Being on “The Bachelor”
Kira Mengistu looks for love on reality television
One evening in the fall of 2021, a Harvard graduate stepped out of a stretch limousine wearing nothing but a doctor’s coat, red stethoscope, and red lingerie to match. Thirty-two-year-old Kira Mengistu ’11, an internal medicine physician at the University of Pennsylvania Health System, was nervous about appearing on The Bachelor in general, but she says, “it also made me anxious that I was going to be seen for the first time on national television in my underwear.” She paused for a moment as the crew got the camera angles right, then she put on her “game face,” and made her way to the leading man of season 26, Clayton Echard, a medical-device salesman who briefly trained with the Seattle Seahawks. She looked up at his beet-red face, smiled, and delivered the pick-up line she’d developed with the show’s producers: “I’m a doctor, and I’m here to give you your full-body physical.”
For those who haven’t been exposed to The Bachelor, or the season 26 finale which aired last week, the premise is that a single man (often, inexplicably, one with a short-lived NFL career) dates roughly 30 women, and through a combination of solo and group dates in domestic and international locales, narrows the pool to his future wife, to whom he usually proposes in the finale episode. It might be the closest thing television has to an unscripted soap opera: every season has a “villain,” every commercial break begins with a cliffhanger, and every episode is billed as “the most dramatic” one in the show’s history. The premise is silly, but in its Platonic form, it’s earnest: a group of single people agree, ostensibly, to bare their souls on national television for a chance at lifelong companionship.
Photograph courtesy of Kira Mengistu
Since its inception 20 years ago, The Bachelor has become a full-blown franchise on ABC, with spin-offs like The Bachelorette (same premise as the Bachelor, but with a woman in the leading role), Bachelor in Paradise (former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants live in a mansion on a tropical island together and the camera crew lets them take it from there), and Bachelor in Paradise: After Paradise. This many-tentacled behemoth has led to some happy relationships—about 16 long-term couples met on Bachelor shows. As the franchise grew in popularity, however, its contestants’ intentions grew more and more dubious. The worst, and most common, insult one Bachelor contestant can make about another is that she is “not here for the right reasons,” meaning that she is using the show to launch a career as a social-media influencer or entertainer, and not to find love.
But Mengistu didn’t go on The Bachelor for fame. In fact, she didn’t even want to go on The Bachelor at all. At least not at first. Her best friend, Harry, nominated her for the show, hoping it might jumpstart her love life after a five-year single streak. During those five years, Mengistu was busy finishing medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, completing her residency at the Harvard-affiliated Cambridge Health Alliance, treating patients with life-threatening illnesses (including hundreds with COVID-19) at University of Pennsylvania Health System, and graduating from Wharton with her M.B.A.
She knew “being on camera would make it difficult to fall in love organically,” but looking at some of the Bachelor success stories, she figured maybe it could work for her, too. Her logic was, “I’m not really finding ‘The One,’ so why not try this?” She figured nothing would come from Harry nominating her, though. “You never think it’s going to be you,” she says, but about six months later, the producers called her, she went through their extensive vetting process, and then about two weeks before filming started in fall 2021, she found out she’d appear as a contestant on Eckard’s season of The Bachelor.
As a hospitalist, her shifts are flexible (by doctor standards), so she was able to take some time off work to head to the Bachelor Mansion in the picturesque Santa Monica Mountains outside Los Angeles. She says contestants leave their jobs “not knowing if you’re going to be eliminated on night one, or if you’re going to be there for the full nine weeks of filming.” But her supervisors were “so amused” by her reason for taking time off that they were happy to let her go, saying, “This is the weirdest reason to cancel your shifts that we’ve ever heard.”
Mengistu’s profession of “physician” did stand out among the other contestants. “Not a ton of client- or patient-facing professionals have gone on the show,” such as lawyers or doctors, she says. In fact, The Bachelor is known for having contestants with eccentric, and often implausible, job titles, such as “Jumbotron Operator,” “Socialite,” “Dog Lover,” “Social Media Participant,” “Aspiring Drummer,” “Tickle Monster,” and “Canadian.” After the first night at the Mansion, she says she started to forget about the cameras and began having authentic interactions with the other contestants she befriended. However, she says, “In the back of my mind, I did always think about my professional reputation. I knew I couldn’t be as dramatic as maybe some of the other contestants.”
She accordingly kept her cool during the show’s more ridiculous moments. When an altercation between two contestants over whether one of them snubbed the other’s offer of shrimp escalated into a full-blown altercation dubbed “Shrimpgate” by Bachelor fans, Mengistu kept her facial expression unreadable. While at the time she questioned, “Why do we keep talking about shrimp?” she acknowledges that during Bachelor filming, “Little things become big things because it’s such a bubble.” It’s not necessarily the contestants’ fault for crying over shrimp. “Things escalate naturally in a way they don’t in real life because you can’t just leave the situation,” she says. “It’s not scripted. It just happens organically in the environment.”
One thing that did surprise her was how little time she had to get to know her potential future husband. She estimates she spoke to Echard only a handful of times during her approximately three-week run on the show. During that time, she went on several group dates, including one where the women and guest host, actress Hilary Duff, hosted a birthday party for a little girl (for reasons which remain entirely unclear), and another in which the contestants went to the beach in matching red Baywatch swimsuits, ran in slow-motion, and practiced CPR on a dummy.
Mengistu says, “I expected to be able to foster a relationship with Clayton, but now I realize that it’s only really the girls that get much farther, like to the top five, who really start to have that relationship with him.” But if she didn’t find love, she did find long-term friendship in the Bachelor Mansion. Without electronic devices or news from the outside world, per Bachelor filming rules, she had no choice but to form close bonds with her fellow contestants.
Mengistu doesn’t take her time on The Bachelor too seriously. Fans have celebrated her tweets poking fun at the show over the past few months, and she was a particular fan-favorite during the “Women Tell All” episode, where eliminated contestants gather onstage to confront one another and Echard with any unfinished business. During the episode, Mengistu made one last attempt at “shooting her shot." She told Echard, “I found myself more and more attracted to you with each episode,” when watching the finished season for the first time at home. She left the door open, telling him that if he ever finds himself single, “Just know that I’m single, too.”
Unfortunately, her “shot didn’t go in,” she says, as Echard is now dating contestant Susie Evans. Mengistu remains unperturbed though, keeping a healthy distance from all things Bachelor. “The show is a chapter in my life, but it’s not going to be my life, whereas my career is very important to me.” She plans to continue working as a physician, but also hopes to use her M.B.A. to start a business that expands access to high-quality medical care, particularly procedures not covered by insurance. While she has gained somewhat of a following since appearing on the show, so far none of her patients have recognized her. She uses her social-media platforms to produce informational videos about various medical issues, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), STDs, and toxicity in beauty products. She says, “There is so much [medical] misinformation out there, and I want to push out correct information to make people either treat their bodies better or be more informed consumers of healthcare-related products.”
This may not be the end of the road for Mengistu and the Bachelor franchise. Like all other previous contestants on the show, she’s eligible to appear on Bachelor in Paradise. Mengistu says she’s “open to the idea,” but she’s not necessarily itching “to go back into the world of reality television” and join a group of about 30 singles on a tropical island. She says, “It’s a big unknown, how they’re going to portray you and how it’s going to go down. It’s very emotionally taxing, and the whole experience between filming and the after-effects of it, it’s like no other experience.” But depending on “which guys they’re going to cast for it,” she says she could be persuaded.
Mengistu waves away any criticism she’s received after appearing on The Bachelor, including the Reddit thread with more than 500 comments debating whether her lingerie entrance was in good fun or a disgrace to the medical profession. After two years of working long hours saving and losing patients to COVID-19, Mengistu can’t be bothered with Internet “trolls” saying she’s any less of a doctor for appearing on The Bachelor. Her response to them? “It’s okay to have a bit of fun sometimes.”