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‘The Bachelor’: Inside Matt James’ Selection as the First Black Star in Series History (EXCLUSIVE) – Variety

“The Bachelor” is one of the biggest franchises in television history. It has also faced enormous criticism over the years for its lack of diversity.

After much pushback for never having a lead of color on the franchise’s flagship show, “The Bachelor” will finally have its first Black lead with star Matt James.

James is known to Bachelor Nation for his friendship with fan-favorite alum Tyler Cameron, who competed on Hannah Brown’s season of “The Bachelorette.” James was initially cast to be a suitor on the upcoming season of “The Bachelorette” with Clare Crawley, which was supposed to begin airing this past May, but when production on “Bachelorette” was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, ABC began to think of a bigger role for James.

Last weekend, a former “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay — the first Black lead of the entire franchise in its nearly two decades on air — said she would cut ties with the ABC reality show if a Black bachelor was not cast. “The Bachelor” debuted in 2002, has numerous spinoffs, and is one of television’s highest-rated and most sustainable franchises. Through 24 seasons of “The Bachelor” and 15 seasons of “The Bachelorette,” Lindsay has been the only Black star.

Despite mounting pressure on “The Bachelor” for its lack of diversity, as pointed out by Lindsay, especially over the past week in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and amid Black Lives Matter movement protests, the network had its eye on James prior to the recently-heightened criticism, ever since he came in for casting early this past winter.

“He would have been on Clare’s season if it started in March. When we realized the shutdown was going to extend through the summer, we started thinking about how we were going to choose our Bachelor,” says ABC’s top unscripted executive, Rob Mills, who oversees “The Bachelor” franchise at the network. “Matt was somebody who was on our radar and we were thinking about him. We were thinking do we announce him early, or do we put him on Clare’s season and then announce him later, if it doesn’t work out with Clare? We didn’t make a final decision until recently, but this has been talked about for quite some time.”

The ABC executive maintains that casting James was not in response to Lindsay’s recent criticism.

“It wasn’t a response to that. We could have made this announcement earlier or later,” Mills says. “Certainly no one is blind to what is happening in the world, so hopefully this announcement serves as a bit of optimism during a time that we can really use this. But I don’t want this to look like we’re patting ourselves on the back or taking a victory lap. We don’t want this, in any way, to seem like a cure-all and seem like, ‘Hey! Look what we did here!’ We know this is a few grains of sand in a very big hourglass. It’s taken a while to get where we are and we will continue to go further, and I acknowledge it may not be enough. In the last few years, I believe it’s gotten better and with the announcement of Matt, I hope it keeps getting better. We are very excited about Matt.”

James has already garnered a large fanbase among the reality show’s audience because he is friends with Cameron, who was a runner-up on Brown’s season of “The Bachelorette.” Before his announcement as the next “Bachelor” on “Good Morning America” on Friday, James had nearly 190,000 Instagram followers, and he was on the shortlist of fans’ wish lists for a possible a Black star for the next season.

Mike Johnson, another fan-favorite alum, was nearly cast as “The Bachelor” last season, which ended up selecting Peter Weber. Many viewers have considered that move a snub, one that ended up further highlighting the show’s diversity problem.

“We had a very close race between three people — Tyler, Peter and Mike — and at the end of the day, there were the same reasons we had for anyone else,” Mills explains. “At that time, we just thought that Peter was the best guy for the job.”

When James came in for conversations about possibly becoming the next star of “The Bachelor,” the network made it clear that he was not being chosen for the color of his skin.

“There is that mantle that you are the first, and it’s been a long time coming, so there are additional pressures. Matt knows that he’s going to be asked about this and he’s ready,” Mills admits. “But what you never want is for somebody to feel like they are ‘The Bachelor’ because they are checking off a box. The same way with Mike, there were so other things that would have made him a great Bachelor, and it was the same thing with Rachel. Yes, she was the first Black ‘Bachelorette,’ and there has been a lot of weight that’s been put on her shoulders, but she was ‘The Bachelorette’ because, first and foremost, she was a great Bachelorette.”

Mills does admit its unfair that Lindsay, who met her husband on her season of “Bachelorette,” has taken on the role of unofficial spokesperson for diversity within the franchise.

“It is hard not to feel bad because everybody within the show and at the network loves Rachel. We don’t want her to be upset or to feel like more can be done. The best thing to do is listen to her, and take this seriously,” Mills says. “As she said in Women Tell All [last season], she looks around and she’s the only person that looks like her. She is the one that everybody goes to for comment and she is the one teaching everyone. I certainly I thought her comments after the Hannah situation were really insightful and informative to me. We’re so lucky to have her. But I don’t think it’s fair that the burden has been solely on her shoulders, and we’re going to do everything to make sure that it doesn’t stay that way.”

Over the years, the franchise has focused more on diversity, specifically by widening the pool of contestants, who often filter into the next season to become the lead. But while the contestants have diversified, the stars of the show have not.

ABC is not making up any excuses for why it took so long to cast a Black lead.

“There are a lot of different ways I can answer that, but it always rings false because honestly, I think we should have, and everyone agrees we should have had a Bachelor of color before this time,” Mills says.

In announcing James as the lead for Season 25, Karey Burke, president of ABC Entertainment, addressed the franchise’s duty to diversify. “We know we have a responsibility to make sure the love stories we’re seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in and we are proudly in service to our audience,” Burke said in a statement. “This is just the beginning and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise. We feel so privileged to have Matt as our first Black Bachelor and we cannot wait to embark on this journey with him.”

One benefit of announcing James early as “The Bachelor” — which the network hopes will premiere in Jan. 2021, pending on the ongoing pandemic — is that casting for James’ suitors can begin early.

And as for Crawley’s season of “The Bachelorette,” which should head into production this summer? “I think where this is really great for Clare is that every guy who will be on her season will know there is no chance of becoming ‘The Bachelor,’ so they should really all be there only for Clare,” Mills points out.

After James’ season, the franchise’s diversity efforts will continue, and the executive assures that the network will not fall short in its commitment to representation on-screen. “Everyone agrees we can be doing better and we will work to do that,” Mills says. “I do think there have been some strides made — small and maybe not enough, but there has been a commitment and that will continue.”

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