Chris Harrison, the longtime host of the most famous dating reality show on the planet, is waiting for someone to set him up.
“I wait for people like you to say, ‘Oh my gosh, I have the greatest person,’” he tells me when I ask how someone so accustomed to listening to women, so seemingly attuned to how they feel and what they want, could possibly be single.
Though he offers wise counsel every Monday to the twenty- and thirtysomethings who appear on The Bachelor (or The Bachelorette, or Bachelor in Paradise) and after-show analysis of their every wrong turn, the reigning king of #BachelorNation has yet to find a finger to slip a Neil Lane ring onto, since his 2012 divorce from Gwen, his wife of 18 years.
He doesn’t meet women online, or use Tinder (owned by The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC), and he’s never dated any women from the show, either, he claims—which seems like a bit of a waste of such a large pool of eligible ladies.
But Harrison’s singledom isn’t for want of women.
“I need to quit working a little bit and maybe work on my own life a little bit,” Harrison, 44, tells me over the phone. This, he says, is the reason he hasn’t been so lucky in the love department since his divorce, echoing the self-help speak Bachelor fans will recognize from the show’s confessional-style interviews.
“It’s been cathartic to have work which I love, and to dive into that and my kids [son Joshua, 14, and daughter Taylor, 12] and make sure they’re good,” Harrison insists. “But they are now, and so am I. And I would love to find love now. Look, as you can tell by the book and by the show, I’m a hopeless, helpless romantic just like everybody else, so hopefully I’ll follow my own advice one day.”
That book he’s referencing is The Perfect Letter, a romance novel (newly in paperback) that was inspired by a drunken conversation Harrison had with Nicholas Sparks, who also writes books about lovers who write things on paper.
For his first crack at writing—Harrison swears to me it’s not ghostwritten—it’s not terrible. His freshman effort is basically a romance novelization of the Reese Witherspoon movie, Sweet Home Alabama, with a murder and some very explicit sex language thrown in. There’s no question at what audience this book is aimed.
“Why not give the fans, #BachelorNation, more of what they already crave, more of what they already love?” Harrison asks, as if anyone could possibly suggest a reason why this book should not be added to the romance novel canon.
“I think there is an insatiable appetite for romance and for love stories, which is partly why these books and movies do so well. It’s why The Bachelor's been on for 15 years and is more relevant now than it’s ever been. No matter what, that story never gets old.”
Since 2002, he’s ferried 19 bachelors (it’s season 20 but Brad Womack got to go twice) and 11 Bachelorettes through their Journey to Find Love™—not to mention dozens of rejects through summer shows Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise.
In terms of primetime hours and longevity, no other franchise can come close to the kind of domination The Bachelor has achieved. And no one expected it.
“If anyone had said that they knew their show was going to run for 15 years, you’d say you’re out of your mind,” Harrison says.
Like the female protagonist in his novel, Harrison was born and raised in Texas, where he played soccer during the school year, and painted fences in the summers. A soccer scholarship took him to Oklahoma for college, and before long, he was calling basketball games for the local cable station. After school, he worked as a reporter and a sportscaster through the ’90s before moving to Los Angeles to host on a horse-racing network, which maybe isn’t that far off from The Bachelor when you think about it.
Soon Harrison was auditioning to be the host of The Bachelor, the reality show brainchild of Mike Fleiss, a television producer who had just come off of Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?, a two-hour televised beauty pageant where the winner was awarded with an on-the-spot marriage to a man who was later discovered to be not-so-rich and have a record of domestic abuse. It was a turning point in exploitative reality television.
Likewise, The Bachelor was roundly panned by every critic.
The New York Post’s Linda Stasi gave The Bachelor minus-four stars and called it, “degrading, debasing, desperate, depressing, dull and dopey.”
The general appetite for more of The Bachelor’s brand of reality TV kept the show on the air, but the public reception didn’t completely drown out the show’s critics, who through the years have charged it with racism and sexism (and several other isms, actually). Harrison dismisses them all.
“We’re just victims of our own success,” he tells me. “If we are sexist, we’re equal opportunity sexists,” he adds, noting the 2003 addition of The Bachelorette evened the scales, and rejecting the idea that women on the show lack agency.
“In all seriousness, I think sexism has a lot to do with power, and while it seems like the ‘Bachelor’ or the ‘Bachelorette’ has all the power, they really don’t. It’s always a two-way street. You always have the power to leave. Contestants have the power to do whatever they want.”
Would Harrison consider himself a feminist?
“Yeah, I guess maybe I am,” he says. “Not to get too deep, but I was brought up by these women who if you wanted to label them, maybe they were feminists, but you know what? They never asked for that or wanted it and they never got up on a soapbox and spoke about it, they just did it.
“They did their work, they did their jobs, they were who they were. They were kick-ass moms, they were kick-ass grandmothers, they were kick-ass in the office, they just did their thing. They never needed an award for it or a name for it. They were never martyrs, they were never victims. I think there’s power in that. And I have a lot of respect for that. So maybe I am a feminist, I’ve never thought about that.”
The host uses the show as an icebreaker for difficult conversations with his daughter Taylor—who he also dreams of taking over his duties as host one day.
She’s just coming to an age where she’s allowed to watch the entire episodes, “fantasy suite” and all.
“We had long discussions about how to respect yourself and how to respect your body, the choices you’re making and how they affect and reflect on your family and your faith,” Harrison says.
He points to the uncomfortable scenes that I’d rather die than watch with my own father—like the one where Kaitlyn hooked up with both Nick and Sean in last season’s Bachelorette.
“It gives us a chance to broach some subjects that could be a little difficult,” Harrison says.
As for the lack of diversity among contestants, the 25 hopefuls are either completely lacking or lightly peppered with people of color, some who claim to feel like token additions.
The lead role has only once been filled by a person of color: the fiercely derided Juan Pablo Galavis was conveniently cast on the heels of a 2012 lawsuit which accused the producers of excluding people of color from the show.
To Harrison, the fact that no black contestant ever makes it very far isn’t racist; the heart wants what it wants. “Anyone has the same chance to end up—and I hate to say win because it’s not a game show. It has to do with your connection with somebody. But everybody has a chance to fall in love, it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says.
The call for more diversity is “way above my pay grade,” says Harrison, but ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee said in January that the next bachelorette will be a woman of color. “I’m the host and so rain or shine I’ll be there,” Harrison tells me.
Fans hoping the next pick will be Haitian-born, tattooed, Awko-taco Jubilee, who Ben unceremoniously asked to leave mid-date last week, are likely in for some disappointment.
“Jubilee has a lot of work to do on herself,” Harrison says, referring to last week’s episode, in which the Army veteran pouted and pulled back—refusing to play the game, and thus being sent home for her failure to “open up.”
“You can see from the episode she’s got a lot of issues. I haven’t talked to her since she left, but I’ll see her at the special and I think she’s going to be one of those people who comes on and says she’s learned a lot about herself and she learned that maybe she’s not so ready.
“Did she come on the show with all sincerity? Absolutely, you can’t question her sincerity. But did she find out that she was not quite ready to open up and have a relationship? I think she did. And that’s one of the great things about the show: You learn so much about yourself.”
If all of this stuff, all of the -isms, as Harrison laments, just take away from what the show is really about—the human condition—then what does The Bachelor say about society and dating?
“Being single myself, it says that it sucks out there,” Harrison says. “People want help. People need help. We all want companionship, and we all want to find that someone, that true love.”
Listening to Harrison, it’s odd, almost unbelievable really, that anyone—especially the man at the center of it all—would still buy into what The Bachelor is selling, 15 years on, and only a handful of successful relationships to show for it.
Isn’t the best part about The Bachelor, especially in recent seasons, is that the show appears to be in on its own joke? At this point, even the women who are there to be the chicken-enthusiast or “a twin,” know what they’re signing up for, and isn’t that ultimately just a moment of fame?
Sure, some people might get drunk on the notoriety. Some see The Bachelor as a ticket out of their one-horse towns or away from their waitressing jobs.
Who among us, Harrison asks me, would begrudge a no-name from Denver for taking a bag of cash to go on a ballroom dancing competition or hawk products from their newly popular Instagram accounts?
But the fame is a byproduct of the show and its audience, Harrison tells me, insisting that most of The Bachelor cast are, clichéd as it may be, “there for the right reasons,” to find someone who will love them.
After 20 seasons and a divorce under his belt, the one man who could understandably be jaded over the whole process—on and off screen—still seems inexplicably open to it.
“I probably became more understanding and empathetic about The Bachelor, and why people are on it, than I was the first 10 years of the show when I was married, because I really do understand how hard it is out there, how hard it is to meet somebody that you really have a connection with. I probably get it more now than ever.”