With Chris Harrison Gone Amid Racial Controversy, 'The Bachelor' Aims to Salvage Historic Season

MATT JAMES, CHRIS HARRISON
ABC/Craig Sjodin

Host Chris Harrison with Bachelor Matt James (left)

For a reality franchise that is defined by being "the most dramatic ever," it's surprising that the biggest twist in the latest, historic season of The Bachelor is happening off camera.

After 19 years, Chris Harrison has stepped aside from the remainder of this season's hosting duties following controversial comments that lent support to the contestant who has emerged as the frontrunner for star Matt James. The offscreen development, which Harrison announced over the weekend, leaves the cycle with the first-ever Black Bachelor rudderless as it heads toward its conclusion next month, and also casts a cloud over a year that was meant to set right the franchise's diversity woes.

Who will host the traditional After the Final Rose live finale show? Is there a path back for Harrison to return in time for The Bachelorette? How did a season that was meant to be celebrated for its historic diversity both on and off camera get so derailed?

These are all questions that ABC, the franchise's longtime home, and its producer, Warner Bros. TV, are grappling with after a whirlwind week of backlash and controversy.

"It's like racism is a cancer that keeps plaguing this franchise and I don't understand why," said former Bachelor contestant Natasha Parker on her recent Bachelor Nation podcast, Clickbait.

The criticism started one day after the Feb. 8 episode of The Bachelor, when Harrison refused to denounce allegations of racism against contestant Rachael Kirkconnell while being interviewed by franchise alum Rachel Lindsay for Extra. His interview with Lindsay, who was the show's first Black Bachelorette in 2017, sparked so much backlash that Harrison posted a social media apology the following day for "wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism." He also apologized to Lindsay for "not listening to her better on a topic she has a first-hand understanding of."

Then, on Thursday night, Kirkconnell — who had been silent amid weeks of social media accusations of racially insensitive behavior — released her own statement, stating in summary, "my ignorance was racist."

Kirkconnell's participation in this season of The Bachelor was first announced on Facebook in October and then confirmed Dec. 11. She made her franchise debut when the season kicked off Jan. 4. What viewers now know is that the Georgia native, who is 24 and a top four finalist after Monday's episode, had attended an "Old South" plantation-themed college party in 2018. When Harrison was pressed about the resurfaced photos before Kirkconnell had made her statement, he argued to Lindsay, "Well, Rachel, is it a good look in 2018, or is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference." He questioned the "lens" of 2021 compared to 2018 and asked people to give Kirkconnell the "grace" and "compassion" to explain herself.

The failure on Harrison's part to denounce the allegations has prompted an outcry from stars of Bachelor Nation. Sharing joint social media statements calling for franchise change and accountability, members from the latest seasons of The Bachelor and Bachelorette said they would "stand united in denouncing any racist behavior and any defense thereof." They highlighted how their seasons were meant to be historic and represent change, with The Bachelor cast including 25 women who identify as BIPOC.

The historic Black stars of those seasons, James and Tayshia Adams (who was the franchise's first Latina and Black star in 2020), also spoke out. James said he stood with Lindsay and Adams reacted on her franchise-sponsored podcast and Instagram Stories. "Watching that interview [with Harrison], my eyes were wide open. My jaw was kind of to the floor, just because it was an ongoing conversation that was filled with so much defense," said Adams on Clickbait With Bachelor Nation, adding that she counts Harrison as a friend outside the franchise.

By Saturday, only four days after Harrison's interview, the longtime host had announced he was stepping down "for a period of time," which would include the After the Final Rose special, after consulting with ABC and Warner Bros. "I am dedicated to getting educated on a more profound and productive level than ever before. I want to ensure our cast and crew members, to my friends, colleagues and our fans: This is not just a moment, but a commitment to much greater understanding that I will actively make every day," he wrote in a lengthy post.

Harrison did not specify how long he would be stepping away. The franchise has also not specified, because the situation is fluid. ABC and Warner Bros. are reacting in real time to the unfolding situation, according to multiple sources, but are aware of looming deadlines and are said to be firming up some plans in the coming days.

As of publication, there are no plans to edit Harrison out of the pretaped season. Monday's episode aired as planned, with Harrison appearing as host and without a disclaimer from ABC. For some stars, that decision spoke loudly. "In light of everything going on, no I will not be watching tonight's episode. I encourage those who choose to watch to consider the lens in which each woman is being portrayed," tweeted Pieper James, a contestant from the current season.

Harrison is the only face of the franchise and has hosted nearly every iteration of the ABC juggernaut since it launched in 2002. The interruption of his long tenure arrives as ABC recently made waves with Dancing With the Stars fans last year after the network and producers Fremantle tapped Tyra Banks to replace original host Tom Bergeron after an impressive 28 seasons. Bergeron also departed ABC’s America’s Funniest Home Videos in 2015 after a 15-year run in which he served as its longest-running host. (He was replaced by Alfonso Ribeiro.)

After the Final Rose is set to air in one month, which makes filling Harrison's finale chair a top priority. Viewers are already throwing their support behind Lindsay and Adams, who would be obvious choices as the only other Black leads among the franchise who could sit down with James and potentially Kirkconnell, if she wins, to have an authentic conversation about the problematic revelations. They are also both contracted by the franchise; Lindsay for her Bachelor Nation podcast and Adams for her yearlong contract as the Bachelorette.

Adams has recently guest-hosted for Entertainment Tonight and E!'s Daily Pop, and has spoken about aspiring to be a television host. Lindsay, however, said she is ready to quit the franchise when her contract is up on her Higher Learning podcast.

Another possibility is  JoJo Fletcher, a former Bachelorette who already has the franchise's support; she stepped in to host The Bachelorette in the fall when Harrison had to quarantine for two weeks after dropping his son off at college. Producers could also search beyond their pool of franchise talent to bring in a bigger name.

The next hurdle comes in determining if Harrison can stay with the franchise. If not, and if The Bachelorette stays on track to go into production shortly after The Bachelor wraps, that would also mean naming his replacement around finale time.

The franchise's producers, which include Harrison, had led a top-down overhaul of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette in response to the country's racial reckoning in the summer of 2020. Amid public outcry for the franchise to diversify its majority-white series both on camera and off, they named a Black male lead in James, hired more producers of color and brought in a diversity team to work with the talent and crew for both cycles. When Bachelorette star Clare Crawley found love early and exited her starring role midway through the season, they brought in Adams. Her season brought with it on-air conversations about race and a diverse cast, which led into James having an unprecedented number of nonwhite contestants when his season launched last month.

"This summer during the pandemic, I didn’t want to talk about it and say what we were doing. I want you to see. I’m a big believer in actions, not words," Harrison told The Hollywood Reporter at the start of the Bachelorette season of the changes ahead. That included the franchise announcing that it would be monitoring its social media accounts and deleting comments that are abusive.

ABC in the fall had also announced a detailed new set of inclusion standards to ensure the network's programming and sets would accurately reflect society — including resources, training and goals for inclusive hiring. "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," said Karey Burke, who was the ABC Entertainment president when James' casting was announced.

Both Adams and James praised the support they received behind the scenes, particularly from producers of color and from the diversity team, who were accessible to members of the franchise during production and as a post-show resource. In addition to working with the talent and crew, the diversity team also weighed in creatively on production.

"I've always felt really supported behind the scenes," Adams told THR when settling into her role as the Bachelorette after appearing on the 2019 seasons of The Bachelor and Bachelor in Paradise. "I felt like I’ve had a really strong support system since day one and that continued up until this time. I don’t know what I would do without them." James, who is also biracial, had stressed how much he leaned on the resources offered by production, particularly as someone who had never before appeared on the franchise. "Any time I had a question or if something didn’t make sense, I had the option of reaching out to that [diversity] team. I talked to them a bunch and we have a great relationship, and they provided all the resources that I needed to be successful," he told THR.

Adams and James' experiences are markedly different than Lindsay's, who has spoken out about the lack of support she felt behind the scenes and in the editing of her 2017 season. Those improvements underscore the efforts that were made to steer the franchise into more inclusivity. But they also beg a question that is being asked about Harrison.

"Did Chris Harrison not sit through that [diversity training]? I'm confused as to how you could have [consultants] working for you, yet what just happened, happens. So, are people going through training? Are they learning things? Or are they just being protected from what we just saw this week?" Lindsay asked during her Higher Learning episode last week. (ABC/Warner Bros. TV did not respond to THR's request for comment.)

On Monday, she returned to Extra to say that Harrison's decision to step aside after the interview was the right one. But she stopped short of saying he should exit the show completely: "He has taken steps to issue not one, but two apologies, let's see what happens from there. Now, I will say this, to see the contestants come together and speak out and to say what they don't stand for, I don't know how we continue in this way. How do you when people in Bachelor Nation are upset? The contestants of this very show, the leads of the show — how does he go on to represent the franchise when people are so upset by what they saw in that interview that we had?"

Typically the show's controversies have been limited to its cast. Harrison has often used the live tapings as a teachable moment to address off-camera controversies, particularly in recent seasons and beginning with Lindsay's 2017 cycle when the Men Tell All reunion show turned into a discussion about racism. In 2018, Becca Kufrin's frontrunner on The BacheloretteGarrett Yrigoyen, found himself under fire over offensive Instagram activity early in his season. After he won, Harrison pressed him about it during their live After the Final Rose.

With Kirkconnell remaining in the competition, her first opportunity to address the off-camera drama will be during the After the Final Rose. She was absent from the Women Tell All reunion, which never features the finalists who are still in the running. If she wins, she and James would then head out on a media tour to discuss the season. Only one contestant in recent history, Bachelor Peter Weber and his winner, skipped the usual press rounds after a tense live ending. (They split shortly after.)

Heading into the 2019 cycles, the franchise had evolved its vetting process by improving the show's background checks and more closely monitoring contestants' social media. In the past few cycles, the franchise has even released the names of the contestants early in hopes of bringing any offensive or questionable candidates to light early on. For James' season, the show released 45 names early on Facebook, including Kirkconnell's; 32 were confirmed in the December cast announcement, with an additional five appearing after the competition began.

The Bachelor's social media controversy comes amid a wave of public figures coming under fire for a range of behavior deemed offensive. That includes The Mandalorian star Gina Carano, who was fired from the Disney+ series after comparing being a Republican to being Jewish in Nazi Germany. Disney also famously fired Roseanne Barr from her eponymous ABC series following a racist tweet.