Brow Beat

How Well Does UnReal Capture the Experience of Being Black on The Bachelor? A Former Contestant Explains.

UnReal stars a black bachelor this season, even though the actual Bachelor still never has.

Bettina Strauss

Season 2 of UnReal, which kicked off this week, ventures where no season of its real-life inspiration, The Bachelor, has gone before: The suitor on the fictional show-within-a-show, Everlasting, is black. Of course, in its dozens of seasons among various incarnations of the franchise, ABC’s hit show has featured black contestants on the show here and there. But never have they been positioned as the primary object of desire on any spinoff seasons, and notoriously, they’ve never made it very far in the elimination rounds.

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As Fusion reported earlier this year, none has lasted more than five weeks in a competition that is usually around 10 weeks total. One such contestant was Marshana Ritchie, who appeared on Season 12 of The Bachelor in 2008. I spoke with Ritchie about the first two episodes of Season 2 of UnReal (which were made available to press ahead of the air dates), her impressions of how the drama is handling race so far, and how it compares to her own experiences on The Bachelor.

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What was your initial reaction while watching UnReal?

Having been on The Bachelor, my reaction to UnReal is like, OK, even though it is a drama it kind of sheds light on the production process. The number one question everyone wants to ask [of me] is, is it real? And that’s a hard question to answer, because I feel that when we’re crying on the set, when we’re emotional, these are real emotions—but the real emotions that came are a reaction to a very hyperproduced situation, and UnReal really sheds light on the production process of putting together a show like The Bachelor.

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I know you’ve stated in the past that you were very aware of the common perception of black contestants on The Bachelor and The Bachelorette: They’re there to be the token, and they’re likely going to go home the first or second night. The contestant who is a Black Lives Matter activist says as much to Rachel in the season premiere. Knowing this, what made you want to go on the show in the first place?

The reason why I went on the show is because it’s my mom’s favorite show. She’s a Bachelor fan, not I. And I was just like maybe I’ll trip and fall and find a husband—and it all started with an online application, the rest is history. I was on the show. I was very much aware that in like one or two nights, the black girls go home. My mindset was that if I think that, if I believe that, I will follow the pattern of every single woman who came before me. I just did not believe that a black girl didn’t have a chance. And as silly and as crazy as that may be I felt like I had as much of a right to be here as everyone else. Friends of mine who knew I was going to be on the show, knew I was thinking about it, they discouraged me more than anybody. My own friends who are black were like, “Why are you going to go on that white show?” And I’m like, I don’t know that it’s a white show and I don’t know that it’s a black show. What I do know is they have an eligible bachelor.

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I made it to the final six. I didn’t go home the first night. We were planning my at-home date right before I got [eliminated] because the next step was at-home dates. The production people were already in touch with my family and everything to plan my at-home date when I got eliminated. That’s where we were, so I don’t know what anybody else’s experience was, but I lasted. … And I think if you tell yourself, “I’m going home,” then you’re going home. I will say this: I give a lot of credit to my season’s bachelor, Matt Grant. He’s British, he’s from London, he lives in London. I was in London recently, and we spoke. And if my bachelor had been from Minnesota, maybe I would have met the fate of every black woman before me. But in the U.K. they have a much more relaxed attitude toward interracial dating.

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Remind me, were you the only black contestant on your season?

The only black person, yes.

UnReal really pulls no punches when it comes to depicting Quinn and Rachel, the two producers, as manipulative puppeteers while the contestants are mostly oblivious. Did you ever find yourself in a position like that, where you looked back and watched the episode and realized they’d walked you right into a dramatic situation?  

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The Bachelor was my very first rodeo. I’d never done a show before. I’d never did anything but watch reality TV, so as it was happening I didn’t get the setup. I missed the production element, certain things like you see on UnReal where they’re like, “All right her time is up, go interrupt, steal the bachelor, pull him away.” So I thought that if the bachelor was sitting over there, I was free to go around, free to speak, and I didn’t understand how controlled and manipulated the time with the bachelor was. The setups—of walking into moments, and the editing process, and how you do what we called ITMs, your in-the-moment interviews, which clearly didn’t happen in the moment, you do them after the moment. And how they edit your answer as a voice-over a moment that already happened. And based on the question they asked you and the answer you gave, it gives the viewer the impression that in that moment, that was your intention, when that wasn’t even on your mind. … That’s the aspect that I didn’t get.

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Was there any specific moment that was especially jarring for you to watch after the fact?

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The only thing that really bothered me to watch … was I got into an argument with the girls that was super-duper edited and, of course, what instigated the fight was not shown. And I’d really had it that day, like I really, really had it, and one of the girls there, we were talking about home dates and I was like, I’m just so frustrated because I feel like everything is just [about] him. I get it, we’re all here, all competing for the same guy. But [for this show] I’d done rugby, took an elbow to the face, got a bloody lip on national TV; I had done this runway fashion show; I was skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho. Not to be stereotypical black, but I’m a black girl from Brooklyn, and I have been around the world, that’s true, but I don’t go skiing. I have island blood, we don’t do that.

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But here I am busting my behind down these slopes in Sun Valley, Idaho, and I’m like, I just need to get him on my turf. If I get a home date, he’s in my world, I need him to see how I live. These are the things that I like, this whole process has been him, and I get it, but I need him to try a little bit for me, too. I try for you, you try for me. And one of the girls was like, “What do you mean ‘how he lives,’ you really think he lives like this?” And I was like, “Watch your mouth, I don’t know who you’re talking to”—because we know we’re on the show, we know ABC pays for this, but these dates and everything … they were borne from production meetings with him. And the girl looked at me and she’s like, “You don’t know how rich people live, what would you know about that?”

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I went absolutely apeshit. Apeshit. I got into a big argument with all of the girls because at that moment if I were a violent person and could have wrung somebody’s neck, I would have absolutely wrung her neck. But I don’t solve my problems that way, I fight with words.

So it really got out of control and got so out of hand, and it was so edited that people didn’t really understand how heated it got in the house and how people—I had to be removed physically from the situation and had to take people to their corners because it was getting that elevated. And I was so nervous about watching it back because just what I thought would happen, happened. They didn’t play her comment, so here I am just looking angry and explosive. That ended up being the last episode I was on. And that’s not the note I went out on because I feel like I had a good elimination, I didn’t cry, I didn’t fall down, I walked up to the bachelor said goodbye and went my way, but it was just hard to watch that scene back for me because it was every stereotype that I did not want to play into.

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When you’re a black woman and you’re on The Bachelor there is this extra added pressure. If you care about yourself, your family and your community, and the images that are portrayed of us in the media, there is so much weight and it’s cumbersome. At least that’s how I felt.

It’s similar to the “blacktivist” on UnReal. She’s very aware and she doesn’t want to play this game, but she also wants to show that black girls don’t all have to be angry and stereotypical. It sounds like you felt the same way as she did in terms of “this is a chance for me to show people a different side of what black people can be.” Do you identify with that character in this season?

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To a point—I feel like that character is like seriously, an activist on steroids. It’s almost a little not real. … They just need to scale it back three degrees and it would have hit the point. That being said, I definitely relate to that because I don’t like when I meet people and they are surprised by me. Like you shouldn’t be surprised when you hear I’m college-educated, that I have a “complete” family. That was one of the comments a girl said to me that didn’t make the air. We were going around the room—it’s a show about marriage and dating life, and this guy is going to propose, so we were asking each other whose parents are still married, whose parents are divorced, separated, what’s their story—and they get to me and one of the girls says, with a straight face, “Do you even know your dad?” That’s when I felt like I was being set up, like they told her to say that so I could choke the shit out of her. Are you kidding me? My parents have been married for 42 years, OK? I’m college-educated, I have a lot of stamps in my passport. I speak 2½ languages, because I speak English, Hindi, and some French. I’ve lived in London; I’ve lived in Paris. Yes, I’m 35, I’m single, I don’t have any children. I’m not here to judge anybody who may have children out of wedlock, or is a single parent, or came from a broken home—there is nothing wrong with that story. But it is not the only story, and that is the only part that’s being told.

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If I listened to friends and to people who said this show is not for you—and at the time, Flavor of Love was popular and people were like, “You should go on Flavor of Love.” … I would never, my mother would kill me. … That’s not who I am.

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Were you prepared for a moment like that, going into the show?

No, it caught me off guard. And it was like at that point, I felt like I was on candid camera. You can’t be serious. Meanwhile the young lady who says that to me, her parents are divorced, she’s not college-educated, she was working as a waitress. No shade, OK? Because I bet you waitresses probably make a lot more money than maybe even I do. This is not about income disparity; this is about the fact that you assume something about somebody. This is to me what [prejudice] is, when you assume something about someone you haven’t met just based on appearance—and I was just not ready.

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On UnReal, the producers have nicknames for the contestants—“the wifey,” “the racist,” “the black debutante.” Were you aware of anything similar during your season?

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No. I’m sure they did, but we never got wind of that. If you’re a good producer I think that you just keep that stuff to yourself. No, the contestants really shouldn’t hear things like that. In my day, I never heard anything like that. I don’t know what they would’ve called me! [laughs] I don’t know if I was necessarily “the black contestant” or “the black debutante.” I don’t know really where I fit in. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this season is how Jay, the sole black person behind the scenes, is even more concerned than he was in the last season about how the black contestants are portrayed. He wants to make sure that the show doesn’t reflect too poorly on black people. Were there any people of color or black people in particular behind the scenes on your season?

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No. 

Did you have any producers you were particularly close with, or who advised you?

Absolutely. I worked with Karri-Leigh [Mastrangelo], she was producer at the time and no longer works with the show and then Allan Schwegmann [who also] no longer works with the show. But we keep in touch to this day. We’re all Facebook friends. … So, I mean, I have a good relationship with the producers to this day, even though they no longer work on the show.  

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At the end of the day, I did look back on the show, I did look at the way it was edited, I did look at how things were taken out of context. But I gotta give them credit—it made for good television. And that’s when you realize: The show is not about love. It’s about really entertaining television. This is ABC’s golden child, OK? It makes them a lot of money, because they have a lot of viewers, and they are selling advertising slots to the highest bidder on Monday night. And it does well. It’s a well-oiled machine. I can’t even deny it. I didn’t understand the business of television when I signed up to do The Bachelor.

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Did you watch Season 20, with Jubilee, and, if so, what were your thoughts on how she was portrayed? She was one of the breakout stars of that season of The Bachelor and stirred up some discussion about how the show deals with race.

I didn’t know Jubilee prior to the show. … [But when I found out there was a black girl on the show] I started watching. And I thought she was portrayed very well. I think that she was not just treated as a token. She was given a true storyline. That was refreshing. She struck me as really genuine. And, I tell you, my heart bled for her on that screen. Because … I don’t think that anybody really understands what it’s like to be a black woman on that show, unless they were a black woman on the show. I mean, people just don’t get it. And when all the other women around don’t look like you and the white guy is this white guy from middle America or wherever he’s from, you feel like you’re second-guessing yourself. Those moments of doubt do happen. I could sit here and tell you that I’m as strong as whatever, but you do wonder. Because you realize, “I’m in a situation where no one looks like me.”

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I didn’t care for the way they eliminated her. I think it could’ve waited for the rose ceremony; they didn’t have to send the girl packing just like that. But I reached out to Jubilee. Turns out we both live in Fort Lauderdale. Now, I am originally from Brooklyn. I am not from Fort Lauderdale—I lived here just a few months, and we connected. And the first day we were on the phone, we were on the phone for hours. And then we went out for dinner, and then it just spiraled from there. I love her to pieces. We talk all the time.

Do you plan to continue watching this season of UnReal? And if so—or even if not—where do you hope the show goes in terms of dealing with the first black bachelor?

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I definitely will continue to watch UnReal, because, for me, it has more value entertainment-wise than the actual Bachelor. Because I was on The Bachelor, I have to tell you, I ruined it for myself. I can see through all the production elements that maybe the person at home can’t. … It doesn’t work if you kind of know the tricks. The thrill is gone.

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I like how they do things on [UnReal], how they portray things behind the scenes. We get more into the twisted lives of the producers and everything else, and you don’t really know what’s gonna happen next, and, oooh, it’s so exciting.

[But] I hope they handle it better than what I[’ve seen so far]. When I say “it,” I’m talking about the first black suitor. I hope they handle it a little bit better because I didn’t really care for this whole party scene and now he’s got his homies with him. It’s like, “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop.” … Let’s not do that. Loved what the character said—he was like, “My mother raised me a certain way. Now, you’ve got me on this show doing this kind of thing that’s not really me, and I get it.” Like, let’s spend more time on that. There’s a mom and a family that he has that’s invested in him—that’s proud of the success that he’s made—and they don’t wanna see him throwing it away. And I love when they were talking about “When there’s a black hand on this white ass, America’s gonna go crazy—Twitter’s gonna melt down.” Yeah, let’s get into that. But his friends need to go. No other bachelor has had his homies there. Let’s not make it more misogynistic than it already is simply because the suitor is black. I’m gonna keep watching, though. It’s entertaining.

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And I guess it complicates things a little bit when you make that first black bachelor a football player. Pretty much every other bachelor/bachelorette has been a socialite or just really rich. The fact that they made him a football player (or he could’ve been a rapper, too), that sort of complicates it even more.

It does … So, yes, he’s now an athlete. Oh my gosh. You know, sometimes [it irks me]. And if the real show were to ever follow suit and put a black bachelor on, I hope they take lessons from the mistakes that they made in this little fictional world and not make him an athlete. Let’s not. Let’s find somebody just like every bachelor before him—educated, good family, put together. … I don’t think America’s ready, but I don’t think if we wait for America to be ready that it will ever happen. America wasn’t ready for a black president, and if we’d waited for that then Barack Obama wouldn’t have completed two terms. So sometimes you don’t have to wait for everybody to be ready. The people who make change in this world are the people who were willing to go against the grain even when everybody wasn’t ready, and they were willing to be leaders and not followers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read more in Slate:

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