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Demi Burnett says she overcame her “fear of judgment” when coming out as sexually fluid on ABC’s Bachelor in Paradise.
“I had been suppressing the whole coming out thing for a while,” the 24-year-old reality TV contestant, when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday, says about this week’s historic episode of the long-running dating franchise. “It’s the same concerns that any person in the LGBTQ community goes through: fear of judgment, people not understanding or, just because you don’t like the same thing they like, people seeing you differently because of that. That’s the concern.”
Viewers first met Burnett when she competed for the rose of Bachelor star Colton Underwood earlier this year. She also made several appearances on Hannah Brown’s subsequent cycle of The Bachelorette. But when summer spinoff Bachelor in Paradise premiered this month, Burnett came out as a “queer queen” on social media and identified as fluid when speaking to producers, the audience and her friend Brown on early episodes.
As the season progressed, Burnett embarked in a heterosexual relationship with fellow contestant Derek Peth, but gradually opened up to Peth and select co-stars about her sexual identity and conflicted feelings for a woman she dated before coming on the show. On Tuesday’s episode, after a candid conversation with host Chris Harrison, Paradise surprised Burnett by inviting the woman, Kristian Haggerty, to join the show so she and Burnett could explore their romance.
Burnett says she had “no idea” the show would bend its rules and invite a franchise outsider to join the show so Burnett could stay. “I thought that I was leaving that day,” Burnett recalls of a surprise visit from Harrison. “I thought Chris was taking me to the top of the stairs so I could go walk my butt to an SUV and leave to go find her. I was so shocked. I could have never expected that.”
The move to bring Haggerty, who has never competed on a franchise show, to come aboard ushered in the groundbreaking moment for the veteran franchise. Burnett is the second openly fluid contestant but the first to embark on a same-sex romance on any of the franchise’s shows. The pair kissed when they embraced, which Burnett admits is something she will continue to get more comfortable with as the show progresses.
“In that moment, nothing else mattered to me,” she says. “But that’s not to say that I was comfortable from there on out being physical. There are cameras, people I don’t know watching me. Whenever you get hyper-aware of that … it’s just something I had to work through.”
Ultimately, the star says it was how she felt during their reunion that gave her the clarity she had been looking for when she first came to Paradise: “I have never felt that happy to see someone and feel the amount of love that was between us that we had never discussed before. And the clarity of knowing that this is my person that I want to pursue.”
Both Burnett and the show were praised by GLAAD for portraying an honest and open journey of someone coming to terms with their sexuality. Burnett says she’s open to whatever comes her way in terms of continuing to represent the LGBTQ community and is focusing on the positive response, which is currently outweighing any negativity she anticipated. The fan reaction to the show’s treatment of Burnett’s journey and Haggerty’s entrance, as well as Peth’s “woke” reaction, has been praised on social media.
“It’s a monumental moment for me because I am loud and proud about it now, whereas I was so in the dark about it before,” says Burnett. Though she came out to her family in private, the decision to go public with her sexuality on such a national TV stage — and on a franchise that is not known for its inclusivity — was a decision that the spitfire contestant made so she could speak her truth in a big way. “I know that I have this one big platform to show everyone who I really am and so I took that opportunity so I wouldn’t have to have one million other different conversations with everyone. Hopefully I could set a good example that it’s OK to just be who you are.”
Echoing Harrison’s words to THR about how the moment marks a more “modern, evolved” version of the show, Burnett says she leaned on the Paradise crew, including producers and staff who are queer, to tell an authentic story. “The crew was absolutely there for me whenever I needed them. It was very emotional a lot of the time and they’d be crying right there with me,” she says. “I was always open with everyone in production about how I like men and women and about my previous relationships. What attracted me to Derek was that he’s such a good guy. We have the same sense of humor, we don’t really take anything too seriously, so what’s not to be attracted to such a woke guy?”
Peth’s reaction to Burnett picking Haggerty already has the audience pushing for the 31-year-old from New York City to be in the running for the 2020 Bachelor season. “He would absolutely be an amazing Bachelor,” says Burnett of her ex, who remains on the show along with Burnett and Haggerty as it finishes out the currently airing sixth cycle. “I hope people can take Derek’s way of communicating and really learn from it. He was so respectful in every way. I need more people like Derek out there in the world. We all do.”
Though Burnett says she and Haggerty will still go through “real” relationship ups and downs on the show — “We’re going to go through some struggles and lots of tears,” she warns — she is currently finding herself overwhelmed in the best way from the added spotlight.
“I didn’t know that I would have lots of people reaching out to me saying, ‘You’re making me feel more comfortable with coming out with who I am.’ That is such an honor, just to read these messages that I’m getting from people,” says Burnett. “I hope that we continue to see reality TV encouraging people to be themselves and to not be ashamed and to be proud of who they are.”
Bachelor in Paradise airs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET/PT on ABC.
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