The Bachelor and its spinoff shows are now among the most reliable launchpads for wannabe influencers. Since the very first contestant signed on the FabFitFun dotted line, The Bachelor franchise has morphed from a forum for twentysomething dental assistants to vie for the affection of a boring hunk into a spectacle of shameless self-branding. There was a time when the classic Bachelor line “not there for the right reasons” meant that a contestant didn’t really seem ready for an engagement; now it’s an accusation that someone is simply trying to grow their follower count.
Never has that been clearer than in the most recent season of Bachelor in Paradise, when two former fan favorites—Brendan Morais and Pieper James—were quickly ostracized after getting caught discussing their brand engagement strategy on camera. Their ouster was the result not only of their inability to avoid saying the quiet part out loud, but of an underlying tension in the Bachelor universe that’s become impossible to ignore.
The Bachelor, despite its many protestations, has never been about finding true love. The particular magic of the show arguably lies more in its ingenious group casting—its ability to make each season a uniquely combustible mix of people you hate and people you root for—than in the persuasiveness of its storybook romance. Still, it has to maintain a veneer of authenticity for buy-in from the audience it has built. If the franchise drops the ruse, it risks veering into the territory of shows that are explicitly and exclusively built to supply trashy drama, like TLC’s 90-Day Fiancé or Netflix’s Too Hot to Handle.
Of course, many contestants used the franchise as a platform to promote themselves before the widespread adoption of Instagram. In the influencer era, though, every canny applicant already has a social media personality to be combed through during the casting process, a whole portfolio of their relationship history and public beefs and idiotic tweets. It’s never been easier to pack the contestant pool with people who make for easy villain narratives. And this apparent strategy has reaped dividends (when the show wasn’t getting blasted for casting people with a history of easily unearthed, casually racist posts)—Corinne Olympios on Nick Viall’s season provided eight weeks’ worth of conflict, Jed Wyatt on Hannah Brown’s season made it past the finale before his engagement strategy fell apart and provided one of the most dramatic After the Final Rose episodes in recent history. The show is now as dependent on aspiring influencers as aspiring influencers are on the show.
But the past year of Bachelor history suggests that the show and its spinoffs are facing a kind of existential dilemma. Morais and James were basically harangued off the island by a group of contestants chanting “here for the wrong reasons.” A similar fate befell Thomas Jacobs, an early favorite of Bachelorette Katie Thurston whose influencer aspirations were apparently so obvious that they inspired the rest of the contestants to threaten a strike unless Thurston got rid of him. And within the first episode of Bachelorette Michelle Young’s season, a contestant is eliminated for having a seemingly producer-planted binder full of information on the show that demonstrated his alleged designs to be either the next Bachelor or a fan favorite—both guaranteed routes to commanding thousands of dollars per sponsored Instagram post. All these eliminated contestants were great, irresistibly hateable reality-TV characters, and their seasons got a lot more boring once they were gone. It would make more sense for The Bachelor to commit to its role as a launchpad for Insta fame rather than turning influencer ambitions into a sinister plot point.
The franchise is now at a crossroads. It’s so inextricably tied up with social media fame that it’s safe to assume no one is there for the “right” reason. Pretending otherwise only traps the show in an authenticity farce where aspiring influencers eliminate other aspiring influencers who just happen to be worse at playing the game.