When Mike Fleiss announced he was leaving “The Bachelor” franchise earlier this week, he released a chipper statement to the media, congratulating the latest winning couple from the reality dating show that he created more than 20 years ago.
“First and foremost, congratulations are in order for Zach and Kaity. I wish them a long and happy life together,” Fleiss said, announcing his sudden departure. “I want to thank WBTV and ABC for 21 extraordinary years. They’ve found the perfect creative team for me to entrust ‘The Bachelor’ franchise and keep this lightning in a bottle bold and moving forward. Let the journey continue.”
When Variety questioned the reasoning behind Fleiss’ exit, ABC and Warner Bros. TV, which produces “The Bachelor,” wouldn’t comment on his departure. And an individual close to Fleiss deflected, simply saying, “It’s been 21 years.”
Fleiss’ public-facing exit strategy allowed him to present a peaceful parting of ways that indicated he voluntarily left. But behind the scenes, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, Fleiss left his mega-franchise after an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination was conducted by Warner Bros. TV, Variety has learned.
Warner Bros. TV and ABC, which have aired and produced “The Bachelor” since 2002, both declined to comment about the investigation.
But a handful of individuals familiar with the situation tell Variety that a number of employees had complained to human resources about Fleiss, which led to a thorough investigation that was conducted by an outside party in the past few months. Those who spoke during the investigation include current producers on the show, as well as former production staffers. Some of these individuals were prominent producers within the franchise, which also includes “The Bachelorette” and “Bachelor in Paradise.” The investigation resulted in Fleiss’ departure.
During the investigation, sources say, producers complained about Fleiss’ “bullying” behavior, as well as his resistance to increasing diversity on the show over two decades. Individuals who spoke during the investigation expressed that when production staffers suggested casting more diverse reality stars, Fleiss would not take their suggestions and would “lash out” against them. The individuals, who spoke anonymously with Variety, said that throughout the investigation, a common theme that repeatedly came up was that the fight for change was a source of frustration for many staff members.
“People said he would retaliate against people for having minorities and Black people on the show. He favored certain people over other people,” says an individual familiar with the investigation. “He would say, ‘Minorities don’t get ratings.’”
When Variety reached out to Fleiss for comment regarding the investigation about his behavior, he sent a statement via email, acknowledging that he could’ve done more to diversify the show. He said he hopes that the franchise will continue to move in the right direction, as it continues without him.
“I had no idea back in 2002 that we were building a pop culture juggernaut. It was a crazy idea then and sure as hell continues to roll — just look at every network and streamer that has ripped us off! Since its premiere 21 years ago, times have certainly changed and I’d have to say we didn’t keep up with the pace of those changes,” Fleiss says in a statement to Variety. “I am proud of the work we’ve done over the past five years to make the show substantially more diverse, but I do believe I could have done more. Hopefully, the franchise will continue to move in the right direction. Judging by the number of staff weddings we’ve hosted at our home and the number of teary messages that blew up my phone when I announced I had turned in my final rose, I’m pretty sure I had more good days than bad, lifted more spirits than hurt feelings and leave the franchise in good hands, with more friends than foe.”
While Fleiss will have zero involvement with the show going forward, Variety has learned he will continue to be credited on the franchise as its creator.
Fleiss’ most recent deal with Warner Bros. TV ran up until around the end of 2022, which is around the same time the investigation was conducted. Insiders say that at one point, there was a discussion about a possible deal for Fleiss at ABC, but those conversations fizzled out.
Over the years, “The Bachelor” has suffered criticism for its lack of racial inclusiveness, though it has increased its efforts in recent years by widening the pool of contestants across its casts. The next star of “The Bachelorette,” which will air this summer, is Charity Lawson, a Black contestant from the most recent season of “The Bachelor,” who will become the fourth female lead of color on “The Bachelorette” in its 20 seasons on the air. The flagship show, “The Bachelor,” has only had one Black lead in its 22-year history with Matt James in 2021. The first-ever Black lead was Rachel Lindsay in 2017 on “The Bachelorette,” who has become a vocal critic of the franchise’s diversity and inclusion efforts. Behind the scenes, the franchise named its first Black executive producer in 2021 with Jodi Baskerville, a veteran “Bachelor” producer who had been with the show for a decade when she was promoted to the executive ranks.
The announcement of Fleiss’ sudden departure came as a shock to “The Bachelor” team. An individual on the team says many employees learned he was leaving the show just moments before it broke in the press.
Many employees had no idea there was an investigation into Fleiss’ behavior. Two “Bachelor” production staffers who have been with the franchise since the beginning tell Variety they were shocked to hear about complaints made against Fleiss. Both of these men said in the two decades working with him, they never witnessed any bullying or discrimination in the workplace and considered him to be an inclusive, hands-on boss.
“I’ve been there almost since the beginning. It’s been fantastic,” a high-level crew member tells Variety. “I found him really supportive and really creative and collaborative. Nothing negative at all. He’s all the things you’d want in a showrunner and boss. I don’t have a bad thing to say about him, and it’s upsetting to hear that others do.”
One of the show’s executive producers similarly conveys a positive working relationship with Fleiss, telling Variety, “He’s been nothing but respectful. He asks everybody’s opinion. I’ve never seen any racist behavior from him. He’s never discriminatory to anyone on the staff. I’m just perplexed where these allegations are coming from.”
“Mike does get heated in creative discussions,” the producer continues. “But it’s because he’s passionate about the show and constantly wanting what’s best for our audience. I’ve been with him for 22 years. If anyone is saying he’s a bully, it’s just because he’s passionate about the show. I’ve never witnessed him bully another person.”
This producer notes that Fleiss promoted Baskerville to executive producer in 2021, which came as the franchise was navigating a race scandal that eventually resulted in the exit of longtime host, Chris Harrison. “Mike was instrumental in promoting an African American woman into the executive producer position. To me, there is proof that he was trying to diversity our show,” the producer says.
While Fleiss has long-term allies on “The Bachelor,” clearly his relationship was not the same with all staff members, as evidenced by complaints lodged during the investigation. Fleiss’ role has changed over the years. Current and former employees who spoke with Variety expressed that in the early years of the show, Fleiss was very collaborative; even though he was still watching every cut of every episode and giving his feedback, sources say he not been involved with the day-to-day operations in the office or on set for about 10 years. But he’s had a lasting impact on the culture of “The Bachelor” which has become one of the most successful and enduring franchises in television history, changing the face of reality television.
Many staffers were surprised that Fleiss was not ousted from the show back in 2019 when he was accused of attacking his then-pregnant wife, former Miss America Laura Kaeppeler, who filed for an emergency domestic violence restraining order. A police investigation was launched into the situation in which Kaeppeler alleged in court filings that Fleiss assaulted her in their Hawaii home, grabbing her and forcibly pinning her against a wall, becoming “enraged” that she became pregnant against his wishes and “demanded” she have an abortion. Images from security cameras at their home appeared to depict a violent fight, but Fleiss denied the allegations, claiming it was his wife who became physical with him. After a reported divorce settlement, the couple eventually reconciled, both taking to Twitter to clear the air, with Fleiss’ wife walking back her initial accusations.
Fleiss is known to Bachelor Nation for frequently teasing surprise announcements on Twitter that rarely ever come to fruition. He has gotten into Twitter spats with celebrities such as Khloé Kardashian, who threatened legal action against him for suggesting she would be cast as the next “Bachelorette.” He also had a Twitter fight with his own network’s stars, Kelly Ripa and Ellen Pompeo, creating a nightmare under ABC’s roof a few years ago. And he is believed to have inspired the brash, volatile Chet, on Lifetime’s four-season-long scripted series “UnReal,” which starred Constance Zimmer and Shiri Appleby, about a fictional reality dating show, created by a former “Bachelor” producer who’d worked under Fleiss.
With nearly 60 seasons of television produced under “The Bachelor” umbrella since 2002, the franchise still continues to permeate the pop culture zeitgeist and is a lucrative, top-rated network show, frequently leading ABC to win Monday nights, despite declining ratings across the board for all broadcasters.
With Fleiss’ exit, the franchise has put a new leadership team in place, with three veteran “Bachelor” producers promoted to be executive producers and showrunners. In the hope of keeping the drama on the screen for the franchise’s Fleiss-less future, they’re already at work on the next season of “The Bachelorette.”
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