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A former Bachelor star came out as gay. The announcement was as messy as his season.

The complicated, problematic past of Colton Underwood, the Bachelor star who just announced he is gay.

Colton Underwood and Cassie Randolph sitting together on a television stage.
Bachelor stars Colton Underwood and Cassie Randolph in an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live in March 2018.
Randy Holmes / Contributor via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Colton Underwood, one of the most memorable, albeit problematic, stars of the Bachelor TV franchise, has come out as gay.

Underwood, 29, made the announcement in an interview with Good Morning America that aired on Wednesday. “I’ve ran from myself for a long time. I’ve hated myself for a long time. And I’m gay,” Underwood told host Robin Roberts. “I came to terms with that earlier this year and have been processing it, and the next step in all of this is sort of letting people know. I’m still nervous, but yeah, it’s been a journey for sure.”

Underwood appeared as a contestant on season 14 of The Bachelorette as one of Becca Kufrin’s suitors and was subsequently cast as the lead of season 23 of The Bachelor, which aired in 2019. His stint as the Bachelor was a rocky one: Much of the promotional material around his season and the conversation during it focused on Underwood’s virginity, and his season ended with him choosing to pursue Cassie Randolph, who tried to break up with him and leave the show. (Even if you’re not a Bachelor fan, you may remember the infamous fence-jumping scene.) The pair wound up dating, but after their 2020 split, Randolph accused Underwood of stalking her and requested a restraining order. She later dropped the request.

During his GMA interview, Underwood acknowledged that some of his past behavior, including his decision to appear on The Bachelor and his actions during his time on the show, had been questionable. “I do think I could have handled it better,” he said. “I just wish I had not dragged people into my own mess of figuring out who I was.”

To be sure, being gay is not an excuse for the way Underwood is alleged to have treated Randolph, who said he sent her “unsettling text messages” and placed a tracking device on her car. And so to many Bachelor fans, the GMA apology felt vague and half-hearted.

Underwood has never candidly addressed Randolph’s allegations, and GMA failed to take the opportunity to ask for answers. Indeed, Underwood, The Bachelor, and much of the media seems ready to move on. “He is excited to start this new journey and wants a clean slate,” one anonymous source told E! News.

Underwood was raised Catholic and is a devout Christian, which he said has weighed heavily on his struggles to accept his sexuality, as has his identity as a football player. “I literally remember praying to God the morning I found out I was the Bachelor and thanking him for making me straight,” he told Roberts.

The Bachelor franchise has never been particularly nuanced in addressing complex social and cultural issues. Like all reality television shows, it has a tenuous relationship with real life.

The most recent season of The Bachelor — the first to feature a Black man in the lead role — exposed its many shortcomings on race. The franchise has also presented a very narrow view of sexuality and romance, one that rarely seems to consider the LGBTQ community; it has only ever featured one same-sex couple, on its Bachelor in Paradise series in 2019. After Underwood’s GMA interview, the executive producers of the franchise released a statement saying they were “inspired” by his “courage to embrace and pursue his authentic self.” They continued, “As firm believers in the power of love, we celebrate Colton’s journey in the LGBTQIA+ community every step of the way.”

A brief refresher on Colton Underwood and Cassie Randolph

Underwood, who previously dated gymnast Aly Raisman, made his reality television debut in 2018 when he was cast on The Bachelorette. He was portrayed by the series as a strapping, boyish former football player (he had a brief stint in the NFL) who was committed to his religion and to charity work. The biggest Colton-related plot point the season focused on his virginity, which he revealed during the show, worrying it would be a “deal breaker.”

After being cut from The Bachelorette, Underwood appeared on the summer 2018 edition of Bachelor in Paradise, where he briefly courted another former contestant. He was then cast as the star of The Bachelor. The franchise, never known for its subtlety, hyped up his virginity to the point it was quite uncomfortable and supremely over-the-top. As Rebecca Jennings at The Goods pointed out at the time, the word “virgin” was mentioned four times in the first 40 seconds of one of the season’s trailers. While virginity wasn’t a novel topic for The Bachelor, it was quite new for a male contestant, and it didn’t upend traditional narratives. As Jennings explained:

It’s difficult to imagine the show treating a female lead’s virginity with the same sort of blithe, jovial tone — the trailer borders on mockery. According to a sociologist, it’s because male virginity, when dissected on a cultural level, is often more complex. Virgin women, for instance, fall into the category of “pure” and “chaste,” yet we don’t necessarily impose these same narratives on men.

Underwood’s season may have started out virginity-themed, but it didn’t entirely stay that way as the season progressed. For those who aren’t familiar with the franchise, the way The Bachelor usually works is that each season begins with dozens of potential partners and then over the course of the season the pool is whittled down to two. At the “final rose ceremony,” the lead picks one of them; a proposal and engagement often (but not always) follow. Generally, the final two women want to be there. But that was not the obvious case with Underwood’s season.

When there were three women remaining, including Randolph, she tried to end things with Underwood and exit; Underwood refused to accept this turn of events. The show hyped up the drama, teasing footage of an emotional Underwood jumping over a fence throughout the season, and documenting his pursuit of Randolph even after she said she wasn’t ready for the type of commitment she thought he wanted and expressed her wishes to leave. Eventually, he basically wore her down, and they ended the show dating. Underwood’s actions, and the show’s narrative around them, were quite flawed, as Vox’s Li Zhou laid out at the time. When women say no, they’re allowed to mean it. It is irresponsible to romanticize the chase.

After the finale aired, Randolph told People that Underwood “fought for me” and had “shown me what a healthy relationship looks like.” The pair stayed together for a while, breaking up briefly in 2019 and then getting back together. She cared for him when he contracted Covid-19 early in the pandemic before they broke up again in 2020. And that is when their situation got messier and even scary.

Randolph, who had reportedly begun filming a reality show with Underwood post-breakup, filed and was granted a restraining order against him in September 2020. She alleged he’d sent her “unsettling” text messages, had appeared at her home and at and her parents’ home without invitation, and placed a tracking device on her vehicle. He told her in one message that she was a “selfish person who isn’t ready to be loved,” and then in an another message apologized and said he was “lost.” In November 2020, Randolph dropped the restraining order and related police investigation.

Colton’s story of dealing with his sexuality is one that might resonate with many people

During his GMA interview with Roberts, Underwood spoke about his struggles with coming to terms with his sexuality, including deciphering how it fits into his religious beliefs and his broader identity as an athlete. He said he has known he was “different” since he was 6 years old and then realized that during his freshman year of high school he was gay, but he was scared to accept it. “Gay was always affiliated with a connotation of negativity,” he said.

Underwood said he has been met with a range of reactions from those close to him, but many told him they wish he’d have said something sooner. “I wish I would have had faith in my friends and my family a little bit more,” he said. He also tied his sexuality to his virginity. “I was a full virgin [before The Bachelor], and I could never give anybody a good answer of why I was a virgin,” he said. “The truth is I was a virgin Bachelor because I was gay, and I didn’t know how to handle it.”

In one episode during Underwood’s season, comedian Billy Eichner made a joke about Underwood’s sexuality, quipping to a visibly uncomfortable Underwood that he might be the first gay Bachelor. And in his 2020 book, The First Time: Finding Myself and Looking for Love on Reality TV, Underwood alluded to wondering about being gay when he was hesitant to have sex with his high school girlfriend.

“Sometimes I wonder if my life would have been much easier if I had been gay. Maybe it would have helped me to know myself better and sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have stayed a virgin,” he wrote. “Maybe I wouldn’t have asked ‘Who am I?’ as often as I did and suffered as much angst because I didn’t have an answer. Identity was such a big question mark with me. Yes, I was a football player. But what else was I? Was there anything more?”

Underwood told Roberts, who is herself gay, that he now feels “closer to God” and more at peace and centered in his life — a change from the suicidal thoughts he’s had in the past. “I still haven’t had an emotional connection with a man, I’ve never allowed myself to,” he said. “It’s never been sort of in my cards to let myself get there.”

Underwood’s decision to come out in an interview with Roberts may serve as an inspiration for people who have had similar internal battles with their sexuality, or who are having them today. The Catholic church still refuses to bless same-sex marriage and holds that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered.” Football remains a hyper-macho space. As much as many Americans would like to believe that society has advanced from the days when “gay” was a bad word, much of the country has not. Underwood was cast on The Bachelor because he fits the archetype of a strong, masculine man, and a religious one.

Underwood coming out as gay does not excuse his problematic past

Two things can be true about Underwood’s announcement: It is a good thing that he now feels able to embrace his sexuality, and much of his past behavior was bad. Also bad: The Bachelor’s handling of his relationship with Randolph, not to mention, frankly, GMA’s decision to largely brush over the topic during Underwood’s interview.

Underwood told Roberts he is “sorry for how things ended” with Randolph, adding that he “messed up” and “made a lot of bad choices.” He said he was in love with her, which “only made it harder and more confusing” for him. “I wish it wouldn’t have happened the way that it did. I wish that I would have been courageous enough to fix myself before I broke anybody else,” he said.

But Roberts and GMA, which billed the interview as “deeply personal,” didn’t press Underwood to further address the issue. As television writer Michael Slezak pointed out on Twitter, she didn’t ask him about “allegedly inflicting psychological violence” on Randolph, or ask for any further explanations of his treatment of Randolph during filming of The Bachelor and after. Instead, he got off with making a lackluster apology about a serious issue and his very toxic behavior.

Underwood apologized for “misleading” Bachelor viewers and fellow cast members, which pales in comparison in terms of severity to how he treated Randolph; people mislead others about their intentions on reality shows all the time. A perennial question on every season of The Bachelor revolves around who is on the show for “the right reasons” — namely, who has put their lives on hold to go on TV in hopes of finding true love (as opposed to finding fame or achieving some other personal benefit). Misogynistic behavior from Underwood and The Bachelor toward Randolph in ignoring her clear wishes and desires are a problem. So is excusing Underwood’s actions now that he has revealed he was dealing with his feelings about being gay.

Randolph has not spoken publicly in response to Underwood’s interview, nor has she ever said much about their relationship or the restraining order. Indeed, when the pair resolved the order, it was largely Underwood’s voice that was heard. In a statement to People in November, Underwood said that the pair had reached a “private agreement” to address her concerns and that he didn’t believe Randolph did anything wrong in filing the restraining order. Underwood also added a chapter to his book about it in which he said he “didn’t want to accept” that she wanted to end things (yet again).

Underwood clearly has a lot to work through, and he intends to continue to do so in the public sphere: He is in production for a new reality show about life as a gay man for Netflix.