Without Trista Sutter, it’s unlikely The Bachelorette — and, by association, The Bachelor — would still be on the air. As the show’s inaugural lead and self-proclaimed “fairy godmother,” Sutter has borne witness to the franchise’s every mutation since her season concluded in success in 2003; today, she and her final rose recipient, firefighter Ryan Sutter, live with their two children in a Colorado suburb. Even in the bleakest of seasons, you can look to Sutter as the legitimacy of all those group dates and rose ceremonies. If it worked out for her so well, you think, it has to happen for someone else.
Except it really hasn’t. Only four Bachelorette couple “winners” are still together, compared to The Bachelor’s three. The franchise’s production staff, which Sutter says once made an effort to emphasize intimacy rather than manipulate it into existence, has veered further into the valley of orchestration, a tactic that became clear in the current season when producers saddled co-leads Gabby Windey and Rachel Recchia with a “make your own rules” framework. Moreover, contemporary contestants’ naked ambition for social media clout and fame has become a chore to tolerate; whereas Sutter’s generation of Bachelor fan favorites angled for TV hosting gigs and red carpet correspondents after seasons aired, even the most minor of today’s competitors can hope to convert their franchise involvement into lucrative sponsorships online. There’s a reason Neil Lane famously makes contestants return their engagement rings if they split up under two years — they nearly always do.
While Sutter, who hosts her own podcast and enjoys the Cameo circuit, knows she benefited from her Bachelorette role, it’s clear the franchise — since hampered by cluelessness when it comes to issues of race and whiteness, embodied by former host Chris Harrison — has benefited more.
It’s been nearly two decades since your inaugural season. Does this franchise continue to interest or excite you?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’m a very loyal person. I’m also incredibly sentimental, and I give credit where credit is due. Well, I can’t give the show credit for the fact that we’ve been able to stay married for 20 years; The Bachelorette introduced us, but after that was our doing. But I’m a card-carrying member of Bachelor Nation. I love the connections I’ve been able to form with the other Bachelorettes and all the people from the show. I’ve gotten to meet so many people I never would’ve connected with otherwise. So for those reasons — no matter what’s going on in the season — I’ll always watch.
I’m now watching the show with my daughter. She’s 13. That brings a whole other component to it. I’m sure if you asked people who didn’t have a positive experience, they wouldn’t be so thrilled to be involved in the franchise anymore. But I love love. And I love, at least in the beginning, that the show’s priority was to create long-lasting romantic relationships, or introduce people so they could create long-lasting romantic relationships. The Bachelorette introduced me to my happy future. My husband and my children would not exist without the show.
What does your daughter think of The Bachelorette?
She loves to watch it. Because she came from it! She recognizes we met on the show and I think that history is interesting to her, even though she wouldn’t articulate it in that way. She has a pride that’s like, “This is where my parents met and it’s a happy story.” Had we not been successful and gotten divorced, maybe it wouldn’t be a show she would like to watch. Kaitlyn Bristowe is her favorite Bachelorette and she’s come to visit us a few times. She has a sweet little relationship with Kaitlyn.
Has your loyalty to the franchise ever been tested?
Any good relationship goes through struggles.
Tell me more about that.
I’m not talking about my marriage. I’m talking about any relationship with anyone. This includes the producers. Mind you, my struggles have not been all that difficult. We’ve had a pretty happy relationship since everything has started. The biggest struggle was around the wedding because it had never been done before. My manager at the time was like, “You deserve to be compensated for your time if they’re going to air your wedding; I don’t want you to get taken advantage of.” It was a negotiation, so I let the managers deal with that. To me it was about getting married, obviously, but we didn’t want to get taken advantage of either. That was really the only contentious moment between the producers and myself.
I also remember filming The Bachelorette and having a producer during one of my interviews argue with me, like, “I just need you to cry right now.” She wanted to get some emotion out of me other than me shutting down and being silent. If you’re the lead, you do have to be able to emote. If contestants don’t share what they’re going through, viewers aren’t going to connect with them. So she was like, “Dude, come on, I need the tears, then you can be done.”
Knowing how the show operates behind the scenes, has anything frustrated you lately, either on-screen or in the news cycle?
This season with Gabby and Rachel is … mind you, I have no contact with the producers in terms of creative decisions. This is purely my own thoughts as a viewer. I know the job of producers is to create drama to get people to watch in order to sustain the franchise. But the innocence is way gone. Back when Ryan and I were on, it was a fairly novel experience. I think they need to do new things to change it up. I don’t appreciate that the producers left the decisions up to Gabby and Rachel. There was a lack of structure and format. When I was on the show, it was: You have 25 guys, you go down to 15, you go down to 8, you go down to 4, you go down to 3, 2, 1. It remained that way for years. With two leads, they still should have had some kind of agreed-upon structure before the season began filming. It’s unfair to them that there was a lack of format. There’s been a lot of extra unnecessary confusion and hurt feelings. I’m not a fan of that.
What would be a beneficial season change-up?
They’ve never listened — not that they should because I’m not a producer — but I feel like they should pluck someone out of obscurity again. Find someone successful, endearing, charming, intelligent, sweet, and attractive. I get that they have these people who have been on the show and have a following. Viewers have a vested interest in seeing that they find love. The recycling part of it has some benefits. But I would really love to see someone we all could fall in love with together.
The Bachelorette in 2003 represented a different moment in pop culture than it does now. Having observed this evolution as a lead, where does the show stand in the zeitgeist in 2022?
It’s evolved with every other reality show. When the show started, I remember being part of a panel with Mike Fleiss and Mark Burnett. Everyone from the media was telling us, “This is just a one-off. This isn’t going to last, why do you think it’s going to last?” And the guys were like, “It’s going to last.” It’s evolved, unfortunately, because of social media. People are coming on the show without the same intentions they used to. Intentions being, they were coming for love and that was it. There was no social media to extract fame from. There were “famous people” who came out of the show, if that’s what you want to call it. But it wasn’t like today, where they can go on the show, be gone the second week, then have Instagram followers out the wazoo and be able to become influencers and create a business from the show. Back in the day, people with a business would maybe talk about their business. Same with musicians who wanted to promote their music. And why not? There are people who are business savvy. The difference is now they’re able to come out of it with a business.
There are a lot of evolutions related to the world in general, including having to deal with race and learning from past mistakes. The franchise finally started listening to the growing group of people who were trying to get some diversity on the show. That’s a great evolution. Do they still have room to grow? For sure. But I do think they have gotten better. I was excited to see more diversity this season.
Do you think people no longer go on the show to find love, only to gain influence and status on social media?
No. I wouldn’t watch the show if I thought everyone was ready to become an influencer. I get that people do that and I understand it’s kind of a draw for some people. It’s a fun job to be able to travel the world and post pictures and videos about it. Who wouldn’t want to do that? I would if I was still single or if we didn’t have kids. Call me crazy, but there are people who go on the show that do just want to meet someone. They’ve found success in other ways in their life, whether through their profession, a strong family life, or a close circle of friends. Some people are missing that element of a love relationship and they come on the show hopeful it’ll happen for them. So no, I think there are still people who are like me and Ryan, who are there for the right reasons. I’ll always think that.
Was there a particular moment you realized the franchise was starting to sacrifice depth in favor of pre-orchestrated drama?
Let’s see, I have a horrible memory. [Laughs.] I’m getting flashes of different things. There was a lot more depth in the first few seasons. It’s funny. Last night I was watching a new episode with my daughter, and my husband watched the episode with us. He’ll rarely watch anymore. He was mimicking what was going on in the episode. “Now, can we make out? Oh yeah, we had such a fun day today. Can we make out?” It’s all about making out. My daughter thinks what her dad is saying is the funniest thing in the world. And I’m like, “Stop it, that’s not what it’s about!” But I realized there’s some truth to it. For my season, I kissed four guys. It’s now become pretty standard to be like, “Oh, we just met. Can we kiss just to see?” It’s speed dating on steroids. I think people realize there’s only so much time, so let’s see if we’re compatible in the way that we kiss because kissing is an important part of relationships.
The fundamental tenets are kissing and trauma bonding.
You’re right. Things are sped up and that’s contributing to the lack of depth in the beginning. To me that’s a little more superficial — the kissing — even though it’s a very important part of a relationship. If Ryan had been a bad kisser, I don’t know that we would’ve ended up together. He’s an incredible kisser, the best of my life. Personally, for my individual tastes as a viewer, I would love to see less of the make-outs and more of the conversations about things that matter. That’s where I see connection with people. If my daughter were ever on the show, I would want to make sure she gets to know the other person before going in for the smooches.
Does the authenticity remain?
Oh, I think it’s still there. I wouldn’t be as much of a fan if I didn’t see authenticity. Admittedly, you might have to look harder for it than in years past. But I do still think it’s there and it’ll continue to be. If there wasn’t any authenticity, that’s when the show will have to say goodbye.
Have you ever found yourself thinking you were in a different show compared to what you’re watching now?
With this season, for sure. Obviously there are still rose ceremonies, there’s still a host, there’s still travel, and there’s still glamour and fantasy. There are certain elements that connect me back to the show I was on. But the lack of structure and format seems very different to me. Why don’t they have me come on and talk to the people or offer any kind of advice? Because viewers want to see the people they follow on Instagram. I’m sure the younger demographics probably have no clue who I am.
My hope is always, “Oh, this couple is going to last.” Well, it’s just not true. That’s how things go. But if you compare the show to real life, how many relationships do you have to go through to find the one? All relationships have struggles. Ours just happen to be in the spotlight from being in this franchise. That adds a whole other stress. But I don’t think it’s unrecognizable.
Who would you say best personified the Bachelorette role of late?
It’s really hard for me to pull out one girl because I’m maternal toward all of the girls. Because I’m the oldest one, I’m the mom of the group. Some of them have called me “grandma,” which I do not like. I like “the fairy godmother.” I just feel like a kindred spirit. There’s a sense of pride there for my girls. I know you’re not asking for a favorite, but I don’t know. I love all of them.
That’s a very diplomatic response.
I mean, there are things I’ll yell at the television like everyone else in America. I’ll be like, “Why are you doing that?!” With Rachel this season, she’ll get really upset when she feels like the guys aren’t seeing her, even if this is right after she has a one-on-one date with someone with a fantastic connection. I’m like, “Girlfriend, you’re doing an amazing job, stop putting all the pressure of being the perfect Bachelorette on your shoulders. None of us were perfect. We were all going through our journey.” No one does it the same. We all have different struggles. The end result is just trying to find that guy.
What double standards do you still see between Bachelorette and Bachelor seasons?
When I was named the first Bachelorette, a lot of the press wrote that they thought I was going to look like a slut or a hussy. Was the Bachelor ever called those things? Nope. Kaitlyn Bristowe has talked about getting death threats after sleeping with Nick Viall on her season. I think it’s unfortunate that women can’t … I hesitate to say all this, because who knows if my children are going to read it. But I would love for there to not be a double standard when it comes to sex. It still exists. It would be nice for women to feel like they can speak their mind without getting judged in that realm. I don’t think we’re there yet.
Last year, producers issued a statement that condemned Bachelorette fans harassing Rachel Lindsey online, which they noted was “rooted in racism.” How complicit has the franchise been in perpetuating this behavior?
I hate that whole conversation. It breaks my heart. I had Rachel on my podcast a year or so ago. We talked about race and what she had gone through. I support their statement. The trolls come out when they feel like there aren’t any consequences and they think they can say whatever the hell they want. And there are no consequences. I feel like there should be.
I hate that anyone from the show has ever gotten any kind of hate when it comes to race. As a white woman, I’ve never had to deal with what people of color have to deal with on a daily basis. Rachel was integral in shedding a light on and being a voice for people to see what it’s really like growing up as a Black woman. My aunt married a Black man. My cousin is Black. He lived in my house for a while. I have a connection to it, but I didn’t experience it.
I feel like the franchise has learned some lessons. I do think they could still improve on supporting people of different races on the show. Hopefully that will continue to grow. Rachel has done such a good job. She’s been very outspoken about how she doesn’t want to be connected to the franchise anymore. I get that, but I hope other people from the show who come from diverse backgrounds will continue to speak up about their experiences, because I think that’s where change can come from.
What meaningful changes to the production are overdue at this point?
Obviously they need a lead of color. That’s a huge one. Recently we’ve had Michelle Young and Matt James, two strong leads, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It needs to continue, as well as diverse casting for Bachelor in Paradise, which is more successful with romantic relationships than The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.
Do you think it was the correct decision for Chris Harrison to leave as host?
From his perspective?
No, from yours. And I suppose from the production side.
[Pauses.] He’s a friend of mine. It’s been different since he’s left. I loved that Kaitlyn Bristowe and Tayshia Adams were there because they could be girls with the girls. But it’s different without Chris. I think he would’ve been able to crush this job until the show was over. No doubt about it. But I also think he was maybe ready for a change. He moved to Texas and dropped off his kids at college — he’s probably able to be more present with them in those moments. I miss him as the host. I won’t lie about that.
Has Chris confided to you as a friend about the situation?
I haven’t talked to him about it.
Have you given much thought to how your marriage legitimized the franchise? I’ve wondered, for instance, if you two weren’t successful and happy together, would the show have persisted this long.
No one can know for sure, but I don’t know that it could have been successful. If it wasn’t us, it would’ve had to be somebody else. Because I do feel like in those middle years, the franchise needed some kind of legitimacy. I do feel like we helped. One of the questions we’ve frequently been asked over the years is, “Have you ever felt pressured to stay together?” I don’t appreciate that. No, we haven’t. I live my life for me and for my husband and our family. We’ve never felt pressured to stay together to provide legitimacy to the show. But without a legitimate or a successful relationship from someone, I don’t believe the show would have been able to last as long as it has.
Given your history and intentions, would becoming a consulting producer for the franchise interest you?
I would love that. We made a very conscious decision to move to Colorado after our wedding and engagement. Ryan is a mountain man at heart. He will never be happy anywhere else. At the time I was doing a lot of television hosting with The View and Good Morning America and having so much fun with it. I had come from the world of pediatric physical therapy, and even though I loved my job with children, I liked the energy and glamour around television sets. But when we moved, I made a conscious decision to focus on my family and put my interests in a profession aside. I’ve been told multiple times, “You should have been a producer.”
I’ll admit I would’ve loved to be the host of any of the seasons after Chris left, but I would’ve had to leave my family. I couldn’t do that for an extended period of time; my husband is a firefighter who works 24- or 48-hour shifts in Denver, and my kids are not able to drive yet. If there was a way to work with production in any way, shape, or form as a consulting producer, I would love it. They are my family, even though much of today’s production team and crew weren’t there for my season. I do feel like the atmosphere is full of energy and hope. Maybe I’m silly for thinking so positively about the show, because I know a lot of people have negative feelings, but I love it.
What makes you optimistic about the future of the franchise?
Purely my optimism. The franchise is going to do what it’s going to do, and I’m always going to be hopeful.