“We all got an email that said no black, no white, no small prints, no small patterns, no plaids,” says Paige Breon. Breon is a writer and aspiring model, and, like me, she is attending a special The Bachelor live-taping. “They strongly recommended business attire and jewel tones,” she goes on. “Haven’t you noticed that everyone is always in jewel tones?”
Certain things about The Bachelor are comforting in their predictability — the tears, the extreme activity dates that lend themselves to handy metaphors for the experience of falling in love (e.g., “Flying in that helicopter with Chris was, like, a metaphor for how you can’t be afraid to reach for the stars if you want to fall in love with clouds”), and jewel tones. And on this particular evening, I was preparing to enjoy one of the most reliable of all: the cathartic drama of the “Women Tell All” episode.
It was a Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles last month, and along with dozens of other Bachelor superfans, I boarded the kind of cushy limo-bus typically used for transporting people to sorority formals or bachelorette parties. (What chariot could be more appropriate for the task of shuttlingBachelor fans to a special-taping black site?) The buses deposited us at a television studio, where we take our places in uncomfortable plastic folding chairs and await our chance to serve as televised audience members for the taping of the “Women Tell All” episode. There’s a wide range of affluent-seeming women here — mothers and daughters, groups of fortysomething women, twentysomethings having a “girls’ weekend.” I’m wearing a black caftan and dress clogs — regrettably un-telegenic — so my chances are slim, but Breon has followed the wardrobe instructions to the letter, as have the other 15 or so women sitting around us. By order of ABC, there are more jewel-tone cocktail dresses and going-out tops than all of Caché’s archive, more knockoff YSL tribute sandals than contained in all the closets of the Real Housewives of Bravo combined. As if by unspoken agreement, every woman in the room has topped her ABC-approved uniform with a blowout and an enormous statement necklace. This is, after all, the “Women Tell All” special — the traditional penultimate episode of each season where the contestants gather together to rehash everything that happened. We’re here to see Chris Soules up close, we’re here to watch the female contestants engage in the catty behavior more commonly witnessed among middle-school students, and, most of all, as faces in a well-lit studio audience, we’re here to emote on television like champions in going-out tops and statement necklaces.
Any Bachelor fan — mega or casual — knows that how you view the show each week (with a group of chatty friends, over a potluck-y dinner, with goblets of wine and a competitive bracket) is as important as the actual events that transpire. So if the viewing party is a crucial part of the experience, then the “Women Tell All” special is the highest order of viewing parties. It’s when all the dirt is flung, when the secrets come out, when all the contestants have their reckoning. In the world of The Bachelor, this is the Super Bowl — especially this year. There’s something about the generically blue-eyed, square-jawed, corn-field-raised Bachelor Chris Soules that has captured the hearts and loins of America’s women this season. Despite his lack of conversational skills and unabashed preference for intense, prolonged lizardlike make-out sessions, “Prince Farming” is one of the most popular Bachelors in the show’s history and so the producers have overbooked the TV audience for the “Women Tell All” special. Upon arrival, we’re told that those who get yellow bracelets will definitely be seated, while a purple bracelet means that you will sit for the first couple of hours, but that soon someone with a pink bracelet will come take your seat. So some of us — including me — wind up stuck in the overflow room of purgatory to waste away for hours and hours. I am happy in the overflow area: There are perks that the lucky audience members seated on the soundstage don’t receive, like Subway sandwiches, infinite Dr Pepper, and a hot bar of various appetizers like mini quiches and spring rolls.
When I’ve watched this particular episode of the show in the past, it always seemed like attending a live-taping of “Women Tell All” would be like attending the biggest and best viewing party of all time: The quips would be the quippiest, the camaraderie between audience members would be quickly forged and long-lasting. In reality, it was a five-hour slog during which I couldn’t use the bathroom without an escort.
The actual taping starts at 4 p.m., and kicks off with about 15 minutes of pre-taping canned audience reactions to splice into the show later. Laugh! Applaud! Turn to your neighbor and respond to something shocking. Look shocked! Not that shocked! Too shocked, instructs the disembodied voice of a producer. It’s exhausting, performing what’s required of an actual live audience: the ability to show an extensive range of emotions on command. There are broad beauty-queen smiles of sympathy and sisterhood, frowns of disapproval, grimaces of disgust. Nobody’s face ever reveals the true catatonic glaze of sitting in the exact same position for nearly a full working day. Two women, however, learn what happens you’re not expressive enough: early replacement. After some panicked radioing between producers monitoring the show, those two sociopaths are swapped out before the first Bachelor contestant even sheds a tear.
For as much emotion as audience members are required to give — and for the average TV watcher, this show requires a hefty emotional expenditure — the Bachelor contestants willingly give so much more.
The taping is split into different segments, or acts, as the producer calls it, each centered on one woman and her narrative. (The show favorites are Britt, Kelsey, and Ashley S.; the near-winners are Jade and Kaitlyn. And of course, there is Chris, the main event.) Today, this tragic pageant is broken into five acts, like a Shakespearean tragedy. The point of this show, other than to give rabid fans a taste of the “backstage Bach life,” is to allow each jilted contestant to confront both the man who dumped her on national television and the dozen or so rivals who have spent two to six weeks of filming talking shit behind her back.
Each “act” follows a similar narrative arc: The audience is instructed to applaud while Chris Harrison, ringmaster, introduces a contestant. Then the stages of the Bachelor Hot Seat: Raising of Grievances (in Human Bambi Britt’s case, Carly sabotaged her chances with Bachelor Chris even though she was “supposed to be her friend”), Confrontation with the Offenders, First Tears Interlude, the Greek Chorus (other contestants), Screeches, Tears Interlude (in which Chris Harrison provides comfort or silk handkerchiefs from his own suit pocket), Pleas of Misunderstanding (Kelsey certainly didn’t mean to use her husband’s death as a ploy to win the Bachelor!), Apology or Confession (“Crazy” Ashley admits that talking to perceived onions was really the product of boredom), and then, finally, Absolution of Some Sort. Primarily there is absolution for Chris.
At times, Harrison struggles to keep order. Ladies, please, calm down, he pleads — but usually, he’s totally drowned out by the shrill mess of accusations and weeping. Harrison, save for a few moments when he doesn’t know anyone is listening to his mike — like when he makes a thinly veiled steroids joke — demonstrates great care and empathy with each contestant. He is so tender that at times I wonder if he wants roses of his own. I wonder this aloud and am yelled at by three fellow overflow denizens: “Harrison isn’t allowed to date any contestants; it would ruin the show!”
Sucks for Harrison. He could probably clean up.
We’re about three hours into the taping and now Harrison has to practice his teasers to promote the blooper reel, which is promised for the end of the show. He looks at the camera and asks, “What about those bloopers?” Again. “What about those bloopers.” And again and again. This is actually hell.
At this point, I’m beginning to lose track of time. It’s all a whirlwind of audience reactions and finger pointing and shrieking. I’m not sure anybody is really sure what they are saying anymore, but there are so many tears. Watching the “Women Tell All” episode live, in real time, without the magic of editing, is like watching a six-hour therapy session. It’s like being the fly on the wall when your good friend is begging her boyfriend to explain why he’s dumping her. All you can do is cringe, hold your breath, and wait for it to be over. And it isn’t over until Chris Soules comes out and talks to every single woman he has broken up with over the past six weeks. There’s Britt (Carly didn’t matter, I just wasn’t that into you), Jade (Your Playboy shoot didn’t matter, I just wasn’t that into you), Kelsey (I didn’t think you were using your dead husband as a seduction tactic, I just wasn’t that into you), and finally Kaitlyn (I don’t know why I wasn’t that into you, I just wasn’t that into you). It isn’t over until every single contestant has bared her soul, laid herself bare for audience members to feign reactions to. We will never leave. I’m considering stuffing Subway sandwiches in my purse as a survival tactic.
When it does end, finally, mercifully — after nearly six hours of riding an emotional roller coaster — the contestants look gutted and scooped out. Even Chris Harrison appears tired, beneath his tan and sharp suit. The audience members, however, are amped. We are energy vampires who drank our fill. As we head back to our luxury buses, people are still chirping about getting to meet Chris Soules, and how nice Britt seemed. Someone pulls out a selfie stick and forces her friends to do the skinny-arm pose so she can commemorate the experience of vicariously riding an emotional roller coaster with a few dozen strangers.
As we leave that night, women clutch Harrison’s forthcoming book and a special commemorative tee. Some even get to take home roses of their very own. Me, in addition to nabbing my sweet T-shirt, I’ve consumed 9 mini quiches, two Subway sandwiches, a handful of cookies, and three Dr Peppers, or the caloric equivalent of all the edible feelings present in the entire “Women Tell All” episode.