In an April 2021 Good Morning America interview with Robin Roberts, Colton Underwood — known as the "virgin Bachelor" during his time on the ABC reality TV franchise, in which 30 women competed for his affections — revealed that he is gay.
"I came to terms with that earlier this year, and I've been processing it," the 29-year-old told Roberts. "The next step in all of this was, sort of, letting people know."
The new Netflix show Coming Out Colton documents precisely that. In the six-episode series, a camera crew films Underwood as he confides in his parents, brother, coaches, teammates and friends about his sexuality.
But allegations of harassment and stalking have followed Underwood in the wake of his breakup with girlfriend Cassie Randolph.
And the show's format — in which Underwood comes out to his loved ones for the first time, complete with nerve-wracking cliffhangers — has prompted questions about its value to the LGBTQ community.
Ex-girlfriend filed restraining order
For Underwood, growing up in small-town Illinois as a football star made it difficult to imagine anything beyond traditional notions of masculinity. Homophobic jokes and slurs were enabled by his coaches in the locker room, he said.
In Coming Out Colton, that conservative upbringing adds to the element of surprise: If an episode ends with Underwood having just told a loved one about his sexuality, the viewer has to watch the next episode to find out how they react, knowing that it might not be a favourable response.
While gimmicks are a given part of any reality TV show, monetizing one's identity is something that a lot of public figures from marginalized identities have to wrestle with, said Mel Woods, a Vancouver-based culture writer and editor at Xtra Magazine.
"We often have to grapple with this idea of saying, like, 'I want to be visible and I want to put myself and my identity forward. But I also am making money off who I am at my very core,'" Woods said.
But Underwood's story has another dimension to it that has left a bad taste in the mouths of Bachelor fans. In September 2020, Randolph — the winning contestant on Underwood's season of The Bachelor in 2019 — filed a restraining order against him, alleging harassment and stalking. The claims included an incident in which Underwood allegedly installed a tracking device on Randolph's car. She dropped the restraining order two months later.
WATCH | Colton Underwood stars in Coming Out Colton on Netflix:
While reality television can make interpersonal relationships complicated and messy, "just because you come out as queer doesn't exonerate you for all of that," Woods said.
Indeed, some fans of The Bachelor were dismayed to find out that Underwood would have his own Netflix show. A change.org petition demanded that Netflix not air the series in a protest of Underwood's actions.
In a critique of the series on the website The Daily Beast, one writer opined that it's "impossible to shake the impression that all of this is part of a broader publicity campaign designed to relegate what happened with Randolph to the past and protect Underwood's place in the spotlight."
Underwood refers to these incidents vaguely during the Netflix show, admitting that he cannot address the situation directly due to legal reasons. He says that he clung to his relationship with Randolph, believing that she could "make" him straight. According to Variety magazine, Randolph declined to appear on the show.
'A certain amount of privilege'
Much of Underwood's struggle with his sexuality stems from his background as a professional athlete and the fear of being outed as gay among unwelcoming teammates and coaches. He reveals during the show that he attempted suicide before coming out.
"I definitely feel like being accepted from people who were in my athletic community and my athletic life.... [It's] not that it means more, but it sort of gives me more confidence and validation when an NFL player and an old teammate of mine say, 'Doesn't change a thing, still love you, dude,'" Underwood said.
Underwood's story is disheartening. But shows like Coming Out Colton also demonstrate that the process of revealing one's sexuality to loved ones is not equal for all.
"There's a certain amount of privilege [in] being able to have this all set up for you," Woods said. "For a lot of people, coming out is not like that ... it's not as easy as it looks from shows like this."
The series incorporates the experiences of other professional athletes who are openly gay. Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy acts as a kind of mentor for Underwood — offering bits and pieces of useful knowledge (Kenworthy explains to Underwood what "cisgender" means in the opening episode) and attempting to instil in Underwood a sense of LGBTQ history. A trip to New York City's famed Stonewall Inn is included.
"The way that he's kind of discovering gay culture feels like [he is a] straight spectator of queer culture," Woods said. "And I think that's because the show is being positioned in a way that the audience is that straight spectator on queer culture.
"The more queer narratives that we have out in media and in the world, the more varied of a picture we paint of the queer community."