When Kaitlyn Bristowe heard the news that Season 19 of "The Bachelorette" would feature two leads, her reaction was visceral and immediate.
"I think I said, 'Not again,'" Bristowe recalled to TODAY.
Like Gabby Windey and Rachel Recchia, Bristowe was also one of two Bachelorettes chosen simultaneously. She and Britt Nillson, who were on Season 19 of "The Bachelor," were both introduced as leads in the show's 11th season in 2015.
"I remember the shocked reaction when they announced there's going to be two Bachelorettes on my season. People were like, 'Why are we pitting women against each other like this? Why are we not letting these women have their own journey after what they’ve been through?' I didn't think they'd ever do it again," Bristowe said.
The difference was that only one woman — Nillson or Bristowe — would continue on with season, based on who the contestants chose. The men dropped their rose in a box for either Nillson or Bristowe, with Bristowe winning out. At the time, publications and blogs said the show had "gone too far," turning up the "gender inequality" and power imbalance they said was always present.
Bristowe has been one of this season's most vocal critics. The night of the premiere, she tweeted that she "f---ng hated this," and wrote, "I cannot believe they are doing this to these women, and to the men." Publications also deemed the format “humiliating,” and said it “fails” its two leads.
While rejection is an inevitable part of the dating show (and dating), the experimental set-up, which has had no clear-cut rules, has lent itself to particularly painful moments.
In the show's third episode, both Windey and Recchia were rejected repeatedly by men looking to date the other, an experience Recchia called "humiliating." Moving forward, things may be different: By accepting a rose in the last episode, men were committing to dating only that Bachelorette.
What to know about this season of 'The Bachelorette'
Below, Bristowe shares her thoughts about the season so far, and why she's hopeful for the show's future — even if she "hates" watching it. "You want these women to find what they deserve. Love is always messy. If it’s gotta be this way for them to find that, then it’s always going to be worth it," she said.
Can you describe the setup of your 'Bachelorette' season?
"It was definitely set up to be competitive. I always said it felt like we were being pitted against each other. And I'll never forget hearing what Chris Harrison said when he was introducing us as the Bachelorette. He said, 'Who will make a better wife?' I just felt sick to my stomach. I was like, 'Are you kidding me? We're both gonna make incredible wives.' Because we were incredible people. I didn't want to be pitted against Britt. We were friends. I didn't want the guys to have to choose who they liked better. That just felt also icky to me."
Do you see history repeating itself now?
"They're not pitted against each other because they're definitely friends. But in a sense it's competitive, because it's still giving the guys power for who they like and embarrassing them by saying, 'No actually, I don't want your rose, I want Gabby's instead.' That's going to make anybody feel insecure.
"When you're in that position of 'The Bachelorette,' you're like, 'I've already been here. I've already felt competitive with other women I've already been made to feel like maybe I wasn't enough.' It's supposed to be your turn to find your true love. It's really unfortunate for them that they have to be put in a situation but they're handling it like absolute pros."
Is watching this season bringing up memories?
"Luckily for me, it was only one night that I had to do that. I can't imagine doing that the whole season. I mean, you don't want to date the same guys as your friends! Out in the real world, you'd never do that. Then again, you wouldn't do a lot of things from 'Bachelor' world in the real world.
"It's confusing to watch as a viewer because I'm like, I don't even know if this is good TV. I understand doing crazy things for ratings and getting viewers hooked. But watching this just almost make me feel sad."
I read a review that said it was humiliating to watch. Would you agree with that?
"Yeah, I felt almost second hand insecurities. Both women felt so rejected by (Bachelor) Clayton (Echard) and he hurt them so badly. Here they are in a position where they should be finding their love and and they're having to sit there and feel rejected by you. It's one thing to have a connection — and another thing to tell you reasons why, like 'You're a little rough around the edges.'" They're being insulted at the same time as being humiliated and I just don't like it.
I gasped when Hayden called Gabby 'rough around the edges.'
"I hope that guy feels embarrassed that he said that. If somebody said that to me, I'd be like, 'You're right. I really am. And I would want somebody to love that about me.'"
From your point of view, would there have been a way to make this a not humiliating experience for the leads?
"What I would have liked to see is they both have their own separate season. But if they were going to do this together, it would have been nice for the producers or the casting directors to actually pick men that they felt would be great for either one, not for both, and then have 30 men for Gabby and 30 for Rachel — but I just don't see how that would work either. Because there's bound to be 'crossover' with feelings and people flip-flopping. That's what happens when you put two incredible beautiful women in front of a bunch of men."
The leads have a genuine friendship. Do you see the value in having a partner or support system through this process?
"I do see the value. I think that was part of why Tayshia (Adams) and I loved co-hosting that so much. We were one of a handful of people who can say that we've really been through this experience. We were given this opportunity to not only be host, but be there as support a support system, which I really enjoyed doing. I love that they are able to communicate with each other and support one another because they're doing a beautiful job at that. And that is one of the nice things to see out of this."
How would you have handled hosting this season?
"Somebody tweeted me the other day and they said, 'You're so bitter. If you would have been hosting, you probably would have had a whole other perspective.' And that's the truth, I really would have had a different perspective. Because I would have been able to be there for them and validate what they were going through. I probably just would have said, 'What do you need for me — not only as a host, but as a friend, as someone who's been in this position before? Help me help you. What can I do?'"
The women divided up the men in the third episode's rose ceremony. What did you think of their strategy?
"I think something needed to change and they made that happen. Now they have have their separate group of men. That's what I hoped to see from the beginning. I was like, I don’t like how this is being done, but at the same time it needs to be done. Hopefully from here on forward, we don’t have any more flip flops. There are still a couple that I think are on the fence. And I’m sure that’s going to be where the chaos comes in for the rest of the season. I’m hoping that was the end of it. And now we can really see them thrive in these relationships."
Do you have any predictions?
"I really like Nate (Mitchell), and I think the whole world has fallen in love with. He seems like one of the most genuine, best guys on the season. And Rachel's date with Zach (Shallcross)— I cried actually watching it. It felt like they were two kindred souls just meant for each other."
Should this be the last time the show has two leads?
"People have said over the last few years we've needed changes, it's always the same format. People always want what they don't have, because now everybody's like, 'Go back to the old ways.' Laughs. I genuinely love watching the show and I do love the franchise, and I was so honored to be a part of it in the last couple years. I'm obviously I'm going to disagree with some things they do. And this is just one of them."
But we're still watching.
"Exactly. That's just it. We're all still watching and I'm still gonna podcast about it. This will be my Monday for probably the rest of my life."