It’s a little after 4 p.m. on a late September afternoon in Southern California, and Mike Fleiss, creator of The Bachelor— one of the most successful reality TV franchises of all time — is at the mansion watching his new star, Colton Underwood, being interviewed by host/unofficial relationship therapist Chris Harrison. Colton — a dimpled, 26-year-old former football player who looks like a Ken doll’s beefy older brother — has never slept with a woman. This fact featured prominently in his story line in season 14 of The Bachelorette, where he made it to the final four but was sent home before the overnight “Fantasy Suite” dates, and in season 5 of Bachelor in Paradise, where he cried a lot and went home alone. It will also play a big role in the upcoming Bachelor season — see the cheeky tagline: “What does he have to lose?” — which will follow Colton as he dates a gaggle of single women and narrows them down, one rose at a time, until proposing (probably) to the last lady standing.
Though Harrison, who is communicating with producers through an earpiece, finds at least a half-dozen ways to ask Colton about his virginity, the Bachelor maintains that going all the way — sexually, at least — is not his top priority. “I want to come out of this engaged,” he says firmly.
In a little over 12 hours, Colton will take the first step in his quest to find a wife, when 30 anxious sequin-draped women arrive and filming on The Bachelor’s 23rd-season premiere (set to air Jan. 7) begins. For the first time in the show’s 16-year history, Fleiss, ABC, and Warner Bros. (which produces the franchise) have allowed a reporter — nay, a reporter and card-carrying member of Bachelor Nation — to be on site for the shoot. EW was there from the first limo exit to the last bitter tear — an all-night odyssey that revealed the astonishing amount of hard work, organization, and manpower that goes into making this big, dumb reality dating show that millions of us (7.9 million on average, to be exact) love so very, very much. Along the way, I learned the answers to many Bachelor burning questions: What does Chris Harrison do all night? How long does a rose ceremony really take? And what on earth is the “meatball theory”? Take my hand, rose lovers, and let the “journey” begin.
The sun is setting when I arrive at the Bachelor mansion in Agoura Hills. “Do they still film porn over there?” asks my Lyft driver as he drops me off. I laugh and promise to give him five stars.
There’s a stucco building at the base of the driveway — staffers have dubbed it “the barn” — that doubles as a production office. (The barn was destroyed six weeks later in the massive California wildfires.) I’m escorted up the hill to the main house, past a craft-services tent and a beautiful white horse tethered to a trailer, waiting patiently for its moment of reality TV fame. (Later in the evening, one of the contestants will arrive to meet Colton in a horse-drawn carriage.)
Cameras need to roll as soon as it’s dark; with 30 women to introduce, filming on night 1 can take 10 hours or more, so dawdling is not an option. Inside the control room, which is situated at the far end of the house, members of the production team sit at long tables facing a wall of monitors. In the back of the room, employees of ABC and Warner Bros., along with a steady stream of guests — including Fleiss’ mother, Nancy — file in to watch the show. Some are carrying plates of barbecue from a nearby restaurant, which the team orders on every night-one shoot.
The mood in the room is festive as the crowd of spectators grows, but the work continues apace: Inside, many, many candles have been lit — I counted 109 in two rooms alone — by a special-effects expert who stays on site to help maintain the romantic atmosphere. Outside, Colton and Chris Harrison stand on the driveway (which crew members just sprayed with a hose, because the flagstones look better on camera when they’re wet) as director Ken Fuchs blocks the first shot: the Bachelor arriving at the mansion.
Colton asks for some Binaca and sprays it in his mouth. Though some fans weren’t excited when he was named Bachelor — especially the vocal contingent rooting for Blake Horstmann or Jason Tartick, both former Bachelorette contestants — Fleiss feels confident in his choice. “People get angry no matter who we choose. The only person who didn’t seem to piss people off was Juan Pablo!” he marvels, referring to the sleazy season 18 star, now considered the Worst. Bachelor. Ever. Colton “looks the part, he’s an all-American kid, a football player,” says Fleiss, adding that the Bachelor’s virginity “creates added stakes” for the season. “Colton represents the biggest potential to create a lot of drama and romance.”
The first limo arrives. Colton looks a bit anxious; he’s massaging his right palm with his left thumb absentmindedly. “He’s nervous!” notes Fuchs. “Get [a shot] of his hands!”
Stage manager Paul Danner opens the limo door and talks to the women: Wait for your cue, exit the limo, stand by the door for a beat, walk to Colton and introduce yourself, then walk around the fountain and into the house. Viewers know Danner as “Big Paulie,” the show’s de facto bouncer — he’s appeared on camera several times over the years, escorting unruly contestants off the premises — but behind the scenes, the 6’ 3″ Army vet is essential to the production. “My job is to keep everything going smoothly, putting out fires when we can,” he explains. Still, he’s always ready to break up a fight if necessary. I ask him if he sees any potential troublemakers in the bachelorette bunch. “Not yet,” he says. “It’s hard to tell on night 1.”
The day before, Fleiss asked his team to send a “big personality” out of the limo first. They chose Demi (23, interior designer), and she has an opening line all picked out: “I have not dated a virgin since I was 12.” About 10 minutes later, a woman named Kirpa (26, dental hygienist) emerges from the limo, picks up the black hose that production uses to wet the driveway down, and gives the flagstones another spray. Then she walks up to Colton and says, “Is it wet around here or is it me?” The control room erupts in a chorus of studio-audience ooooooohs.
Almost instantly the broadcast-standards rep on hand to monitor the proceedings for ABC pipes up from the couch. “We’ve gotta get an alternate,” he says, telling a network exec that the joke was “too suggestive.” (It did not make the final cut.)
“Jesus Christ, she came out swinging!” exclaims Colton once Kirpa is safely out of earshot. In the downtime between limos, he consults with producers, one of whom asks the Bachelor about each of the five women he just met: “What did you like about her?” “Are you attracted to her?” The hose joke, Colton says, was “a little awkward.” Another producer asks Colton if he needs anything. “More wine,” he replies. One limo down, five more to go.
The first five women sit on the couches in the mansion’s “mixer room” — fans know this as the living room where Harrison always drops off the first date card — making small talk and introducing themselves. “I have to pee!” says one nervously. A producer standing nearby informs the women that if they need the bathroom, they should just ask. “Are we allowed?” replies the contestant with a giggle. The other women continue chatting, ignoring the trio of camera operators filming them from about 10 feet away. “He’s so f—ing cute, oh my God,” sighs one. “I love all your dresses,” says another.
Wardrobe supervisor Cary Fetman runs a lint roller over Colton’s suit. Fetman is responsible for every single thing the Bachelor wears all season, from socks to suits, and he’s thrilled to dress a man who will wear something other than blue — unlike last year’s Bachelor, Arie Luyendyk Jr. “I kept saying to Arie, ‘You’ve got to try a different color. I know your eyes are blue.’ If [Colton] was going to put himself in blue every day, I’d kill myself.”
Meanwhile, the Bachelor gives himself another spritz of cologne as he talks with producers about the women he met in limo No. 3. Courtney (23, caterer) stood out to him: “She’s very confident.” When the next limo arrives, a woman emerges wearing a brown, furry sloth costume. “I…heard…you…like…to…take…things…slow,” she says in her best slo-mo voice. The control room explodes with laughter. “What has this show come to?” groans exec producer Martin Hilton with a smile. After her exchange with Colton, Sloth Girl enters the mansion and tries to explain the joke to her fellow contestants: The Bachelor is a virgin, so when it comes to relationships, he takes things slow. “It’s a pun,” she continues. The women smile and nod their heads politely.
Later, I ask exec producer Bennett Graebner if the women come up with the limo exit gags themselves. He gives me a look that can best be described as Oh, please, before clarifying that the contestants will bring ideas to the producers, who then “workshop” the concept with them until it’s TV-ready. But, he adds, the women are not just assigned silly intro gimmicks by producers. “Never,” says Graebner. “Then you’re just asking people to act. I like people to be memorable, but I also want them to be themselves.”
For one woman, being herself means teasing Colton about his tendency to go commando (a habit he revealed on Bachelor in Paradise). After exiting the limo, she hands him a gift-wrapped package containing his “favorite brand of underwear.” The box is empty. Once the bachelorette is inside, Colton announces to no one in particular, “God, I wish I was wearing no underwear right now.”
The limo exits are done, but before Colton can enter the mansion and mingle with his harem, he has to film a pregame chat with Harrison. The host’s goal is to get the Bachelor talking enthusiastically about the women he just met (“Do you think your wife might be in that group?”), but he also has to contend with questions conveyed to him by producers via an earpiece. “Do you feel like your virginity is at risk?” yells Fleiss from the back of the control room. Graebner repeats the question to Harrison, but a few minutes later the host still hasn’t asked it.
“Without being disrespectful, I don’t always agree with the producers on what they want [from the interviews] or how to get it,” Harrison tells me later. Though he understands why producers are hitting the virginity issue hard in the first episode, he also doesn’t want Colton’s sexual history to be reduced to a “cocktail joke.” And while Fleiss and the producers are “geniuses,” says Harrison, “there is a safety to sitting in the back of the control room and yelling something out. You’re not the one standing in front of a 6’ 3″ former NFL football player.”
After being prompted twice by producers, Harrison pops the “Is your virginity at risk?” question. Colton — who spent two hours hearing strangers joke about his “cherry,” his “V-card,” etc. — laughs it off. “I feel like three or four of them tried to take my virginity on night 1!”
Exclusive: Bachelor contestants eat. In the lull between the limo exits and Colton’s opening toast, some of the women start wandering into the kitchen to nibble on the offerings, which include crudités, bruschetta, beef yakitori, and fruit. “If you need a drink, now is a good time to grab one,” suggests a producer. (Contestants are allowed two drinks per hour, a rule that was instituted after a sexual encounter between two drunk Bachelor in Paradise participants in 2017 raised questions about alcohol and consent.) The producers mostly stay in the kitchen or next to the adjacent bar, though they occasionally walk into the mixer room to chat with the women directly. One contestant confesses, “It’s definitely different than I thought it would be.”
“We’re only one hour behind schedule,” notes Graebner. In a few minutes, Colton’s one-on-one chats with the bachelorettes will begin. With 30 women and more than 80 staffers crammed into the mansion during filming, finding space for the Bachelor to have quasi-private chats with each potential wife requires impressive organization. The producers are in constant communication with Fuchs, who must monitor Colton’s current conversation while setting up the shot for the next one. Most of the setups are simple enough, like a two-shot of Colton and a bachelorette by the fireplace. But sometimes the women have cutesy ideas for production to execute, like Tayshia (28, phlebotomist), who arranges for a “county fair” in the mansion’s driveway, complete with popcorn, a ring toss, and a cornhole game.
The first one-on-one goes to a brunette, who brings Colton a pair of white sneakers and some markers. The Bachelor gamely engages in the coloring activity, but in the control room, Fleiss disapproves. “She’s annoying,” he grumbles. “She’s a ratings killer.” Director Fuchs watches Colton’s chat while following the action on the other 19 monitors in front of him, issuing instructions like “Keep an eye on red dress!” The visual cacophony is enough to give anyone a nervous breakdown, but Fuchs finds the process soothing. “My therapist calls me a stimulation junkie,” he admits.
The first kiss of the night. “Oh my God!” exclaims someone in the control room. Apparently even the producers didn’t expect their Virgin Bachelor to move so fast.
Out on the back patio, a brunette named Sydney (27, NBA dancer) records an interview with a producer. These “In the Moment” chats (or ITMs for short) provide the to-the-camera reactions that are essential for crafting each episode’s narrative. Every time Sydney forgets to incorporate the question into her answer — a form of speech necessary for TV but not natural for humans — the producer prods her. “How important is it that you get time with him?” he asks. “It’s so important,” she gushes. “Help me out,” he interrupts. “What are we talking about right now?” Sydney tries again: “Getting time with Colton is so important.”
Occasionally, these first-night ITMs turn to more mundane matters. The women have just spent two and a half days sequestered at a nearby hotel — during which time they were not allowed to leave their room without a “handler” — and several of them still seem to be decompressing from this temporary confinement. One woman uses part of her ITM to complain about the hotel fire alarm, which went off at 2:30 in the morning during her stay. “What do you do when the emergency alarm goes off and you can’t leave the room?” she huffs. “You guys didn’t prepare us for that.” And Sydney sheepishly tells the man interviewing her that she spent $8 of the show’s money on coffee that morning “just to get it to my room without leaving.” The producer shrugs apologetically. “Sorry about that.”
It’s time to check on the roses. Angelic Rutherford, The Bachelor‘s production designer, leads me past the kitchen and down the hall to the “art room,” where the crew keeps extra candles and other miscellaneous supplies. (Need a blanket for a driveway picnic, or markers to doodle on some sneakers? You can find them here.) Rutherford opens the door. “Here they are,” she says, gesturing to a…trash can. Yes, the show’s most important props — the long-stemmed red roses, which Colton will hand out to the women he wants to continue dating — are bundled in a bouquet and sitting on a bed of ice in a large garbage barrel. Eventually they will be unwrapped, trimmed, and readied for their close-up.
Rutherford has been with the Bachelor franchise for nearly 16 years, and every season one of her duties involves making sure the mansion’s interior is repainted, redesigned, and reupholstered “to fit the personality of the Bachelor or Bachelorette.” For Colton, she went with a “casual but elegant” vibe, with a mixture of rich greens, golds, and reds. Earlier, Harrison told me that the female contestants are far messier than the men who appear on The Bachelorette, so I ask Rutherford if she agrees. “Yeah. There’s a lot of luggage, there’s a lot of clothes, there’s a lot of makeup, so it’s spread out everywhere,” she says. Rutherford gets “nervous” watching the women eat and drink in the house, “especially when there’s red wine around, and spray tans — so we try to Scotchgard everything really well.”
Colton kisses his third woman of the night. Then the two make small talk that probably won’t make it into the final cut, because it’s not about being “ready” to find “love.” “Are you Spotify or Apple Music?” she asks. The Bachelor says he prefers the latter, and his companion is shocked. “Apple Music sucks!”
A woman who has spent the majority of her time with Colton talking about tacos is overheard telling the Bachelor, “Hot sauce is, like, my jam.” Exec producer Graebner is not impressed. “I often say [to the contestants], ‘Your time with the Bachelor is limited — don’t use it to talk about Mexican food.'” We are standing in the kitchen, which is crowded with camera operators and producers watching the women in the mixer room. Graebner gestures toward a chafing dish on the counter and reveals another food-related Bachelor rule: the meatball theory. “If there’s a woman who ends up standing next to the meatballs all night, she always goes home,” he says. “Because this is the safest space in the house. If they’re afraid to talk to the Bachelor, they stand next to the meatballs.”
Everybody to the mixer room! It’s time for the First Impression Rose to make its grand entrance. Once the women are settled, producers “activate Harrison,” and the host strides in and sets the tray holding the precious flower on the coffee table. The women all begin talking excitedly, but they’re quieted by a producer, who fires questions at the group: “Jane, can you explain the First Impression Rose?” “Who’s not feeling confident right now?” “How meaningful would it be to get the First Impression Rose?” Occasionally the women, giddy with anticipation and creeping exhaustion, begin talking all at once, and the producer shushes them sternly and reminds them how “serious” the situation is. Some contestants gave up jobs or apartments to come here, the producer says, and they could be sent home. The ladies sit in chastened silence, and the interview begins again: “Who else hasn’t had time with Colton?”
A monitor in the control room tracks multiple camera feeds
Colton records his “mid-ITM,” a midpoint check-in with producers, where they ask the Bachelor about the women he’s talked to so far, how confident he’s feeling, and — wait for it — his virginity. “I might be a virgin, but…” Colton trails off for a second. “I don’t want to say that. What should I say?” In between questions, the Bachelor sips iced coffee and yawns.
Chris Harrison eats a black-and-white cookie from craft services. He’s standing in the control room looking refreshed after a catnap. It wasn’t always so easy for the host to get some rest during the first night of production: Up until two seasons ago, he didn’t have a trailer, so he’d find some empty space on the mansion’s second floor. “I’d sleep in the closet in the master bedroom — we’d get pillows and put a makeshift bed together,” he says. Now Harrison divides his downtime between the control room and his trailer; producers text him with updates on the action and to let him know when he’s needed for a shot. “They’ll text me and say, ‘Be here in five minutes.’ So I come back out, and [the shot] usually happens about an hour and a half later,” he jokes.
It’s almost time for Colton to hand out the First Impression Rose. Fuchs positions camera operators throughout the mansion by the poolside couch, the fireplace, the mixer room — to capture the disappointment on the faces of the 29 women who don’t receive the rose. Finally, the Bachelor plucks the rose from the mixer room as a group of nervous women watch from the couch. Alas, the FIR is going to someone else, and as Colton walks away, Fuchs directs his army of camera operators from the control room. “Push in on faces! Bitter! Girls’ faces! Bitter! Left behind!”
The first tears of the night! After Chris Harrison ends the cocktail party with his traditional champagne flute-and-butter knife entrance (known internally as the “Tink tink moment”), producers grill the weary women about how the looming rose ceremony makes them feel. “I put everything on hold just to meet him,” says Nicole (25, social media coordinator), as her eyes well up. “I just really hope, like, he gives me, like, that second chance to prove to him, like, that we can have that connection and that spark.”
The women have spent the past 20 minutes outside posing for a group photo with the Bachelor. The early-morning air is brisk, so by the time the bachelorettes file into the rose-ceremony room, they are half frozen. Big Paulie calls each one by name and arranges them in two rows based on an order determined by producers, and then gives them the rundown: When Colton calls your name, step forward and walk to him, take the rose, and then return to your place. For those who don’t get a rose, adds Paulie, “do not say goodbye to Colton until I call your name.”
“If I don’t give you a rose tonight, it’s not because I didn’t enjoy our time together. It’s because I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.” As soon as Colton announces this to the women, he leaves the room without handing out a single rose. He huddles in the hallway with producers, who have a list of the women he’s chosen to keep around. After committing the first three names to memory, Colton heads back into the room and stands before the women in silence. Without the dramatic rose-ceremony music that will be added in postproduction, the long pause is even more awkward. For God’s sake, Colton, what are you waiting for???
As it turns out, the Bachelor can’t utter a word — or even pick up a rose — until he’s cued by Big Paulie. And Paulie doesn’t give the signal until he hears from Fuchs via his earpiece. In the control room, Fuchs scans the monitors and then begins the countdown. “3…2…1…pick it up.” Colton picks up the rose. More silence. “3…2…1…go.” Colton calls [spoiler’s] name. Does Fuchs have a system for determining how long the wait should be between each rose-ceremony beat? “No, I just feel it,” he reports. “The main thing is not to rush through it, [so] we can get more reaction shots.” During the excruciating pauses, his cameras look for “the most interesting story: Who’s nervous, who’s confident, who’s glancing over at who.”
Or who looks like she’s about to cry. A camera catches a roseless woman looking distraught. “Oh, that’s so sad,” says Fuchs. “She’s starting to do the math.”
“Ladies, Colton. This is the final rose tonight. When you’re ready.”
It’s been only three minutes since Colton handed out his final rose, but the exit interviews, or what I’ll call the “reject ITMs,” are already underway in several spots around the property. The dejected women walk out of the mansion and into the flat light of dawn, where producers are waiting to debrief them on what just happened and, you know, ask if they’re worried that they’ll die alone: “Are you sad Colton didn’t pick you?” “What’s the hardest part about leaving?” “What do you want for yourself?” One contestant is overheard complaining to her producer about her limited access to the Bachelor: “Y’all didn’t want to give me my time!”
Meanwhile, the chosen ones are still milling about in the rose room, waiting for Colton to do his end-of-night (actually beginning-of-morning) toast. “You guys are the real MVPs, having to stand this long in heels!” he says genially. “Nothing like champagne at 6 in the morning. Can we get some OJ in here? Some biscuits and gravy?”
Things are starting to wind down in the control room. On the monitor, I see a discarded contestant sitting in profile, wrapped in a brown blanket. She’s staring straight ahead glumly. After a minute, she notices the camera is on. “Oh my God,” she says. “We’re recording.”
Always, honey. Always.
I finally leave the mansion. At this moment, to my knowledge, Colton remains a virgin.
The 23rd season of The Bachelor premieres Monday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. on ABC.