Throughout the controversial Juan Pablo season of “The Bachelor,” host Chris Harrison gave perhaps the most impressive performance on the show. He was a voice of quiet sanity in a carnival of hormones and bad personalities. He was the patient sherpa to a troop of women so blinded by Juan Pablo’s biceps that they continued to make out with the Bachelor even as he emotionally terrorized them. And Harrison made no effort to hide his contempt for the show’s laconic leading man. In the post-season special “After the Final Rose,” he confronted Juan Pablo: “I’m speaking for everyone who is dying right now and throwing things at their television,” he said. “You can actually express your feelings.”
Harrison, at this point, is a pro. He has hosted “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” since they premiered more than a decade ago. Over the years, he’s seen a Bachelor propose to a woman, then change his mind on live TV during the post-season special and choose another woman. He’s seen a Bachelorette have an affair with a “Bachelor” producer. He’s seen his own role on the show morph from straightforward emcee into something more complicated — mediator, therapist, moral arbiter. And since “The Bachelor’s" first season in 2002, his life outside the show has transformed too: He’s experienced the birth of his second child, a divorce from his college sweetheart and wife of 18 years, and the resulting media scrutiny of his own dating life.
So in anticipation of tonight’s “Bachelorette” season premiere starring former “Bachelor” contestant Andi Dorfman, Salon spoke to Harrison about the evolving reality TV landscape, playing second fiddle to the Bachelor, and whether he'd want his daughter to be on the show.
You’ve been hosting “The Bachelor” for a long time now —
They keep trying to kill me off, but I won’t let them.
Well, take me back to the beginning.
Back when it all first happened, I was told that the producers’ thought process was that they wanted a down-home family man, a guy-next-door who could be the confidant, someone relatable who had a family of his own. And I’d just had my first son at the time.
How did they find you?
I was doing a Home and Garden show called “Designer’s Challenge,” which was hugely popular at the time, and I was actually hosting on a horse-racing network called TVG. So my background was live news and sportscasting out of Oklahoma City, which is where I came from. But I’d been in L.A. for a couple of years. And when I finally met with [executive producer] Mike Fleiss, it went horribly wrong. We didn’t get along whatsoever.
What was so bad about it?
Well, being from the Midwest, coming from Texas and Oklahoma, I was ready in my suit and tie for a typical job interview. I was pretty green. I hadn’t been in Hollywood very long. So I didn’t realize typical job interviews don’t exist out here. I should have shown up in flip-flops and board shorts and sunglasses.
I was a Midwestern Southern boy and Mike Fleiss is Mr. LA, so we just didn’t seem to get along very well. But in the end he called me back, because obviously somebody liked me enough that he gave me another shot. We’ve been best friends ever since.
How has your role evolved over the course of the decade or so “The Bachelor” has been on the air?
Over the years, with more experience, and also becoming more of a producer on the show myself, I feel like I’ve become more of … several things: a friend, a therapist, a host, a referee …
That’s a lot of hats.
One of the things that I’m most proud of is that anyone who’s ever come on the show — maybe other than Juan Pablo now — but anyone who comes on the show has always come back and sat down in front of me, even for the hard interviews. Whether it was Jake and Vienna, or Melissa, Molly and Jason, even those tough ones, they’ll come and sit down, knowing that I’ll give them a fair shake. And I like that.
Interesting that you mention Juan Pablo, because I’ve never seen you break character in the way you did in the final show with him. You seemed legitimately mad at the guy for being such a bad bachelor — for acting like a jerk and being so hard to read. Tell me what was going through your head at that moment.
Long gone are the days when I have to be an impartial host. I’m not anymore.
Why is that?
I’ve earned enough respect from our viewers and from the people on the show, that if I have an opinion, I can express it. If I feel like you’re misleading me, that’s the only time I’ll ever go after anybody. I give everyone a very fair shake. And I always tell people, I’ll never back the bus over you, I’ll never surprise you, other than typical reality show surprises.
With Juan Pablo, I wasn’t angry. I was a little bit befuddled and just confused as to what fight he was in. He was playing such a victim card and I find that incredibly unattractive in people. Look, there are real problems in the world, and I know our show isn’t going to solve the problems in the Middle East or cure cancer. And so for someone to come out and act like the world is against him or he’s really being attacked, when you’re on “The Bachelor,” and we just got from this world trip, and he’s sitting there with this beautiful girl by his side, and he’s just acting like such a victim — I just thought, how unattractive and how disappointing.
What’s more frustrating for you as a producer: Juan Pablo making homophobic comments outside of the show, or Juan Pablo giving repetitive, boring interviews during the show?
It’s all the same person. If you look at the whole sum of him, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that one person would do the same thing. It’s all very much a guy who thinks a lot about himself and wants to control every situation and doesn’t understand why people are upset with him. He’s one of those people who thinks that no one can understand the depths of him and that he’s always being attacked and that everyone’s against him.
[But] honestly, as a producer, selfishly, it was actually very compelling television.
Oh, I completely agree.
That’s why I think people maybe get the wrong impression of me. To be honest, I wasn’t mad at all; I found it to be, not only fascinating, but I knew it was good television. Over the 12 years, this show has been such an incredible study in human behavior.
I know! Such a weird petri dish of unnatural human circumstances.
And I really can’t get enough of it. One of the reasons I love this job so much is just getting under the hood of all these people and learning what makes them tick, and learning so much about them and even myself.
What has hosting this show taught you about human behavior, about relationships, that you’ve been able to apply to your own life?
Well, first and foremost that life isn’t so black and white.
What do you mean by that?
It comes from age and wisdom, and the perspective of being a dad. Going through my own marriage and my own divorce.
I think it’s very easy for people in this day and age, whether in politics, religion, or love, to say: It’s either right or wrong, or bad or good. My thing is if someone is acting up on the show, someone’s a so-called villain … why? Why are they acting like that? Instead of saying, oh this person is horrible, they’re the villain and they’re evil, my brain goes to: What’s making them like that? What happened in their life, what happened in their last relationship? What are they trying to deal with that’s making them act like this?
So have you been able to operationalize that in your own relationships?
Well, obviously it didn’t make me a better husband.
Even being a dad, it helps me with my son and my daughters, to be a better communicator. I listen so much more and so much more intelligently than I used to.
Do you think it’s fair to say, because of what you just mentioned, that “The Bachelor” has affected your own marriage? Has participating in this simulacrum of real life leaked into your actual life?
Oh, no, the job had nothing to do with [the end of my marriage], really. We were college sweethearts, we’d been together for forever, so we were much deeper and further along than [anyone on] the show.
What do you think it is about this show that viewers are so drawn to?
It’s really a simple concept. There’s no catch at the end of our show, there’s no million dollars, there’s not even a promise. It’s really bizarre. Our show, at the end of it, is two people making a choice — it just comes down to free will. It’s amazing as a producer. All other reality shows have a happy ending. Someone wins, someone loses, whatever the stakes are. With our show, there’s a girl or a guy up on this podium, and as a producer, you sit there, we have no control over the end of our show.
Somehow it seems more real and raw than other reality shows.
The show is incredibly relatable. You can really relate to everybody, or somebody on the show. We’ve all been dumped, we’ve all been with the bad guy we tried to fix, or the girl who was just pretty but had no substance, or whatever.
The show really drives so many discussions on human relations, human values. There are so many little social discussions that can come out of each episode.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever witnessed throughout all your years of hosting “The Bachelor”?
The Molly, Jason and Melissa situation [in which “Bachelor” Jason chose Melissa, then changed his mind on the after-the-show special and chose Molly] will always be -- well, not always -- one of the most uncomfortable and strange and bizarre and now beautiful things that has ever happened.
As a producer, how do you manage a situation like that?
In those situations, you don’t have to make it any more sensational or crazy than it is. I think you just facilitate it and then what happens happens.
This coming season with Andi is a good example. One of the contestants who left the show died in a tragic accident. And he was a wonderful man, and very much beloved on the show, a central figure early on before he left, and our decision was quickly made: We have to show what he went through. And also because it affected our cast and our crew, what we went through. So to just cut that out of the show wouldn’t have done justice to anybody, even him.
You mentioned something a second ago, our show feels so raw and so real, and I think we are one of the, if not the, best shows at really allowing true moments to happen. Like the Juan Pablo season. He’s pretty much the star, so other shows could have edited him or protected him and made him seem better than he was, or worse than he was. Instead, we really just [let you see him] warts and all.
On the show, you’re like a Bachelor proxy — you deliver the notes from the Bachelor, you offer emotional support to the women in ways the Bachelor himself often doesn’t. Does it ever bother you to be a kind of accessory rather than the prize?
How does it feel to not be the actual important guy? I love it. One of the great parts of the show is when I walk in, during week three or four, and say, OK, pack your bags, we’re about to travel around the world. And you just see their eyes light up.
There are times when I bring bad news as well. But I enjoy it. I truly love what I do.
Has there ever been a moment where you’ve thought: I could see myself with this girl; why is she vying for the attention of that idiot?
Honestly, not just with the girls. I mean, obviously I don’t want to hitch up with any of the guys. But every year I look at the cast, and Andi’s group of guys is no different, but I look at these people who are all gorgeous with great bodies, a lot of them have really good jobs, they’re smart, well-educated, and I look at them, and I’m like, why are you guys here? What has driven you to think that it is so terrible out there that you’re here looking for the love of your life?
I definitely ask myself that too.
I think our track record kind of speaks for itself: It is a successful place to look for love. But they all say the same thing, and I now know it myself, being single: It sucks out there. The dating life sucks.
I guess online dating could have killed “The Bachelor” —
And it really hasn’t. I think people realize, it’s a) fun. You’re going to travel and see the world. But b) it also works. And it always speaks a lot to me that Andi or even Juan Pablo, or Sean, all these people come back. They stay involved in the show. They agreed to come back and be the Bachelor or Bachelorette. They’ve seen the inner workings, and they know that it can be successful.
What’s your relationship like with Juan Pablo right now?
Honestly, the same as it was after the [final show] — I haven’t spoken to him or seen him. But I think he’s fine. He’s come back and asked us for a ton of favors, tickets to “Dancing With the Stars,” and all that. So he has no problem coming back and asking for favors. So he can’t be that mad at us.
Tickets to “Dancing With the Stars” — that is a ballsy move.
I’m telling you, the world of Juan Pablo is a world we should all live in for a little while.
How much thought have you put into cultivating your character as “Chris Harrison, ‘Bachelor’ host,” over the years?
Well, it’s interesting because the show will never be and can’t be a host-driven show. Like an “American Idol” with Seacrest, or “Dancing With the Stars” with Bergeron. Those are host-driven shows because they really rely on that guy to drive it. With “The Bachelor,” I’ll never be the star of the show, and if I ever am, we’re in huge trouble. Because the Bachelor or the Bachelorette has to be the star. Luckily, I came up in newscasting and sportscasting where I learned I’m not the story. I’m never the story.
Let’s say you did become the Bachelor. Based on everything you’ve learned from all these years, how would you approach the role?
I think it would be tough to do the show because, again, I produced it for so long. To be a good Bachelor or Bachelorette, you really have to let go, you have to have a certain amount of naiveté.
Yeah, Juan Pablo did not have that.
No, and even though, oddly enough, it worked for him, it was a battle — because you can’t control [your situation], and he’s a controlling guy. And so am I, in my own life, which is why I recognize it in him. It’s not necessarily a negative aspect; it just comes from our upbringing and who we are. You can’t walk in there with a death grip trying to control everything; it’s an out-of-control situation. And like most things in life, the more you try to control it, the worse it gets.
What do your kids think about what you do?
My son is the kind of guy who is going to own the show and own the company.
My daughter is definitely a performer. I could see her taking over my role.
Would you want her to be a contestant on “The Bachelor”?
Oh, if she came me to and asked to do it, I would absolutely let her do it. Look, I feel my job as a parent is to instill in her as much love and respect and hopefully decision-making ability as possible. If either of them wanted to go on the show, absolutely — I trust them to do what’s good, to live their own life and make their own decisions.
What’s it like trying to date people, having them know you as Chris Harrison from “The Bachelor”? Do you think it helps or hurts?
A little bit of both probably. It probably helps because obviously it will open up doors and windows that wouldn’t have opened up had I not had this job. But at the same time it can make it difficult.
There are some people who feel like they know me because they’ve seen me on TV. That’s not necessarily me. I bring a lot of myself and my own life into that role. But it’s not all me.