At first glance, this year’s cast photo of The Bachelorette stands out. Upon further review, it’s clear that the ABC reality franchise has delivered on its promise to pick the most diverse cast yet for its leading lady, Rachel Lindsay.
The season 13 grouping is the most diverse cast in the Bachelor franchise’s 15-year history. After Lindsay became the series’ first black lead in 33 combined seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, it has been revealed that nearly half of her 31 suitors are nonwhite contestants. “They are a part of the most successful, most diverse and, of course, most dramatic cast we have ever had on the show,” franchise host Chris Harrison said during the reveal.
The 32-year-old’s barrier-breaking journey to find love premieres Monday, after years of controversy surrounding the long-running dating franchise. ABC executives came under fire in recent years over the series’ lack of diversity, as the starring roles almost exclusively went to white leads on both The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. Ahead of Lindsay’s season, the previous cycle of The Bachelor with Nick Viall reigned as most diverse, with only eight nonwhite contestants in the starting pool. Traditionally, the nonwhite contestants are eliminated early in the season. But Lindsay’s turn as the star could set a new precedent — the Texas attorney has already bucked tradition by announcing that she’s happily engaged days ahead of premiere.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Harrison and longtime casting director Lacey Pemberton, who has been recruiting both men and women for the franchise since the show’s 2002 launch, about the matchmaking process and secrets behind pulling off this historic season. Here, Pemberton and Harrison take THR through the inner workings of the yearlong recruitment process, including how online dating has removed the stigma around reality TV love (“When we first started, I was faxing people,” said Pemberton) and how they sifted through the “overwhelming” number of men who wanted to meet Lindsay to find the right bunch.
How does it feel to finally have the show’s first black star, and why is Rachel the right pick to lead this season?
Harrison: The announcement of Rachel as the first African-American lead is not lost on me, nor is the importance of it. But in her defense, I don’t want it to be about that. I would love for people to realize that Rachel was going to be our girl regardless. If she was black, white, Latino, Asian, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I’m very proud that ABC and everybody involved in this allowed us to do it this way: choosing the right girl.
Pemberton: Honestly, I think it’s wonderful that we have Rachel as our Bachelorette. She happens to be African-American, and that’s a great thing. We’ve always embraced that.
Harrison: She’s the best woman for the job. She’s beautiful, smart, articulate, educated and has an incredible career. But at the same time, one of the things that makes her a great Bachelorette is that she’s been unlucky in love and hasn’t made time for that — all of these things make for a great show. If you add onto the fact that she’s our first African-American lead, I’m proud. But I’m just glad that she’s our girl because she’s the right woman.
Pemberton: We were always crazy about Rachel. She had a great energy. I got along straight away with her. When I first met Rachel I thought if things don’t work out with Nick, she might be a great candidate. She felt comfortable, knew what she was looking for, and was ready to take that leap. She knows exactly where she’s coming from and it’s refreshing.
Chris, you said one reason for announcing Rachel’s casting before her Bachelor elimination was to get a jump-start on recruiting for her season. How did that extra time affect the process?
Harrison: It’s obvious once you announce who it is, you’re going to get a better turnout. We had such success with Nick Viall and finding women that were interested in specifically him when we announced him early. It makes a big difference and that’s the point in bringing someone back: you have their name and that built-in connection so why not take advantage of it?
Can you explain the recruitment strategy and how Rachel’s early announcement factored into the timing?
Harrison: We cast 12 months around the year — nonstop. We have people that we already think are going to be good candidates, no matter who the Bachelor or Bachelorette is. When we announce it’s Rachel, obviously you’re going to have an influx of people that just adore her and want to be with her. It’s a no brainer to open it up and bring in more candidates. The response to her was overwhelming.
Pemberton: The moment in the previous season when they step out of the limo, I start casting the next season. We sift through all of the people we have to make sure it’s just the right group for whoever we’re casting in that lead role.
What mix of character traits and backgrounds were you looking for this season?
Pemberton: We wanted to find the best people we thought Rachel would hopefully have some chemistry with and fall in love with. That’s really my goal every season. I look specifically for someone who is really interested in meeting someone in an unusual way and taking that leap of faith. It’s a vulnerable position. It’s a certain energy. An optimism of someone that really thinks, “Wow anything could happen” and “Why not?”
Harrison: While diversity is an issue, what we try to do is create a great television show. At the same time, yes, you’re trying to make sure everybody’s represented in that pool. But first and foremost, we’re trying to create great television to watch.
You tend to have a good amount of contestants from Texas and other Southern states. How does interest break down geographically?
Pemberton: There really is no rhyme or reason to it. The bigger populations are in a lot of these states, so we get a lot more submissions. Usually the bigger the city, the more submissions. Because of the age group we’re in, most younger people are in the city working. But we do get lots of people from smaller towns. It’s really the candidate themselves — not the location. I don’t really look for that.
Harrison: We made a point to have a good cross-section and a good diverse group geographically speaking and racially. It’s nothing we haven’t been trying, but you’re going to see it on Rachel’s season more than ever.
Do you have conversations with the lead about the type of person he or she is looking for? How much did you take into account Rachel’s “type”?
Harrison: I always go back to Sean Lowe, who ended up so happy and in love with Catherine. He never would have dated Catherine had it not been for the show. That wasn’t his quote-on-quote “type.” And so that’s the beauty. After we’re done, they all say, “Thank you for exposing me to something I normally wouldn’t have dated.” And look, if they had a type and were doing well, they wouldn’t be on the show.
Pemberton: My casting team is the first group to meet everyone and have this ongoing relationship with them before they even get on the show or commit to it. So we know people for a long time and get a sense of who they like. But as I say it, at the end of the day, you could have the best guy in mind for her that ends up being on the show and she could not pick him. You can’t be 100 percent sure.
How did casting Rachel’s season differ from years past?
Pemberton: When we first started, I was faxing people to see if they were interested. It’s changed enormously, but the interest in it hasn’t changed. In fact, I think it’s even gotten bigger. People don’t have the apprehension as they once did, and maybe that’s because it’s never been easier to put yourself out there to meet new people with the Internet, Facebook and the number of dating sites there are. It was truly a leap of faith years and years ago. When we didn’t have Facebook and a lot of people didn’t even have PCs.
How do you think the rise in online dating influences dating on reality TV?
Pemberton: It’s a little bit of a new normal. Everyone thought Internet dating would never work, but it does! And we’ve had a number of successes, too. I always say it’s like real life. You can introduce people and think they’re going to have a lot in common and you like them both very much, but if that chemistry is not there it’s not there. Our process is very much like real life. It can not work, work for a time or work forever.
What recruiting efforts or strategies do you typically use to choose the best cast?
Pemberton: We of course have submissions online on the ABC website. We also have events throughout the season casting for The Bachelor. I have events particularly for the girls. Most guys don’t show up at events. A few of them do, varying from city to city, but not in the numbers that the girls do. I’m going to have events this coming June and July to start casting for The Bachelor. I also have recruiters out looking for people and asking if they might be interested in the show or if they know someone who might want to. It just doesn’t fall into our lap. People think we just have hordes of people — which we do — but we’re always really sifting through to find people that we think are a good fit for our lead. It’s quite a process.
How has social media changed your strategy?
Pemberton: We tweet out that we’re going to be in such-and-such city and if you might be interested then to contact us. It’s helpful. I’m kind of grassroots casting. I’ve been doing this so long for the show that I really like contact with people, speaking with them and then meeting them. So social media has its place, but it’s not the be-all or end-all of casting, it’s a hodgepodge of different ways of finding people. It’s a great new component to have, but it’s certainly not the one answer.
Is there someone you rooted for on Rachel’s season — does your team have its own Bachelorette bracket?
Pemberton: Everyone pulls for certain people, but at the end of the day we love the whole cast because we have such history with everyone. It’s kind of equally distributed. You love all of your children, right? I have two sons. I don’t have a favorite. I feel the cast is the same way. I love them all. I still enjoy it so much after all these seasons.
Are you hoping to soon be able to cast the first black Bachelor?
Harrison: I would like to cast the right man. If that man happens to be an African-American, an Asian, a Latino man, then great! But that isn’t as important as finding the right man or the right woman. And that you’re not so hung up on making history or breaking down barriers that you’re not also making the right choice. I would hate to disregard a fantastic man or woman just because they don’t fit into a box. Hopefully we pick the right man and if he happens to be African-American, let’s do it.
Pemberton: We are and always have been open to anyone who might be the best lead for this. How could we not be? We care about all of our participants in the show. We’re heavy into doing our events and open casting calls for the next season of The Bachelor. We have no idea who our next Bachelor is going to be. It’s way too early.
Even though it’s early, do you already feel there’s someone on this season who could play the part?
Pemberton: There are lots of people! I’ll say that.
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