Not Even A Global Pandemic Can Keep Colton Underwood Down

The former Bachelor gets candid about battling COVID-19, jumping the fence and his future outside of 'The Bachelor' franchise.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Colton Underwood is lounging, iPhone camera in hand.

No, this isn’t one of the many awkwardly filmed vlogs from his season of “The Bachelor.” Underwood is in quarantine at his girlfriend Cassie Randolph’s parents’ home in Huntington Beach, California, and we’re chatting with him on Zoom from our respective residences in Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Underwood has recently recovered from the novel coronavirus and has been documenting his journey in recovery on social media. He was diagnosed when young people were still partying on spring break, so Underwood ended up becoming Bachelor Nation’s responsible public face of COVID-19. And in the midst of this global pandemic, his memoir, aptly named “The First Time,” was released.

The book is full of the kind of juicy details “The Bachelor” franchise enthusiasts yearn for. Underwood writes candidly about being the “world’s most famous virgin,” his failed “Paradise” relationship with fellow “Bach” alum Tia Booth, his criticism of women from his starring season, including Hannah Brown, and the struggles he and Randolph, who he left “The Bachelor” with, faced after filming ended. (Spoiler alert: One thing that he keeps to himself is their sex life.)

These are likely the things that launched Underwood’s memoir onto The New York Times bestseller list. But he also addresses subjects you might not expect a former NFL player ― even one that just played on practice squads (just ribbing ya, Colton) ― to get into: questioning one’s sexuality, men’s inability to be honest about mental health, and the intricacies that come with being a self-confessed virgin.

“I feel like anytime you go on reality TV, you’re giving up some sort of freedom,” Underwood said. “Writing the book was so therapeutic ... In a weird way, by opening up more, I felt like I got more of myself back.”

HuffPost reporters and hosts of “Bachelor” podcast “Here To Make Friends” Emma Gray and Leigh Blickley got the chance to catch up with Underwood from quarantine and talk about his relationship with “The Bachelor” franchise, mental health, and, of course, that fence jump. (And be sure to check out a clip from the interview in our premiere episode of “Here To Make Friends in Quarantine,” a video series that will be dropping Wednesdays on Instagram and Facebook.)

So before we get into your new memoir, “The First Time,” you just recovered from the coronavirus. Can you give us a bit of an update on your health? How are you doing?

I’m doing so much better. I’ve made a full recovery. I’ve just been working with the health professionals here down in Orange County, my doctor, and the health department. Also the whole Randolph family has been so great, nursing me back to health. I was very fortunate that all my symptoms were manageable from home. I got it so early on, and there were still people my age or younger than me partying on beaches and not taking it very seriously. So I just thought it was important to share the message that this can get you no matter what age you are.

OK, let’s talk about your memoir. Why write this book? Were there specific misconceptions you felt like people had about you or your life after watching you on television?

I feel like anytime you go on reality TV, you’re giving up some sort of freedom. And for me, realizing that I gave up control of my life and my story was messing with me. Writing the book was so therapeutic. And it sort of felt like I got my life back. I was sharing stories that I didn’t feel comfortable giving to a TV show. So in a weird way, by opening up more, I felt like I got more of myself back.

Underwood hangs out with the women on the first night of his season of "The Bachelor," the series's 23rd season.
Underwood hangs out with the women on the first night of his season of "The Bachelor," the series's 23rd season.
Rick Rowell via Getty Images

One of the things that you speak candidly about in your book is the way that you questioned your sexuality, and the contrast between the hyper-masculine image you felt pressure to put forward versus your actual personality. Can you talk about the way your ideas about gender and sexuality have shifted as you’ve gotten more comfortable in yourself?

Not to say I was close-minded growing up, but you’re definitely taught certain things based off of the communities that you’re raised in. And I love my family, I love my faith-based background, and I’m still very strong in my faith, but [I’ve been] able to relate with people I never thought I’d be able to relate with. I think some positions that I was in in my life forced me to stay close-minded, and that was my own insecurities creeping in, being in a locker room with a bunch of football players and not being able to really say I fit in. I lied a lot, and I was just causing more internal confusion for myself. As I was writing [the book], it was emotional to be in touch with that.

Did you feel that way filming the show?

[In the book I opened up about] when I was in grade school and high school being bullied and being called gay. And once I was on “The Bachelorette” and I admitted I was a virgin, the rumors started spreading again, but now on a national scale. So I really had to address them head-on. I couldn’t internalize. I didn’t have a distraction like I did in the past with football where I could just keep my head down and keep working. So it was important for me to share that struggle.

How do you feel about the way that the franchise treated your virginity, and how it treats sexual experience (or lack thereof) in general?

I leaned into it too, at times. I’ll openly admit that. Even in my book, I take a nod at [my virginity] right on the cover because I felt like, hey, I’m not going to run away from it. I’m going to admit that it was overplayed. And that was a way for me to take ownership and be like, I understand, I hear you guys, but at the same time it’s just a small part of who I am.

But as far as the franchise and how they lean into all of that, I think what’s so cool about the show is you get people from different upbringings, different backgrounds, different values, and very bluntly, people [who] hold sex to different standards. And there is no right or wrong. It’s just your preference. And I know for me, I held a lot of value in [sex], and I at times struggled to articulate that. But I just hope whatever the franchise does, they do it in a respectful way for whoever’s going through it.

Something that you write about in the book that for understandable reasons we didn’t really see talked about on the show was your relationship with Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and the experience of being partnered with someone who came out publicly as a victim of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

Yeah, so my relationship with Aly was one that I always wanted to keep private as far as going on “The Bachelor.” ABC and Disney respected my wishes on that. And I’m so appreciative for that because that’s not my story to tell. [Aly] is a leader. She is someone who is doing amazing things for young girls and women and people all across the world. So the last thing I wanted to do was be a distraction from that.

As far as myself and moving on and trying to have that closure, obviously watching [the Nassar trial play out] was tough on me because I did see in the media as it was going on ― and it was going on close to my season [of “The Bachelor”]. Aly and I don’t stay in touch and haven’t stayed in touch since our breakup, and I’m OK with that. I have now had the closure that I needed and I was never trying to tell someone else’s story. I hope that even if [what I wrote in my memoir] gets back to her, she could always look and at least appreciate I have so much love and respect for her.

Colton Underwood (L) and Aly Raisman attend a basketball game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 10, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.
Colton Underwood (L) and Aly Raisman attend a basketball game between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 10, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.
Noel Vasquez via Getty Images

Yeah. And you also kind of related it back to your season of “The Bachelor,” when Caelynn Miller-Keyes publicly shared her story of being sexually assaulted during college. You had a good perspective when it came to approaching someone sharing something so personal and traumatic.

And that’s something I’ve realized over my life is everything you go through, good or bad, is a learning experience. I’m sure I made mistakes in that relationship as I’ve made mistakes in the relationship I’m in now. And I think if we can embrace that you can learn things from different people, different struggles, then it makes you a better person.

The book also goes a bit into your political background, your religious background and your relationship with finances, and these are things that we really don’t get to see addressed in the context of “The Bachelor.” And yet they seem pretty important to the longevity of a relationship. Did you have conversations about any of those things during your season?

I don’t know how much politically I got into [on the show] just because my views have changed over time. We’re growing, we’re constantly questioning things. And I think that’s the beauty of politics ― you can always ask more questions, always try to stay educated. And I was guilty of that. I wasn’t very educated and I’m becoming more so every day now. As far as my religious views, that did get brought up quite a bit [on the show]. That was a foundation that Cassie and I built our relationship on ― our Christianity and our religious upbringing.

But yeah, it’s weird because I always say “The Bachelor” is like reverse dating. You get into the deep things quickly and then you catch up on favorite colors, and how much money do you make?

Well money is the kind of thing that just comes up organically, if you’re dating someone in real life.

Yeah, “The Bachelor” is sort of this fantasy bubble that protects you from reality when you’re filming it. I mean, you’re right. You don’t get to see what restaurant you’re going to, what car you’re driving, what house you live in, what part of town you live in. And not that any of those things are crucial. But you do have to value [your partner’s] lifestyle and the goals and what they want out of life.

You also talk pretty candidly in the book, which we appreciated, about your awareness of kind of the strategy aspects of “The Bachelor,” and how in part you went on “Bachelor in Paradise” because you liked the idea of potentially being the Bachelor. What was your calculation in including that stuff in the book?

I know Bachelor contestants can possibly get a bad rep if they admit to those things. But I thought it was important for me to be honest with people that originally, I was like, Paradise isn’t for me. I don’t drink; I don’t party. At the time I was like, Tia [Booth] is going to be there. It’s going to be a little awkward. I just don’t think it’s for me. And then that’s when they obviously dangled the bait of possibly [being] the Bachelor.

So my ears perked up a little bit because naturally, I mean, that’s such a step up. You’re putting yourself in a better position to find a relationship. And then obviously you guys saw it play out and I talk about it in the book ― I tried to give it a shot again with Tia, and I finally had the realization [that] I [was] in that relationship for the wrong reasons. I know that sounds corny just coming from me, but I was, and I think it was important for me to admit that because I am a strategist. I mean that in a good way because as an athlete, I always try to put myself in a position to succeed. And sometimes it might come off as disingenuous or scheme-y and I understand that, but at the same time it’s my life. It’s a fine balance of making a TV show, filming a TV show, and then also trying to keep control of your private life.

You just mentioned the strategy. And I’m curious how you dealt with the media, being a part of all three of these shows. In the book you highlight an experience you had with journalist Kristen Baldwin, where she told you that she was concerned for your mental health as the Bachelor. Having had time to reflect now, how do you feel about the Bachelor media ecosystem?

Nothing can prepare you for that. I was media-trained before I even got onto the Bachelor franchise through my football experiences. But when people come at you for who you are as a person, it’s tougher to shake off and it affects you more deeply. I talk openly about my interview with Kristen, and I think there was a part of me that was shocked that it went there at that time. But also, she wasn’t completely wrong. I was mentally going through a hard time trying to figure out how to balance all of this. It’s a tough position to be put in, but it doesn’t make you less deserving of love.

Yeah, and it’s complicated. I think as journalists who cover “The Bachelor” franchise, we’re always trying to balance how to poke fun at the show, and have a thoughtful critique of the way that the show is being packaged, while also respecting the humanity of people who are on it.

One hundred percent. And I have a lot of respect for [Kristen Baldwin] because, like I said, in life, you’re supposed to question things. [At the time], I was almost like, how dare she? But then as the season went on and as I started meeting with my therapist more, it was a constant reminder of I’m not 100% right now, but that’s OK. Maybe she was right, but I didn’t want to hear it.

In the book, you’re very open about mental health and going to therapy or just having the ability to express your emotions, which can still feel taboo to some men. So how do you think we can open up the space for men to be more honest with their feelings and emotions?

I think just being mentally aware of where you’re at, and putting your ego aside for a second to say, hey, I am depressed or I am anxious right now. How do I work toward not being as anxious or as depressed? And I think for me, it took a lot of things to happen for me to admit that I was in that position and to seek out help. And I think for athletes out there, and for men in general, they view it as a sign of weakness, unfortunately. And I would actually challenge that to say it’s OK to be different. It’s OK to ask for help. It actually makes you stronger when you do that.

“I’ll always go to bat for the franchise, and it works. But at the same time, just in my opinion and from my experience, there were a few things that I didn’t agree with and that happened post-show that I wasn’t okay with.”

- Colton Underwood

Absolutely. So let’s get back into your season. Let’s talk about the fence jump. What did it feel like to then go back and watch it and realize very quickly that “The Bachelor” had taken this very genuine, unproduced, visceral incident and repackaged it to be the selling point of the season?

Well, I actually loved it. It was so raw and I didn’t even know if cameras were still rolling at the time because I took my mic off and was storming off. So for that to be sort of the pivotal moment of the season hopefully spoke volumes of my season. I always tried to break the fourth wall. I always tried to keep it as real as possible. I know there are certain things you have to do to produce a television show, like walk through doors multiple times or sit down at the table the right way or not eat your food at dinner. There’s all those little things. So I always tried to just let the viewers have a peek behind.

Obviously, it was very emotional, and that was one of the challenges. I [had] to tease and poke fun at the fence jump, but I knew what led to that moment, so I always had to try to keep that in mind too. Like, hey, this is going to be an emotional episode. Yes, I do jump the fence. But there was a lot that happened before that too.

Hearing it from your point of view was interesting because of course we see it from production’s view of them following you and chasing you through the streets, but to read how you felt in that moment where you were trying to escape, and in your mind you’re actually going to go and try to find the U.S. embassy and get on a flight home.

I just remember I needed to be alone. That’s something I don’t think people realize is you’re constantly surrounded by producers, makeup, stylists on the show. When you’re not doing that, you’re on camera, and it’s a lot sometimes. You reach a breaking point and that was mine.

You go pretty deep in the book into the production side of the show, which was super interesting as a reader. Were you at all nervous about souring a relationship with production at all? We assume you’re off contract.

Yeah, I am out of contract. But the goal of the book was never to bring production down. I can openly admit that it’s not the best relationship right now, but at the same time it’s my life and I had to do what was best for my mental health. And by taking a step back from the franchise and writing this book and being able to feel better after writing, it was important to me, whether it burned a relationship or not.

I’m still friends with the producers. I still chat with Chris, I still talk with some of the EPs over there, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the work that they do. I’ll always go to bat for the franchise, and it works. But at the same time, just in my opinion and from my experience, there were a few things that I didn’t agree with and that happened post-show that I wasn’t OK with. It’s a business, but it’s a business for your personal life. So it’s a challenge. It’s a fine line to always walk.

I can’t imagine how that feels the minute you’re off the show and this is your real life and decisions you made on a show are now going to affect your personal life. How was that for you and Cassie post-show?

It was a challenge. We always found fun moments in it, but there were challenging moments as well. We’re still working through it, even nowadays. I mean I’m sick in her parents’ house and we still have people taking pictures or trying to be involved in our relationship. So we’re really trying to find the balance, but things are going well and I can’t say enough good things about Cass. She’s someone to lean on, and I appreciate that.

I love that you guys kind of switched up the game of “The Bachelor.” You don’t have to get engaged at the end of it. Do you see Cass kind of being the one for you in the long run or do you still take each day at a time?

Cassie and I are taking everything day by day. And I always say we’re dating with intent. We don’t want to waste time. And we’re not just dating to date casually, or dating to stay together because of the media and the pressures. I love her so much and we’re in a good spot in our relationship right now. So I’m very thankful to have a partner like her.

So what’s next for you? Are you excited to put this life chapter to rest and kind of move past the Bachelor now that you’ve got your story out there?

The book was my final chapter per se in the Bachelor franchise, and it was a way for me to sort of close the book and move on. And I’m super excited. I love the entertainment industry. I like being on camera, I like having a platform. So what’s next hopefully for me is still to be on your television screens every once in a while, and keep working in the industry. I understand that being the Bachelor doesn’t qualify me to host shows. So I’m working hard to really study and really do things the right way and prepare myself for a career in the entertainment industry.

And will you be watching Clare Crawley’s season of “The Bachelorette” or are you done with the franchise?

I don’t know if I’m going to be watching or not. Obviously I’m going to be keeping up. I’m wishing her the best. And I think if there’s anybody to sort of get the show back on track to love and standing up for yourself and putting your foot down, it’s Clare for sure.

Before we let you go, do you have any final message for other young Bachelor fans who might still not be worried that COVID-19 could affect them or think that reports about this global pandemic we’re in are exaggerated?

I would just say this. If you’re not already, please listen to your medical professionals and really pay attention to what they are telling you to do in your area and practice social distancing. I can’t say that enough. I think it’s really important not only for your health, but for the people you love and the people you’re going to be around. And just stick together. Let’s try to stay as positive as possible. We’re all in this unknown, weird moment right now, and it’s easy to be frustrated. It’s easy to be negative about it. But if we can help one another out, we’re going to get through it quicker and better.

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