Almost every year, “The Bachelor” ends in scenic wilderness — perhaps on a cliff overlooking the ocean — with a woman in an evening gown and a man down on one knee, holding a Neil Lane diamond engagement ring as the music swells.
But first, “The Bachelor” starts at a casino near the Baltimore airport.
Or a lounge in New Orleans. A hotel in Fort Lauderdale. A Hard Rock Cafe in Denver. This year, each will hold open casting calls where, without fail, thousands of potential contestants across the country show up.
ABC’s hit reality dating show franchise is in Season 32 this summer as JoJo Fletcher looks for love on “The Bachelorette.” The audience is savvier, live-tweets from viewers are more vicious and the show has increasingly become a parody of itself. The potential for public humiliation has never been higher.
None of that matters. People still show up. But why?
At the Maryland Live Casino around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” blasts at a deafening volume throughout a dimly lit bar and dance floor. As the bright lights of the slot machines shine in the distance, dozens of women arrive to fill out applications that ask questions including “Do you drink alcoholic beverages?” and “Are you genuinely looking to get married and why?” and “Do you have any tattoos?”
Some are decked out in short dresses and stilettos. Others came straight from work and are in jeans and blazers. One by one, they pose for a photographer and are instructed to wait on the other side of the room, before they’re whisked away for a private video interview. An emcee gamely tries to pump up the crowd by playing trivia, offering a free dinner for two at Phillips Seafood if they can name three Republican presidential contenders who aren’t Donald Trump.
“This. Is. Mortifying,” mutters Heather, 29, clutching a long-stemmed pink rose given to everyone auditioning.
“I know,” agrees Lindsey, 26, holding up her phone. “I’m live-Snapchatting this right now.”
At this point, everyone in the room knows the drill with “The Bachelor” franchise: The absurd drama, the fights, the hot tub dates, the way contestants slowly lose their minds as they’re cut off from the world while filming. The chances for an actual, lasting relationship are minimal. But as it turns out, people will risk their dignity in search of love.
“I’ve tried online dating and meeting people around town, but it’s just – I don’t know,” sighs 26-year-old Chelsea, a home organizer from Silver Spring, Md. (News organizations who interviewed potential contestants were not allowed to use last names; a casting call representative cites “confidentiality” in case one of them makes it on the show.) Chelsea pauses. “I thought, why not try this? It looked like fun.”
“You can go to the bar, you can go to the club scene, or you can go on TV,” says one “Bachelor” hopeful named Emily. “I want to find someone to marry. I can’t find someone in D.C. So why not see what’s out there?”
By far, that phrase (“Why not?”) is the most common explanation. Heather says she’s at the end of her 20s and still single, so she may as well look for love on TV. Lindsey’s colleagues urged her to try out, though she told them there’s a “.05 percent” chance it will lead to anything. Still … what’s the harm?”
“I just feel like I probably have statistically better odds at this than finding someone on Tinder,” says Mary, sitting at a table with three other women venting about the hopelessness of online dating. Melissa agrees: “I feel like I’ve exhausted all other options, pretty much.”
“What do you have to lose?” 29-year-old Abby chimes in. “Nothing, really. Yes, a lot of people have not found love. But some people have.”
Technically, this is true. Five out of 31 couples on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have ended in marriage, and that’s not counting the couples born out of spin-off “Bachelor in Paradise” or that have met at “Bachelor”-sponsored alumni events.
Those odds are enough for some women — and even some parents. Samantha, 27, just moved to Baltimore and hasn’t had much luck with the dating scene. She has been watching “The Bachelorette” this summer with her father, who was the one who urged her to go to the casting call. “It’s unconventional, but you’re always looking for Mr. Right,” he told her.
Christine, a 22-year-old German au pair who has been in the United States for about three years, also has her parents’ blessing. “They say I’m old enough to know what I’m doing and they say they support me in whatever I’m doing,” she says.
However, the daughter Mom and Dad would see on TV probably wouldn’t be the daughter they actually know. Reality TV is known for manipulating situations and editing people into “characters,” either heroes or villains, for whatever fits the most entertaining story.
Yet many people trying out just aren’t all that concerned.
“I mean, you have to just be understanding of like, they are trying to get ratings, so if you call a girl a b—- they’re probably going to put it on the show,” says Kristen, 26. “That’s just being realistic. But I’ve never seen a genuinely good person on the show portrayed as an evil person.”
“I mean, if your family knows who you are … at the end of the day, they know you, that’s all that matters,” adds Regina, 25.
Jason, a 28-year-old AV technician from Crofton, Md., is one of the few men in attendance to put in his name for “The Bachelorette” and is also one of the most optimistic auditioners. “I would actually be really excited to see how they would edit me together,” he says. “I think I have good morals and stuff so I don’t think I’d necessarily look that bad. But you never know.”
As the hours go by, the crowds die down. Sandy Mehlman, a casting director who has worked with the show for the past four years, takes a quick break to survey the action outside of the interview room. No media is allowed back there – it’s only for contestants to sit down on camera with a producer, who will judge whether they make the next cut or get tossed aside.
Mehlman doesn’t say exactly what producers are looking for beyond “single” and “a lot of energy” – they know the right person when they see them. Still, she loves the casting calls, because even though “Bachelor” hopefuls think they’re savvy, even the most confident person comes into the interview room looking terrified.
“Everybody that comes in here is so new to this whole process, to any casting process, they’re scared out of their minds as of what to expect,” Mehlman says.
One unexpected perk? Some people have become friends or even gotten engaged to people they’ve met at casting calls – which, frankly, should be its own spin-off. Yet the real prize, as many hopefuls state, is still the actual “Bachelor.”
Tiffany, 26, feels that way. When asked why she came to the casting call, she just responds, “Beyoncé!” Then she elaborates, “I want a Jay Z. I want a ring.”
So far, she’s impressed by the men who have appeared on the show. “Every bachelor they pick is the ideal guy, you know what I’m saying? He can make 25 women feel like they’re significant,” she says.
“When I watch ‘The Bachelor,’ I feel like I’m on a date with the guy on a Monday night,” she continues. “And he makes me feel like I’m worth something.”