“Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure” – In Conversation with author Amy Kaufman

"Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America's Favorite Guilty Pleasure" by Amy Kaufman, available from Dutton Books on March 6, 2018.

While I am not one of those people who religiously watches any particular reality television series, I will admit that I do dip into and out of a number of those currently on-the-air. Of these, the one that I have been watching for the longest — albeit inconsistently — is ABC’s The Bachelor, which is one reason that I was drawn to Amy Kaufman’s fascinating Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure (available next Tuesday, March 6th from Dutton Books). Earlier this month, I had the chance to chat with Amy about her book, which gives readers an inside look at the popular reality TV series, and is sure to be a must-read for many a fan of the show. Read on to see what she had to say about the inspiration for her book, what drew her to the series, and much more.

 

Amy Kaufman (Photo: Colin Douglas Gray)

 

Andrew DeCanniere: To begin at the beginning, what was your inspiration for Bachelor Nation?

Amy Kaufman: Well, I’ve been a fan of The Bachelor for over a decade, and then I started to recap the episodes for the Los Angeles Times — which sort of got me even more invested in the show because I had to watch every Monday. I realized I had a lot of opinions and, as you read in the book, as a part of that I had been invited to Bachelor show events and got to cover some different specials and things and I got to interview [host] Chris Harrison every now and again.

After doing that for a while, I was suddenly blackballed. I wasn’t being invited to things, so I was very surprised. Basically, what they told my editor was that they thought my coverage had been too negative and so I was no longer going to be invited to do those types of events. Obviously, that rubbed me the wrong way, but I kept watching. Maybe it’s just because I am a journalist, but there were a lot of contestants who would reach out to me or tweet with me. Some ended up coming to watch the show with me and my friends when they were in L.A. — a lot of them already live here. It really was conversations with those people that made me think there’s a bigger story going on here, because the experiences that they had on the show were so different from the ones I saw unfold on TV every week. It just piqued my interest, so I thought ‘Let me see if anyone is willing to talk to me about this.’

DeCanniere: Speaking of watching and writing about the show, what is it that drew you to the franchise? Why did you like it?

Kaufman: At first I think it was fun to make fun of the ridiculous premise and the over-the-top contestants — especially when I started watching with my friends. It was like a group sport — hate-watching The Bachelor together. In the quieter moments, when it would get really romantic, I was just kind of embarrassed to admit I was really into it and was really moved when those over-the-top elaborate proposals were happening. So, I was like ‘Why am I so obsessed with this when I know it’s completely fake and that this kind of stuff doesn’t usually happen in real life?’ That was another reason I sort of wanted to write the book — to explore my own feelings about the kind of love that is depicted on the show.

DeCanniere: I certainly think it’s an interesting topic, particularly now when reality TV in general, and this show in particular, seems to be so popular. I think there’s far less of a stigma surrounding the viewing of reality TV nowadays, particularly with the proliferation of genre — whether it’s The Bachelor or Keeping Up with the Kardashians or The Real Housewives franchise or whatever. The reality is so many people watch these programs. When it was still the early days of reality TV, I feel like fewer people would freely admit to watching it. Now it seems like it has just become so much more socially acceptable to not only watch but also to discuss reality TV and your interest in it. Personally, I think that shift in and of itself is interesting.

Kaufman: I think people are more open about it, although just last night I got into a debate with someone about the Kardashians and how fake they were saying it is — how produced it is. There’s just this strong sentiment that I think still exists that if you watch this stuff, you’re somehow believing in a fake version of events and that it reflects negatively on you and your taste. Meanwhile, if something proclaims itself as fictional right off the bat, it’s fine. It’s weird to me. At least this has a semblance of reality in it. Why is that so bad? I don’t know. The vitriol towards people who watch reality TV has always perplexed me. I think that sometimes people just don’t like seeing the more unflattering parts of themselves reflected on TV.

DeCanniere: I mean, I don’t watch a ton of it, to be honest. I will watch The Bachelor or The Bachelorette, though hardly to an extent that can be credibly described as ‘religiously’ — but I agree with you there. I suppose there can still be this strange stigma that exists to this day. Speaking of the popularity of the franchise and all, I kind of find the success of the show in and of itself to be surprising. As you say, the premise is that, by the end of the show, you find your true love or soul mate. Yet, the show hasn’t produced too many long-lasting relationships.

Kaufman: It’s weird that people just don’t care if the relationships last or not. At the beginning it was just a big part of it, though I really don’t know. As I point out in the book, the guy who created it, Mike Fleiss, came from Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? where the relationship fell apart in about four-and-a-half seconds and people were obsessed with that show. Of course, they didn’t have a second season of that. So, I don’t know. I have to think about that some more. Do we just like the drama? Do we have some unwavering hope this time will be the real thing?

DeCanniere: Speaking of Mike Fleiss, you go into the story of how he supposedly came up with the idea for The Bachelor, which I find kind of interesting.

Kaufman: There are a few conflicting stories out there as to who really came up with the idea. Of course, I couldn’t ask Mike Fleiss himself to give me a more detailed account of how he came up with it. As the legend from old stories and articles I’ve read goes, he literally got sick because he was so nervous about filling this deal he had with the television studio and he had some kind of a fever dream and he came up with The Bachelor, which seems a little suspicious to me. Also, as I say in the book, Lisa Levenson was really the one who brought the ‘romantic elements’ to the show and I think was the one who made it different from the previous incarnation.

DeCanniere: The fever dream version certainly makes for a good story, in any case. I don’t know whether there’s more to it, but I suspect there is.

Kaufman: We’ll never know.

DeCanniere: You say that your group that gets together to watch the show — which, as you say yourself, is coming from a distinct vantage point— does take a bit of an issue with the premise, and I would have to say I agree with you. There is something about the idea of meeting a guy, giving up your job and moving to his hometown to support him and his dreams, all the while living off of his salary, that does seem to be antiquated. I know that I personally would never expect someone to do that for me. What about them and their goals and dreams?

Kaufman: Yeah. It feels antiquated to me, though I should point out I’m not sure many of the recent Bachelorettes have done that. Rachel hasn’t moved to Brian’s hometown. JoJo hasn’t moved to Jordan’s hometown. I think they stayed where they were. That being said, I think a lot of my friends and I have judgments — a lot of people watching this have judgments. Like ‘Why would you do that? Be a feminist. Be an independent woman.’ I think part of what is difficult for viewers to understand while watching it is that maybe the women on the show are just being more honest about their desires than we are. A lot of the women and men coming on the show are like ‘I really want marriage. That’s what I want. I’m putting my career on hold, at least to go on the show.’ That’s sort of a scary concept to us in a time when we’ve been taught your career is first, no matter what. So, if that’s what those women want, I’m not judging them for it. I think maybe more of us out there want that than we’re willing to admit.

DeCanniere: I certainly don’t judge them. I think it’s up to each individual to decide what is right for them, so I’m not sure that anyone ought to be passing judgment on their choices. What’s right for one person isn’t necessarily right for another, and that’s fine. That said, the program does feel a little bit like a throwback.

Kaufman: The whole thing is a throwback. The fact that we’re in the middle of the #MeToo era we’re watching a show every week where 35 contestants compete in the hopes that one man will chose them, and that they’re so lucky if they’re chosen. Then again, they went on the show knowing what it was. So, there’s that.

DeCanniere: Very true. I mean, early on, if someone signed up — which, understandably, people were kind of hesitant to do — I could understand someone not being clear on the concept. By now it has been on for so long that you would think they would have to know what the idea of the show is. However, one thing I think that many would be surprised at, is the extent of the manipulation that can and does take place on the show.

Kaufman: I think so, too. It’s hard for me to gauge how much people have a sense of what’s going on, because I live in L.A. with a lot of people who cover entertainment and even work on these shows. I’m not sure that’s the normal perspective of people who are watching. When I’m watching with my friends, every five seconds they’re like ‘That was produced!’ or whatever. I don’t think anyone takes anything at face value — which is the point where maybe we’re even too skeptical. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of people who do think it’s pretty real. There are obvious signs that seem unnatural — like when someone says ‘I love you’ super early. I think that always raises a red flag in the viewer’s mind, but I don’t think anyone really has a sense of what it would feel like to be in that situation where you are so deprived of outside sources and it is so foreign from your everyday life and you have all of these people urging you to behave in a certain way. It’s just impossible to really put yourself in those shoes.

DeCanniere: Right, because they’re totally cut off — no electronics, no outside media of any kind. They’re just sort of left to obsess over this man or woman they’re competing for.

Kaufman: Exactly. How many of us can even imagine being without our phone for two hours? People don’t have a phone or laptop. They don’t have books or magazines. You’re just sitting in a room with other people and the only thing you have in common is wanting to date the same guy. So, the fixation level becomes unbalanced. You’ve created the perfect environment for someone to become totally obsessed.

DeCanniere: Let’s just say that it’s definitely not surprising one could easily lose perspective. It’s also sort of fitting that one of the key players, Lisa Levenson, would come from the world of soap operas. Who better to know how to stir up the drama, right?

Kaufman: Yeah. Her background obviously served her well and was foundational for the shape of The Bachelor because she knew what the dramatic ‘moment’ was . Those were the nascent days of reality television so, in a sense, I feel like she really impacted the entire genre. She had also worked with Jerry Springer, which is so over-the-top that she probably had to turn it down a notch.

DeCanniere: Speaking of the team behind the show, to get back to Mike Fleiss for a moment, you also say that even once The Bachelor had met with significant success, he basically had to be talked into doing The Bachelorette. It seems like there was a bit of a double-standard there.

Kaufman: According to everything I’ve read, he did not think the audience would want to see a bunch of dudes fighting over a woman, and he thought that the guys would be like ‘I’m not doing that. I’m not competing for a girl.’ Obviously, that was not true. They were just as competitive as the women. Then, I think there also was this concern that if the woman was to sleep with three men in the Fantasy Suite, then she would look like a slut. When a guy does it, it’s viewed as fine. Those were some of the things they were grappling with early on.

Actually, the women in the Fantasy Suite versus the men in the Fantasy Suite did end up being an issue — as we saw with Kaitlyn [Bristowe] and a few other women who ended up being pretty open about their sexuality on the show. They ended up receiving a lot of hate from the Twittersphere, saying that they were too promiscuous. It didn’t seem like the male bachelors were getting that same kind of negative attention.

DeCanniere: Speaking of antiquated attitudes, what’s that about? You pat the guy on the back, but when the woman does the same thing it’s this horrible thing to do? To me that is the prime example of a double-standard and is an antiquated attitude in and of itself. It’s either one or it’s the other, but it cannot be perfectly acceptable when a man sleeps with multiple women in the Fantasy Suite, one after the other, and then unacceptable when a woman does the very same thing. It’s either acceptable to do or it’s not, but whether it is or isn’t acceptable cannot be based on your gender. Shaming a woman for doing the same thing that a man just did two point five seconds ago? That’s never okay.

Kaufman: I know. It’s super antiquated and I would hope that it’s shifting after Kaitlyn. The other thing is we don’t know how far these people actually go in the Fantasy Suite. There’s always this assumption that they had sex with three people, one right after the other. I’m not always sure it happens that way.

DeCanniere: Although, as you say, they certainly try to make it seem like that’s what took place for entertainment value.

Kaufman: Of course. It looks way more salacious if you have three people sleeping together in that short of a period of time.

DeCanniere: The other thing, which I think many people don’t really know, has to do with the In-the-Moment interviews — otherwise known as the ITMs. For those who don’t know, those are the little sort of asides or confessionals, where they talk about their relationship with the Bachelor or Bachelorette — or perhaps they discuss another contestant and the Bachelor or Bachelorette. When you’re watching the show unfold, you’re totally unaware of how they go about filming those. Like you, I am a non-drinker, but on the show the alcohol can be flowing at times.

Kaufman: Yeah. After the Bachelor in Paradise scandal last summer, I heard lots of people asking things like ‘Will there not be any alcohol on The Bachelor anymore?’ People don’t know how essential alcohol is to the show. Like I say in my book, it’s not like producers are forcing alcohol down contestants’ throats, but there is an open bar that you don’t have to pay for. You’re sitting around all day and production can be really slow. There are hours where you’re doing nothing or you’re waiting to move from one location to the next. So, you’re bored. You might be poolside at a mansion where drinking seems like a pretty good fit and then you sometimes have producers who are like ‘Do you want a shot? I’ll do one with you.’ That way you’ll feel less weird about it. I’m not saying that people get blackout wasted, but there’s definitely alcohol being used to help lubricate situations.

DeCanniere: And alcohol can also be used to get some of these little bits of video or audio that the producers team may want.

Kaufman: I think it’s helpful, but obviously there’s a lot more to it in terms of what they do — like emotional leveraging. The producers might say ‘Well, if you don’t say this, then maybe you’ll get sent home,’ or they put little bugs in their ear as far as what other girls in the house might have said about them. As we were just talking about, you’re already so deprived of outside stimulation, so you’re unnaturally fixated on this guy and you’re saying stuff you might not say when you’ve dated someone for three days and met him on Bumble or whatever. I mean, the whole thing is just crazily unnatural and I hope people have a better sense of why someone would act so over-the-top. When we’re watching it’s hard not to think ‘Why are these people behaving this way? This is not how anyone I know acts.’ Of course not, because you’ve never been in a situation close to this.

DeCanniere: You say that there is a certain similarity between how the ITMs are conducted and how police interrogations are conducted. I have to say that’s not a connection that I automatically made — especially since I’ve never been privy to an interrogation — but now I have to say that I can see some parallels.

Kaufman: Right. I didn’t think of it right off the bat, but honestly when I was reading about how those interrogations work, it sounds pretty similar to when you want someone to confess to a crime. They’re isolated. They may be threatened — told that if they don’t say what you need them to say, they’ll just be kept there. They’re already scared and tired and just want to get out of there. Those are the feelings people in ITMs have, too.

DeCanniere: And then the producers themselves also seem to open up about their own private lives in an attempt to gain their trust and get the contestants to be more open about their own private lives.

Kaufman: If you just hammer them with aggressive questions, that’s not really the best tactic. If you say ‘Listen, I’ve been in your shoes,’ or ‘I know how you’re feeling right now,’ or ‘I really sympathize with you,’ of course that’s just going to help someone open up and feel like ‘Well, they’re being vulnerable. Maybe I can reflect that back to them.’ Except the producers aren’t being filmed and you are.

DeCanniere: A fact that, it would seem, doesn’t occur to many right away.

Kaufman: Right. It’s only after the fact that you’re like ‘Oh. That person wasn’t my genuine friend.’ They realize maybe it wasn’t as authentic as they were hoping.

DeCanniere: You also talk about how some of the contestants are so motivated to remain on the show, that they will actually go along with these roles that producers cast them in, even if that’s not who they really are. The idea being, it would seem, that at least they will remain on the show for a little while longer.

Kaufman: I mean, that one was a little harder for me to understand — why you would act as if it were a literal part on a scripted show or something. I’m not sure I would go so far as to do that in order to stay on the show, but also a lot of people felt like ‘Oh, wow. This is the light they’re casting me in. If I fight against it, it’s not going to make a difference. It’s too late. I might as well go along with it.’ At least that’s the sentiment some people have expressed.

DeCanniere: I’m on the same page with you. It is a bit baffling. Like you, I cannot see myself going on the show — even if the opportunity presented itself, and I will say that I cannot envision just going along with it if I felt as though I were being cast in this bad light. I feel like if you are just going to go along with it, you’re putting your reputation on the line — especially because people are viewing it as your true character. So, the question becomes whether staying on the show is worth ruining your reputation, and I would have to say that I feel as though it is not.

Kaufman: I don’t think they understand that the audience doesn’t necessarily have that feel of separation. They don’t have any other frame of reference. They’ve never seen you in any other light than that of the villain. That’s who you are to them. They don’t have the perspective to know that was played up. So, the repercussions that can come from that have been kind of grave. Even Rozlyn [Papa] said that after she was on the show, people were talking badly about her. So, these are not just funny character types that exist only in television. They exist long after the show, too.

DeCanniere: Which I think, in and of itself, isn’t something that many people tend to think about in the moment. They don’t realize it has the potential to impact them long after the cameras have stopped rolling and they’ve returned to their regular lives.

Kaufman: In the moment you’re just like ‘I want to get more airtime. I want to be liked by all of these producers who are making a TV show and maybe can make me famous — and by the Bachelor, too.

DeCanniere: Basically, the goal is to remain in the running for as long as possible.

Kaufman: Right. To be in a few more episodes. No one remembers the girl who gets sent home the first night.

DeCanniere: You also talk about how the novelty of the entire situation helps to create the perfect set of conditions to fall for someone — how all of your feelings are sort of heightened due to the novelty of the situation that one finds themselves in — this whole new place with this new person. It can all be pretty exciting.

Kaufman: Psychologically, there’s a lot going on. A lot of the women who go on the show are obviously in a stage of their life where they want a partner. So, you’re sort of primed already. Then the adrenaline or the really exciting, out-of-the-ordinary situations make it feel even more special to your brain. Take that plus the power of suggestion from all of the producers and all of the other contestants who are all saying that this guy is amazing, and your brain is not behaving as it normally would.

DeCanniere: In your chapter in which you talk about ‘falling for the fairy tale,’ another interesting point that you make is the degree to which women may be prepped to go along with precisely what the show is selling — both by pop culture and cradle-to-grave marketing.

Kaufman: Yeah. Not only are your primed because you’re coming in at a stage in your life when it seems like all of your friends are getting married, but it’s a situation where they are promising all of the things you’ve read about in fairy tales and seen in romantic comedies when you were growing up. I think that’s one of the things I’ve really noticed. Since I wrote the book, I watch the show a little bit differently. When I hear so many of the lines that sound like they’re literally ripped from fairy tales and rom-coms. ‘He’s my prince charming,’ or the guy is like ‘I will protect you. I will keep you safe.’ So many times women will say ‘This feels like a fairy tale,’ or ‘I feel like a princess.’ What does that all mean, exactly? Why do women want it so badly?

DeCanniere: And it seems a lot of people are probably not aware of how much all of this has been engrained.

Kaufman: I think people understand the show is a fairy tale of sorts. It’s part of why you like watching it — because it is so foreign from the way most women are treated in everyday life. Most women aren’t even getting texted back, let alone told they’re beautiful or ‘I want to protect you. I want to be by your side until you die.’ All of these over-the-top, seemingly earnest proclamations. I think that’s what a lot of young women are hoping to hear from men and maybe very often don’t. Watching The Bachelor makes you feel like the guys who will say this are out there. Maybe they are, but there also aren’t a lot of producers urging the guy you met on Tinder to say those things on your date at some bar.

DeCanniere: Speaking of the couples, it seems that in many ways they only really get to know each other after the show is over — either through some pre-arranged meet-ups or else over the phone. I just found that a strange concept.

Kaufman: I think there’s just a limited amount of time, so it’s hard. Even if you have the best intentions of getting to know someone. You’re also like in a crazy place in some beautiful setting, and you want to talk about certain subjects, but the producers are saying ‘Please talk about your feelings for the guy.’ You would think there’s all the time in the world to be like ‘Do you want kids?’ or ‘What are your religious beliefs?’ or ‘Will you move to my hometown?’ Also, I am sure these people are having some of those conversations and we don’t see it because of editing.

DeCanniere: Fair point. It’s just surprising though, because it sounds like some people didn’t know these arguably big things about this person that they are getting down on one knee to propose to or that they are accepting the proposal from.

Kaufman: I mean, I don’t think I’d do that, but never say never. I’ve not been in that situation — but I do think the relationships that work out are the ones where they’ve done at least a little bit of that kind of discussion.

DeCanniere: What do you hope is the takeaway from your book?

Kaufman: I think the most valuable thing to take away is that I hope people reading the book think more about all of the circumstances that these contestants are in, and maybe think a little more carefully about the judgments they are making — which I totally have done many times watching the show. Just from my experience from writing this book, I met so many people who were so far from the way they’ve been depicted on television and maybe it will open up a broader conversation about why we want to be on reality TV. What are we hoping for? Is The Bachelor problematic in many ways? Yes. I think that what’s more problematic is the desire that drives us to go on these shows. So, maybe that’s the discussion people will start having.

Amy Kaufman is a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, where she has covered film, celebrity and pop culture since 2009. On the beat, she has attended the Academy Awards and the Sundance Film Festival and profiled hundreds of stars, including Lady Gaga, Emma Stone, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Stevie Nicks. A Boston native, she moved to Hollywood at age eighteen to pursue an acting career. At the University of California, however, she quickly discovered she’d rather interview celebrities than try to become one herself. Amy currently lives in Los Angeles with her Australian shepherd, Riggins, and dreams of living in a Laurel Canyon tree house.

Bachelor Nation will be available from Dutton Books in hardcover and as an e-book on March 6, 2018 and is available for pre-order now. You can find out more about Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure here.

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