Following an anti-racism campaign from fans slamming "The Bachelor" for its lack of diversity, the hit dating program has – after 18 years and 40 seasons – finally found its first black leading man.
On Friday, ABC unveiled 28-year-old Matt James as its latest "Bachelor." The real estate broker, entrepreneur and community-organization founder previously appeared on Hannah Brown's season of "The Bachelorette" as a friend of contestant Tyler Cameron.
Earlier this week, attorney Rachel Lindsay – who became the franchise's first and only black woman lead in 2017 – threatened to dissociate herself from the "Bachelor" brand unless it got a "diversity makeover."
"It's a step in the right direction," James said of his casting, speaking Friday on "Good Morning America." "When Rachel speaks, we listen. She has a very important voice in all of this, being the first black woman/person of color to have a lead. So I think that we're all following suit in that conversation, and this is hopefully the first ... of many black men to be in the position that I'm at now."
In addition to demanding a black "Bachelor" for the series' 25th season, the recent petition created by fans also calls for the competition show to cast at least 35% black, indigenous and people of color each season, hire a diversity consultant and publicly apologize for enabling racism.
Responding Friday to James' historic casting, former "Bachelorette" Lindsay detailed some hopes for a more inclusive future.
"I want producers of color. I want for them to cast leads that are interested in dating outside of their race – that aren't just getting their first-time experience for the first time on national TV," she said on "GMA." "I need the acknowledgment of that – not putting a Band-Aid over the situation and just saying, 'Here, we're going to put this here. Are you happy now?'"
Creator Mike Fleiss has previously blamed the show's lack of diversity on the claim that "for whatever reason, (people of color) don't come forward" in the casting process. In Friday's casting announcement, ABC President Karey Burke said James "has been on our radar since February, when producers first approached him" to join Clare Crawley's season of "The Bachelorette," which has halted production due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I don't think it's ever the wrong time to do the right thing," James said on "GMA." "We can't have change until you put that first foot forward, and that first foot forward for the 'Bachelor' franchise is having a black lead, so I'm excited to take on that role."
'This is just the beginning'
Burke said in a statement that "we know we have a responsibility to make sure the love stories we're seeing onscreen are representative of the world we live in, and we are proudly in service to our audience.
"This is just the beginning, and we will continue to take action with regard to diversity issues on this franchise," she continued. "We feel so privileged to have Matt as our first Black Bachelor and we cannot wait to embark on this journey with him."
James lives in New York City, where he runs an organization encouraging physical and mental wellness for local youth in underserved communities. When asked what he's looking for in his dream partner, James credited his mother with setting an example as a loving figure in his life.
"Selfless, honest, caring, compassionate ... those are qualities found in women all shapes, sizes and races," he said. "It's not a black and white thing, so I'm hoping that when that limo pulls up, there's a lot of diversity, and I see every type of woman coming out of that limo."
The 25th season of "The Bachelor" is set to premiere in 2021.