A Bachelor Oral History: The Evolution of Reality TV's Most Dramatic Product

They were there for the right reasons and to make friends. Now The Bachelor's most famous faces are celebrating the 20th anniversary by telling E! News all about their amazing journeys.

By Sarah Grossbart Mar 17, 2022 4:03 PMTags
Watch: "Bachelor" Alums Reveal Their MOST DRAMATIC Moments

Can we steal you for a second?

Because we'd like to reflect on a time 20 years ago when red roses were reserved for Valentine's Day, hot tubs were mostly found in backyards and near hotel pools (and not, say, on the side of a Colorado mountain) and terms like "fantasy suite," "two-on-one" and "group date" were largely meaningless. And then businessman Alex Michel walked into our lives and we all embarked on an amazing journey that changed everything. 

Because as much as The Bachelor (and subsequent spinoffs like The Bachelorette, Bachelor PadBachelor in Paradise and The Bachelor Winter Games) have evolved since that March 25, 2002 debut, the formula—lead courts 25 or so potential spouses in the hopes of proposing to one in what will be deemed the most dramatic finale ever—has remained steadfast.

And, yet, thanks to the advent of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and gummy hair vitamins—none of which were around when Harvard grad Alex awaited the limo arrivals outside a Malibu spread some 10 miles from the 10,000-square-foot villa we now think of as The Bachelor Mansion—the series is undeniably different two decades later, both in the theatrics that it highlights and the savviness of the contestants it attracts. 

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Turning up in L.A. to court dueling Bachelorettes Kaitlyn Bristowe and Britt Nilsson in 2015, Ben Higgins was simply "looking for a story to tell that was unique and special that I could be proud of," he recalled in an exclusive chat with E! News. And he soon discovered he was surrounded by a gaggle of like-minded men on the hunt for a similar adventure. 

Fast-forward seven years and, "I do think people have these ideas that this is going to be a whole new career for them and they're going to be influencers," he continued. "And that's fine. You know, I was in a place in life where I was ready to quit my job and move on. But, I think it's taken away the main focus of why you do it."

Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt / E! Illustration

Or as DeAnna Stagliano (née Pappas)—who went from being blindsided by two-time Bachelor Brad Womack to handing out the roses on The Bachelorette in 2008—put it, "People can walk off on night one with 200,000 followers and sell so much teeth whitener, that they don't have to have a real job."

She, Higgins and the other Bachelor Nation OGs who spoke with E! News in a series of phone and Zoom interviews are torn when it comes to just how long we have until the bloom starts coming off the rose, so to speak, and how much of a reinvention the series would require to still be on the air when its 30th anniversary rolls around in 2032.

But whether they actually found their person within the confines of the franchise's hyper-focused six- to nine-week shooting schedule (hi Trista and Ryan, Sean and Catherine and Jason and Molly!) or endured a few more years of (presumably helicopter-less) one-on-one dates before handing out that proverbial final flower, they're generally in agreement about one thing: The journey was a worthwhile one, despite any thorns they might have encountered.

Well that, and as season one "winner" Amanda Marsh Caldwell put it in a sentiment that was echoed time and again: "I really don't want to ever see another rose."

Though there was certainly a stretch where DeAnna felt jaded by the whole experience, "I'm at a place now where I am grateful for my time on the show," she told E! News. "It's one of the longest living reality shows on television, and the fact that people want to watch is really incredible. To be a small piece of that feels really special." 

So let's "cheers" to 20 years of fantasy suites, proclamations of why Paris, Croatia, Toronto and [insert city here] are "the perfect place to fall in love," and contestants who were there for the right reasons by reliving how reality TV's most dramatic series came together. 


Season 1 winner Amanda Marsh-Caldwell was approached by a producer over lunch to audition for the then-unknown series. Trista Sutter saw an ad on TV. And Bob Guiney was pretty certain he ended up amongst Sutter's potential husbands because a coworker was pulling his (recently surgically reconstructed) leg. "Literally, I'm crutching around the office, looking at all these people, waiting for them to start laughing," he recalled. But most of Bachelor Nation's OGs say they were looking for adventure, a potential love match and a good story—not Instagram followers, podcast opportunities and a ticket to Mexico. 

Trista Sutter (runner-up, The Bachelor season 1; lead, The Bachelorette season 1): I was watching Extra in my apartment in Miami when I was a physical therapist and they were talking about a new reality show and you'd get to travel and meet people. It was a dating show, but I was like, "Travel? Meet people? Let's do this!" I thought it would be a fun experience so I applied online.


Aaron Buerge (lead, The Bachelor season 2): It was a practical joke by the tellers who worked for me at the bank. They watched the first season and thought their boss needed to settle down. I came back from lunch one day and I had a voice message from ABC saying, "Hey, thanks for filling out the app. Now if you'll take five minutes of your time to make a video and send it in." VHS—back then it was a tape to get in.

Bob Guiney (The Bachelorette, season 1; lead, The Bachelor, season 4): I never did a video. They said, "Well, we need you to do a demo." And I said, "Yeah, no, I'm not doing that. I'm not going to be the fat guy in your blooper reel getting out of the shower, like, 'Hey, Trista, it's me.'" 

Jason Mesnick (The Bachelorette season 4; lead, The Bachelor season 13): In all honesty, I originally submitted my casting tape to be on Survivor! I'm a traveler, I've done big backpack trips around both Europe and Costa Rica, so I was looking for adventure! Casting called and asked if I would go on The Bachelorette instead. Still an adventure, just different, right?

Catherine Lowe (winner, The Bachelor, season 17): I was dating somebody and my best friend at the time put me up. They called me for casting and I was very much flattered, but still dating this person. So I called him and he said, "You should do it." He was a total douche for saying that.

No matter how they ended up stepping out of a limo and into a fantasy land of roses, hot tubs and helicopter rides, most contestants agree the start of their Bachelor journey was, indeed, quite dramatic. 

Molly Mesnick (runner-up, The Bachelor, season 13): People don't realize how big of a production The Bachelor is. On that first night, there are eight cameras going, audio, producers, lights—it's like nothing you've ever experienced. Then add in 24 other women, who are intimidatingly gorgeous, and one man that you are all competing for. I honestly think I just went numb that whole night!

Sean Lowe (The Bachelorette, season 8; lead, The Bachelor, season 17): You step out of the limo and then you're surrounded by cameras and producers. I was introduced to reality TV pretty quickly because I remember producers saying, "Okay, hold on. We're going to get you in there at a specific time." On TV it looks like the guys were jockeying for position, but I remember it being quite different.

Dave Hagerman/ABC

Ben Higgins (The Bachelorette, season 11; lead, The Bachelor, season 20): You show up to L.A. and you get to this hotel and you're there for, like, two-and-a-half days just in your room. And then one day, they came in and said, "Hey, today's the day. You should get your suit on around, like, four o'clock." I don't think it was until 8:30 somebody came and knocked on my door. 

I was the first car and it had former professional athletes in it. It had doctors. [Eventual winner] Shawn Booth was in it and he's wearing, like, a Gucci suit. And I had gotten all my suits from Kohl's and got them tailored by this mall tailor. All of a sudden it hit me, I don't belong here. At all. I walked out of the limo, I talked to the Bachelorettes and I lost my voice. I failed miserably. 

I was convinced, absolutely convinced [I was going home] until I sat down with Kaitlyn on the second night and I asked about her tattoos. She found it really interesting. And I was like, "Nobody else has asked you about the two birds you have on the back of your arms?" That feels like the standards for communication might not be that high.

Rick Rowell/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Much like the rest of the contestants who made it past the dreaded night one purge, Ben soon found himself developing very real feelings. Ultimately, he and Kaitlyn connected much more as friends ("The question was, 'Are we romantic partners?' And it's like, 'No, we aren't'"), but he believes each hopeful spouse is able to fall so hard, so fast because "the show has done a great job of facilitating an environment where you can be interested in this person fairly easy."

Ben: Kaitlyn and I got along really well. Our fantasy suite was an incredibly fun evening that felt real. We just had gotten a bottle of Irish whiskey and we laughed and listened to music and danced around.  

Catherine: It's a concentrated process. But I think on the other side of the coin, you're not wasting any time. So the non-negotiables come up pretty fast, like, "Oh, you don't want kids? Okay, well then maybe this isn't for me." And in the real world, it would be maybe six months before you would have that conversation.

And while she and Sean ultimately proved quite compatible—eight years of marriage and three kids later—she noted how easy it was to put him "on a pedestal" while she was competing against 24 other women for his heart. 

Catherine: You're idealizing this person so much. You're making them something because all you think about is that person. It was just only about him where you don't really tap into what the real world problems could be. 

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Bob: It's like a social science experiment. They cast people who have never lost anything. None of the women who come on that show are coming on there because they can't find a date. Ninety-nine percent of them are coming on that show because they've been dating every type of guy in their town and they can't find the right guy. But they sure as hell aren't losing to that girl. You know?

It got to the point where I started to think that you could have had a monkey handing out flowers and people would have fallen in love with him. I remember at a rose ceremony just going, "This is no prize, ladies." It didn't make the air. But I was trying just to make it real. I was so afraid I was going to walk off that show and people were going to go, "This is not at all what they told me he was." I didn't have a hot air balloon. The Lear jet wasn't mine. 

Amanda Marsh-Caldwell (winner, The Bachelor, season 1): You do become competitive no matter who you are. I mean, you get so isolated: No cell phones, TV, computer. So, all you have in common is this guy, essentially, and you're interviewed all day long about this guy. You get warped into like, "This is all that's happening in the world."

You eventually feel like he is the last man on earth. Human race survival takes over and you have to win no matter what. It's pretty wild.


DeAnna, in particular, remembers how devastated she felt when Brad left without giving his final rose to her or co-finalist Jenni Croft. "Especially because of the things he said to me off camera and behind the scenes," she noted. And for a stretch after filming in 2007, "I had these high expectations that Brad was going to come to his senses and choose to be with me." Then the bubble burst. 

DeAnna Stagliano (The Bachelor, season 11; lead, The Bachelorette, season 4): He's the only guy in the room that you have to fall in love with. I mean, somebody dresses him the finest that you can ever dress and there are helicopters. It's easy to think, "Oh, this is your life and I love this person." And clearly looking back, we didn't have a deep connection. We didn't talk about important things. He wasn't funny and I'm really into someone's personality and humor.


After filming wrapped, DeAnna had producers "calling me every week to check on me," she recalled. "Which I thought, 'Oh, they just genuinely love me.' I was naïve and really, they wanted to see if I was still single because they wanted me to be The Bachelorette." Because, yes—big shock here!—production definitely has a hand in guiding the ship from casting just the right stories to guaranteeing dramatics on that final proposal platform. And though a lot of the contestants insist they are ultimately the ones calling the shots, producers never shied away from sharing their thoughts. 

Sean: Maybe if I knew right off the bat, these 10 women are not good fits for me, the producers would say something like, "Well, you're only eliminating two this week, so, why don't you think about keeping her or her because they're fun and you enjoy being around them?" Ultimately that means they're good for TV. But, in my experience, if I wanted to keep someone, they would never tell me to cut her or vice versa. 

Ben: The show will definitely push you to be like, "Hey, you should try this," or, "This person has a bigger story than what they've shown you so far." But if it ever came down to it and I was like, "Cool, but I'm just not interested," they would never, like, put their foot down. They'll push it as far as they can until they know your decision's been made. 

There wasn't anything that I look back on that I felt was not true or consistent. And did I feel like I had a lot of control. Because, quite frankly, even if they said, "You need to keep this person," you're still the one on camera, like, you can do whatever you want. 

Dala Yitzhak/ABC via Getty Images

Trista: On my season, there was one guy that got out of the limo and looked right at the camera, was not looking at me. I was like, "He's gone." And [then-producer] Lisa Levenson was like, "What?! Are you kidding?" She told me that the producers had made a bet of who I would end up with and that was her guy. They let me make that decision. But these days, I don't think that's as easy to do.

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At the end of her six-week whirlwind, Trista accepted a proposal from sweet firefighter-slash-amateur poet Ryan Sutter. And after months of secret rendezvous ("They flew him with a handler and he had to wear a wig or something," she recalled), some 17 million viewers were pulled into their televised 2003 wedding. Among their friends and family, though, she admitted, "There were a lot of questions, a lot of hesitancy."

Because with first two Bachelors Alex and Aaron splitting with their final picks (Amanda and Helene Eksterowicz) within a year of their respective finales, "it hadn't really ever been proven by anybody that you could have a successful relationship," said Trista. "But we proved them all wrong!" More than 18 years later they're one of just five couples to make it from proposal platform to the altar. (Counting Ashley Hebert and J.P. Rosenbaum who ended their nearly eight-year marriage in 2020, but not JoJo Fletcher and Jordan Rodgers, whose long-planned nuptials have suffered from COVID-related delays.)  

Amanda: Alex and I turned out to be rather compatible and dated about a year after filming. We had different pictures of what the future looked like and long-distance, it was stacked to fail. Now, it appears that [production] is a little bit more involved in helping the relationships at least have an opportunity. We didn't. When it stopped filming in February, we got to get together in March secretly in Mexico and then I didn't get to see him until May. Then it ended up being two weeks out of a month and no real normalcy could develop. 


Following Brad's controversial ending, DeAnna was given another shot at finding her person on-camera and landed on athlete Jesse Csincsak. "I clearly thought it was going to be a snowboarder in Breckenridge," the former Bachelorette joked of her months-long engagement, "but I was out of my mind." As Bachelor, Ben had a bit more luck with former flight attendant Lauren Bushnell, though their journey also led to different paths, with the entrepreneur marrying esthetician Jessica Clarke in November 2021, five months after Lauren welcomed her first child with husband Chris Lane

DeAnna: Honestly, it was really, really difficult. I chose someone that I could not be more incompatible with. He loved to snowboard. I freaking hate the snow. He would, seriously, wake up at 5 a.m. to go and snowboard all day, and I am a night owl. He came to stay with me in Georgia. But it was so freaking hot and he hated it. So honestly, when we broke up, I was baffled by how devastated he pretended to be. 

We weren't a happy couple. When the show was done, they just sent you off on your merry way. There's no one to guide you. So, we were just two kids, honestly, trying to run through the dark. 

Rick Rowell/ABC via Getty Images

Ben: You get off the show, you don't even have your fiancée's phone number. You probably don't know their middle name. You've met their family for 10 minutes. Like, you have a lot of work to do. And then you have the pressures of the show coming down on you as well. 

Sean: I know that it wouldn't have worked with anyone else, because Catherine has been extremely patient and forgiving and kind. She was able to uproot her life in Seattle and move to Texas and make all these huge sacrifices. When someone says the success rate is so low, I always think, "Seems pretty high to me."

It is extremely difficult, so you have to have two people that are going to stick it out no matter what. And that's what Catherine and I decided to do early on: "We're going to commit to one another and nothing is going to separate us."


The soon-to-be Mesnicks faced an even tougher uphill climb after Jason ended things with then-fiancée Melissa Rycroft Strickland in the hopes of pursuing a romance with Molly, the woman who left him bereft and sobbing on that New Zealand balcony. His move—officially coined "pulling a Mesnick" (see, also: Arie Luyendyk Jr. dumping Becca Kufrin for now-wife Lauren Burnham)—instantly made the two Bachelor Nation pariahs. 

Jason: Believe it or not, I was truly torn at the end. I did not know how I was going to make a decision. I'll own what I did, but I will not omit the fact that producers really got in my head and guided a lot of that. With that said, I think it was pretty obvious when I realized I didn't want to live without Molly.  

Molly is the one who saw something like this coming! She asked me, at our overnight date, "What if you make a mistake, how can you make this decision?" At the time, I didn't think anything of it, but she was right. How on earth is someone supposed to choose, out of a group of incredible women, that quickly? It's all a mind game, especially when you have producers in your ear, guiding every decision!

Molly: Because of the backlash, Jason and I quietly went back to our regular lives immediately. After only a couple interviews, we stopped all press and really removed ourselves from The Bachelor and the L.A. life. It just wasn't our thing—neither of us went on the show for fame. This allowed the two of us to truly date as normal people, allowing our relationship to grow away from cameras.


In the early '00s with more than 24 million viewers tuning in to see who would claim the final rose, disappearing from public life was as much of a challenge as "stealing" the lead away for private time on night one. "The tabloids were showing up in Springfield, my hometown in Missouri," Aaron recalled of his experience. "And they were calling me at the bank all the time and walking in the lobby." 

Amanda: I remember it feeling really stressful, and I did not handle it well. I mean, Trista, who they kept comparing me to, she's 5-foot tall, I'm a little over 5-foot-8. She's a size 0 and I was a 6. It really bothered me being called "the bigger one." I felt good in my own skin. And then, that messed with my mind.

I had trouble with depression. I started having panic attacks. I was diagnosed with anxiety. Even with Alex, we'd be places and I would feel like I was going to blackout. It was really uneasy, and I didn't know what to do with myself. I had bills. I still needed to figure out a job. I felt like there's a little bit of an expectation that I needed to be impressive all of a sudden. Trying to be in California, where you don't know anyone. I just ran home as soon as there was a job offer.

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Meanwhile, following their split, her onetime boyfriend managed to drop so completely off the public radar that even then-host Chris Harrison once joked he didn't know where Alex was. "I really don't," he quipped to Katie Couric in 2013. "Witness protection?"

Amanda: We kept in touch a couple times a year, like "Happy birthday, how are you?" until maybe eight years ago. I know he's married and has two little kids, which are absolutely adorable from the photos. I love that he has a family life because he was very close with his family. But I do keep in touch with at least a dozen of the girls from the show. 

Craig Sjodin/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

In fact, it's quite clear from the bonds still in place years later, that some contestants were, in fact, there to make friends. "I'm like, 'Guys, at the end of the day, Trista is going to choose who she wants to choose and nothing we say or do is going to impact that,'" Bob recalled of his strategy. "'Let's just focus on that relationship and we can all be buddies.'" Nearly two decades on, he's still tight with quite a few of his cohorts, even making plans mid-Zoom for Trista and Ryan to come visit him and wife Jessica Canyon at their Michigan home. 

The way Amanda sees it, the true gift from the show are the friendships that have lasted for 20 years and counting. As for whether the show's legacy will be quite as enduring is anyone's guess. 

Amanda: It's weird that it's still being talked about. We never even thought it was going to air when we were filming it. And they keep making seasons, and it's still very popular, it just blows my mind.

Todd Wawrychuk/ABC

Aaron: I'd never heard of the show, so I thought it was going to be just another flop and nobody was even going to watch. After the season that I was on had some good ratings, I thought, "This is not sustainable. There's no way. Maybe four years, maybe five, whatever." And here we are.

I think that they're listening to the viewers that they want diversity. I just don't think they can work as fast as people want it to change.

They need to cast leads who are genuinely interested in being with a varying, diverse group of people. Because if the lead isn't interested, then you're not going to hear those stories and the people who are Black or Asian are just there to check the box. It's just a disservice to the people that are dynamic and beautiful. They just get on for two episodes because the lead isn't interested in having them.

Rick Rowell/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images

Ben: I think they could go back to telling human stories in a way that doesn't cause the drama, but causes us to lean in and shed a tear. I remember Jubilee [Sharpe] told me the story of how she came to America from Haiti after the earthquakes and a lot of her family had passed away. I remember Amanda Stanton [saying] I have two kids at home and I'm trying to figure out how to do it and this is my chance to do something for myself. I sat in those moments and just felt how beautiful it was that we had a platform to tell these stories. 

The drama's fun. But the drama used to come in terms of the lead not knowing who they were going to choose. And the drama used to come from how is this person going to open up. I just don't know many people today that are watching the finale episode, like, so excited for the contestant and the lead, hoping it works. Nowadays it kind of feels like they want to just see chaos. 

Molly Hauge of Molly & Co

Which is why DeAnna would like to offer ABC a humble pitch. Mere weeks after her breakup with Jesse, she recalled crying to her dad during a family vacation "and being like, 'Maybe this is it. Maybe I'm going to be alone forever.'" 

Just 28 at the time, she now realizes how ridiculous she was being, particularly when she reflects on how she walked off that plane ride home from vacation and discovered a voicemail from now-husband Stephen Stagliano, whose brother Michael competed for Jillian Harris' affections. (The two met after a taping for The Bachelorette: The Men Tell All.) Calling him back, "We were on the phone for three and a half hours." They celebrated their 10-year wedding anniversary last fall. 

DeAnna: I think they ought to do Bachelor Housewives. Follow around some of the married couples, because so many viewers are invested in the couples that have come out of this show. And there really are so many now, not just from The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, but Bachelor in Paradise and some of the other people who have just met through the show and have children and lives. It'd be fun to watch their daily lives. I think it's a really good concept. There are a lot of viewers that would really enjoy that piece of the show because there are people who have watched it from season one and they are avid fans.

Hey, ABC: Call her.