casual viewers of the franchise can see that the show thrives on the vulnerability of its contestants. Audiences have become increasingly savvy to the work of editors and producers behind the scenes, something that Lifetime's dark comedy UnREAL, a behind-the-scenes look at a fictional reality dating show strikingly similar to The Bachelor, plays up to great effect. (In its first season, a group of telegenic, perfectly coiffed women compete for the love of a wealthy British Prince Charming type; when the women fail to create enough drama naturally, producers step in to amp up the excitement, mining contestants' backgrounds for details to exploit and hiding contestants' much-needed mood stabilizers.) Most of her show is fictional, says UnREAL creator Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former Bachelor producer, but during her time in reality television, there was "a culture of gravitating toward casting people that are a little more dramatic and a little less stable. When you're casting a reality show, you look for contrasting personalities that will have conflicts with each other."
The Bachelor's casting process begins with an application, available online, that features questions like, "Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?" "Do you drink alcoholic beverages?" and, "Do you have any tattoos? If yes, what are they? And where are they located on your body?" An application in a further round includes a lengthy psychological test that asks about medical or psychological conditions. "They have you fill out a multiple choice psych test, to find out everything you're afraid of," says Jesse Csincsak, 33, who proposed to Jillian Harris at the end of the fifth season of The Bachelorette. "They ask you the same questions over and over and over, five different times, five different ways." If you've ever wondered why every person sent on a cozy date to a cave has claustrophobia, Csincsak believes the psychological questionnaire is meant to give producers insight into the contestants' fears for later use on dates."Oh, you're scared of heights? You're going bungee jumping," he says. (Repeated requests to ask ABC about The Bachelor's casting process were not answered.)
When you're casting a reality show, you look for contrasting personalities that will have conflicts with each other.
Once on the show, contestants are surrounded by what Bachelor director Ken Fuchs calls his "army" - teams of cameramen, lighting techs, soundmen, and production assistants - staying vigilant for anything approximating drama. "A girl will fall ill, or she'll pass out, or a fight will take place," says Fuchs. "We like it when things are happening. It means we're making television." But post-production, which involves a team of editors combing through months of footage, is when the season's prevailing storylines become evident. Who will capture the heart of the star? Who will go home in tears? Who will be this season's villain?
There is always a villain. Each season, at least one woman will get what is known among contestants and viewers as the "villain edit": She's shown saying cruel things about the other contestants, behaving poorly, or depicted as being on the show for the "wrong reasons" (meaning she's looking for fame, not love - the ultimate no-no in The Bachelor's world). The reality of the villain, though, is mostly likely attributable to some combination of forceful personality, naiveté, and careful editing rather than misbehavior - and the fact that she's been cast as the "villain" might not be immediately apparent to the contestant. Season 15 contestant Michelle Money says she had no idea she was being pegged as the villain until the show's promos aired. "I'll never forget that feeling," says Money, who was devastated when she realized how she'd been edited. "That is not what I thought was going to happen. My friends from the show were like, 'What the hell are they doing to you?'"
Money explained to her family and friends - and eventually her young daughter - that her portrayal was fabricated out of careful editing. As the show aired, she started to grapple with social anxiety, worrying about how she was being portrayed on social media, fretting about gossip online. It became hard to trust anyone she met after the show aired. "It's nothing you can really prepare yourself for," Money says. "It was traumatic." The Bachelor's on-set therapist helped her, says Money, who ultimately found it too stressful to watch her own season. (Multiple contestants attested that a counselor is available on set at all times.) The therapist "called me and told me what was going to happen and what to expect. She was wonderful," says Money.
While Money was given the "villain edit," other Bachelor contestants have been portrayed as unhinged - like this season's Lace Morris, who was dubbed (by ABC!) as "50 shades of crazy" and season 17's Tierra LiCausi, who was called "Tierrable." LiCausi shrugs it off: "Every season has one," she says. "And unfortunately I got that role."
It's not just the villains who find the experience exhausting and fraught - the winners do too. Season 15's Emily Maynard won when Bachelor Brad Womack presented her with a Neil Lane engagement ring, but her new relationship didn't last. (In her just-released memoir, she reveals that Womack broke up with her by CC-ing her on an email to the producers saying, "Sorry but things didn't work out with Emily and I. It wasn't the fairy tale I thought it would be.") In the aftermath, says Maynard, she sank into a depression. "I went through a really hard time. I put on a lot of weight. I cut off all my hair," she says. "I kept counting down the days until the next season."
While fans may love the emotional whirlwinds that have driven The Bachelor through 20 seasons, they may not fully understand the very real tension and anxiety that starring in the show can produce - and contestants swear the emotions are absolutely real. "It really is devastating for tons of girls," says Desiree Hartsock, who met her husband on The Bachelorette's ninth season, "I just don't think anyone realizes how hard it is until you're actually there, and in those shoes."
We like it when things are happening. It means we're making television.
Those amped-up feelings are by design. Springer, the psychologist, says the show taps into a psychological phenomenon called the Excitation Transfer Theory that can make people feel like they're falling in love during adrenaline-raising situations - like the helicopter rides, bungee jumps, and cliff dive-dates on The Bachelor. "You fall in love with the situation, flying around in private jets, having everything paid for, going on dream vacations," says Csincsak. "But you don't have time to get to know that person."
Because The Bachelor needs romances to fast-forward, it traffics in obligatory vulnerability. This translates into what would usually be a first-date no-no: immediately sharing traumatic life events, whether that's opening up about the sudden death of a husband, the loss of a parent, or being dumped by a fiancé. On this season's episode of "The Women Tell All," the second-to-last episode of the season, Jubilee Sharpe, a resilient sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserve with a spot-on manicure, perfect hair, and a tragic backstory, summed up her experience with Bachelor Ben Higgins: "'Hey, Ben, my whole family died. Let's make out.' That's not a basis for a romantic relationship." These moments of vulnerability often result in lots of crying, followed by kissing and a rose.
The show's director, Fuchs, thinks it's all fair game. Every woman he has recorded crying in the back of a limo knew what to expect, he says. "They've all seen the show," he says. "There are no surprises; they know they're wearing a microphone."
But it's impossible to understand the scope of the pressure until you're actually there, with cameras pointed at you 24 hours a day and social media treating your life - and its darkest moments - like sport. "You have to know who you are before you ever put yourself in front of a camera," says Hartsock. "You have to be comfortable with everything about you."
"You can choose to let something like this destroy you, or you can choose to get up in the morning, face your fears, recognize who you really are, and learn," says Money, who says she ultimately realized she had to make a choice about whether or not to let her "villain edit" define her. "You have to allow yourself to let it go and move on."
But for some, it's not that easy. Allemand's struggles show that a beautiful, kind face that always had a smile for the camera can belie real psychological pain. While Micheletti sees a "direct link" between the edited storyline that aired on Bachelor Pad leading to her daughter's broken heart and her first suicide threat - she also says that her daughter struggled both before and after the show. Allemand was plagued with insecurities throughout her life and suffered from abandonment issues due to her strained relationship with her estranged father, says Micheletti. "Girls like Gia look in the mirror and don't see pretty; they see ugly," said her mother. "My daughter and [Lex] had issues," says Micheletti. "They had issues in their own minds."
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).