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Fernando Lucena/Michael Simon

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My Valentine’s Date With 7 Former Bachelor Contestants and 600 Other Women

I fell in love (with another woman's vulnerability)

I’m scared of hot people in the same way that, growing up in Illinois, I was scared of tornadoes: their ruinous presence looms in my mind’s backyard, but it’s only once every couple of seasons that I encounter them. If they do arrive, I hide in the basement until they’re finished wreaking their havoc. That’s not to say that I’m not totally on board with the cyclonic rotation of interchangeable hotties ravaging their way through popular culture. I love watching them on TV; they’re not an immediate threat to me.

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There is no activity I enjoy more than taking a dip in that wet, wet whirlpool Jacuzzi full of sunless tanner, Muscle Milk, and probable-but-never-mentioned human ejaculate that is The Bachelor and The Bachelorette (not to mention their smutty brethren, Bachelor Pad and Bachelor in Paradise). It’s not like I respect the institutions of racism and sexism that have given America 19 white, straight seasons The Bachelor and 11 whiter, straighter seasons of The Bachelorette, but I don’t say this as a bit; I don’t watch it ironically. I’m a feminist or whatever, but The Franchise, as my favorite writer Heidi Julavits calls it, has been a consistent spot of bottle-blonde brightness in notably dark times. I’ve clung closest to The Franchise in bouts of illness, joblessness, or depression — I swear Andi Dorfman’s season of The Bachelorette saved me one summer. There seemed to be some grace in rooting against crazy-eyed bad boy Nick Viall and the self-obsessed Josh Murray instead of myself for two hours every week.

Image: Fernando Lucena/Michael Simon

So, wow, imagine how I acted when I met Nick and Josh M. plus five of their fellow Software-Salesmen-Cum-Adonia in person on Valentine’s Day at an upscale sports bar at an event called "The Biggest Group Date Ever." Poorly. I’m not used to talking to conventional hotties in slim-fit suits, especially when they’re evil.

I talked to Nick first. I lied and told him my editor wanted me to take a selfie with him (it was really for my personal files), and then I realized I had no other questions prepared for him. I heard the reporter from Cosmo asking Ben Z. what his absolute craziest Valentine’s Day mishap was, so I panicked and plagiarized. I’m not the sort of person who is able to utter a phrase like "absolute craziest Valentine’s Day mishap" without choking on it, so I abandoned it, and asked him how his career was going after The Bachelor. "I’ve been in LA taking advantage of opportunities, I’m trying to get experiences," Nick said. "There’s no place I’d rather be." Of course not, Nick. I shuffled away.


A photo posted by clairey claire Claire Clar (@clocarus) on

Nick, of course, was not the only persona I had to confront at the Biggest Group Date Ever, organized by The Bachelor and Bachelor in Paradise’s Ashley Iaconetti. (She looked wonderful in a red bodycon, and here’s where I’m contractually obligated shout out to #BachelorNation sponsors Flock U, thank you for the logo beanie I put in my purse and forgot about until just now). I also spoke to Josh Murray, Ben Zorn, Jared Haibon, Michael Garofola, JJ Lane, and Josh Albers.

Lucky for me, I got all of 6 to 7 p.m. to "mingle" with the guys at an exclusive cocktail hour for me and roughly five other female journalists. The entire fête consisted me of asking the most thoughtless questions possible, then pretending I was looking at interview notes while group-texting my friends Amy and Megan in a panic for help IDing their interchangeable chiseled faces.

Image: Fernando Lucena/Michael Simon

The boys’ answers had the typical canned and soporific quality of men who know they look good in a double pocket polo. Josh M., for example, told me, "I love health and wellness." That’s a direct quote. At one other point, when neither Josh M. or Josh A. were saying anything remotely interesting to me on a two-on-one interview, I yelled, "You guys are hunks!" and then excused myself to go panic behind a pillar alone. I had nobody to talk to at this exclusive pre-party, except for the five Bachelorette contestants present whose interviews I couldn’t wait to get through.

Far more interesting to me were the 300-plus women (and, like, six dudes) who waited in line outside on a -1 degree Valentine’s Day for this $60 event. The end of the evening also promised a human auction wherein attendees could compete for alone time with the hotties. When the clock struck 7 and women started streaming through the doors in a vapor cloud of Elizabeth and James Nirvana Black, I thought I might find a couple dozen compadres who felt an equal measure of loneliness and amusement, as I did. As women starting lining up at the bar, however, I began to understand that for every girl there with a group of single friends as a high-concept goof on a particularly depressing winter night, four more were there to get themselves a one-on-one with a former contestant from The Franchise.

At one other point, I yelled, "You guys are hunks!" and then excused myself to go panic behind a pillar alone.

I befriended a woman named Susan early. Don’t worry, that’s not her real name. I needed a mother figure, and she thought I was more important than I was because I was wearing a yellow paper wristband, like the kind you’d get at a waterpark or townie bar. Susan, who just turned 50, told me that unlike all the young girls at the event, she had the money, and the maturity that comes with age, to bid on Josh M. She was wearing the hell out of one of the sexiest dresses of all that evening, and she had the name Josh airbrushed in fine print onto her ring fingernail.

She thought he might know who she was, because he’d once returned one of her emails. "This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," she told me, rubbing my arm excitedly in the way that mother figures do, as her teenage daughter Instagrammed four feet away from us. We got on well and giggled together but when it was her turn to talk to Josh, her priorities understandably shifted. I gave her a thumbs up and she flashed her Josh nail at me. I lost her in a crowd of PR people and girls in cutout dresses.

Image: Fernando Lucena/Michael Simon

Without Susan to lean on, I tried to back my way into the bony-elbowed circles of friends who formed in clusters around the bar, plodding through the sort of small talk friends make when they run out of real gossip. As I inserted myself, most ignored me or were outwardly rude to me until they saw that I was holding a digital tape recorder, and then they thought I was funny and cool and wow, my hair was so pretty. A lot of them wondered if this interview was going to be on TV. No, I told them, I work for this here website. They all thought it was called "," so I had to spell it out.

This isn't my typical experience with large groups of women. I rarely flock to the most mature woman in the place like I did to Susan; I’m not an old soul. Probably every other weekend, I’ve partaken in the special experience between girl-strangers that foments while waiting in line for the bathroom or puking secretly in the ice machine at bars. I delight in hearing other girls’ stories about who betrayed whom and what weird website sells the brown lipstick they’re wearing. But The Biggest Group Date Ever inspired bloodlust in the attendees heretofore unseen outside of group dates on The Bachelor. I always assumed it was at master manipulator/host Chris B. Harrison’s prodding, but I guess it’s the human mating ritual.

One girl told me she had made her friends promise ahead of time that she wouldn’t overdraft her checking account, which had $700 in it.

I asked a lot of girls how much money they’d bid for one of the guys in the human auction later that night (the prize: 45 minutes of "alone time" at a table after the event). I was expecting each girl to guess a couple hundred bucks. I was floored when one girl told me she had made her friends promise ahead of time that she wouldn’t overdraft her checking account, which had $700 in it. A lot of them told me they were bidding on Josh M. He does have a killer smile. Also, in my opinion, the eyes of a killer. I worried for Susan. She had a lot of competition, and these girls weren’t here to make friends.

By 8 p.m., the place was packed. As the night progressed, the subtext of every single girl’s curt excuse me as she pressed forward into the crowd was less, "Can I get by you?" and more "Don’t take up my space, you sad poor bitch." This sad poor bitch writing to you right now was officially tired of talking to people. Figuring there was no use in competing in this gulf of women, I sat alone at an elevated table pawing at my phone. I looked up to see Susan standing in the back of the crowd, wiping tears from her eyes. I made eye contact and she came right to me. She had a story to tell.

Josh M., the motherfucker whose name she had specially airbrushed on her nail, had been an asshole to her. When she asked for a kiss, he told her he was sick. She said she would bid on him at the auction, he acted blase. She gave him a chocolate rose, unlike all the other hussies in this place. She’d driven an hour and "put her marriage on the line." Josh didn’t compliment her hair or makeup. Even the lecherous Nick Viall did that much. The worst part of it all: he brought a girlfriend with him to The Biggest Group Date Ever, and she’d overheard rumblings in the crowd suggesting they’d been getting handsy under a table. She wasn’t going to bid on Josh anymore, she asserted. He’d made her feel "like dirt." Susan told me she was thinking of bidding on Nick, maybe, as revenge.

what have i done

A photo posted by clairey claire Claire Clar (@clocarus) on

When Ashley I. announced from a stage at the front of the bar that the auction was to begin soon, I urged Susan to get back in the game. Josh was as soon-to-be-washed-up protein powder peddler, I told her, and she was a beautiful woman with a highly technical manicure. We hugged goodbye, understanding we might never see each other again. I loved her, or at least felt for her, and I let her go.

At the auction, Josh M. went for a measly $750. I uttered an audible "Hah!" from my post in the back, sipping on a $28 whiskey soda. Nick went for the most money, at $5,600, though ultimately not to Susan. It was for charity, but that sum seems excessive to me. I mean, this is a guy that used the term "make love" in a pretty smarmy way on national television! (Donate to THON, of course. It’s tax deductable).

When Susan told me about Josh’s behavior, my rage wasn’t filtered through a fog of narrative distance or convenient pull quotes.

I originally pitched this as some sort of condescending fish-out-of water story: a sock-wearing reporter-girl goes to a douche-addled bar she’d never be caught dead in otherwise and rips on the cardboard hot guys and the girls who capitulate to them. But when Susan told me about Josh’s behavior, my rage wasn’t filtered through a fog of narrative distance or convenient pull quotes. I felt as put out as she did. I’m not a vengeful person, but I wanted Josh to burn in Paradise.

It’s easy to write about the artifice of reality shows and the boring, privileged few who appear on them (you just know they get your and you’re confused in sexy text messages) and the millions of women who buy into that racket while charging credit for a lace-sleeve dress and a balayage ombre on Groupon. But at The Biggest Group Date Ever, I saw something adulterated in a massive group of women. In actively trying to not be alone on Valentine’s Day, whether they were bidding on a human body or just standing around with friends allowing themselves the smallest inkling of what if, they were putting themselves out there. It’s far more than I did. The dress code said cocktail attire and I wore a Peter Pan collar and slide-on clogs. Listening back to the interviews I conducted is painful — I asked every single Bachelor some variation of "So, do you feel weird mingling right now or what?" when it was I, not those men of stock answers and Shutterstock "handsome man" search query good looks, who projected uneasiness.

Image: Fernando Lucena/Michael Simon

I could have taken time, maybe seven minutes, to sit down and write interview questions for the guys. I could have blended the contour on the hollows of my cheeks with a little more precision. I could’ve even tried hitting on one of them, for the explicit purposes of journalism. I didn’t, because I was scared to see what happened if I really tried. Susan's shame — for what? For wearing a too-tight dress to grab a guy’s attention? For watching a crush go unrequited? For using a TV show about polyamory as a distraction from her own life’s set of disappointments in love and relationships? — was mine. To put it in terms wholly comprehensible to The Franchise crowd, "I felt a real connection with her." Susan’s willingness to put in effort and take a risk was an antidote for all the things I haven’t done and wish I would do.

Most contestants on The Franchise have ended up with a good two or three years of paid club appearances and assorted charity work rather than lasting matrimonial love, the show’s stated but pretty laughable purpose. They might not find love, they might be let down, they might get a lot of residual Bachelor or Bachelorette ass, and eventually they might fade into obscurity in Toledo or in LA after failing to "take advantage of opportunities." But they tried, and that’s probably better than living in fear of the coming storm.

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