Colton Underwood’s interview with Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America,” in which the former “Bachelor” star announced that he is gay, was a striking and surprising bit of television. Consider the preconceptions an audience member may have brought to the table: Underwood was, for a season, at the center of a franchise that exists to find its star a wife, or at least a girlfriend. And although he and his chosen bride, Cassie Randolph, broke up acrimoniously a year ago, “Bachelor” couples are generally short-lived. Nothing about Underwood’s story as lived in public seemed to depart from a well-worn playbook.
Which made his conversation with Roberts a healthy reminder about the power of the entertainment industry to present an image that may depart wildly from reality. The most meaningful divergence here isn’t even that Underwood was gay on a show whose engine is straightness; it’s that he was miserable, contemplating suicide and praying to God to change his sexuality. His prime selling point as “Bachelor” star — the intriguing fact, heavily touted by the series in promotions, that he was a virgin when appearing on the show — was true enough, but for reasons that he couldn’t share: He was frightened of what sex would mean, and not interested in women.
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Roberts’ interview, carried on ABC’s flagship morning show, made it hard to see exactly the role “The Bachelor” had played in Underwood’s story. While his life has more to it than a reality show, a viewer might have wondered, a bit, about exactly what it had been like to conceal one’s sexuality on a dating show, and the degree to which appearing on that dating show might have encouraged and prolonged that concealment. This was an interview that protected and burnished the brand; Underwood even noted that he was grateful to “The Bachelor” franchise for having him on and helping bring him to the point he occupied today. (More troubling details, like Randolph’s having filed for a restraining order against Underwood, later dropped, and her allegations of his stalking and harassing her, went untouched.)
That was, perhaps, obligatory: This was, for the component parts that bore a greater cultural value, also a part of the vertically-integrated “Bachelor” news complex at ABC, whereby the show generates headlines for ABC itself to exclusively address. But observations along those lines shouldn’t take away from what was plainly a challenging and exhilarating moment for Underwood. Only when his face relaxed after saying the words “I’m gay” did the degree of acting he had clearly been forced to do become clear. And his story — that of a deeply religious football star who pushed himself deeper into the closet as he got older, desperately trying to be like his peers and finally being himself — is one that will likely be productive for people across the nation to hear. (Notably, Underwood remains deeply devout as an out gay man, a juxtaposition that is not widely represented across the media landscape.) True transparency across our culture means learning that people one might never have expected to be gay are, up to and including former “Bachelors”; maybe that will make young people see how much support is out there if they come out, and make their peers see that no one knows exactly what is in the heart of another person.
It’s somewhat hard to see how this story fits into the narrative of a show that prizes heterosexuality and tidy endings. This story has the unexpectedness and catharsis of real life, not of a made-for-TV coupling, and “The Bachelor” is the last franchise I’d expect to handle further developments in Underwood’s story with proportion or good taste. As its struggles with racism against Black competitors have shown, its retrograde fantasy flounders when attempting real inclusivity; better for them to let this story alone. And better for Underwood, too. One can hope that, having told the world one more piece of who he is, this young man who’s already lived many lives in the spotlight gets the opportunity to play himself, off-camera.
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