In the third episode of the premiere season of ABC’s landmark reality dating show The Bachelor, contestant Rhonda Rittenhouse has some one-on-one time with Bachelor Alex Michel. They’re on a group date at Malibu’s Saddle Ranch, and he’s sensed some tension between her and the other women.
“It sounds like you’ve had a bit of an issue where you’re sort of annoyed with all of them,” says Michel, the type of preppy goober who would probably never be cast in 2021.
Rittenhouse, a redhead with a sweet Southern twang, reassures him that she’s “not annoyed at all.” She is, however, at a different stage in her life than some of the women she’s in competition with for Michel’s heart.
“I know what I want and I know what I’m doing here, and I’m not here to play games,” she says. “I’m not here to make friends.”
It’s a line that would morph into a recurring trope on the show, which is soon approaching two decades on air. “I’m not here to make friends” has inspired book titles, memes, merch and podcasts (including one that the authors of this article used to host). It’s almost a mission statement, in photo-negative, for a show that touts itself as the perfect place to fall in love: the relationship we’re all here to build is a romantic one.
But after 19.5 years of The Bachelor franchise, which comprises 42 seasons of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, plus 10 seasons of spinoffs like Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise, the vast majority of romantic relationships coming out of the show have failed—many quickly, including Michel’s relationship with his winner, Amanda Marsh Caldwell. It’s the friendships, above all, that endure. The contestants, hundreds of eager, white-grinned, heart-eyed 20- to 30-somethings, didn’t come to The Bachelor franchise to make friends, but as it turns out, that’s what they ended up with.
“I didn’t come here to make friends.”
There has always been friendship hiding in The Bachelor franchise, sometimes in plain sight. If you watch the first season of the show, which not only birthed the “not here to make friends” trope but the now-omnipresent accusation that another contestant is not there for “the right reasons,” there actually isn’t much drama on screen. Sure, there are some shady comments, and even direct conflict—but there are just as many scenes of the women chilling together, confiding in each other about their feelings for Michel, and performing goofy routines for the camera. There’s a sense that these women don’t quite know how to relate to each other while pursuing a serious relationship with the same guy, but they’re doing their best to muddle through it together.
On the first season of the show, everything was a bit of a surprise to all involved. And that meant that it felt like one big collective adventure. “We were so confused. We didn't know what was happening the next day,” said Shannon Oliver, the second runner-up of Season 1 of The Bachelor. “We didn't know that the rose ceremonies were going to take 12 hours. Everything was brand new to us. ”
This meant that there was a lot of down time where bonding naturally occurred. “The best times were with the girls at the house and a plethora of alcohol,” said Amanda Marsh Caldwell, the “winner” of Season 1 and Oliver’s roommate. “They buddied us up [and gave us] roommates and I hit it off with mine, Shannon. We were extremely close. We could help get each other ready for dates and pick out clothes. And we just had a lot in common.”
“The way I saw it, there were 30 women, thus I had a one-in-30 shot of finding love. The odds were much more in my favor to find friends.”
Once the show became a bona fide staple of American network TV, contestants came in with more solid expectations, and even trepidation about the dynamic in the house.
Derek Peth was only thinking about the possibility of leaving the show with a girlfriend or fiancée when he got on a plane to go meet Bachelorette Jojo Fletcher in 2016. He knew the chances were slim, but the show was ultimately and purportedly centered around marriage—and winning.
“There's this competition focus that I think men are taught from a very young age, that that's where their brain goes,” said Peth, describing the atmosphere of the Bachelor Mansion on his season. As the saying goes, love is a battlefield.
“It never crossed my mind that I would make friends. I basically viewed it as, I’m going on this show with 25 other dudes who are all competing for the same thing,” said JJ Lane, who was on Season 11 of The Bachelorette. “It’s like, you drop the puck on the ice and we’re all fighting for the puck.”
Becca Tilley, who appeared on Seasons 19 and 20 of The Bachelor, had similar feelings going into filming.
“To be honest, I didn't watch the show loyally when I went on and the one thing I knew from the show was the infamous ‘I'm not here to make friends’ line,” she said. She now counts Kaitlyn Bristowe, a fellow contestant from her first stint on the show during Chris Soules’s season, and Fletcher, a fellow contestant from Ben Higgins’ season of The Bachelor who went on to become Peth’s Bachelorette, among her best friends.
Of course, some contestants went in excited about the platonic relationships that might come out of the show, even as they also hoped to find love. “As much as we’ve all laughed as we hear that line ‘I’m not here to make friends,’ I was one hundred percent there to make friends,” said Andi Dorfman, who entered Bachelor Nation as a contestant on Juan Pablo Galavis’ season of The Bachelor, and then became the franchise’s 10th Bachelorette. “The way I saw it, there were 30 women, thus I had a one-in-30 shot of finding love. The odds were much more in my favor to find friends.”
“I was definitely one of those people that was like, I guess I’m not here to make friends, but why would you not want to make friends while you're here? Why would you want to be a jerk and alienate yourself and others?” said Michael Garofola, a contestant on Desirée Hartsock’s season of The Bachelorette, who thought that the network of new friendships he inevitably would make through the show might also lead him to potential future love. “Like, we can multitask here, right?”
The reality of the house, and the drama imperative
Regardless of their expectations, once contestants arrive and surrender to the strictures of the environment—no TV, no outside communication—many wind up in the same place as that first season of women: helping each other get ready for dates, swapping outfits, and having long heart-to-hearts. Contestants “are together basically 24/7 unless you get a one-on-one date,” pointed out Tilley. While the lead of the show typically has a packed schedule of glamorous dates, group activities, and interviews, the cast spends most of their time cooling their heels, waiting for a brief, precious opportunity to say hi to their love interest and maybe ask how many siblings they have.
“I don't want to say it was forced, but almost forced—I mean, you would probably go crazy if you didn’t have a conversation with anybody while you were there,” said Dustin Kendrick, who appeared on Hannah Brown’s season of The Bachelorette. “You’re more than welcome, I guess, to go lay in bed and take a nap, maybe go read a book or whatnot. But other than that, you were pretty much always around other guys.”
Being thrown together under such unusual circumstances, “you develop friendships on an accelerated schedule,” said Garofola.
Over time, the format of The Bachelor became increasingly calcified. This meant that the show needed to deliver bombshell moments of explosive “drama” in order to keep viewers engaged. Moments that in Season 1 are essentially glossed over became probable sites of major story arcs, in part due to selective editing and in part because producers learned to fish for signs of budding conflict in interviews and encourage contestants to have it out. “If you did take the bait and you did react to it, or you spoke about it in an ITM, or indicated that it bothered you to another guy, they would certainly seize on that. Then I think they would provide you with additional opportunities to do that, and opportunities to escalate it if you want,” said Garofola.
Scenes of the contestants confiding in each other about their burgeoning relationships or hanging out in the hot tub together were soon replaced with hostile confrontations over, to name a few points of tension that have caused drama over the years: whether someone is there for the wrong reasons; whether someone is too young for marriage or too old to be desirable to the lead; whether they’re fake with the lead, rude to the other contestants, or generally unpleasant to be around; whether someone took too much time with the lead during a group date; whether someone displays toxic masculinity; whether someone is spreading rumors that another contestant is an escort; and whether someone snitched about house drama to the lead. In comparison to these clashes, contestants enjoying a snowball fight together was essentially dead air.
“As recently as 2018, I was told, ‘the audience does not want to see you broing out,’” said Garofola, who appeared on seasons of Bachelor in Paradise and The Bachelor: Winter Games in the years following his original season. Producers, he said, told him, “‘no one gives a shit that you guys are really good friends. They only care about watching the relationships with Des or watching you guys argue and fight.’ So that was sort of the mentality of the editing.”
Men were often shown butting heads in over-the-top displays of machismo. On a group date on Fletcher’s season, contestant Chad Johnson famously shoved one of the other men and ripped his shirt, then bloodied his own hand punching a wall. Later, he ranted at the men that he wanted to cut off their arms and legs and throw their torsos in the pool.
“It did bring us together, but it’s not what keeps us together.”
Women on The Bachelor, meanwhile, are frequently depicted being catty, snide and back-biting, while their moments of mutual support and bonding are left on the cutting-room floor. This trope was made central during the most recent season of The Bachelor, starring Matt James. Charges of bullying became a multi-episode plot arc, while moments of bonding were nearly nonexistent.
“Every season of The Bachelor, people think like, oh, there’s mean girls, people are mean,” said Chelsea Vaughn, who was branded a bully by viewers during her season after getting into a relatively mild verbal disagreement with Katie Thurston during the “Women Tell All” special. “And so one thing that’s made me really sad is that sometimes when I meet fans, they’ll come up and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, you guys are so nice. We thought you were going to be mean just based on what we saw on the show.’”
The Rise of Bromance
Friendship, however, finds a way. It even, eventually, finds a way to be good TV.
In the summer of 2015, ABC aired its second season of Bachelor in Paradise, a spin-off in which franchise rejects get a second (or third, or fourth) chance at love during a musical-chairs-style competition set at a Mexican beach resort. BIP’s tone is cheekier and more irreverent than the main shows, which leaves room to focus on narrative threads that don’t only center romantic love. (The Season 7 premiere, which aired last week, included a scene where viewers got to watch a bunch of women mock their male counterparts “bro-ing out” on the beach.)
On season 2 of BIP, Jade Roper (now Tolbert) and Carly Waddell, fresh from Season 19 of The Bachelor, arrived in Sayulita, Mexico already fast friends. Once there, Roper quickly settled into a steady relationship with Tanner Tolbert, while Waddell became besotted with Kirk DeWindt, who had appeared on Season 6 of The Bachelorette. Their romance seemed promising, and Waddell rhapsodized about her excitement at finding her person—only for DeWindt to blindside her with a breakup late in the season. Heartbroken, Waddell fled the scene of the crime. “Jade!” she called out repeatedly, through tears, as she ran back to the house. “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,” Roper called back from off screen, running to meet her. Waddell flung herself into her friend’s arms and sobbed. In our living rooms, there was not a single dry eye. This was friendship made melodramatic, a love more cinematic and alluring than any heterosexual engagement ever purveyed by The Bachelor.
This scene hit at the right time, a time when friendship among women reigned supreme in the cultural imagination. This was, after all, the era of Girls, Broad City and Elena Ferrante. In the few years immediately following Waddell and Roper’s big moment of support, viewers were treated to a handful of glances into the friendships that were forming behind the scenes, and the role that these women played in supporting each other through emotional hardship—even as they ostensibly “fought” over a man.
Becca Tilley, who appeared both on Season 19 of The Bachelor with Waddell and Roper and on Season 20 following their Bachelor in Paradise storyline, took note of a shift in how her own friendships showed up on screen. “I feel like they definitely showed more of my friendship with JoJo [on Season 20],” she said. “We had a group date where we were teammates and we were laughing the whole time even though we lost. We have a GIF of us doing arm curls while drinking mimosas that was shown. We were just always laughing.”
“It’s not that the friendships didn’t exist in prior seasons, it’s that there was a deliberate choice not to show those relationships.”
In Season 21, frontrunners Rachel Lindsay (who became the next Bachelorette) and Vanessa Grimaldi (who was later chosen by Nick Viall) had a heated confrontation on camera, seemingly just the thing to spice up the season for viewers. Instead, the conflict never aired, perhaps because production preferred to protect the images of a future lead and a series winner. Courtney Robertson could be the girl who didn’t come to make friends and leave with the final rose in Season 16, but now, perhaps, audiences preferred to root for someone who seemed like she’d be nice to have brunch with.
Men being friends, meanwhile, was not faring as well on the franchise. Kaitlyn Bristowe’s 2015 season of The Bachelorette did make space for the bond between two contestants—as a punchline.
When JJ Lane first met Clint Arlis, they didn’t immediately connect. “We both were a little alpha-y and we were kind of butting heads a little bit,” he said. “And then it became some kind of mutual respect.” The two became close and remained in touch after the show. But they weren’t prepared to see how their friendship was displayed on screen.
A teaser for Episode 4 of the season hinted that for the first time ever, two men had fallen for each other on the show. The promo played a clip of Arlis saying “I love JJ, so I need a rose tonight,” and called the episode “Brokeback Bachelor.”
“I was with my girlfriend in Aspen and woke up to 40 text messages,” Lane recalled. “I called Clint. I was like, ‘Hey, we have to be really careful on this situation.’” He wanted to avoid lashing out and seeming humiliated by the show’s insinuations about their relationship. Instead, the two joked about the narrative on social media, even as the actual episode made lavish hay out of footage of the two chatting about turtles in the hot tub and Arlis squinting soulfully at JJ while strumming his guitar.
Lane says the edit was strung together from out-of-context clips of the two of them goofing around, just like the other men in the house were during downtime in filming, and from Frankenbitten producer interviews with Arlis, who was offering sarcastic responses to lines of questioning that annoyed him. “They’d ask him like, what are you here for? He’s like, oh yeah, I’m here to hang out with JJ. He would do it in this super sarcastic way. That just got flipped on him, and on us.”
“If they attempted to pull that same edit today, only six years later—really what they were doing is, they were saying that by being gay, that’s bad,” said Lane. “They were mocking us.” That edit did garner widespread critique, though not as much as it surely would now. As it often is, the franchise was slightly behind the culture, a culture that was shifting against macho displays of masculinity and homophobic disgust with platonic male intimacy.
As the Trump years dragged on—a time in which women found themselves organizing in earnest around concrete political demands—tender friendship between straight men took center stage. Think pieces began to move away from celebrating the joys of friendships among women to questioning the comparative dearth of men being friends. Garofola remembered his male friends being struck by a widely circulated 2019 Harper’s Bazaar article headlined “Men Have No Friends and Women Bear the Burden,” which examined how women face enormous demands for emotional support from men in their lives who lack intimate friendships with other men. The need for male camaraderie was in the air, and the show’s audience wanted to see interactions between men that were not dominated by homophobia and hyper-macho displays. And The Bachelorette began to deliver just that.
During Clare Crawley and Tayshia Adams’ season, which aired in 2020, the men were depicted as fundamentally supportive of each other; thrilled to get to hang out with new friends after months of COVID quarantine. During one cocktail party, Joe Park and Brendan Morais were shown tenderly grasping each other’s arm and knee, and viewers begged for more on this burgeoning “bromance.” In December, Morais posted a video of himself and Park side-embracing while emoji hearts burst out of their chests. “I’m thinking @josephparkmd and I are top 10 bromances of all time...maybe even top 5?!! What do you think?” read the caption. Fans were rapturous.
On the most recent season, which wrapped up on August 9, softboy-style bromance was such a recurring theme that one contestant, Connor Brennan, wrote a song about it which he performed during the “Men Tell All” special. In contrast to promos depicting Arlis and Lane’s friendship in 2015, promos for Bachelorette Katie Thurston’s season told viewers to “come for the romance, stay for the bromance.” Thurston’s suitors take selfies together, wax each other, cry together, embrace each other, and tell each other “I love you.” There is a cheekiness to the promo, but fundamentally the message is that platonic male friendship should be a positive draw.
“The show, to its credit, has recognized that and has made a shift and has spent time focusing on some of those friendships,” said Garofola, who stressed that friendships between men on the show had always formed. He recalled being warmly embraced by the four final men on his season when he left just before hometowns, a moment that didn’t make the episode. “It’s not that the friendships didn’t exist in prior seasons, it’s that there was a deliberate choice not to show those relationships.”
Vaughn found herself a little jealous while watching Thurston’s season, having just come off of a season of The Bachelor which was hyper-focused on the way the women mistreated each other. (It’s worth noting that James’ season was also the most racially diverse in the franchise’s history.) “I don't know if it’s because of men versus women—but they are showing a lot more of the men on [Thurston’s season], their personalities and even their friendships,” said Vaughn “When Connor [Brennan] left and all the guys were crying, talking about how much they loved him. They never showed anything like that with us.”
The arrival of the social media influencer game
As the franchise navigated the rapidly shifting terrain of societal ideals around friendship, it was also being buffeted by another social sea change: the rise of social media and the ensuing explosion of influencing and podcasting.
When the show premiered in 2002, it was relatively simple for production to isolate contestants and limit their contact with each other after the show. Social media barely existed. “We didn’t have Facebook. And so I literally had a notebook that I snuck in there, because they did not want us to exchange information, and everyone wrote their phone number and email address in my notebook,” said Oliver. “I got everyone together on an email group. I mean, that's literally how we had to communicate.”
Early cast members were also thrown together by formal press junkets and the occasional charity event. But once interest in their seasons waned, so did their public profiles. Any friendships that remained were based on the bonding that naturally occurred from going through such an odd and formative experience.
“We truly [have] a friendship and bond from a unique experience, but not to gain something from each other,” said Caldwell. “Now it’s, oh, well you have a lot of followers, so I want to get close with you and then maybe we can get together and make a podcast.” Caldwell, who has fewer than 2,000 followers on Instagram, is still close with Oliver, and has plans to see Adams in Kansas City later this year.
As the The Bachelor franchise grew to be a true ratings juggernaut, contestants found ways to capitalize on this window of opportunity by making paid appearances at events and nightclubs. “People thought, okay, well, we have about a few months where we are sort of relevant,” said Garofola. “A lot of guys were like, let’s do all these appearances, and some guys I know hired agents, and definitely there were some guys that were like, ‘we should hang out together.’ I’ll come to Miami or you come here and we’ll go out together.” Doing events together became a way to keep friendships alive—and perhaps also, at the same time, to capitalize on their moment of fame and maximize their draw.
“Sometimes I forget, like, oh yeah, how did you meet Brooks? Oh yeah, we were on The Bachelor together.”
But these strong incentives to continue hanging out for show-related purposes had a short shelf life. “That all changed with social media and with the other shows, with Bachelor in Paradise,” he said. “Not only with social media, but with podcasts.” Through these media, ex-contestants could stay present in the minds of fans, maintain a public profile, and make money off of it with relative ease.
Shows like Paradise and podcasts run by ex-contestants remix and mingle cast members from different seasons, creating new friendships that more tightly connect each person to the show universe—and to personalities who are currently relevant in Bachelor Nation. Former contestants who host Bachelor-adjacent podcasts “are perpetuating their involvement in the franchise,” pointed out Garofola, who has numerous friends from various seasons of the franchise but hasn’t befriended anyone from the more recent ones. “If I had a podcast and was inviting one of these guys on the pod, I could see how we would be friends. [Podcasters] are becoming friends with each season[’s contestants] as it airs. And so their ability to stay relevant and stay in Bachelor Nation’s mind is sort of enhanced by that.”
The franchise has always made it easy to sell a successful romantic relationship—people who come out of the show in a stable relationship have long had access to larger platforms and greater opportunities to capitalize financially—but those aren’t the only kinds of relationships people find relatable, aspirational, or pleasurable to see. And, as all the podcasts—like Mommies Tell All with Roper and Waddell, and Kendrick’s podcast with Peter Weber, Bachelors in the City—and Instagram collabs have demonstrated abundantly, friendship actually does sell.
“I do think that the Bachelor audience wants to see that because I think even now, like when I hang out with my friends from the show on our Instagrams, people love it,” said Vaughn, who often posts videos and photos with show buddies such as Pieper James, Kit Keenan and Abigail Heringer.
If you’re an influencer, as many Bachelor alumni today are, posting what your followers love is crucial to your success. “There is a financial benefit to constantly inserting yourself in that world,” said Garofola. “I’m not saying that they don’t have genuine friendships with some of these people, but I think a lot of it is sort of exaggerated, and I think a lot of it is a symbiotic relationship, especially with social media and being able to monetize social media.”
It’s enough to make the cynical wonder: Have these friendships become products that are sold to the audience, rather than genuine relationships? It doesn’t help that access to post-show events, brand opportunities and other Bachelor shows, like the summer spin-off, Bachelor in Paradise, are at least in part determined by follower counts.
“People that get the same number of followers tend to cluster together in real life. They’re then more likely to go far in Paradise and be asked back for future seasons,” said Jacqueline Trumbull, who was a contestant on Arie Luyendyk Jr.’s season of The Bachelor.
Despite making it to week 7, just before hometown dates, Trumbull found her connection with Luyendyk largely edited out of the show when it made it to air. Her best friend during filming, Kendall Long, who she remains close with today, made it into the top three and gained several hundred thousand followers on Instagram. “The show puts you in different mindsets when you leave—a little bit akin to a trauma in some ways,” said Trumbull. “It was hard for me after the show. I had some jealousy. You go in the same [as everyone else on your season] and then you have this clear marker of social acceptance—airtime and social media.”
Trumbull also recalled the explicit way that a contestant’s fall from Bachelor Nation grace can impact their public-facing friendships. When Jenna Cooper, another contestant from Luyendyk’s season and one of Trumbull’s good friends, came off of Bachelor in Paradise, she found herself at the center of (eventually proven false) claims that she had cheated on her then-fiancé Jordan Kimball. She quickly became persona non grata in Bachelor Nation, which Trumbull says affected how women in their Bachelor cohort interacted with her.
“When Jenna’s relationship was destroyed, she was on a trip with a few of us, and only a couple of us were willing to be in photos with her,” said Trumbull. “And that felt really shitty. They didn’t want to deal with the hate and harassment—and I got some for being in those photos! You’re encouraged to go against your principles to keep yourself safe.”
Despite the competitiveness and calculations that can arise, it’s also worth considering that ex-Bachelor influencers are more to each other than potential likebait: They’re fellow workers.
When Roper, Tolbert, and Lane all came off of Paradise in 2015, Lane was in a tough spot professionally. An investment banker prior to going on the show, he was still dealing with a divorce and paying child support but struggled to find work in a reputation-minded industry after receiving a villain edit on The Bachelorette. And, unlike his buddy Tolbert, who was emerging from the show engaged to a fan darling, he had a limited social media platform from the show. “Tanner saved my butt,” he said. “I just needed money. And Tanner called up his agent and he goes, ‘Hey, if you're going to represent me, you have to represent JJ and you need to get him deals.’” Lane says today, the two are in business together and remain very close.
Vaughn insisted that when her group of friends hangs out, “it's not a situation where anyone is hyper aware of like, oh, she's got half a million followers and she only has 30,000.” In fact, she says, the group has relied on each other as sources of solidarity in an industry that can be exploitative of women’s labor and particularly prone to underpaying Black women. “I will ask Abby or Pieper, like, oh, did this brand send you this? Are you working on this deal?” she said. “You talk to your coworkers about how much they’re making so that we can make sure we're all getting what we deserve.”
The enduring nature of friendships
When former contestants who went into filming The Bachelor or The Bachelorette prepared for romantic battle look back at their experiences with the benefit of time and space, one element that endures is the friendships they made along the journey.
When Dorfman’s engagement to Josh Murray ended in January 2015, the first person she called was a friend from The Bachelor, Kelly Travis. Dorfman ended up living in Travis’ house for more than a month, and their bond has sustained throughout the years. “She is just my ride or die and I’m hers,” said Dorfman about Travis. “There’s not a week that goes by that we aren’t on the phone for hours at a time. I go to Atlanta to see my family and literally stop by her house first.”
For some, the further away the shared experience of filming a reality TV show becomes, the more other life experiences become the focus of these relationships. Oliver and Caldwell have been to the weddings and baby showers of former castmates, and sporadic mini-reunions still occur. When they do see each other, The Bachelor doesn’t even come up. “It did bring us together, but it’s not what keeps us together,” said Caldwell.
When he’s talking to longtime friends from the show like Brooks Forester, Garofola said, “Sometimes I forget, like, oh yeah, how did you meet Brooks? Oh yeah, we were on The Bachelor together.”
Time also lessens the artificial divides of the follower-based social caste system. It’s now been three years since Trumbull was last on TV, during the 5th season of BIP. But in some ways, the friendships she made on the show feel stronger now than they did during filming. She is in close touch with Cooper, and she and Long recently went on a girls trip to wine country with fellow season-mates Caroline Lunny and Becca Kufrin (Season 14’s Bachelorette).
“Once you’re out of [Bachelor world], there’s a realization of how flimsy it was and it doesn’t last, and then it becomes easier to just relate to people,” said Trumbull. “We’re just people who have a lot of love for each other. It’s a more normal relationship.”
Perhaps the shakiest concept, the first to crumple in the face of these real relationships, is the mythology of “not here to make friends.”
“I was pulled aside by the guys and I made a comment, you know, I didn’t come here to make new friends. This isn’t church camp,” said Lane, recalling his early days on the show. “I look back on it, and the only thing I have from The Bachelor is friends.”
Claire Fallon and Emma Gray co-host the Bachelor podcast Love to See It.