On Feb. 9, everything changed for Chris Harrison. The affable, controversy-free host of “The Bachelor” sat down with former “Bachelorette” star Rachel Lindsay on “Extra.” When asked a simple question about “Bachelor” winner Rachael Kirkconnell, whose former plantation party photos re-surfaced on social media, Harrison went to great lengths to defend the racially insensitive, controversial contestant in a long-winded exchange. As the situation exploded in backlash over social media, that interview was the beginning of a domino effect that would ultimately derail the veteran host’s 19-year tenure with the ABC franchise.
The strangest thing about the entire situation? Harrison was never even asked to participate in the “Extra” interview.
More from Variety
Multiple insiders tell Variety that Harrison participated in the interview on his own volition, but was never requested by a network or studio publicist to sit down for the press opportunity. When Lindsay asked a par-for-the-course question about Kirkconnell, the “Extra” correspondent did not push Harrison to elaborate and she wasn’t expecting Harrison to dive in. But he did, head first — and with a crash landing.
The following story is the result of interviews with numerous people familiar with what happened behind-the-scenes, leading up to Harrison’s departure. All of the individuals who spoke to Variety did so under the condition of anonymity either because they still work with “The Bachelor” franchise or because they are too closely associated to situation surrounding Harrison. But through their accounts, what becomes clear is that, even after the veteran host’s tone-deaf commentary, the entire situation was completely repairable — and avoidable.
ABC and Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story. Harrison’s legal representatives also declined to comment, and his agents never responded to Variety’s request for comment.
Contrary to previous press reports, Variety has learned that Harrison’s exit package was not a significant eight-figure payout. Instead, he received roughly $10 million — a combination of a $9 million exit settlement, plus remaining contractual fees — upon leaving the job he held since 2002.
So, what really happened?
After the “Extra” interview aired, Lindsay was stunned by Harrison’s response and was expecting a canned response. The interview lasted nearly 14 minutes, and she felt like she could not get a word in. Lindsay declined to comment for this article, but speaking on her “Higher Learning” podcast, she confirmed that no publicist accompanied Harrison during the interview, and said that he “talked over and at me.” Lindsay recalled: “He wasn’t trying to hear it. He was just trying to be heard.”
After the interview hit the internet, the calls for Harrison’s job were immediate. Social media was blowing up with swift criticism against Harrison, and news outlets covered his faux-pas in full force. While everyone seemed to notice the severity of Harrison’s defensive commentary, the one person didn’t identify the magnitude of the scandal? Harrison himself.
According to a small handful of people familiar with the situation, Harrison was not aware of how much attention his response was receiving, and did not realize just how problematic the television interview would become.
On her podcast in February, Lindsay said that Harrison “had no problems” with the interview and texted her saying that he “appreciated the conversation.”
As soon as the interview aired, social media erupted and ABC and Warner Bros. realized they had a big problem on their hands. The network and studio panicked at the public response and went into quick damage control. In the immediate days following his interview, Harrison spoke to bigwigs within the franchise, who took an open approach. Harrison was never told that he’d be fired from his longtime position; in fact, any consideration of him being terminated was not even addressed in initial conversations. Instead, the talks revolved around Harrison apologizing, educating himself on race issues and making proper amends to people who were hurt by his comments within the franchise.
Harrison made his first public apology on Instagram the day after his “Extra” interview, apologizing for “perpetuating racism” and stating, “While I do not speak for Rachael Kirkconnell, my intentions were simply to ask for grace in offering her an opportunity to speak on her own behalf.”
Immediately after, the female contestants from Season 25 of “The Bachelor” banded together to take a united stand against racism, while appearing to knock Harrison’s initial apology.
“We are deeply disappointed and want to make it clear that we denounce any defense of racism,” the cast jointly posted on social media. “Rachel Lindsay continues to advocate with ‘grace’ for individuals who identify as BIPOC within this franchise. Just because she is speaking the loudest, doesn’t mean she is alone.”
Two days later, Harrison announced he’d be “stepping aside” from the franchise for an undisclosed period of time, writing, “I have consulted with Warner Bros. and ABC…and will not join for the ‘After the Final Rose’ special…I am dedicated to getting educated on a more profound and productive level than ever before.”
Emmanuel Acho was tapped to guest host “After the Final Rose” in lieu of Harrison. At that point, insiders say the plan was still for Harrison to eventually come back as host, though he would need to take a break to put in the work and educate himself before returning.
But the backlash against Harrison never stopped.
In late February, Matt James, the first Black star of “The Bachelor,” made his own statement, posting on his social media: “Chris’ failure to receive and understand the emotional labor that my friend Rachel Lindsay was taking on by graciously and patiently explaining the racist history of the Antebellum South, a painful history that every American should understand intimately, was troubling and painful to watch.”
Ivan Hall, a contestant from Tayshia Adams’ season who garnered praise for his episode about Black Lives Matters, said in a media interview that he would not participate in another season if Harrison was on board.
“Going forward, I honestly don’t know how this will all shake out,” Hall said to E! News. “But for myself for example, if they have future shows and if they were to ask me to be on ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ or something like that — and I’m sure a lot of other contestants feel this way as well — I wouldn’t feel comfortable if Chris is there, to be quite frank.”
On March 4, “Good Morning America” aired a pre-taped interview between Harrison and anchor Michael Strahan. Prior to booking the “GMA” sit-down, Harrison had hired a crisis management publicist, Mike Sitrick, who previously represented Harvey Weinstein. (Today, Harrison is no longer represented by Sitrick.) With his new representation, Harrison was advised to do a TV interview, insiders say, and when ABC was informed of that, the network requested the spot to be on “GMA” to keep it in the family.
On-air, Harrison verbally owned up to his mistakes, said he is committed to progress and announced he has been working with race educator and strategist. He also told Strahan that he planned to return as host of “The Bachelor.”
After the interview wrapped, Strahan said, live on television, “His apology is his apology, but it felt like I got nothing more than a surface response on any of this, and obviously he’s a man who wants to clearly stay on the show, but only time will tell if there’s any meaning behind his words.” Strahan’s off-the-cuff response was immediately praised on social media.
Harrison, likely expecting a softball interview as the face of the network’s top-rated reality franchise, was angered by the disastrous outcome. And, so were “Bachelor” executives, who were perplexed by Harrison’s rigid on-air performance, which came off disingenuous.
At that point, it became clear that Harrison would need to take a longer time-out, but the franchise was still planning on eventually bringing him back, according to sources. At the request of “Bachelor” executives, Harrison contacted a handful of former cast members to mixed results, which Variety has confirmed through multiple sources. The general response from BIPOC cast members that Harrison had called or texted was informing him that his apology would be accepted, but he would need to put in the work to educate himself before he’d be welcomed back with open arms.
As all this was brewing, there was another major roadblock for Harrison. In March, current “Bachelorette” Katie Thurston flat-out refused to star in her season if Harrison was the host.
“I stand with other alumni who have expressed that learning and growth require time,” Thurston had tweeted amid the media spectacle. “I hope that Chris Harrison continues to take more time to step away while sincerely educating himself and dedicating himself to the work. We can all grow and do better with time, and I hope he does.”
Insiders familiar with discussions say that Thurston spoke to Harrison directly, informing him that she would not feel comfortable starring as “The Bachelorette” if he was involved due to all of the controversy surrounding him. This conversation upset and hurt Harrison, according to a person familiar with their chat.
ABC and Warner Bros. declined to comment on Thurston’s conversation with Harrison.
By mid-March, ABC and Warner Bros. announced Harrison would not return for Thurston’s season of “The Bachelorette,” and that fan-favorite alums, Adams and Kaitlyn Bristowe, would serve as guest co-hosts. In their announcement, the network and studio left the door open, stating, “We support Chris in the work that he is committed to doing.”
Insiders close to Harrison say that the veteran host deeply cared about Bachelor Nation and loved his job. The entire situation took a toll on him, and he always planned on returning. His commitment to the franchise never wavered.
But eventually, Harrison’s desire to return to “The Bachelor” was overshadowed by the mess behind-the-scenes between his team and the studio and network. Harrison retained power attorney Bryan Freedman, who had recently represented Gabrielle Union in her dispute against “America’s Got Talent,” and negotiated a mega-million payout for Megyn Kelly when she left NBC News in early 2019. Freedman had also previously represented “The Bachelor” creator Mike Fleiss’ wife in her domestic violence allegations when she accused Fleiss of attacking her; but later, after a messy divorce settlement had been reached, the couple announced their reconciliation.
Harrison’s attorney was “outraged” by the dragging-out process, an insider previously told Variety, and felt that ABC and Warner Bros. were using his client as a scapegoat for all of the franchise’s diversity problems from the reality TV juggernaut’s inception.
Once production on Thurston’s season of “The Bachelorette” began, things started to unravel further. While Harrison’s attorney was putting up a tough fight, representing his client against the network and studio, Harrison was still under the impression he could make a comeback for the season. An insider close to production reveals that after cast and crew had already been sent to New Mexico to quarantine for “Bachelorette,” Harrison was essentially knocking on the door, asking to salvage his job by making calls to various people on set, begging them to put in a good word for him.
In early June, Variety published a report that Harrison would not be returning to host “Bachelor in Paradise” and would be replaced by a slew of rotating celebrity hosts, including David Spade, but that his overall future status with the franchise still remained in limbo. A person familiar with Harrison’s negotiations says, at the point the article was published, it had been decided that there was “absolutely no chance” Harrison would be returning for this summer’s season of “Bachelor in Paradise” and that the prospect of him returning to the franchise was “extraordinarily remote.” But, that particular article about “Bachelor in Paradise” set off Harrison and his inner circle, and ended up expediting the end-game for all parties, according to several sources.
Though Harrison had always wanted to keep his job, by that point, the damage was done and the relationship had soured, as drama hit an all-time high. His attorney quickly arranged an exit deal, and the network and studio put negotiations on the fast track.
Within a matter of days, Harrison had reached a legal agreement to depart the franchise on his own accord. Part of the agreement Harrison signed included the public statement of an amicable parting-of-ways, which is typical in most high-profile Hollywood departures.
Despite previous reports, Harrison did not walk away with a substantial eight-figure payout. Two individuals familiar with the negotiations say that the host got $9 million, plus remaining contractual fees, which brought his total exit package to roughly $10 million — about the same paycheck he would have made from two years of work, as his contract was said to be around $5 million per year. (ABC, Warner Bros. and Harrison’s team all declined to comment on Harrison’s exit or any financial payout.)
However, just like any “Bachelor” breakup, the parting of ways is civil — at least on the surface. Or, according to the legal paperwork.
While Harrison’s sugar-coated announcement of his departure appears to be harmonious, at closer look, the former host fails to thank the studio or network, while making sure to extend his gratitude to the fans.
“I’ve had a truly incredible run as host of ‘The Bachelor’ franchise and now I’m excited to start a new chapter,” Harrison said in a statement last week. “I’m so grateful to Bachelor Nation for all of the memories we’ve made together. While my two-decade journey is wrapping up, the friendships I’ve made will last a lifetime.”
Best of Variety
Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.