Rachel Lindsay Has No Roses Left to Burn
New York magazine|June 21-July 4, 2021
When I became The Bachelor’s first Black lead, I thought I could change it from within. Until I realized I was just their token.
By Rachel Lindsay. Photograph by Munachi Osegbu

I knew my relationship with The Bachelor was over in February 2021, when Chris Harrison, the host and face of the franchise, showed his true self on national television.

I had been a full-time correspondent on Extra since the previous summer, regularly recapping The Bachelor as part of the job. So when there was a chance to speak to Chris about a recent controversy, it was obvious I’d be the one to do it. He patched in from his office, ever the host, sitting in one of his trademark casual suits in front of a mantel of Bachelor memorabilia, including a bobblehead of himself.

“What are your thoughts about Rachael Kirkconnell and the allegations attached to her?” I asked. A simple question about a situation that was anything but. Weeks prior, Kirkconnell, the soon-to-be winner of Matt James’s season, was revealed to have attended an antebellum-themed fraternity formal in 2018. There were photos. Nobody had made a statement—not Rachael, not Chris, not the network. I wanted to know how the franchise felt now that one of the final four contestants on the first Black Bachelor was engulfed in a race controversy. I wanted someone to acknowledge it.

“We all need to have a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion. Because I have seen some stuff online—again, this ‘judge, jury, executioner’ thing, where people are just tearing this girl’s life apart and diving into, like, her parents, her parents’ voting record,” Harrison said. “The woke police is out there.”

He wasn’t defending Rachael, he repeated over and over during the 15-minute segment in which he essentially did just that. If I had gone to that party, I asked him, what would I represent? He told me that 50 million people had attended a party like this. I maintained that attending such a party was not a good look, to which he responded, “Is it not a good look in 2018, or is it not a good look in 2021?” As if things couldn’t have been considered racist in 2018. He called for sympathy for “this poor girl, Rachael.” He said all this with a passion I had never seen him assert. And neither, I think, had America. We had only seen Chris Harrison perform as a host; this was like catching him with a hot mic.

I wouldn’t say Chris and I was friends, exactly. When you’re the Bachelorette, you’re traveling with him, sitting in hotels and airports. There’s a lot of hurrying up and waiting, and he’s the one you do it with. During my season and after, he became someone who gave me advice on how to navigate the show and the celebrity of it. I called him my fairy godfather. We’d had our highs and lows, but there had been mutual respect until this interview. I felt disrespected, but I maintained my composure because I had to.

Three days later—after Chris issued a public apology to Bachelor Nation and to me (I accepted it)—I went on Higher Learning, the Ringer podcast I co-host with Van Lathan. I couldn’t maintain my composure anymore. I was exhausted, I said. And I needed to step away from the franchise.

It’s funny to think that in 2018 when it was still “acceptable” for Rachael K. to attend a racist fraternity party, it had only been one year since I became the first Black lead—male or female—in the 16-year, 34-season history of the show. In 2018, I felt like I had changed the franchise just by representing myself as a Black professional woman in her 30s—those things had never before been seen on the series. In the years since I had gone from a former contestant who advocated for more diversity to one who spoke critically about the show and tried to hold those involved with it accountable. By the time that segment with Chris aired, I was known as the contestant who was always starting trouble. “That Rachel Lindsay,” the one who couldn’t stay quiet, who bites the hand that feeds, Bachelor Nation’s public enemy No. 1. Later, I would be known as the one responsible for Harrison’s eventually leaving the franchise. (He announced his departure earlier this month with a reported eight-figure settlement. And if he spends all of that, I’m sure the fans will somehow blame me, too.) Recently, during the drama with Matt’s season, I listened to an earlier episode of Bachelor Happy Hour, another podcast I co-hosted. I was surprised to hear myself having fun because now I sound as tired as I am. After 100 episodes, I announced my departure from that podcast. I’m exhausted from defending myself against a toxic fandom.

I’ve often wondered if it felt like a 180 to the franchise when I became its biggest critic. As my sorority sister would put it, “You played the part, and when you were done, you called them racist with your whole chest.” After all, they had cast me because, on paper, I made sense. I couldn’t be like the Bachelorettes who had come before—somebody who was still living at home with her parents, who had “pageant queen” on her résumé. I was a lawyer. My father was a federal judge. I had a squeaky-clean record. I had to be a good Black girl, an exceptional Black girl. I had to be someone the viewer could accept. And I was a token until I made sure I wasn’t. The thing is, the day I went on the show, I didn’t wake up and say, You know what? I’m going to start standing up for myself. I was taught at a very young age to speak up about injustices. It was no different with Bachelor Nation. And I don’t think they ever saw it coming.

When I first went on The Bachelor as a contestant, I wasn’t looking for love. I was open to it. But what I wanted was to escape my reality. I was 31 years old, and I had achieved everything I wanted careerwise. I was working for a great law firm in Dallas, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I had just come out of a five-year relationship with a guy I had thought I would be with forever. He ended things so nonchalantly: “Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to work.” I felt completely insignificant. I was running around wild every night, looking for someone to see me.

In 2016, two white co-workers came into my office and told me I should do the show. I had never watched it before. All I knew about it was that Black people don’t go far. And something about roses. They said, “Rachel if you do it, you’ll go far.” I started to think, Why not? For the first time, I had no expectations for my life.

I auditioned in June, and I had my final interview in August. I knew then that they wanted me. I walked into a one-on-one with a producer who said, “Who’s your ideal person? Who would your parents love to see you with?” “Barack Obama,” I replied. They were like, “You know what? No more questions. Let’s move you to the next interview.” I walked into another room, and it was a sea of people. Nobody was Black. In the front, there were three chairs: two for the executive producers and one for me.

The first thing one of them said was “So you’re Black. As you can see, we’ve had a really hard time casting people like you.” “I thought we would have to talk about that later,” I replied. “But let’s talk about it now. I don’t watch your show because we aren’t represented. It’s not for us.” What I was saying didn’t scare them. “You should tell your job about the show,” they said. They were telling me I was going to be cast.

I said yes. It was the first time in my life I felt like I was flying. That I had done something that veered from the straight and narrow. I accepted without knowing who the Bachelor that season would be. When they announced that it was Nick Viall, my co-workers said, “This is amazing. He’s open-minded. He’s interested in people of color.” (But isn’t it sad they had to make that disclaimer?) He had just gone on the franchise’s spinoff, Bachelor in Paradise, and he had expressed interest in meeting Jubilee Sharpe, who is Black. I thought I don’t know who these people are. So I decided to watch the previous season, starring Ben Higgins.

Ben’s was the 20th season of The Bachelor—20 seasons of the same white male leads, and mostly white contestants, vying for true love. But I liked Ben. I liked the way he handled relationships. He made the women feel appreciated. I didn’t like the cattiness of the women. I didn’t like the way they were treating Jubilee. Watching it, I started crying. I thought, I don’t like the dates. This is cheesy. My friends are going to laugh at me. I’m not going to have any respect in the legal field. I almost pulled out. I called the girls who had signed me up and said, “I cannot do this.” They said, “Rachel, you’ll be fine. You signed a contract. You have to do it.”

Days before I went on the show, I called my ex. I was hoping he’d tell me not to go. He said, “Well, don’t say my name.” I thought, Oh my gosh, this man wants nothing to do with me. And I’m still looking for anything from him. Maybe 24 hours later, he texted me, “You don’t honor the sanctity of marriage. You’re not who I thought you were.” He was trying to shame me into not doing it. It was just what I needed to hear to motivate me to go in.

One thing The Bachelor gives you: the ability to cut yourself off from everything. Your phone, your TV, the internet. You’re left with your own thoughts and desires. On the first night, the women exit their cars to greet the Bachelor in front of the mansion. They did my hair Texas-big. I had to go back to my room and comb it down. The producers came by and asked, “What dress are you wearing?” I said, “I want to wear this green dress.” They encouraged me to wear red. (When the season came out, 15 of us were wearing red, and it became a storyline.) I asked them if I should have a gimmick. A producer responded, “I’m going to be honest with you. We tell people to do that who we think may not survive the first night.”

That evening, I got the first-impression rose, which is awarded to a contestant on night one. Nick walked out with it, and I moved over because I thought he was going to give it to a woman sitting next to me. Then he said “Rachel.” Later, I turned to another contestant, Dominique, and asked, “Has a Black girl ever gotten the first impression rose?” She said, “Girl, no, never.” I started to get paranoid. I was going around to producers, asking, “Who told Nick to give this to me? What’s going on here?” One of them finally said, “Rachel, he gave it to you because he wanted to. Accept it.”

Because I got the rose, I felt seen, I felt heard, I felt like. I instantly fell for the fairy tale. The other contestants were saying, “You’re going to at least be top five.” It started to sink in that no Black contestant had ever gone that far. When I got back to my room, I was in a daze. I lay on the bed holding the rose and thought, Oh my gosh, this is really happening.

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