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As Katie Thurston stands at the top of the driveway waiting for the usual parade of contestant limos to greet her, the Bachelorette star nervously takes in a few deep breaths. “I’m going to navigate this on my own, and I just have to kind of go into it hoping for the best and figuring it out as I go,” she says to the camera about premiere night.
But when Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe surprise her, the new lead cries with excitement at the arrival of her co-hosts. “You’re not alone,” Bristowe tells her, as the two former Bachelorette stars step in to fill the shoes of missing longtime host Chris Harrison.
While speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the launch of season 17, Thurston revisits that unsettled time for the veteran franchise, when she was beginning her filming journey as the new face of the ABC series. “Being the Bachelorette is such a unique journey that not a lot of people understand,” she says. “[Tayshia and Kaitlyn] have advice that they could give me that no other women could. It was great to have women supporting women and have these great conversations throughout the entire process from start to finish.”
When Thurston’s season premieres, viewers will quickly be reminded of Harrison’s absence when someone else is heard announcing that the drama “all starts right now.” Harrison stepped away from the franchise he has hosted since 2002 during last season’s The Bachelor. After defending the past racially offensive behavior of Rachael Kirkconnell, who would go on to win the historic cycle with first Black Bachelor Matt James, the host and producer apologized for his ignorance, set himself on a path to anti-racism and took a hiatus from which he has yet to return.
In early March, and before Thurston had officially been named as the next Bachelorette, Harrison said he planned to return to the franchise, but did not specify when. Ten days later, however, ABC and producers Warner Bros. announced that Harrison would not be hosting season 17, and that Adams and Bristowe would step in as “mentors.” (On the June 7 premiere, the pair are labeled “co-hosts”.) Harrison’s future with the franchise, meanwhile, remains up in the air as producers look ahead to summer spinoff Bachelor in Paradise and beyond.
Amid all of that uncertainty, Thurston was being approached behind the scenes about leading the current season. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Thurston tells THR of the offer to step into the Bachelorette’s shoes after becoming an early fan-favorite on James’ season. But as her casting negotiations were ongoing, the headlines that Harrison had sparked were evolving into a racism controversy that not only overshadowed any onscreen drama but also raised questions and concerns over systemic issues involving race within the franchise.
“You’re always going to question if it’s the right decision for you because you are opening yourself up to a lot of attention — attention that you might not want. It’s tough to be in this role,” she adds. “So of course it wasn’t an immediate yes for me. It was something I had to think about over time. I didn’t want to live life with the regret of not taking this chance to fall in love in this very unique way, so I said yes.”
In response to widespread criticism and calls for more inclusivity within the reality dating series and its spinoffs, the executive producing team said they were dedicated to improving the BIPOC representation of its crew, including among the decision-makers, and vowed to “continue the dialogue around achieving greater equity and inclusion within The Bachelor franchise.”
Now with the franchise readying for its on-air return, viewers who are waiting for answers will have to turn to Thurston and her season to see what changes have been made.
“I had my own concerns,” says Thurston of watching the controversy unfold. “I wanted my experience to be true to myself and great for the men who were joining me as well as Bachelor Nation. And I think that was really taken into consideration and worked out. I expressed what I wanted with my journey, and I think I was listened to. As [viewers will see] with the first episode, it feels different. I have a great group of guys and I think Bachelor Nation is going to be really excited to watch that and see a change.”
Though Thurston remains vague about the details of those conversations (“We want this journey to be successful in me finding love, so whatever we need to do to make that happen, I was supported from start to finish,” she says), she does call out diversity and screen time among her cast, as well as less of the catty drama that aired during her season, as problem areas that she wanted addressed.
“I definitely want diversity in my cast. And I want it to be a platform for these men to be heard,” she says. “That’s what this is about — their stories, the love and a little less of what everyone else saw before.”
One major point of criticism was that James’ season was a missed opportunity in representation. Instead of highlighting the historic cast — of which 25 identified as BIPOC — or the love stories between James and his contestants of color, the majority of the season’s screen time was devoted to white contestants who created drama. While Thurston acknowledges that she has no control of what will make it to air, her hope is that what America sees will reflect her filming experience.
“I’m watching this with Bachelor Nation every Monday as it unfolds. I can’t control what we see. I don’t know what’s going to be aired. But as someone who lived it, it was a very refreshing experience,” she says. “I love the men who were there, it was a great group of guys, and I just hope America has a chance to get to know them better.”
She then adds, “Change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s what people need to remember: Change is happening, it just takes time. And the more we continue to voice our wants and needs for this whole thing, the more that we are listened to.”
Further addressing skeptics, Thurston says that, from her vantage point, her cast also had a supportive experience. Two seasons ago, the producers brought on diversity consultants that have evolved into a growing resource for the cast and crew. “We’re always moving forward for positive change. It doesn’t happen overnight,” she reiterates. “But from my experience and what I saw, I feel like this season was a great journey for not only me, but for the guys as well.”
The Bachelor/Bachelorette platform comes with its own megaphone for the stars who opt to take advantage. Some past leads, like first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay, have emerged from their seasons (and yearlong contracts) deciding to hold the franchise to task. Lindsay led the public calls for change from former stars, many of whom came out with cast statements or used their own podcasts to weigh in on the dialogue surrounding James’ season and the fallout.
With an unprecedented level of interest surrounding her season, Thurston says she has given thought to how she plans to continue to speak up. The sex-positive star also has a reputation for using her voice and standing up for herself during her season’s bullying antics. “I don’t feel pressure to do anything; it’s what I want to do,” she says of advocating for change. “With the franchise, they’ve been very supportive to me. I of course want to stay in touch and help build a better future, whatever that means. We’ll continue to voice our concerns and just move forward.”
She also has a message for the viewers who wrote off the show — or who remain on the fence — following The Bachelor season.
“You know, if they’re not going to watch, that’s fine,” she says. “The whole point of the show is to watch the love stories, and that’s what’s going to happen this season. So, to each their own. I think there are plenty of people who are still going to tune in and see exactly what this is about: getting to know these guys, getting to follow my journey of falling in love, hopefully, and seeing what that’s like.”
Thurston, who has confirmed that her season wrapped one week early, is not offering spoilers around those love stories. “I found love more than once, I’ll say that!” she teases. Adding, “Through it all, everything happens for a reason, and I am happy.”
But there is one moment, as has been previewed in the season trailers, that pushed her to the limits and had her questioning whether she could continue on with the TV journey.
“I want to leave. I’m exhausted. [It’s] your lowest lows,” she says of the point during filming. “And those women [Adams and Bristowe] really uplifted me and supported me, as well as another person that you’ll see when you tune in. But it’s all about the women supporting women and, if it wasn’t for them, I don’t know that I could have done it.”
Thurston was co-announced with Michelle Young, who will take over The Bachelorette mantle for the 18th season that will air in the fall. When coming out with the news, the pair said they planned to lean on each other and share notes about the process. As Harrison’s future remains in limbo, Thurston says she can only recommend what she knows firsthand when looking ahead for Young.
“This is the first time I’ve been a lead, so I don’t really know [Chris’] contribution. When we were on the women’s side [during Matt’s season], we didn’t really see him too much,” she says when asked about his role. “I don’t know what their [hosting] plans are, but I do think it’s beneficial to have previous Bachelorettes there to support the upcoming lead. There is so much that you think you know and you don’t. So, however they incorporate that, I think it’s so important to make sure that [the lead has] access to getting advice from any Bachelorette who has gone through it.”
The Bachelorette airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on ABC, starting June 7.
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