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When Hannah Brown made her live debut as The Bachelorette, Chris Harrison counted himself among the people who were nervous about whether or not the former Bachelor star could hold her own as ABC’s new lead for the long-running reality franchise.
“I left that special thinking, ‘Oh, dear Lord, did we just make a huge mistake?'” the veteran Bachelor franchise host admits when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter.
When Brown, who placed seventh on Colton Underwood’s recent cycle of The Bachelor, was announced as the star of season 15 of The Bachelorette, the 24-year-old beauty queen and interior decorator was nearly at a loss for words when she was unveiled during the live Bachelor finale back in March. Brown struggled with her cues and offered up nervous laughter. But then she landed this joke about her contestants, “I hope they can put words together better than me!”
It was that moment of unrehearsed charm that sold ABC reality chief Rob Mills on the network’s risky pick and, not long after, Hannah, who has been open about her anxieties, would go on to pull Harrison into her corner. “I think she may be the most relatable woman we’ve ever had on the show. I think women are going to really rally around her,” he adds, now that The Bachelorette is nearing the end of filming (the season premieres with a quick turnaround on Monday).
Below, in a chat with THR, Harrison promises a “raw and real” season unlike any other Bachelor or Bachelorette journey before and explains why the ABC franchise decided to switch things up for the 15-year milestone of the female-starring series.
After Hannah Brown’s debut as The Bachelorette, I spoke with ABC’s Rob Mills about how the audience was split: Half of Bachelor Nation found her to be unrehearsed, refreshing and relatable; while the rest were worried about her ability to lead the show. Now that you are almost done filming, how do you respond to those two camps? How long did it take her to find her way?
Whoever was skeptical after the After the Final Rose special and was scared: I was in that boat. I was scared to death! I left that special thinking, “Oh, dear Lord, did we just make a huge mistake?” But thankfully, after night one — actually, about an hour into filming that first night — I realized: this was the woman. This was Hannah. She came in firing on all cylinders, controlled the situation, was funny, sweet, powerful and all the things that we knew she was. That’s when I thought, “Ok, this is Hannah.” So if you’re scared to death, just give it a second. You’ll be OK, just as I was.
Were there any times that she needed a break from the cameras? Did anything come close to Colton Underwood’s infamous fence jump on The Bachelor?
There is more drama this season than we’ve ever had on any show, The Bachelor or The Bachelorette — the man drama is intense. It gets physical. They were just on fire. And I think a lot of that had to do with the guys being really on point, with even one of them kind of professing his love on one of the first dates. The analogy I give Hannah is that it’s like you’re drinking from a fire hydrant. It’s a lot and sometimes, it’s just too much. These guys were a lot for her to handle, but she held her own. It was rocky and it’s been a lot for her.
Hannah has used her Miss USA platform to be an advocate about depression and anxiety. Is that a conversation that she brought to the show this season? The Bachelorette promo seems to imply she will shed the image viewers have of her and reveal a new Hannah. How did these issues impact her throughout the journey?
I think there is this misnomer about strength and power, especially when it comes to women. And that is, you can only show that when you are being “strong” and when you are dominating. To me, sometimes the most strength you can show is when you’re really showing your weaknesses, embracing your shortcomings and are being vulnerable. That’s when I really found Hannah the most powerful and the strongest — but, at the same time, the sweetest and the most loving — is when she really embraces the fact that she’s got some issues. There’s only one way for her to go through this and that’s her way, and it’s very particular. She needs time to process things. Sometimes things can be overwhelming and she needs to slow it down and really think about it. And I really respect and love that about her. That she embraces it, owns it, puts it out there for everyone to see and that she’s not ashamed. That’s when she showed her greatest strength.
Viewers could see in her performance during After the Final Rose how easy it is for the production of it all to trip someone up. How does she find that balance when it comes to the demands of logistically leading a reality show?
Sometimes it’s too much. And I think what we learned with her is to adapt to whoever your person is and to get out of the way. Let her be and let the show be, and we’re going to have to roll with the punches. When she’s up, she’s up; when she’s down, she’s down. When she’s mad or sad, whatever, let’s just go with it and just be there for her the best you can. I thought it was a very wonderful season. It’s been amazing in that way. I think she may be the most relatable woman we’ve ever had on the show. I think women are going to really rally around her and kind of feel, “Yeah. That’s me. That’s the kind of shit that I feel and that’s what I go through. And I’m glad to see that somebody else feels like that and that it’s OK.”
We saw you and the producers huddling with Colton when he had those “real” behind-the-scenes moments. How do you continue get involved this season as Hannah has those experiences?
There will be a scene where she is sobbing in my arms. It’s very raw and very real; you’re going to see everything. We feel like covering up anything of Hannah is doing her an injustice. So, we really pride on ourselves on the fact that we’re just going to get out of the way and you’re going to see it. This is our girl and she is a badass woman and you’re going to get it: good, bad and ugly.
How do you anticipate her season will end?
I don’t know how it’s going to end and usually at this point I do. There has been so much drama and it really has affected her and this season so much that it may affect the ending as well. We’ll see. We’re still going. The Bachelorette is always a really quick turnaround. With The Bachelor, we wrap early for the holidays, but with The Bachelorette, we’re so pressed for time that we’re shooting right up until the day we premiere.
How committed was Hannah to a proposal going into filming?
I think she’s definitely open-minded to just finding love and she’s definitely open to getting engaged. But one thing I like about her — and this goes back to her being raw and real — she’s not going to go through the motions. She’s not going to fake this. She’s not going to just tell everybody what they want to hear or just get engaged for the show. She’s really going to let it happen and if it doesn’t happen on her own time and in her own way, then it won’t. So that’s why I tell you that, at this point, I don’t know how it’s going to end.
How do you think Colton’s decision to not get engaged — leaving The Bachelor with a rare no-proposal finale — impacted Hannah and her contestants?
Honestly, I really think that’s a misnomer. If there is pressure to get engaged or to finish this “the right way” at the end, it really is self-imposed. We’re friends with these people and I get it. They love us; we love them. We spend so much time and energy on this and you want to please everyone who is working so hard for you. We try to alleviate that as much as we can because a great show doesn’t mean there is an engagement at the end. I think it’s more real when you have someone like Colton putting a bright light on this to show that it’s not easy: You don’t just get to show up and have it all work out. At the end of the day, I think it’s going to work for Colton but not in the conventional way. And maybe that’s going to be the same case for Hannah.
This season is trying some new things. Why is season 15 time to switch things up?
We never think, “Ok, it’s been 15 seasons, let’s reinvent the wheel and completely tear up this formula.” Because the formula works and the show works, and it works for a reason. But what we do every year is ask, “What can we do that’s different? Let’s throw out ideas.” And there are a million of them. Some ideas might have come up years ago and we just never did it, or it never fit for that particular person and we bring it back up. We always want to keep it fresh and change it up, but that’s also the genius of having a different Bachelor or Bachelorette. The season is always going to have its own little spin and feel that’s going to be uniquely different. Hannah’s not like past Bachelorettes Becca [Kufrin] or Rachel [Lindsay]. She’s going to be a completely different season.
A new twist comes in night one, when Hannah will get the help of former Bachelor contestants Demi Burnett and Katie Morton. The pair will be spying on the Bachelor mansion and contestants from a nearby surveillance van. Why?
Hannah was good friends with them so there was specifically a reason for them to be there. It was something we had trouble thinking about how we were going to tackle and wrap our heads around. So we thought, “Let’s bring in two of her friends who will have her back and be there for her.” It was a really good change and a good mix. Is it something we’ll do again? Who knows. It’s only when the opportunity arises and it makes sense.
You also released the names of the contestants early for the first time ever. Thirty-three names were announced and 30 made the final cut. After the casting controversies of Becca Kufrin’s season last year, Rob Mills had suggested letting the names out early so Bachelor Nation could weed out the bad seeds. What were the discussions like among the producers about this move and do you think it worked?
I was not a part of that decision. That came from Rob and the heads of the network. I agree with it. Look, this is a really slippery slope and a gray area. One thing about our show that I’ve enjoyed, especially lately, is that it really raises the level of debate around a lot of social issues going on and this is another one. You would think that we’re going to release these names and that it would make it very cut and dry. But that’s not necessarily the case, because who is to say that an angry ex isn’t going to come out of the woodwork and bash the guy or girl that they were dating? So in a lot of ways, it could make things more difficult. That’s the whole effect of social media. There’s a ripple effect to everything and there’s one to this too. It was a good idea. I believe in it. But it’s not without its faults.
So, it’s an experiment.
Exactly. But that’s what you do in this business. You throw it against the wall and see if it sticks and, if not, you build something better and you evolve and you get better at it. That’s what we’ve done for 17 years and the good news is that we’re really good at that. We don’t mind changing course or fixing things if we feel like they are broken or could be better.
The Bachelorette reunion on Monday featured almost all of the 15 female leads. In what ways did revisiting their seasons show you how much the franchise has evolved?
When I watched the whole thing, I got emotional. I had this silly grin on my face and I hope everyone is going to have this feeling. Maybe I’m too close to it and too biased, but I was so proud and felt so good about it. It was this great celebration of these 15 awesome, strong but very different women. The whole thing was just a great celebration of the franchise and of these women. We brought all the Bachelorettes to the mansion and when they sat around drinking champagne and talking, that, to me, was the most genuine, real and awesome thing of the entire special because it was just them talking about being moms and women and being on The Bachelorette. I had this thought that we created this. There was a certain sense of pride that went along with that as well.
Rachel Lindsay said she was sad to look around and not see anyone else who looked like her, since she’s the only Bachelorette of color among the group. We’ve spoken about the steps the franchise has taken when it comes to diversity, but how do you feel about that 1/15 number?
[The headline] wasn’t exactly what Rachel said, but, with that said, I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken and we’re continuing to take those steps and they need to be taken. It’s about feeling like everybody’s represented. If you don’t see yourself represented, then why are you going to go try out for the show and audition? It took us taking that step to unlock that so people do feel like they have a shot at being on the show and that they will be picked. Rachel wasn’t the first step, but she was the first lead that we had in that regard, and I think it will continue to get better and better and, hopefully, she will be a part of that.
The Bachelorette premieres Monday, May 13 at 8 p.m. on ABC.
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