By: Elizabeth Wagmeister/Variety
Colton Underwood didn’t plan on ever telling the world that he was gay. After all, he’d starred as “The Bachelor” in 2019 to scout for a wife on national television, searching for love among 30 aspiring brides-to-be. The television personality was convinced he’d spend his entire life pretending to be a straight man — pushed into that direction by his church and small-town, conservative upbringing in Illinois.
But last month, Underwood made national headlines by coming out to Robin Roberts in a bombshell “Good Morning America” interview, shattering the heteronormative conventions of ABC’s top-rated reality dating juggernaut franchise. After hiding his attraction to men since his early teens, the 29-year-old former NFL player initially disclosed his sexuality to someone else a year ago: his publicist
The confession was prompted not by liberation but out of fear. “I’ll just say it,” Underwood reveals on a recent afternoon, still adjusting to his new life as an openly gay man. “I, at one point, during my rock bottom and spiral, was getting blackmailed. Nobody knows I was blackmailed.”
Underwood takes a deep breath, as he tells this story for the first time. According to him, last year, while living in Los Angeles, he secretly visited a spa known for catering to gay clientele. Shortly thereafter, he received an anonymous email, which has been reviewed by Variety, from someone claiming to have taken his nude photos at the venue. Underwood never saw the alleged photos and explains he was at the spa “just to look,” saying he “should have never been there.” The unidentified sender threatened to “out” him in the press, and in a panic of paranoia, Underwood forwarded the email to his publicist, Alex Spieller, which forced him to finally have an honest conversation about his sexual orientation.
“I knew that out of anybody in my world, my publicist wasn’t going to ruin me,” Underwood explains.
Television — especially reality TV — has revolutionized how LGBTQ people are represented in popular culture. At one time, coming out of the closet was deemed a career killer, but shows like “The Real World,” “Survivor” and the original “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” now rebooted on Netflix, led to a profound, positive transformation in how gay people are perceived, and helped bring about progressive changes to LGBTQ civil rights. As new generations of millennials and Gen Zers have grown up with LGBTQ friends and role models, gay Americans have attained the right to marry, and queerness has become more mainstream in media, as proven in shows like HBO’s high school hit “Euphoria” and essentially half of the characters in the Ryan Murphy universe.
A gay “Bachelor,” though? Underwood’s coming out, so soon after he’d entered into millions of viewers’ homes as the poster boy of fairy-tale heterosexuality — the Ken doll-like star of a major dating franchise — touched a nerve.
Seen through the prism of reality TV, social media, sports and faith, and as someone who was raised with conservative values, he suddenly found himself mired in controversy. His announcement that he was gay coincided with news that he was filming a Netflix reality show about his new life.
Social media lit up with accusations that Underwood was monetizing his coming-out story. And others legitimately argued that as a hunky white gay man, he was benefiting from privilege, taking a platform that other members of the queer community deserved more than he did. Some critics wondered: Was his entire season of “The Bachelor ” an act for fame, as he strung along women with rose petals and romantic kisses?
Underwood’s larger spotlight brought attention to the details of his relationship with his ex-girlfriend Cassie Randolph, whom he dated for a year and a half after meeting her on “The Bachelor.” In court documents, she filed a restraining order in September 2020, alleging that he stalked her and placed a tracking device on her car.
Raffy Ermac, the editor-in-chief of Pride, a pop culture and entertainment website for LGBTQ millennials, says Underwood coming out publicly was brave. “But at the same time, we shouldn’t be glorifying someone who has this history of allegedly stalking a woman.”
A petition on Change.org, signed by 35,000 people so far, is pressuring Netflix to cancel the upcoming Underwood series because of those allegations.
Despite receiving death threats, Underwood says that speaking his truth was the right thing to do. After his “GMA” interview aired on April 14, he was also inundated with congratulatory messages. “I’m happy for @colton,” tweeted Billy Eichner. “If you’re gay, be gay!” And Andy Cohen chimed in on Twitter: “You’re free now, @colton. A toaster is on its way.”
Over a two-hour interview with Variety, Underwood is still processing his new life. On this day, before filming a scene for his reality show, he’s dressed in casual attire: joggers, a black baseball cap and red Nikes. At one point, he picks up his iPhone and scrolls through DMs from strangers, admitting he’s most touched by those who write to tell him he’s made them feel less alone by coming out.
“I know people are saying that this story has been told, but I grew up in Central Illinois,” Underwood says. “I had never seen a football player that had made it to the NFL that had been gay, growing up Catholic.” He points to some of the more touching messages he’s received. “I’ve had hundreds of gay Christian men and women who are confused in their walk with Jesus say, ‘I felt closer to God when I came out.’”
As our conversation continues, Underwood addresses the media coverage of his “Bachelor” breakup. Randolph, who declined to comment for this story, dropped the restraining order against him with prejudice two months after she filed last year.
Due to a joint agreement with Randolph, Underwood is limited in what he can say. But he talks about the situation in greater detail than he has before. First, he wants to clear the air, because he’s seen the word “abuse” next to his name in press reports. “I did not physically touch or physically abuse Cassie in any way, shape or form,” he says.
“I never want people to think that I’m coming out to change the narrative, or to brush over and not take responsibility for my actions, and now that I have this gay life that I don’t have to address my past as a straight man,” Underwood says. “Controlling situations to try to grasp at any part of the straight fantasy that I was trying to live out was so wrong.”
Underwood says that after Randolph broke up with him, he was in “such a dark place” because he knew, in his heart, his last straight relationship was over and he’d finally have to face his true reality. He apologizes for his behavior toward her and her family. “It’s not who I am as a human being, and it’s not how I carry myself,” Underwood says. “If there was anything I could do to take more ownership, I would. But also, out of respect to her, I don’t want to get into the details. I want this interview to be the last time I address her, because it’s not fair for her to have her name in articles every time I talk. I’m sorry, and I want her to know that I hope she has the best, most beautiful life.”
After they split, Underwood and Randolph were filming a new reality show together in the summer of 2020 with Jeff Jenkins Productions, Variety has learned. The show, which was developed, but never formally pitched, would have followed the exes’ life as friends in L.A., but the project collapsed with the restraining order and police investigation, which Randolph requested was dropped in November 2020. Later, as Underwood’s very small inner circle came to learn about his sexuality, the production company pitched him on the idea of a show about his journey coming out, and after five months of therapy and meeting with a psychiatrist, Underwood decided his story could help others. The show ultimately sold to Netflix, and is slated to premiere later this year.
As for “The Bachelor,” Underwood’s coming out has arrived during a turbulent year for the franchise. The dating series, which launched in 2002, is still a major revenue generator for ABC and the network’s top-rated unscripted series, attracting an average of more than 5 million viewers for its most recent, 25th season. And while a 30-minute spot on “The Bachelor” still fetches an average of $154,886, according to Ad Age, the show has come under fire for a lack of diversity. The recent casting of its first Black Bachelor, Matt James, did little to quiet the criticism. The franchise’s longtime host, Chris Harrison, stepped aside after he defended winning contestant Rachael Kirkconnell, embroiled in scandal when photos resurfaced of her at an Antebellum plantation-themed fraternity party.
As “The Bachelor” pledges to be more inclusive, Underwood’s story only highlights the lack of diversity within the franchise’s depiction of love. With the exception of one queer female couple on “Bachelor in Paradise” — the franchise’s first and only same-sex pairing — the show exists in a world populated solely by straight people.
“It’s hard to change the format that has been done the same way — a man and a woman — for so many years,” says Anthony Allen Ramos, GLAAD’s head of talent. “But I definitely hope that we get to see more LGBTQ representation. If people are able to see an LGBTQ person on ‘The Bachelor’ or ‘The Bachelorette,’ there is a lot of potential for impact.”
ABC and Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story, or answer questions about whether there have been discussions about developing a gay season of “The Bachelor.”
Underwood would be all for it. “I think they should discuss it,” he says. “It should be a conversation.” Asked if he’d want to return to the series to find a potential male mate, he shrugs. “I don’t like speaking in definitives, but I’m not in a position to be in a show like that. I’m at a crossroads in my life right now.” On some days, he imagines himself disappearing from the industry completely, living a quiet life in Denver, where he recently bought his first home, permanently away from TV cameras.
• • •
Reality TV has the power to change minds, showcasing underrepresented communities to sections of the country who might not come across gay, bisexual or transgender people in their everyday lives.
But in Hollywood, progress has still been slow. The number of high-profile gay love stories at the movies — among them, the Hulu romantic comedy “Happiest Season” and 2017 Sundance darling “Call Me by Your Name” — remains small. But while reality TV has a good track record of including LGBTQ people in casts of everything from competition to docu-series, there’s still one last taboo in the genre. It’s rare to see a full-fledged gay love story, or hints of gay romance, on a reality TV show. Even on “Dancing With the Stars,” there has yet to be a same-sex dance couple. When Lance Bass, who is openly gay, appeared on the program in 2008, he was paired with a female partner.
Underwood’s faced demons as a closeted gay man. It got so dark that he took pills one night last summer, hoping he’d never wake up. “I tried to end my life, and it didn’t work,” he says. “That was the saddest and most confused and most hurt” he could remember himself feeling.
According to The Trevor Project, the world’s largest nonprofit for suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, in the past year, 40% of LGBTQ youth have reported they seriously considered attempting suicide; 80% said that out-and-proud celebrities positively impact how they feel about being LGBTQ.
“Folks who are in positions to share their story — and not everyone has that opportunity — also have the opportunity to lift others up,” says Kevin Wong, vice president of communications at The Trevor Project. For Underwood, growing up in Washington, Ill., with a population of 15,000, there were no gay role models. “We had one gay person in my entire town,” Underwood says. “And he was the butt of every joke.”
Though he felt that he was different at the age of 6, Underwood never got the chance to interact with gay people. “I would have done anything to see a gay football player,” he says, getting choked up. “The closest person I ever could look at was like Ricky Martin because I love music.”
He recalls the lengths he went to one day to watch “Brokeback Mountain,” the groundbreaking 2005 romance directed by Ang Lee, as a teenager. He used a friend’s Blockbuster card to rent the movie, so that no one in his family would suspect him of being gay. “That was very authentic to who I was, growing up in the Midwest,” says Underwood. “I wasn’t a cowboy, by any means, but I grew up on a farm in Illinois.”
Around the eighth grade, Underwood’s father saw something on his son’s computer that raised a flag. “Gay porn was sort of what I gravitated towards,” Underwood admits, clenching his jaw.
At the time, Underwood denied being gay to his father. “I just said that I was curious and I was exploring and just looking,” Underwood says. “I remember having that conversation with him and being like, ‘Just don’t tell Mom.’”
After college football, Underwood entered the NFL draft, being signed as a free agent by the San Diego Chargers, then joining the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad and the Oakland Raiders. He remembers that when Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL in 2014, no one in the locker room supported the idea. Their homophobia only drove him deeper into the closet.
“Growing up in sports, I was taught that gay is wrong and gay is bad and football players are not gay,” Underwood says. “By the time I realized that I was gay, I didn’t want to be gay. It was easy for me to hide in plain sight behind a football mask and hunting and fishing and the things that this world tells us is ‘masculine’ and ‘manly.’”
After leaving the NFL in 2016, Underwood stumbled upon a random casting call in Denver for the “Bachelor” franchise. Producers took a quick liking to him. Within a few months, he was on a plane to Los Angeles, as a contestant on Becca Kufrin’s season of “The Bachelorette,” which aired in 2018. He became a fan favorite, appeared on “Bachelor in Paradise” and eventually landed the starring role on Season 23 of “The Bachelor” in 2019. Part of his appeal was his innocence: He became known as “the Virgin Bachelor,” and marketing materials plastered his face on a poster similar to Judd Apatow’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”
Underwood says he didn’t initially offer any information about his virginity. But when he didn’t engage in “locker room banter” with male contestants in the house in 2018, that led to a series of questions.
“The producers, as good as they are, probably picked up on how uncomfortable I was getting,” Underwood says. He never felt comfortable with the promotional material for his season of “The Bachelor,” but he doesn’t hold a grudge. “I mean, they had to do what they had to do,” he says.
Over the years, Underwood has repeatedly slammed “The Bachelor” in the press for overplaying his virginity. Now, he offers an olive branch.
“I was always looking for somebody to blame,” he says of his anger. “I was passive-aggressive to the franchise after it was done. But all of a sudden, as I was coming out, everything started to make so much more sense. I was a miserable person living as a shell of a human being, and being who the world wanted to see. I finally had to look myself in the mirror and say, ‘You’ve got to fix this.’”
Prior to “The Bachelor,” in his mid-20s, Underwood had a few sexual experiences with men, he reveals. “I’ll say this,” he starts with a long pause. “I was ‘the Virgin Bachelor,’ but I did experiment with men prior to being on ‘The Bachelorette.’”
He confirms he was, in fact, a virgin when he was on the ABC show. “When I say ‘hookups,’ not sex,” Underwood says. “I want to make that very clear that I did not have sex with a man, prior to that.” He reveals that he joined the dating app Grindr under an alias in 2016 or 2017. (He’s currently single, but no longer on the app.)
When he ended up finding fame and becoming a household name, Underwood was constantly worried that one of the men he’d hooked up with might sell him out to the tabloids. “I remember feeling so guilty, like ‘What the hell am I doing?’” Underwood says of his gay encounters. “It was my first time letting myself even go there, so much so that I was like, ‘I need “The Bachelorette” in my life, so I could be straight.’”
• • •
Underwood’s next act in reality TV couldn’t be more different from “The Bachelor.” The upcoming Netflix docu-series about his life sounds less like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and more like “I Am Cait,” the E! show that followed Caitlyn Jenner as she transitioned into a woman and created a new life for herself, taking viewers on a journey of learning and acceptance.
Underwood says the purpose of his Netflix show is to share a multitude of LGBTQ stories, not just his own. Olympian Gus Kenworthy, a close friend, will appear on the series. But producers have made sure not to just focus on white privileged gay men.
In the series, Underwood will explore his position of privilege, partly thanks to Kenworthy, who is featured by his side as someone who can relate to Underwood’s experience, as a gay athlete who came out in the spotlight.
“He’s been somebody that I’ve not only learned so much from, but he’s held me accountable and he’s allowed me to see the privilege of being a straight-presenting gay, white man,” Underwood says of Kenworthy. “He pointed out how my path has been, compared to other people.”
Despite controversy, Netflix is standing behind the series, in hopes of building greater understanding of the LGBTQ community through Underwood’s journey.
“One person’s experience will not fill the void of queer stories on TV. We have to do better as an industry to highlight more kinds of lives and love. That said, we hope the show will help challenge outdated notions of what kind of stories can or should be at the center of entertainment,” says Brandon Riegg, vice president of unscripted and documentary series at Netflix.
When asked about the petition calling to cancel the yet-to-be-launched series, the Netflix executive says: “Colton has been public about his past and the bad choices he’s made and this will be part of the show, too. While there is tension with providing a platform, we think his complicated story, which includes him taking accountability, is one others can learn from, and we trust Colton and the producers to address it in a thoughtful way.”
Nicole M. Garcia, a transgender Latina pastor, appears in the series discussing faith with Underwood. “Here he is, a cisgender white man who comes out as gay, and he gets a show,” says Garcia. “Is it the way things should be? Probably not. The whole system is rigged so that Colton could get a docu-series about him. But we can either just rail completely against it, or we can try to use it to raise visibility.”
“How many times have you interviewed a transgender Latina pastor?” Garcia adds, in a recent interview over the phone. “I’m honestly riding on Colton’s coattails. I believe Colton really wants to try to use his voice to raise the voice of the marginalized community.”
Garcia, who has an inclusive congregation in Boulder, Co., where she hangs a pride flag in the sanctuary, only agreed to sign onto the Netflix show if she could represent the wider scope of the community, especially with transgender people under attack. The pastor did not come out until she was 43 years old. Now, 61, she began transitioning in 2003 and was ordained in 2019. Raised in the Roman Catholic church in a large Latino family, she lived a life married to a woman and worked as a parole officer, hiding behind a uniform and alcoholism, which led to divorce.
“Both Colton and I have something in common in that growing up, we felt we had to live into a stereotype. We both had to live in the toxic masculinity that is prevalent in our world,” Garcia says. “We would both hope that younger people don’t have to go through that and don’t have to lose so much time trying to be somebody else.”
Netflix will air Underwood coming out for the first time to his family and friends, including his father, who tells Variety his son’s sexuality did not shock him, and he actually tried to broach the subject with him in high school, when he had suspicions.
“First, I put that on myself — what was I doing that he felt he couldn’t open up to me?” Scott Underwood says. “But Colton said, ‘I didn’t know what I was yet. I was still struggling.’”
“I understood that. He was still trying to figure himself out,” his father says. He wishes his son wouldn’t live his entire life in the public eye, but he sees the impact his Netflix series may have on families who abandon their children for being gay.
“If it just helps a few young men and women come out and be proud of themselves and understand that all parents aren’t going to be upset, it can save lives,” he says.
As for the younger Underwood, the reality star is hoping his new show will bring greater understanding and shatter certain pre-conceived identity politics.
“My dad is proud to say that he is a conservative Republican, and he is also proud to say, I have a gay son,” Underwood says. “I think it’s important for America to hear that and see that. Right now, the media makes it seem like there is no middle ground.”