You’ve heard of “The Bachelor”, right? The mainstay reality show that showcases a competition of the fiercest kind: the competition for a man’s affection. Really, it’s a magnified look at the dating trials and tribs of the modern (heterosexual) woman. An accelerated class in what not to do. A terrifying look at how we as women treat each other. Like any reality show, the participants end up being a cast of characters. They’ve each got their story, the fun fact that feigns uniqueness and lends to their one-dimensional TV personality and they’ll be either celebrated or vilified accordingly. I’ve only seen (half of) one season, the most recent of a whopping 19 cycles since 2002, and honestly, I can’t do another. What I can do is talk about why it sits so terribly with me. More specifically, let’s discuss the reasons why we love/hate these women so fiercely. And yes, I am again speaking for society as a whole. You should be used to it by now. This time, however, I have an expert on my panel. Hating someone we’ll never have to confront is a favorite American pastime. I get that. I participate in it. Judging someone without consequence is buckets of fun. To satisfy some lingering curiosity after watching the show, I reached out to the lady at the top of the Haterade Leaderboard from Season 19, Kelsey Poe.
Kelsey was one of 30 women vying for the attention of Chris Soules, otherwise known as “Prince Farming”. Despite what that rhyme suggests, I found Soules to be anything but charming. In fact, as I was taking notes during an early episode I wrote the word, “potato”. That’s it. Just “potato”. That’s what he is. Inanimate starch of Irish lore. My underwhelming perception could be dead wrong. He could be the most effervescent person to ever walk the fields of Iowa (but probably not). I only know what the network showed me. And that was one dull dude who was only sort of attractive and stuck his tongue down the throat of anyone who tried to trick him into conversation. Despite Soules’ perceived shortcomings, Kelsey and the other ladies sassed and schemed their way into his eyeline as often as possible during the several weeks of filming and what resulted was a classic catfight of the Mean Girls variety. Nothing overt. Mostly gossip, eye rolls and mean-spirited nicknames. Just like the dramatic days of adolescence.
The limited view we were given of Kelsey Poe drew some expected perceptions as well. I found her presence on the show hilarious, but that’s just me and my feminist-slash-cynical vantage point. And, I should disclose, the villain du jour and I went to the same high school. We weren’t friends and hadn’t spoken in twelve years until I made this recent grab for her coattails. Most people jumped on the anti-Kelsey bandwagon, though, after a series of now infamous episodes that I’ll go ahead and call “the big three”. The trouble started when Kelsey began talking about her deceased husband to the other girls, but really took off when she uttered the now gif-worthy phrase, “Isn’t my story amazing?” Those four words enraged viewers and sparked memes, gifs and internet comments galore. “Amazing” was a poor choice of word but her story is inspiring in the very “pick yourself up and try again” way that Aaliyah preached.
By all reports, and the fact that she’s a human and not in fact a one-dimensional television character, she was devastated by the loss of her husband and the amazing part is that she was beginning to be open to the idea of love again. You know that, though. You’ve read it in blogs that began surfacing shortly after the episode aired. Once those fateful words escaped her face, however, viewers and fellow contestants began rumblings of the possibility that Kelsey was using her widowhood (widowdom?) as a tool to secure private time and sympathy from the potat-uh-Chris. As soon as that shimmering idea of villain caught America’s eye, the Kelsey train took off. In the two episodes between her “Amazing” story and her reality television demise, she managed to sneak away to tell the spud stud about her widow secret which sparked a cacophony of unfortunate events for the ladies, and birthed the rivalry between “The Kardashians and The Black Widow”.
To gain some perspective on the reality television machine, and because I could, I met up with Kelsey Poe on a Wednesday evening. She had mentioned a distaste for “shitty wine” after spending weeks in the Bachelor mansion so I suggested a nice wine bar where we could be as pretentious as we liked and avoid whatever poison it is that the internet says is in cheap wine. She arrived promptly at the appointed time and gave me the kind of half-hugged greeting that comes with slight acquaintance. I’m not a hugger. I made it weird. She looked beautiful, with more mascara than I expected and a bold burgundy lip. We both ordered a glass of red, Kelsey after taking a suggestion from the waiter. I jumped right into my Tempranillo and my line of questioning. My original goal was to simply discuss the reasons America hates her. I had a list:
- She is a seemingly “happy widow” and America hates that.
- She uses big words. And America hates that.
- She didn’t join in the naked antics on the “lake date”.
- She was “fake” with Chris and/or the other girls.
- She was not relatable to America. Or the other girls.
As I read through the list, Kelsey laughed that slightly maniacal laugh and nodded in agreement. She also watched the show. She knows. Her personality was drawn and quartered on national television and if the two women who whispered and stared for the duration of the evening were any indication, this nation still harbors aggression.
Sipping wine and throwing in nostalgia for our high school dance team*, we talked stigma. I wanted to know if people still cared about hating her now that the season has wrapped up. Partly because I was genuinely concerned that she’d have to go through life as a card-carrying member of the villain club but also because I knew it would take me a minute to write this and I really needed relevance on my side. As her ever-growing (and metaphorical) pile of hate mail shows, the ire is hanging on. She really struck a chord with the reality television audience and it was in the wrong key. When I asked about relating to the other girls, Kelsey divulged that it came down to boredom. The amount of Chris-less down time at the house was huge and the women were encouraged to talk about relationships. And only relationships. Their relationships with each other, with Chris, with past lovers (ew, “lovers”), with a single red rose, etc. “It’s not like I could read a book”, she said. “I don’t like to get drunk every night and I can only paint my nails so many times.”
Of course, she related least with Ashley Iaconetti, the Kardashian-clone situated firmly at the other end of the fem-spectrum from Kelsey. The spectrum, the idea that there’s a sliding scale of female personality, is often forgotten by the TV viewer. In real life, it’s not either Ashley I or Kelsey Poe, it’s any number of spider-lashed, princess-envying, crazy-cackling, hyperventilating personality traits that make up a whole person. Sure, Ashley I literally threw a tantrum when she didn’t get picked to go on the Cinderella-themed date. Sure, Kelsey had a conveniently-timed panic attack that probably saved her from being eliminated in the impending rose ceremony. Those are two things that happened in nearly three decades of life. But that’s what I’ll remember, and so will you. We’ll forever see these women as antiquated shells of femininity. The embodiment of the emotionally unstable Victorian woman. Here’s where I insinuate comparisons between Bachelor-house sequestering and the rest cure.
After asking the waiter to surprise us with a charcuterie selection, I wrangled the conversation back from silliness to business. I have many issues with the way The Bachelor portrays women (and the fact that it portrays only white women). The constant insistence that they wear only miniscule bikinis (even if the setting is as inappropriate for that attire as a tractor race down the streets of LA) only scratches the surface of the blatant sexism of the Bachelor franchise. Rather than go on a feminist rant and alienate those who still think “feminism” is a bad word, I’ll leave it at one idea. The “fruit cup girl” is a term I learned from Kelsey herself. It draws inspiration from the girl in a background scene of Mean Girls, trying without success to open her fruit cup. She quickly gives up and hands it over to the strapping boy next to her so he can “white horse” his way into her heart and she can damsel her way into his. We also see this when Cady pretends to be bad at math so Aaron Samuels will think she’s grool.
This season (and I’m sure others) of The Bachelor was full of fruit cup girls. In fact, the only time we saw even a tiny glimmer of personality from Chris was when one of the girls “needed” him to comfort them. Whether he was rubbing the feeling back into the feet of Jade after she tumbled into the river, helping the less outdoorsy of them erect tents or consoling Kelsey after a wicked panic attack, Chris was all about the damsel in distress. He may not be able to look you in the eye and form a sentence at the same time, but dammit if he’s not good in a crisis. The ladies fell over themselves to damsel their way into his strong arms and didn’t pretend not to know why. That was a lot of negatives, but you know what I mean. You saw Kelsey exclaim, “I’m fine!” into the camera after the river rafting experience. “I’m fine so I don’t get attention”. It’s true, isn’t it? The girls with no drama faded into the background like that other virgin who didn’t take a cue from Ashley I and talk about her hymen every time the camera pointed at her. What was her name? Who cares, anyway.
At this point in our conversation, I was wondering why a self-proclaimed intellectual would deign to participate in a circus like The Bachelor. I was about to wonder out loud when the waiter returned with our snack. Without missing a beat, Kelsey smiled sweetly and told him that she’d definitely need more bread to go with the cheese and meat selection. She looked to me for reassurance and I mumbled something about a love for anything carb-y and nodded, emphasizing the amount of chins I keep under my face. As a chubbo, I appreciated the way Kelsey unabashedly ate most of the charcuterie and literally all of the bread. I do most of my eating in secret, so I let her. I was impressed. While she was more than willing to rehash all of her cringe-worthy moments from the show, I kept getting off task and too into trading stories from the past decade. For anyone who still thinks Kelsey can’t hang with a lower class of people, I’m here to tell you she hung. She hung well into the night. I’m low brow and I’m not afraid to admit it. Mostly because I have to admit what I have no ability to hide. Thankfully, she’s familiar with the New Kids on the Block so we at least had that in common.
After one more glass each and a lot of full belly laughs, I brought the topic back around to The Bachelor and tried to talk about the spectacle that was, “The Women Tell All” in a way that wouldn’t alert her to the fact that I hadn’t, in fact, watched it. There’s really no reason for me to add it here, but I needed an excuse to share my favorite thing that she said to me that night. In answer to my question about her composure on the fateful night, knowing she was walking into a veritable firing squad, she said, “people have no idea how much Xanax I was on”. And it was the perfect way to cap off her experience as an American anti-hero.
The notorious Kelsey Poe. She self-medicates, she knows big words, and if you’re worthy, maybe she’ll teach you how to get away with murder. She summed up her journey on the show with only four words, “It. Was. A. Mindf*ck”. Couldn’t have said it better.