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Can the ‘Bachelorette’ Casting Problems Be Solved?

The show’s recent controversies illustrate the challenges of contestant vetting in 2018. Is there a way to fix the system—or has reality finally invaded reality TV?

Alycea Tinoyan

This season’s Bachelorette began like every other: 27 handsome men in suits, and one in a chicken costume, arrived at a faux Italian mansion in Agoura Hills, California. Against a backdrop of votive candles and silk curtains, they set to work wooing the Minnesotan in metallics, Becca “Let’s Do the Damn Thing™” Kufrin. At the end of the night, Kufrin gave her “First Impression” rose to Garrett Yrigoyen, an earnest 29-year-old medical sales rep with plenty of down-home charm. “He’s so easy to talk to, and so sweet, so to give him that rose, I felt so good,” she told the camera. For the show’s millions of viewers, it was a satisfying beginning to one of many fairy tale romances on the show. For The Bachelorette’s producers, it was exactly the kind of illusion they’ve spent 14 years perfecting.

Soon after the premiere, however, leaked information about the contestants began to chip away at that carefully constructed fantasy. First, former Bachelor contestant Ashley Spivey shared screenshots of Yrigoyen’s Instagram activity; he had liked a handful of posts from a conservative account that mocked immigrants, transgender people, and liberal women, and also spread misinformation about Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg. Yrigoyen apologized for the likes in an Instagram post, calling them “hurtful and offensive.” But these posts appeared especially problematic for a contestant like Kufrin, who attended the 2017 Women’s March and expressed support for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden—even if she has since defended Yrigoyen. Soon after, news broke that another contestant, Lincoln Adim, had been charged with indecent assault and battery for groping and assaulting a woman on a harbor cruise ship in 2016, long before he’d been cast on the show. (He was convicted this year.)

Both fans and cast members were upset by these revelations. “All I could think was, people have a right to know,” Spivey told Vulture about her research on Yrigoyen. “If people don’t agree with him liking the post, or if they don’t want to support a person who has those sorts of ideals, they can make that decision for themselves now.” In response to news of Adim’s charges, The Bachelorette’s production company, Warner Bros., said it’d had no prior knowledge of his criminal history when Adim had been cast. “He himself denied ever having engaged in or been charged with any sexual misconduct,” a statement released to TMZ read. “We employ a well-respected and highly experienced third party who has done thousands of background checks consistent with industry standards to do a nationwide background check in this case. The report we received did not reference any incident or charge relating to the recent conviction—or any other charges relating to sexual misconduct.” (Neither Adim nor Yrigoyen responded to a request for comment.)

Adim has since been eliminated, but the fact that he was so easily able to misrepresent himself inspired backlash among Bachelor Nation fans, alumni, and castmates. Contestant Connor Obrochta was so upset by Adim’s presence on the show that he advised Adim to skip the post-finale “Men Tell All” recap. “It makes me feel uncomfortable that he did lie, and he was somebody that he says he isn’t,” Obrochta told TMZ. “He put something down that isn’t truly who he is.”

Since its debut in 2002, the Bachelor franchise has evolved from a wacky social experiment into a full-fledged influencer incubator, where sponcon careers and Daily Mail fixtures are christened. But the troubling back-to-back revelations about two prominent Bachelorette contestants indicate that both the series’ structure and casting process are failing to keep up with modern times. The show has failed to turn up easily Googleable, often disturbing information about its applicants, allowing its leads to unknowingly sully their reputations by nuzzling up to sex offenders and racists on national television. Now that social platforms are being used as a tool to evaluate prominent figures, the blockbuster franchise is reaching the limits of its own fantasy. “There’s no doubt that what’s happening on Bachelorette right now is people screwed up,” John Carr, a producer who worked on The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor Pad between 2010 and 2013, told me. “When it crosses the line to transphobia and racism, that is not what the show wants. It’s a mistake.”

For the sake of mass viewership, the franchise has long managed to insulate itself from the polarizing issues or dark secrets that make romantic relationships challenging, life-long projects. Very few viewers tune into The Bachelorette to grapple with the reality of long-term partnership or modern love, much less the ethics of marrying a man who has a history of assault, or a thing for hateful memes. They watch to see two attractive people fall in love on islands, mountaintops, and stages accompanied by C-list country musicians. Unless the Bachelor universe can adapt its casting process to the realities of 2018, it risks souring the essence—and the enjoyment—of its franchise.

Yrigoyen and Adim were not the first casting snafus in the history of The Bachelorette, nor in the Bachelor franchise, nor on ABC, nor in reality TV as a whole. During Rachel Lindsay’s season in 2017, racist tweets by contestant Lee Garrett surfaced, leaving viewers horrified that the show allowed its very first black Bachelorette to flirt on screen with a man who once equated the NAACP with the KKK. ABC was recently forced to pull the second episode of its new reality dating show, The Proposal, after a Wisconsin woman said in a Facebook post that contestant Michael J. Friday facilitated her drugging and rape. Mike Fleiss, who created both The Proposal and The Bachelor, recently addressed the casting issues. “For the record, I am horrified that any of these abusive assholes are on our shows,” he tweeted. “We are working very hard to find ways to do better.” At this point in his career, Fleiss is well acquainted with casting mistakes: His very first nationally televised reality show in 2000, Fox’s Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, was mired in controversy when the lead of the show, Rick Rockwell, was later revealed to have “slapped and hit” an ex-girlfriend, according to a 1991 restraining order referenced in Amy Kaufman’s recent book, Bachelor Nation. Years later, Fleiss bragged that Bachelor cast members are some of the most thoroughly vetted people on TV, in part because of the lesson he learned with Rockwell. “We’re really careful about who we let on the show,” he said at the Banff World Media Festival in 2012. “Anyone who has any sort of borderline personality disorder or instability or any sort of past involving contemplation of suicide—we just can’t take the risk. We just don’t.” (Fleiss could not be reached for comment.)

More cynical viewers argue that recent casting scandals like Yrigoyen’s and Garrett’s aren’t mistakes at all, but intentional ploys to increase ratings. Another former Bachelor producer I spoke to, who wished to remain anonymous, rebuffed that theory. “At the end of the day, the producer’s intentions are to set the lead up with someone great who they’re compatible with,” the producer said. “I don’t think they ever had intentions of yes, let’s set her up with a racist. Or this would be awesome for her to date someone who is really into physical abuse. It’s not like, OK we have to keep raising the stakes.” Aside from the fact that there’s no evidence of intentional wrongdoing, there’s been no correlation between tabloid dramas and ratings spikes. (With the exception of Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s indecisiveness.) In fact, it’s possible these controversies could be contributing to a negative effect on viewership. Bachelorette ratings have been on a downward trajectory since the show premiered in 2003. The average number of Bachelorette viewers dipped from 6.83 million to 5.89 million between JoJo Fletcher’s and Rachel Lindsay’s seasons; Kufrin’s season premiere was the lowest rated in the show’s history.

Fleiss has acknowledged they must “do better” by the screening process. But to understand how they might do that, it’s helpful to first know how it works. Two former Bachelor franchise producers I spoke to said that, though executive producers were responsible for choosing finalists from a pile of dossiers and interview tapes, they rarely worked closely with the casting department to investigate their backgrounds. Producers typically research contestants for their own purposes, Googling to see whether cast members have a significant other, or friends in common. Producers outsource the vetting system to the casting director. (Warner Bros. chose not to comment for the story.)

According to Bachelor Nation, that casting director is Lacey Pemberton. (Pemberton did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) The process works like this: After a recruitment and casting call, finalists are flown out to L.A. to meet a few members of the production team, and they are required to fill out a 150-question personality test and sit for an hour-long session with a psychologist, who inquires about their history with mental illness, relationships, and substance use. They are also required to answer questions from a private investigator, whose job, as Kaufman puts it, is to “dig up skeletons” for the use of story lines and getting “ahead of any tabloid stories that could come to the surface” while they’re on the show. Finally, applicants must submit blood and urine samples to screen for drugs and STDs. “That’s the one that we’re all kind of steeled to to expect,” Carr, who now produces on Vanderpump Rules, told me. “Like, ‘Oh, we really like this person but they failed the STD test. We have to move on.’ We’re all used to that.”

Typically, the private investigators who are tasked with researching a reality TV contestant’s criminal record and social media footprint are not part of the production staff, but from a third-party firm that offers several different tiers of background checks. (For instance, shows on ABC and CBS have used the company Control Risks Group in the past.) Cisive is one such company that provides vetting services to an undisclosed group of reality television shows. “It’s well understood that there’s no absolute standard when it comes to conducting research for reality television shows,” the New York–based firm’s website reads. The company’s standard reality TV package includes “on-site criminal and civil court record review at the local, state, and federal levels, driving history, media review, property record review, employment verification, education verification, sex offender registry search, and statewide public records search.” Additional services include telephone interviews of family members and an “internet search.” “What might be found on the internet?” the site asks. “Possibly an innocent tax-related document that suggests a past criminal act, or an email address that links a contestant (and intimate photos) to a porn site. Or maybe there’s a Facebook or Twitter posting that suggests a darker and more sinister side to a contestant’s personality or lifestyle.” (The company declined to participate in this story.)

According to Sheila Conlin, the owner of an L.A.-based casting company, who pioneered vetting processes in early-aughts dating shows like Looking for Love: Bachelorettes in Alaska, networks were once willing to foot the bill for thorough background checks. “For many, many years, we were super strict on that,” said Conlin, who’s currently casting for the second season of Revenge Body With Khloé Kardashian. “We spent many hours and went to great lengths to make sure all of it was vetted properly. … [Eventually], everybody tried to do it cheaper, better, whatever.” In her own experience, the cost of that work was once paid for by networks, but is now the responsibility of production companies, who have aimed to reduce costs in this area in recent years. “The network and the production companies are not spending any money on the casting, and they’re going on the cheap in doing the vetting process,” she said. (ABC declined to comment for this story.)

As sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have matured, so have their user bases. The average social media profile is no longer a simple page with a portrait and bio, but years’ worth of data: posts, photos, likes, check-ins, tags, comments, follows, connections, and direct messages. Not only that, but amid the #MeToo movement, survivors have harnessed the power of these media platforms to call out their abusers, especially those who have suddenly been elevated to prominence. “This is a recent phenomenon over the past two years,” the anonymous Bachelor producer said. “I think online identities have grown exponentially during this time because of social media, and because of the Bachelor cast members’ success.”

Since Carr left the franchise in 2013, he says it’s likely become even more difficult to wade through a person’s online presence. “It was just a lot easier to check people’s stuff [five years ago]. There were no private accounts and there was just less of a crush of it,” Carr added. “So we definitely thought of that as part of the vetting process as you would want to be aware of that, but it didn’t feel overwhelming. Now to do that feels entirely overwhelming. It doesn’t even really feel possible.”

When it comes to social media vetting, casting directors must operate within financial limitations but still try to vet a generation of applicants whose online personae are more sprawling and complicated than ever. “It’s harder to know someone’s entire social media history,” Jason Cornwell, a partner at a casting company that has worked on everything from The Real World to Million Dollar Matchmaker, told me via email. “It used to be that simple criminal background checks were standard but now it’s necessary and even important, to have the background companies check the social media histories.” His company typically completes a cursory search—a five- to 10-page Google search, along with a quick overview of their presence on social media outlets—before handing contestants off to a professional background company. Though he would not disclose the companies that his clients use for investigations, he says most of them offer services on a scale of one to four, with four being the most thorough research that takes the most time. “Most of our clients will spend the money up front for the deeper search to assure the people on the show do not have hidden skeletons in the closet,” he said. “That said, having a conviction on record is hard to miss. Saying something controversial on social media is not hard to miss.”

Even if private investigators are specifically asked to evaluate a candidate’s social media history, it’s rare they do a full sweep of every online interaction a candidate has ever had. An L.A.-based private investigator I spoke with said she has been able to get a clear portrait of a subject in as little as 20 minutes. “You could look through a bunch to get an idea of what a person likes or their character,” said the investigator, who charges $75 an hour. “You can find misogyny on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Naked butts and women with their legs spread. You can see if they’re friends with white supremacists on Twitter. But you might still miss something.” How much a production company is willing to invest in the process may be the only thing standing between a contestant like Yrigoyen and a spot on a show.

Serious oversights might also be due to bureaucratic roadblocks that third-party investigators encounter when doing their jobs. As L.A.-based entertainment investigator Edward Myers explained to The Washington Post in 2015: “Not all records are discoverable to investigators, no matter how hard they look. And even if one is accessible, in some situations, it may not be legally permissible to report.” When Adim was charged with indecent assault and battery, a legal complaint was filed in the district where the incident occurred. But if or when Warner Bros.’ investigator searched his name, it’s possible that the database they used turned up incomplete search results. “Not all courthouses are digitized,” the private investigator said. “Even if they are, they don’t necessarily show up on the public records searches that I do. … If somebody wants an actual criminal record to really know, is this person going to molest my contestant on The Bachelor? I would need to know, if I was going to be really thorough, the counties where he has lived, which my public records check would tell me. Then you need to actually go online to that county and look at their criminal records in the county on their website, at which point you’ll find out whether they’re digitized. If they’re not they have to visit the courthouse.” The investigator cited a recent example in which Charles Manson’s pen pal recently ran a background check of the infamous mass murderer that turned up no record of his crimes under a federal criminal court or a national criminal record search. “We don’t know who they used, and it’s conceivable that they used a place that [just hires] $15-an-hour people and have them press a button and print a report.”

The need to search multiple websites, or even travel, for court documents can be especially problematic for Bachelor producers, who typically make final casting decisions on tight deadlines. “I couldn’t tell you exactly at what point the background checks come in,” Carr said. “Ultimately, it could be days before shooting. You’re probably down to like 35 or 30 and you’re still only going to pick 25 of them, so some people really get right up to like day before, day of … and then these final decisions are made.”

Busy production schedules aside, production staff may also have a lack of legal obligation in ensuring every cast member is squeaky clean. According to Bachelor Nation, every contestant must sign a lengthy agreement that limits both the network’s and production company’s liability. Douglas Johnson, an entertainment lawyer at a Los Angeles–based firm, says that these agreements create less of an incentive to be strict about the vetting process, or what’s happening on set, because they are so overreaching.

“I think that they feel very insulated by these massive releases that, over and over, in the contracts, saying we’re not liable for what happens to you, even intentional neglect, even death in the last one I just saw,” he said.

The very nature of reality TV often requires producers to toe a line between choosing an applicant who might be good for television and one who won’t pose a threat to fellow castmates. “It’s so complicated because the people who go on these shows have a problem to begin with,” the anonymous former Bachelor producer said. “I’ve heard stories about how [a contestant] was in a bar fight in college, that was six years ago, no charges were pressed, he probably won’t hurt people on set. Sometimes you make a judgment call.”

But it is increasingly difficult to avoid the fact that people’s deepest, darkest secrets are, more often than not, buried somewhere on the internet, ripe and ready for a mob to harvest. “In this Trump world, I don’t know if there’s any real avoiding it,” the producer said. “There have been people who felt this way who have been cast in prior seasons. But now they have an outlet in social media. Now they have an option to double-tap a photo of Hitler. Before they would just read an encyclopedia and think to themselves, ‘I like Hitler.’ They’re empowered and there’s an outlet for it. It’s all fucked up.”

The key to the Bachelor franchise’s successful 16-year run has been its ability to maintain a closed universe and a lighthearted, almost gooberish tone. There are few shows on television that still feel the need to pixelate horse poop, throw rose petals all over the scene of a potential romantic encounter, or discuss “forever love.” Its semi-wholesome approach is part of its charm, and worrisome backstories like Yrigoyen’s and Adim’s not only compromise its contestants, but the show’s carefully constructed world. Whether the series sustains its impressive dominance over televised romance depends, in large part, on the behind-the-scenes processes that keep it palatable. But sweeping the world for damaging contestant information is an increasingly difficult task. As Cornwell put it, “This is going to get harder before it gets easier.”

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