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How the ‘Bachelor’ Franchise Became an Influencer Launchpad

ABC’s long-running series famously blocks internet access on its set—and then its contestants find second careers on social media. Who was the first ‘Bachelor’ influencer? And does the growing fame of its contestants change the nature of the show?

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Here’s a little lesson in Bachelor franchise terminology. Almost as long as the show has existed, so has the concept of “the right reasons.” It was only three episodes into the show’s first season that a commercial real estate agent named Rhonda introduced the idea, after being eliminated by inaugural Bachelor Alex Michel. “Shannon’s here for the wrong reason,” she sobbed, referencing another contestant who was spared. “She wanted a ring on her finger before she ever met the man.” Soon thereafter, Rhonda had an anxiety attack and was never seen on television again.

For 23 seasons, the concept of “the right reasons” has been thrown around to make far less wholesome accusations, and in the process a network-sanctioned code of conduct has emerged. A contestant’s reasons are “right” only if they are on the show to fall in love with its lead and get married. Conversely, if, at any time during filming, a contestant lets slip that they went on The Bachelor(ette) because they wanted to travel, or promote their tequila brand, or “expand their opportunities,” they’re decidedly labeled as “not here for the right reasons.” They are immediately quarantined, interrogated, and—with a few major exceptions—removed from the group. The phrase has been uttered from hundreds of lip-glossed mouths over the years, between perfect, gritted teeth. During the 2013 season of The Bachelorette, producers even acknowledged its importance with a regrettable rap song featuring Soulja Boy, in which the contestants chanted “the right reasons” as the hook. If the walls of The Bachelor’s legendary Agoura Hills mansion could talk, they would undoubtedly say: “The reasons are not always right.” And also: “There are an inordinate amount of hair extensions caught in my plumbing.”

These days, the trope exists to address the core tension of the show: that people go on television to make money and get famous, not to fall in love. With the help of social media, the Bachelor franchise has become a launchpad for influencers who sell a wide range of lifestyle products, sustain a growing media ecosystem, and function as recurring characters within the show’s extended universe. The majority of its contestants now function as brand ambassadors, using their exposure on network television to package the show’s saccharine themes of physical fitness, relationships, love, and parenthood into lucrative independent businesses. Sometimes, they also pair off.

For the first decade of the franchise’s airing, ABC could still assert, with a shred of plausibility, that most contestants went on The Bachelor to find love. This premise was not borne out with actual long-lasting couples; in all 23 seasons of The Bachelor’s history, the only lead who has married the woman he selected in the finale is Season 17’s Sean Lowe, and The Bachelorette, which began airing in 2003, has an only slightly higher success rate of four marriages. Rather, the series maintained an air of innocence because the public presence of its contestants was mostly limited to the episodes they appeared in.

Even as nearly 10 million viewers tuned in for its 2002 series premiere, The Bachelor debuted when reality TV was still considered a fringe interest among certain media gatekeepers. Major newspapers like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post panned its early seasons. “This gauzy ABC dating competition is ‘Jackass’ for women: a reality show that revels in emotional risk taking and rejection in the same way that ‘Jackass,’ the MTV series, celebrates men’s foolhardiness and physical pain,” chief New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote in 2002. Influential publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair turned up their noses at reality stars, refusing to put them on their covers. Most B-listers who wanted exposure in the press could get it from only weekly gossip magazines like In Touch Weekly, Us Weekly, and People. And though these tabloids recognized the audience intrigue of a televised love story—Andrew Firestone and Jen Schefft became the first Bachelor couple to appear on the cover of Us Weekly, in 2003—initial Bachelor coverage rarely extended beyond each season’s final couple. Compared with the Jennifer Anistons and Paris Hiltons that dominated their coverage, lesser-known contestants were essentially noncelebrities.

Meanwhile, the social media infrastructure that would become essential to the rise of the Bachelor influencer was in its nascency. A year after Alex Michel broke Rhonda’s heart in 2002, MySpace was founded. (The original social network would eventually help pioneering internet fembot Tila Tequila land her own reality dating show.) A year after that, a Harvard sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg created a website called FaceMash, which prompted his classmates to rate each other’s hotness, and would be the initial framework for Facebook. Digital water coolers like Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube—now go-to Bachelor gossip pits—would arrive in the latter half of the decade. But none would rival the 2010 debut of Instagram’s photo feed, which brought the opportunity to build a personal brand based on lifestyle alone. As smartphone technology advanced to better accommodate high-resolution images and video, early adopter reality television stars like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian were well poised to capitalize on the foundational audience that national television had afforded them and grow their fandom. Faster than you can say “SugarBearHair vitamins” the framework for the influencer marketing revolution was established.

Today, the rapid expansion of the influencer marketing industry, and Bachelor Nation’s stronghold in it, has not only complicated the “right reasons” narrative, it has threatened the basic mechanics of the show. The most recent season of The Bachelorette ended in a breakup because its winner, Jed Wyatt, was revealed to have used the show to promote his music career while also maintaining a secret girlfriend. (A fact that his now ex-girlfriend confirmed via screenshots.) Its extraordinarily charming runner-up, Tyler Cameron, became such an independent social media success that he reportedly began dating supermodel Gigi Hadid and subsequently opted out of talks to become the next Bachelor, explaining to Entertainment Tonight reporter Lauren Zima that he “sat on it, thought on it, and my heart wasn’t in it.” (Cameron has since become a semiregular guest on a handful of podcasts about the series, including The Ringer’s Bachelor Party.) Meanwhile, the lead on that season, Hannah Brown, has amassed more than 2.5 million followers on Instagram, the most of any other contestant in the show’s history. Whereas five years ago, finalists would walk away from a season with anywhere from 30,000 to 500,000 new Instagram followers, they now easily surpass a million followers—and all the media opportunities and brand collaborations that come with them.

“The contestants have become celebrities in their own right,” Ashley Iaconetti, who first appeared on The Bachelor in 2015, told me. “They don’t necessarily need The Bachelor anymore after they get off the show because they have their own platforms to expose themselves to celebrity, to money, and all that. Because of social media, people are just a little bit less dependent on getting their fame right off the show.”

The chance to become an influencer has become the defining not-right reason to go on The Bachelor(ette). This powerful strain of Instagram fame has spread so far and wide that it cannot be ignored, isolated, or cut out in postproduction. And in recent years, the franchise has even launched spinoffs such as Bachelor in Paradise and Winter Games to support a growing secondary market for the nouveau celebrities who became famous because of its program. What was once a sideshow has now become a competing event. How did the Bachelor universe become an influencer breeding ground? And more important, who is its patient zero?

Though the larger influencer movement took root across a handful of social media platforms, including YouTube, Vine, and Twitch, the Bachelor cast indisputably found its “forever love” on Instagram. Whereas video platforms appeal to comedians, musicians, and other creatives who wanted to share their talents with the world, Instagram is the perfect platform for users to distill their lives down to glamorous, enviable snapshots. Soon after the social network premiered in the App Store in 2010, it became a nexus of terrible photography and a digital supplement to television, movies, and magazines—especially for viral sensations, tabloid regulars, and reality TV stars who were happy to overshare. In February 2012, Kim Kardashian posted her first image to the platform (a selfie). Her fourth photo plugged a line of jewelry she’d recently designed. A few months later, Facebook bought the company for $1 billion and began systematically transforming it into a data-generating growth machine. The following year, the app hit over 100 million monthly active users.

It wasn’t long before former, current, and future Bachelor(ette) contestants became part of that growing base. “What’s Instagram about? Largely photos,” Zima, who hosts a Bachelor recap series called Roses and Rosé, told me. “What’s being on TV about? Obviously there’s the drama, but you have to look good because you’re on camera.” Like most hot people, Bachelor(ette) contestants were naturally inclined toward platforms that allowed them to show off their hotness. They liked to share posts about what they were wearing, how they were eating, and where they were going on the weekends. Long before any teeth whitening ads entered the mix, their feeds foreshadowed the coming influence-nza.

Take the Instagram page of Tenley Molzahn, the runner-up from the 2010 season of The Bachelor, with Jake Pavelka. Molzahn started posting on the platform nearly a year after her season aired, displaying sepia-filtered snaps of her new boyfriend and gluten-free meals. Then came evidence of various media appearances: behind the scenes at an infomercial, lobbies of regional radio stations, hosting gigs. Finally, in August 2011, a whiff of pure product promotion: modeling a bracelet at an event for a socially conscious jewelry company named 31 Bits, with the caption “Love love love 31Bits!!!”

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Love love love 31Bits!!!

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For years, influencers have resisted disclosing whether their content is, in fact, advertising; long before the word “influencer” entered our lexicon, the line between a paid promotional post and a reality show star’s Instagram photo from a brand event was even blurrier. (See also: photos of Kardashian posing with random objects in 2007.) Whether Molzahn’s post with 31 Bits involved some kind of monetary exchange, only the sponcon gods know. But in April 2012, she shared a photo of a Ritual Cleanse juice, encouraging her followers to purchase their own with a promo code from her website. (Deliveries from the company became a normal occurrence on her feed that year.) That November, she promoted a similar deal—this time a glittery bracelet from Hello Fab—encouraging people to visit her Facebook page for “a special 40% discount.” By July 2013, she’d graduated to her first #ad for SoyJoy bars.

When I asked Bachelor experts to name the very first Bachelor influencer, no one mentioned Molzahn. Steve Carbone, who runs the Bachelor spoiler blog known as Reality Steve, suggested Andi Dorfman, the 2014 Bachelorette who quit her lawyer job and wrote a book soon after the show. Zima said Ben Higgins’s 2016 season “really launched the female contestants who have stayed in the limelight, relevant, and in influencer culture through to today.” And Amy Kaufman, the author of Bachelor Nation, pointed to Iaconetti as a self-starter in the industry. But Molzahn posted ads before all of them. Is she The Bachelor’s patient zero influencer? In the most clinical sense, yes. She graduated from the show as the runner-up the same year Instagram was released and used her newfound fame to advertise for brands on Instagram in exchange for some kind of material profit. But her early advertisements were few and far between, unfocused, and scattered across her website, Facebook page, and Instagram feed. Like the man who invented the selfie stick in the 1980s, Molzahn arrived far too early to the influencer market to truly capture its economic potential. “You’ve got to remember, Instagram didn’t even take off until 2012, 2013, 2014,” Carbone said. “It was around, but it wasn’t a thing that everybody was using.” She has nevertheless persisted: Her latest ad sings the praises of “hair milk,” hair oil, and dry shampoo from a brand called Love Beauty and Planet.

The question then becomes this: Who is the franchise’s first self-aware patient zero? Who among the Bachelor contestants arrived at just the right moment in Instagram’s precipitous growth cycle, seized it as a business opportunity, and staked out a Bachelor-adjacent social media brand far before it became a given to do so?

Instagram added 350 million monthly active users from September 2013 to September 2015, according to Statista, and new agencies like Niche began recruiting Vine and Instagram stars to make ads. “Brands and advertisers, looking for ways to reach audiences beyond television screens and magazine pages, are turning to people with many followers on social media and paying them to pitch products online,” The New York Times wrote in a 2014 profile of the company. An onslaught of consumer product startups began building their social media presences. Paul Desisto, an agent at CEG talent who frequently reps former Bachelor contestants, traces the beginning of the franchise’s influencer movement to a handful of visionary brands that kickstarted the trend. “2014, 2015 is when Instagram started to really develop and brands started spending money on it,” Desisto said.

Before Instagram, Bachelor contestants continued their 15 minutes of fame via live events. “The way to capitalize on Bachelor fame used to be club appearances, and meet-and-greets, and stuff like that,” Kaufman said. “And then they began combining that with the ads.” Desisto was at the center of this transition period during his former life as an EDM DJ. While on tour in 2014, he became friends with Juan Pablo Galavis—the retired soccer player who starred in the Bachelor’s 18th season—and the woman Galavis had proposed to on the show, Nikki Ferrell. When Galavis and Ferrell broke up, Desisto began managing club appearances for the former Bachelor as a side gig. But it wasn’t until Desisto heard from a little-known startup named FabFitFun that he recognized he was on the verge of a major business opportunity. The company wanted to pay Ferrell, who Desisto estimates had about 300,0000 Instagram followers at the time, to post about its monthly subscription boxes. He brokered the deal. “I was like, ‘Wow, if this works for FabFitFun, it could work for other companies too,’” he said. “So I started reaching out to some of the other women from the season that maybe didn’t have 300,000 [followers] but maybe had 50,000 or 75,000 to work for FabFitFun.”

On the other end of that transaction was FabFitFun’s third employee, Jolie Jankowitz. Jankowitz had kicked off the company’s influencer advertising program in the spring of 2014 by partnering with a handful of YouTubers, and was looking to expand. She was also a fan of The Bachelor. “It definitely started with us just being viewers ourselves,” she told me. “After YouTubers, those reality stars were actually my first go-to. Their audience aligns perfectly with FabFitFun, and to me it was a no-brainer.” The first two contestants she partnered with were Desiree Hartstock, the 2013 Bachelorette, and Clare Crawley, the runner-up from Galavis’s season. Soon after came Catherine Lowe (the 2013 Bachelor winner), Trista Sutter (the very first Bachelorette), and Ferrell.

Other trendy consumer lifestyle companies began following the same social-media-first advertising formula. After his success with FabFitFun, Desisto landed deals with MVMT Watches and DIFF eyewear. Then came HelloFresh and SugarBearHair vitamins. “The brands per category started just developing,” Desisto said. “It was kind of like a little economy. If you worked with us, we could bring you these five to 10 brands, which was huge back then, and they wanted to work with everybody and anyone.”

By 2015, the landscape for a truly strategic Bachelor influencer had taken shape. Instagram had grown to 400 million users, a new class of brands were funneling advertising dollars into personalities on the platform, and talent agencies were wrangling those personalities wherever they could find them. That year’s Bachelor starred Iowa farmer Chris Soules and featured a formidable slate of contestants: Jade Roper, a soft-spoken former Playboy model and cosmetics developer; Ashley Iaconetti, a freelance journalist with a penchant for tears and a love of Kardashian-inspired makeup; Becca Tilley, a squeaky-clean Southerner; Carly Waddell, a quirky cruise ship singer; and Kaitlyn Bristowe, a frank dancer from Canada. None of them won, but they all became immediate social media darlings. “Having gotten off the show, I had about 75,000 Instagram followers,” Iaconetti, who was portrayed as a dramatic virgin with a princess complex, told me. “I remember Jade, who was fourth place, got 200,000 followers. And then Whitney, who was the winner, ended up at 500,000 followers. Those were astronomical numbers.”

Iaconetti wasn’t the most followed of her season’s class, but she was particularly well positioned to take advantage of her new audience. The then-26-year-old from Wayne, New Jersey, was fresh out of a journalism master’s program and already kept a blog, where she shared beauty and health tips. She’d applied for the show because she thought it might help her land a job as an onscreen entertainment reporter. “My professors at Syracuse did not understand how I was going to get into entertainment. They were all very news- and school-oriented,” she said. “So I was like, ‘Hey, The Bachelor will get me in that lane.’ I also was going to be equally as happy if I found my husband through the process.”

Iaconetti’s air time put her on a media superhighway. After each episode of the season, she’d post screen grabs of her various makeup looks on the show and direct her followers to visit her website to learn how to re-create them. “I liked writing about beauty stuff,” she said. “And then I noticed that was one of the things that was constantly talked about with me on the show. The idea was just like, ‘Oh, if this is the response I’m getting from people on the internet, I might as well speak back to them on my own.’” Today, it’s almost a given that contestants post photos on Instagram alongside the airing of each new Bachelor episode, but Iaconetti was one of the first to take an active role in the expanding feedback loop that social media had created around the show. Almost immediately after the season concluded, FabFitFun offered her $1,000 for four Instagram posts.

“$250 a post,” Iaconetti said. “You’re telling me that I had to hold a box open and post a picture on Instagram and I’m going to get $250 from that? That was the most incredible thing I’d ever heard. Little did I know what it would become, and how so many of us would laugh at $250 a post now.”

Five years later, Iaconetti has built a successful multimedia career around the reality show that made her famous, solidifying her role as the first truly empowered host of the Bachelor-influencer bug. She still works for FabFitFun, posting photos of their latest boxes on her feed, and recapping new episodes of the show on the company’s Instagram Stories. You can find her recaps in written form on Cosmopolitan’s website, or listen to her interview new fan favorites on Almost Famous, an iHeartRadio podcast she cohosts with former lead Ben Higgins. “Ashley was really the person who seemed to capitalize on the scene,” Kaufman said. “She was just so unabashedly, like, ‘I will do anything.’”

As ABC began exploring offseason programming, Iaconetti remained an enthusiastic participant. She appeared twice on Bachelor in Paradise, and once on Winter Games, and met her now-husband, Jared Haibon, on the former. Haibon proposed to her on the beach in Sayulita, Mexico, in a special 2018 episode of Bachelor in Paradise as one of her exes from the vast franchise alumni base looked on sullenly. The two married this August at a Bachelor alumni-packed ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island. When Iaconetti shared her first wedding photo to her 1.1 million Instagram followers that month, she tagged 10 separate brands that made the big day possible. Her long history with the franchise illustrates the symbiotic relationship that social media has with the Bachelor franchise. Iaconetti’s presence online helped to drive a continued interest in the offshoots on which she appeared, just as the offshoots helped keep her relevant in the media. “How bizarre that I actually got the things that I wanted,” she told me. “The best things that you could possibly get out of that show: experience, travel, career, and love. I got all of it.”

Iaconetti’s so-called “journey” has become a standard manual for your average Bachelor contestant. “With The Bachelor, and with Bachelor in Paradise, I think [contestants] just look at it as, ‘This is an opportunity to where if I can get myself and last fairly long on the show, I’ll build up a followership,’” Carbone said. Step 1: Ensure screen time on the show, whether via tears, charm, villainy, or a fake Australian accent. Step 2: Post about your experience on Twitter and Instagram after every episode to grow your fan base. Step 3: Make connections with outfits like influencer agency Digital Brand Architects, Desisto, or fellow Bachelor Nation agent Lori Krebs. Step 5: Go on a press tour through the vast Bachelor media ecosystem. Step 6: Land some brand deals. Step 7: Go on Bachelor in Paradise. Step 8: Repeat steps five through seven until the end of time. “Most of them, honestly, quit their jobs,” Carbone said.

Like assembling Ikea furniture, this process is up for interpretation, and turns out differently for everyone. Some get stuck at the early stages. Some are exiled from the larger Bachelor community for violating its wholesome standards. (See: Peter Kraus or Bekah Martinez.) Others, usually a season’s lead, or one of the runners-up, hop around on other reality shows. (After their successful engagement in 2012, Sean Lowe first went on Dancing With the Stars, then he and his wife, Catherine, appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap, and then, finally, WE TV’s Marriage Boot Camp.) But if you can put together a post-Bachelor career with enough grace, someone—maybe ABC, maybe a bunch of brands—might cover the cost of your eventual wedding. Even if you’ve exhausted the system and come out single, you may still be able to count on the occasional Halo Top ice cream ad to supplement your income.

The one requirement through it all, however, is to remain attractive enough to move products. “One thing that people who were on the show years ago before social media consistently say is they can’t believe how much the glam factor has been upped,” Zima said. “Before, women would talk about how they would borrow some dresses from friends or just kind of pull what they have from their closet and then they just go on the show. But now, even before they go on the show, contestants are either reaching out themselves to brands or getting reached out to, and they’re getting PR clothes to go on the show.”

The franchise has scrambled to keep up with the outsized role that social media plays in its contestants’ lives. For a production that goes through great lengths to keep its cast members isolated from the outside world during its two-month filming stints, the internet nevertheless regularly influences major plotlines and Bachelor coverage. Recently, fans have begun to dig up contestants’ problematic social media posts during the airing of a season, revealing weaknesses in Warner Bros.’ vetting process. The seeds of Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s infamous post-finale switcharoo in 2018 were first planted when he messaged Lauren Burnham on Instagram. Almost all of the major plotlines of this past season of Bachelor in Paradise revolved around various direct messages and betrayals between contestants at the country music festival Stagecoach. (Revolve pun very much intended.)

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xoxo, gossip girl. @revolve @itsnbd

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Bachelor(ette) producers who have historically been hesitant to recognize Instagram’s influence on the show have loosened up in recent years, working within the rigid confines of the show to nod to it. At the start of Becca Kufrin’s season of The Bachelorette in 2018, they labeled Polish realtor Kamil Nicalek a “Social Media Participant” in what appeared to be a dismissive acknowledgement of his particularly thirsty Instagram presence. During Colton Underwood’s season in 2019, they gave finalist Hannah Godwin—who was clearly an Instagram influencer— the title “content creator.” In the subsequent season of The Bachelorette, when Jed Wyatt told Hannah Brown that he’d originally joined the show because it could boost his career as a country musician, it was the first time I could remember that such an admission was not met with the kind of urgent hostility that’s usually reserved for newly infected corpses on The Walking Dead. When every Bachelor contestant has influencer fever, the show no longer has to contend with who is infected, but how severe their symptoms are.

“They’ve come to accept it now, because it’s almost like they can’t ignore it,” Carbone told me. “They know people are coming on the show now to do this, and they will make story lines out of it.”

ABC’s “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” philosophy also extends to business opportunities. During a recent Bachelor Party appearance, the network’s senior vice president of alternative programming, Rob Mills, revealed that the show plans to set up a casting booth at Stagecoach in 2020. Carbone says Peter Weber’s upcoming season will feature a date sponsored by Revolve, a clothing brand that has historically thrived off advertising from Instagram-famous Bachelor contestants. To contend with a recent slew of independent podcasts, Warner Horizon—which owns the Bachelor and all its spinoffs—debuted its own official show, Bachelor Happy Hour, this summer, where former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay regularly gets exclusive interviews from within the franchise. The influencer economy has made plain the parallel motivations of Bachelor contestants and its behind-the-scenes puppet masters. But it has also morphed it into a valuable intellectual property that has helped a 18-year-old network television show weather a changing media environment, launch spinoffs, and draw in younger audiences. This is how people watch The Bachelor now—whether for “the right reasons,” or not.

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