Matt James is making history as ABC's first Black Bachelor.
The 28-year-old real estate broker, entrepreneur and community organization founder has been tapped as the season 25 lead following days of renewed pressure about the franchise's lack of diversity. James was previously set to be a contestant on Clare Crawley's forthcoming season of The Bachelorette before production was shut down in March and postponed indefinitely amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. Bachelor Nation also knows James as the best friend, roommate and business partner to fan-favorite Tyler Cameron; the two have spent the majority of the pandemic quarantined together in Florida, along with former Bachelorette Hannah Brown.
"Matt has been on our radar since February, when producers first approached him to join Bachelor Nation, as part of Clare's season. When filming couldn't move forward as planned, we were given the benefit of time to get to know Matt and all agreed he would make a perfect Bachelor," ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke said in a statement announcing the casting Friday. "We know we have a responsibility to make sure the love stories we're seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in and we are proudly in service to our audience. This is just the beginning and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise. We feel so privileged to have Matt as our first Black Bachelor and we cannot wait to embark on this journey with him.”
James, a North Carolina native who played football at Wake Forest, had a short run in the NFL and now lives in New York City, where he and Cameron run ABC Food Tours, an organization that offers kids from underserved communities the opportunity to explore the city through food, exercise and mental and physical wellness. He is the first Bachelor since 2008's Matt Grant to be cast as the lead without having appeared as a contestant on The Bachelorette.
The Bachelor's executive producers also put out a joint statement, saying, "We are excited to move forward with both Matt James as the new Bachelor and Clare Crawley as our next Bachelorette. We acknowledge our responsibility for the lack of representation of people of color on our franchise and pledge to make significant changes to address this issue moving forward. We are taking positive steps to expand diversity in our cast, in our staff, and most importantly, in the relationships that we show on television. We can and will do better to reflect the world around us and show all of its beautiful love stories."
The announcement follows vocal criticism from Rachel Lindsay, who until now, had been the franchise's lone black lead since the dating competition series first debuted in 2002. Lindsay earlier this week penned an emotional blog post in which she called for the franchise's "systemic racism" to be addressed. In the wake of George Floyd's death and subsequent calls for police reform amid the Black Lives Matter movement, Lindsay — who previously criticized the show's lack of diversity — said she would "disassociate" herself from the beloved franchise unless the network and producers Warner Bros. took action.
"Yes, more diverse contestants do appear on the show now, but is the lead truly interested and open to dating outside of their race? I think that is evident by how far their 'journey' takes them during each season," Lindsay wrote. She is now married to Bryan Abasolo, whom she met during her 2017 run as star of The Bachelorette. "It is a naive expectation to believe that leads will authentically start an interracial relationship for the first time on national television. The sad reality is that people of color become placeholders as the token person of color to add some flavor to the second half of the season."
In its 40 seasons and 18 years on the air, The Bachelor has never had a Black or person of color lead; Lindsay remains the only non-white Bachelorette. The franchise has had the opportunity to cast diverse leads before James, most recently with Mike Johnson from Hannah Brown's season, but has opted against it. As Lindsay noted in her post, creator Mike Fleiss previously said that her season saw a dip in ratings that suggested the franchise's audience did not want to watch a Black woman, or people of color in general, find love. As for the 30 or so contestants every cycle, there are a handful of Black and people of color in the mix, but they rarely crack the top four each season.
Lindsay, who hosts the franchise's official Bachelor Happy Hour podcast and frequently makes guest appearances on the series, said she would cut those ties if it did not undergo a "diversity makeover." Her improvement suggestions included casting "leads that are truly interested in dating outside of their race"; to "stop making excuses for the lack of diversity and take action to rectify the problem"; diversify the show's producers in order to make contestants of color feel more comfortable; and to stop creating "problematic story lines for people of color."
She also requested that the franchise speak up in solidarity with the Black community and "make a statement acknowledging their systemic racism," noting that "if the National Football League, an organization notoriously known for not standing behind their athletes of color, can come out to make a statement to condemn racism and their systemic oppression and admit they were wrong for not listening in the past, then the Bachelor franchise can most certainly follow suit."
Lindsay — along with other notable Bachelor and Bachelorette alums, including Nick Viall, Onyeka Ehie, Diggy Moreland, Seinne Fleming, Marquel Martin, Sydney Lotuaco and Desiree Siegfried, and thousands of fans — also signed a Change.org petition titled "A Campaign For Anti-Racism in the Bachelor Franchise," demanding that a Black man be cast as the next Bachelor lead for season 25.
ABC is currently airing clip show The Bachelor: The Greatest Seasons — Ever! as a filler for Crawley's forthcoming season of The Bachelorette. A return date for the series has not been determined as the franchise faces a number of logistical and safety questions when it comes to how production can resume amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Bachelor is scheduled to return in 2021.