7:27pm PT by Jackie Strause
Chris Harrison Wades Into 'The Bachelor' Frontrunner Controversy, Apologizes Over Interview
On the currently airing, historic season of ABC's The Bachelor, Rachael Kirkconnell has emerged as a frontrunner for star Matt James, who is the first-ever Black Bachelor. Off camera, however, social media allegations and resurfaced photos paint a picture of a problematic recent past.
After The Bachelor premiered in early January, questions over Kirkconnell's behavior began to circulate when a viral TikTok purported to reveal a social media footprint that includes "liking" posts containing the Confederate flag and sharing QAnon conspiracy theories. Then, over the weekend, resurfaced photos on Reddit appeared to show Kirkconnell, who is now 24, attending an "Old South" plantation-themed college party in 2018. (None of the posts have been verified.)
Kirkconnell, who remains in competition for James' heart, has yet to speak out about what has quickly emerged to be another social media controversy for the franchise. Typically, contestants do not speak out on off-camera drama until they are eliminated from the show — though, that didn't stop 2018's The Bachelorette winner Garrett Yrigoyen from commenting when he found himself under fire over offensive Instagram activity early on in his season. (The controversy ended up trailing him until the finale, where he got engaged to star Becca Kufrin; the pair split in 2020.)
With Kirkconnell remaining silent, veteran franchise host Chris Harrison waded into the controversy during a Tuesday interview with Rachel Lindsay for Extra. Lindsay, who was the franchise's first-ever Black star when she led the 2017 season of The Bachelorette — and encountered a significant amount of racism during her starring turn — also hosts a podcast for Bachelor Nation, Bachelor Happy Hour, with Kufrin as her co-host.
Lindsay has been a vocal alum when it comes to holding the franchise accountable. She urged the ABC series to diversify both on camera and off amid public outcry in the summer of 2020; shortly after, James was named as the first Black star. When The Bachelorette featured two leads of color in the 2020 season, she challenged the franchise to spotlight conversations about race on camera; which was followed by an on-screen conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement.
When it comes to the Kirkconnell controversy, however, Lindsay has previously said on her podcast that she is waiting for the reality star to speak out, or come on her show, before discussing the unverified claims. But when she asked Harrison for his thoughts on why the franchise or Kirkconnell haven't yet spoken out, their interview quickly devolved. Harrison asked for viewers to give the contestant "a little grace, a little understanding, a little compassion," instead of "taking a leap" and forming an opinion about her from social media, and he has since received backlash over the 13-minute interview.
A moment that caught viewers' attention was when Harrison commented on Kirkconnell attending the "Old South" party thrown by a fraternity at her school, Georgia College & State University, in 2018, which Lindsay summed up as being "not a good look."
"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 suggested to Lindsay of the outcry.
Lindsay replied flatly by saying, "It’s not a good look ever. Because she’s celebrating the Old South. If I went to that party, what would I represent at that party?"
Harrison said Lindsay was "100 percent right in 2021," but still pushed back, adding, "That was not the case in 2018. I’m not defending Rachael, I just know that, I don’t know, 50 million people did that in 2018. That was a type of party that a lot of people went too. ... Where is this lens we’re holding up and was this lens available, and were we all looking through it in 2018?"
Lindsay agreed that "we weren't and we should have been," but questioned why Kirkconnell hasn't come forward to offer any clarity if there's "nothing that contractually stops her from saying, 'Hey, this isn't true.'"
She then explained to Harrison that the issue is particularly troublesome because the Bachelor in question is Black. "We’ve seen 'problematic' contestants before affiliated with the franchise — Rachael's not the first," she noted in reference to years of contestants being exposed for offensive behavior after appearing on the show, including on her season. "So I think people have the question of, will the franchise speak out and say something? Will she come out and say something? And then you have another level of the fact that she’s dating a Black man. And it adds more complexity to it."
Harrison said he doesn't think the show needs to speak on it before Kirkconnell does, which Lindsay agreed with, and he told viewers that Kirkconnell will have her time to speak. It's unclear if that will play out in a taped segment, since Harrison said they had already filmed the upcoming Women Tell All reunion, which features the most memorable contestants who are not the finalists, and Kirkconnell was not in attendance.
On Wednesday night, after the interview had received a significant amount of attention on social media, Harrison posted an apology for "wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism," saying, "I will always own a mistake when I make one, so I am here to extend a sincere apology."
He wrote, "I have this incredible platform to speak about love, and yesterday I took a stance on topics about which I should have been better informed. While I do not speak for Rachael Kirkconnell, my intentions were simply to ask for grace in offering her an opportunity to speak on her own behalf. What I now realize I have done is cause harm by wrongly speaking in a manner that perpetuates racism, and for that I am so deeply sorry. I also apologize to my friend Rachel Lindsay for not listening to her better on a topic she has a first-hand understanding of, and humbly thank the members of Bachelor Nation who have reached out to me to hold me accountable. I promise to do better."
Lindsay has continued to take the franchise to task as James' season has played out. On The Bachelor premiere episode, when James opened up about pressures to please both Black and white audiences as a biracial star, Lindsay questioned the impact of having Harrison hosting that discussion — a topic that Lindsay could relate to after receiving a significant amount of criticism for picking a winner who isn't Black, her current husband Bryan Abasolo.
For his part, James has been open about being interested in women of all races when speaking about his cast, which is the most diverse in franchise history. When asked about Kirkconnell when the social media controversy began to emerge, he too asked viewers to give the contestant the benefit of the doubt. "I have not spoken to anybody since the show ended, but I would say that you have to be really careful about what you are doing on social media," the Bachelor told Entertainment Tonight early last week, and before the "Old South" photos emerged. "Rumors are dark and nasty and can ruin people's lives. So I would give people the benefit of the doubt, and hopefully she will have her time to speak on that."
James' cycle isn't the first to be hit with problematic contestants. Most recently, Yrigoyen, but also a handful of suitors in the #MeToo era and a contestant from Lindsay's season who had racist tweets exposed while competing on the show. 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.
After announcing James as the star amid 2020's racial reckoning and sweeping Black Lives Matter movement, the ABC and Warner Bros. TV franchise diversified behind the scenes by hiring more producers of color and bringing in a diversity team to work with the cast and talent.
"You need to confide in people who have a shared experience and who can speak to what you’re going through or what you’ve been through. And if there’s no one there who can speak to that or who knows what it’s like to date interracially, then how can you confide in that person? It would be like going to a marriage counselor who had never been married," he previously told The Hollywood Reporter of the behind-the-scenes support he found while filming. "Any time I had a question or if something didn’t make sense, I had the option of reaching out to that 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."