Matt James opened up about the extra scrutiny and pressures of being the first Black man to lead ABC’s “The Bachelor” franchise in an unprecedented special following Monday night’s finale.
In the one-hour “After the Final Rose” with guest host Emmanuel Acho, James spoke about the challenges he experienced navigating the show’s historic season, particularly in the wake of a burgeoning nationwide movement to call out and address racial injustice in America.
“As a Black person, there’s an extra level of scrutiny when you’re the first of something,” James told Acho, a former NFL linebacker, a Fox Sports analyst and the author of the book “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.”
“You want to make sure that you’re on your best behavior in terms of how you’re speaking, how you present yourself. Because, for a lot of people, that was the first time having someone like myself in their home,” James said. “Those are the type of things that I was thinking about.”
This, on top of finding love in front of a national audience, added an extra weight to his every move and decision, he said.
The show’s 25th season finale revealed Monday that contestant Rachael Kirkconnell received James’ final rose. But after James’ season of “The Bachelor” started airing, Kirkconnell was embroiled in controversy when photos of her at an antebellum plantation-themed fraternity formal in 2018 resurfaced last month.
After fans across the country saw the two profess their love for each other, James told Acho during the aftershow that he broke up with Kirkconnell over the racism controversy.
James said that when online discussions started swirling about Kirkconnell, he initially “tried to be there for her” and dismissed allegations about her past as “rumors.” But, he said, when Kirkconnell finally publicly apologized for the photos, he realized she didn’t fully understand what it meant to be Black in America.
When James later joined Kirkconnell’s interview with Acho, he admitted that while his feelings for her didn’t just “go away overnight,” he thought they weren’t ready to rekindle their relationship.
“I didn’t sign up to have this conversation,” he said. “And I knew that I had to take a step back for you to put in that work that you outlined that you needed to do, and that’s something that you gotta do on your own, and that’s why we can’t be in a relationship.”
After an awkward pause of silence, James said: “I don’t know if it’ll ever not hurt hearing those things.”
Acho replaced longtime host Chris Harrison, who briefly stepped aside last month after he defended Kirkconnell’s past racist behavior in an interview on “Extra” with the former “Bachelorette” Rachel Lindsay.
Harrison expressed sympathy for Kirkconnell and implied that the criticism directed against her was unfair because the photos were from the past. When Lindsay said it was not a good look that Kirkconnell had attended a party celebrating the antebellum South — a time period when slavery was present — Harrison said, “Well, Rachel, is it a good look in 2018? Or is it not a good look in 2021? Because there’s a big difference.”
“It’s not a good look ever,” Lindsay said in response. “If I went to that party, what would I represent at that party?”
Harrison later admitted that he “made a mistake” in an interview with ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”
“I am an imperfect man, I made a mistake and I own that,” Harrison told “GMA” co-host Michael Strahan. “I believe that mistake doesn’t reflect who I am or what I stand for. I am committed to progress, not just for myself, also for the franchise.”
In the final moments of the dramatic aftershow, Acho revealed that the next “Bachelorette” leads were contestant Katie Thurston, 30, a marketing manager from Washington, and the finalist Michelle Young, 27, a teacher from Minnesota. Thurston’s season is expected to premiere in the summer and Michelle’s in the fall.
The next season of “The Bachelorette” will be hosted by the former contestants Tayshia Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe.
It was unclear if Harrison was returning to the franchise.
Harrison told Strahan that, in the meantime, he was seeking guidance from a “race educator and strategist,” who is teaching him how to learn from this experience and move forward.
“There is much more work to be done,” he said.
Wilson Wong is a breaking news reporter with NBC News.