Do you believe in soul mates? With seven billion people on Earth, the concept that one person exists to love you best is rather unlikely, and it’s even more unlikely you’d find that person, right? The odds must be stacked into infinite impossibility that you’d find that person on a television program airing weekly on ABC.
Just don’t tell that to the hundreds of hopefuls who showed up Saturday at the Festival Flea Market Mall in Pompano to try their hand at being contestants on The Bachelor.
For 12 years, unlucky ladies in love have tried to turn their fortunes – while making a most-certain one for producers – on the depressingly-addictive dating show and it’s three spin-offs. The premise: about 25 women, aged 21 through early 30s, compete for a chance to win the heart of some good-looking guy. He’s not rich, and he’s not famous. He’s just some lucky asshole dating 25 gorgeous women with dangerously-low self-esteem, and we all get to watch.
I’d never actually seen the show, so before heading to auditions, I peeked at most recently completed Season 19. At the end of each hour-and-a-half episode, when a handful of girls didn’t receive roses (signifying the Bachelor would not like to see them next week), they’d blubber something like “Why won’t anyone love me? I’m a monster." My feminist blood curdled.
The weird thing isn’t that these people “look for love” in front of the world. Experience shows that pretty people hosting pity parties love attention. Besides, each episode features at least one plane trip to a breath-taking location. A lot of people would make out with a good-looking stranger to see the world, and they do.
The really odd part is how seemingly attached these women become in a couple weeks. I can sleep with the same doting guy for three months and still feel a slight aversion. These women watch their “boyfriend” kiss 20 other mouths and think “I’m trying not to cry, because this is the man I will one day marry.” As I drove to Pompano, I kept asking myself, “is this shit for real?”
“I think it is,” said 24-year-old Caroline. An avid fan, she lives just up the street, and came at the behest of friends. She doesn’t expect to make it, and though she knows it “sounds cheesy,” she’s really looking for her soul mate.
“I fall pretty hard pretty quick, but I’d have to take a step back just if there are other girls there, too,” Caroline said. “I’m going to have to put myself in check and just realize … he’s dating other people. That’s probably going to be the toughest part, I don’t even know if I’m going to make it.”
Caroline seemed like she’d be truly emotionally invested, but she was just one of a constantly-renewing stream of faces. These women nailed the part. Dressed in heels, pearls, and tight dresses, they captured The Bachelor contestant “look,” albeit it with that just-left-of-perfect quality that comes with being flesh and blood.
In the romantic setting of the Festival Flea Market Food Court, women of all ages crowded around plastic tables, filled out forms asking “are you legitimately looking to get married,” and “how many tattoos do you have.” They were called to take head and body shots before entering into a back set of rooms for questioning. Participants walk away with a $10 gift certificate to the Mall and are entered in a drawing for a larger $100 prize. Even if you don’t make the cut, you’re a winner.
Applicants were sectioned by ropes, on the other side of which gaped senior citizens happily judging each hopeful. “She’s really cute,” they cooed. “Ooh, she’s a doll.” That’s where I met Marilyn.
“You’ve got to take a picture of this one,” the 76-year-old said. “She has so much Botox, she can’t even crack a smile.”
Marilyn came to the Mall to do a little shopping, but mostly, she just wanted to laugh at the young kids.
“I think that they don’t know enough about these men,” she said. “You should ask them why they want to be in love at they’re age. They’re 24? They should live their lives.”
You’re 24 and on Facebook. Getting hitched seems all the rage.
“I’ve always had roommates that watch the show, but they’re slowly but surely all getting married off,” said 24-year-old Casey. “I think they’d be so jealous. Honestly, the idea of being on the show is terrifying, but it would be worth it if I was like, ‘hey guys, guess what? I won that show that you all love.’”
Casey admits the show is “ridiculous,” but the trips are cool and anything is worth a shot.
“I think that love is a choice and what you make it, so why not someone on The Bachelor?” she said. “They’ve been doing it for 20 seasons, so they must be doing something right.”
This hopeless-romantic notion is not a singularly feminine phenomenon. One of the show’s most successful spin-offs is The Bachelorette: same thing, genders reversed. As it turns out, there are lots of guys fed up with traditional romantic avenues.
“I like the opportunities and the experiences you get to have with a beautiful girl that’s a quality woman,” said Colin, 26. “That’s not the only reason you go on the show but doing that with a beautiful woman who has a lot to offer, it kind of opens your eyes a little bit.”
As a man, applicants had the chance to be Season 20’s bachelor or be on the next season of The Bachelorette. Colin watches the show regularly with his parents, and they’re supportive.
“My mom at first was appalled, but she said you know you get one shot at life,” he said. “I know it hasn’t worked out for a lot of people, but it’s worked out for some, so why not me? I think that there’s a big plan, and this could be it for me.”
He told me the guy auditioning him said he really liked him. A good sign?
“I’m not going to go in there with expectations thinking that ‘oh gosh, I’m going to get down on one knee at the end,’ but knowing that that can happen and saying ‘wow, I actually did fall in love with a girl in a short amount of time,’ it’s a risk that you’ve got to take.”
Everyone hedged their bets, but the longing for love was painfully honest. I could see it in their eyes, no bullshit. If they make it on the show, they’re going in with open hearts.
“Millenials,” I thought. We can’t talk to the person next to us, so we look for love on Los Angeles sets. Out of 19 seasons have come two marriages, but we remain hopeful. Is it because we grew up with reality TV that we buy into it’s allure?
“I’m very, very upset that Ani and Josh broke up,” said super-fan and 66-year-old applicant Sharyn. “I love Kaitlyn, but I’m a little disappointed in her right now.”
Whatever that means, here was a senior not just gawking on the sidelines, but going headfirst into her chance at happiness. She was the picture of an affable grandma. She had her dog, Kiwi, in a stroller.
“I was married 12 years. We were total opposites, but I’ve got two married kids and four grandbabies, and a dog,” she said. “If they don’t pick me for this one, I want to create it for seniors.”
Though she accepts that the show is based on “looks, young and sexy, thin and tall,” she didn’t let it stop her form getting her kicks.
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“Do I think you can (find love on TV?) Yes, if you don’t go like Kaitlyn did and go sleeping around,” she said. “It doesn’t all come down to the physical, especially at my age … You have to compromise a lot, be very giving, and try to understand the other person more than just having them understand you.”
She turned away and began her application with the help from three girls young enough to be her grandchildren. I went home and guiltily watched more of Season 19. This time, I thought about the real people behind the madness. All this awkward energy, the jealous tears, the apparent self-loathing, it’s so real it hurts.
That’s probably what makes the show successful in the first place.