Sharleen Joynt sipped her cocktail, embracing the giddiness that comes with being on a first date. They met online and now here they were, next to the floor-to-ceiling windows at New York City's Viceroy Hotel. The date felt casual and was going well, until the rush of pedestrian traffic outside caught Joynt's attention: Several girls were waving and pointing at her. Joynt, an opera singer, knew these girls weren't rabid fans of classical music; rather, they were among the millions of people across the country who watched her date a Venezuelan former professional soccer player on season 18 of ABC's The Bachelor. But her date didn't know that.
"I had to break that news," Joynt said. "It was awkward."
Returning to the real world after a stint on reality television requires a big mental recalibration. Everyone wants to know what it's like to spend time in front of the cameras and to acquire a fan base overnight. Watching the episodes when they air usually ends with you re-living the moment your heart was broken. If the producers were lucky, you even gave them an "ugly cry" somewhere along the way. It's a curious mix: both humiliating and ego-stroking.
With last night's conclusion of the 19th season of ABC's The Bachelor, a new crop of 30 women will now begin to navigate the benefits and inconveniences that come with returning to real life. What is it like to see yourself through the funhouse mirror crafted by The Bachelor's producers? How does spending weeks cooped up in a Los Angeles mansion, then traveling the world competing for the affections of one man or woman, affect contestants emotionally? We spoke to former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants, who told all.
Though there may be exceptions, all the contestants interviewed for this article said they were initially reluctant to appear on the show, only to end up being offered a spot in the cast and the promise of a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For Joynt, the offer proved too intriguing to pass up.
"I really almost didn't do it," Joynt said. "But then I felt like, I just don't want to regret not having done it." As a fan of the show, a peek behind the scenes was also enticing. "You go on it and you're like, 'This could bite me in the ass.' But I wanted to know how that sausage was made."
Sean Lowe, a contestant on season 8 of The Bachelorette and the star of season 17 of The Bachelor, was secretly nominated for The Bachelorette by his sisters, so a phone call from an ABC producer took him by surprise. "I told the casting director, 'Thank you for calling, but I would never do reality TV.' Before I hung up, she said, 'Think it over. At the very least, you could travel the world for free,'" Lowe said. "So I go work the next day, and I realize working really sucks, and a free vacation sounds really good right now. So that was my motivation behind getting on The Bachelorette."
Once Lowe arrived at the Bachelor mansion, however, he felt uncomfortable interacting with the other guys. "Admittedly, I was judging the other guys, thinking, 'No normal guys that I'd be friends with would do a reality show like that.' I realized that was extremely hypocritical because I was on there myself," he said.
Joynt described a similar feeling. "The rest of the girls are normal," she said, "even the crazy ones." She added that it's tempting, even for her, to still judge the girls who appear on the show. "I hear things they say in their interviews that are unrealistic, but I remember that experience and none of the girls were going around talking about how they're gonna end up with [The Bachelor]. I guess it's different when you're in an interview. I kind of feel like they're playing the part...it is very easy to get wrapped up."
Though the show is centered around finding love, one of the biggest misconceptions, Joynt said, is that everyone on the show is really there with the goal of falling in love. "People think, we're desperate to find love, we have a hard time [dating] in real life, so we're going to go on a reality show to find love? Give me a break," Joynt said. "Everyone goes in with an open mind."
As even the most casual viewer of The Bachelor or The Bachelorette knows, one of the biggest causes of conflict among contestants is the constant debate over who is there for "the right reasons." But in reality, it seems that being on the show for "the right reasons" simply means being open to the possibility of finding love, should you and your Bachelor or Bachelorette have chemistry.
"For me, it was just about dropping expectations," said Kiptyn Locke, the first runner-up on season 5 of The Bachelorette and a contestant on season 1 of its co-ed competition spin-off, Bachelor Pad. "I just thought, 'If there's something between me and the girl, great, if there's not, then no big deal.' I wasn't going to force it just because that was the show."
While the show can't force 25 to 30 singles to fall for the same guy or girl, it does do a fantastic job of eliminating distractions and creating an emotional pressure cooker where feelings are blown out of proportion. Contestants can't have cell phones, use the internet, watch movies, or even read books, so they have no choice but to talk to each other, and to stew about their feelings for their Bachelor or Bachelorette, the object of their competitive affection. Getting rid of all outside distractions, contestants say, can speed up the process of developing real feelings.
Lowe, who has been married for over a year to Catherine Giudici, whom he met on the show, knows this better than anybody. "I think it's easy to develop feelings of love. The hard part is when the show stops and you have to work on those feelings, and maintain a healthy relationship," he said. "Every week, when someone gets cut, and they're crying and saying, 'I really thought I was falling in love,' I don't think they're acting, and I don't think they've been brainwashed. I think those are some true feelings."
Even so, Lowe has no illusions about the show's purported goal of finding a husband or wife on television. "Any idiot could tell you that the show sets you up for failure," he said. "You're doing all of these amazing things, and then you fall in love with someone that comes from a different part of the country, has a different family, maybe has different values, and then you're thrown into the real world, and you're supposed to make it work. So I always tell people, I'm surprised that it's worked out for as many couples as it has."
But what about the majority of contestants, who leave teary-eyed in a limo as they lament their ouster? For Lesley Murphy, a political consultant-turned-travel blogger who was a contestant on Lowe's season of The Bachelor, the feelings seemed real, at least during filming. "When you're in the limo going home, and you're back in your hometown, without the cameras, it's like, 'Wait, did I really know [Bachelor Sean] as well as I thought I did?'" Murphy said. "You're reflecting about the time you spent together and there are very few moments you get, just together. I really didn't know him that well, but what I did know about him, I liked."
While Locke said he did develop real feelings for Bachelorette Jillian Harris, who ultimately rejected him in the finale, just being on the show forced him to closely consider what he truly wanted out of a relationship. "That was the first time in my life, and I was 31 years old, that I really analyzed, 'What am I compatible with? What is right for me?' I think if you really thought about what type of person you enjoy being around, what your essentials are, what's actually critical, it is different than what you might have thought it was supposed to be," Locke said. "[The Bachelorette] actually made me realize that what I want and need may be different than what I thought."
Robyn Howard, an oil field account manager and contestant on Lowe's season of The Bachelor, said that while she and Sean "never clicked," being on the show taught her to be herself and to be more open in a relationship, and that ultimately helped her find a healthy relationship with a new boyfriend after the show. "You learn on The Bachelor that you have to be yourself and give all of yourself [to a man] pretty quickly because you don't have much time," Howard said. That helped her when she went back into the dating pool. "You want someone who is going to accept all of you... If you don't accept me, great, now I can move on to the next!"
Life after appearing on a reality dating show poses its own set of problems, though. While being recognized on the street can be flattering, getting spotted on a first date, like in Joynt's case, or recognized during a job interview, as Howard did, can make a person wonder if the experience was really worth it (though Howard still got the job). Upon returning home after filming wrapped, Howard said it was strange to speak to friends and family again after being isolated for so long. "Then you go out in public and heads are turning. People take pictures without you knowing and post them. You almost feel like you have to be camera ready 24/7 because you never know when someone may want a picture. It's crazy because I think to myself, 'I'm no different than you.'"
While flattering, the amount of attention suddenly heaped on former contestants can be confusing. "Any of the attention you get is just because of the entertainment value," Locke said. "It's not because of anything special about me... it makes no sense. You're not a incredible musician, you're not a brilliant mind, you're not a star athlete. You just got a lens on you for a little while."
Though a dating show likely won't land you a successful relationship, perhaps that's the point. Murphy, who met her current boyfriend mere weeks after filming wrapped, thinks couples that find each other on the show are the exception rather than the rule. "I don't think you can go looking for [love], and I guess in a sense going on The Bachelor is going to look for it," she said. "A lot of people said Sean and I went pretty well together on paper. But you can't ever predict who will mesh well with somebody."