As 'Bachelor' race issues linger, Jenn Tran, its 1st Asian American lead, is ready for her moment

Jenn Tran can’t stop thinking about being the first Asian American lead in the history of “The Bachelor” franchise — not that she wants to.

“I think about it every day, all the time. I think if I pushed it aside, that would be such a dishonor to me in who I am because being Asian American, that’s me,” the 26-year-old aspiring physician assistant tells The Associated Press.

A Vietnamese American woman reigning over Bachelor Nation marks a significant moment for the reality TV dating behemoth. Historically, fewer roses on “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have gone to contestants of color. The roses that were handed out often came with plenty of thorns, including racist social media commentary.

Tran’s season doesn’t debut on ABC until Monday, but it’s already received some criticism for having few suitors of Asian descent. Still, Tran — who made it to the final six in the last “Bachelor” season starring Joey Graziadei — is embracing her unconventional search for love as an opportunity to share her bicultural upbringing.

“My mom and I speak a lot of Vietnamese together. And I can’t wait for people to see that. That’s not something that people have seen before,” Tran says.

“The Bachelor” has been a mixed bag when it comes to showcasing Asian cultures. In 2019, “Bachelor” lead Colton Underwood went on a group date over Singaporean street food. The mostly white contestants made gagging noises and Colton, who is also white, made a toast “to weird food.” The outing drew some backlash and even a Washington Post column.

Tran, whose season has already completed filming, assures that the show has handled her Vietnamese identity respectfully.

“There is a small scene in the beginning in my intro package where I talk to my family about leaving as a bachelorette and there they cooked a big, big Vietnamese meal,” Tran says. “I hope … I’m exposing people to something that’s different than them. And so that can incite change and that can incite acceptance into people.”

Non-white contestants and leads, including Black trailblazers Rachel Lindsay and Matt James, have historically been met with hostility from the majority-white Bachelor Nation audience. Longtime host Chris Harrison left the franchise in 2021, under fire over his handling of a racism controversy in an interview with Lindsay. Rachel Nance, who is Filipino and Black and outlasted Tran on Graziadei’s season, tearfully recounted in March getting “hundreds” of DMs and comments using racial slurs for both Black and Asian people. (Some viewers were disappointed that host Jesse Palmer did not call it racism but instead asked viewers to temper their “strong opinions.”)

Tran hasn’t been immune to the same treatment. She gets racist comments “every day” on Instagram and TikTok, she says. Her approach is to simply ignore it, though it isn’t easy.

“Social media is like this platform for all these people just come at me all at once and it’s a new feeling. It’s overwhelming. And unfortunately, that’s the world that we live in right now,” Tran says. “I hope that people are more open-minded and that they open their hearts up to this truly.”

Tran’s star turn has definitely piqued the interest of Asian Americans who don’t typically watch “Bachelor” programming, however. One is Vi Luong, 27, a Vietnamese American social media influencer/content creator who has only watched “The Golden Bachelor.” She’s never been interested in the younger incarnations.

“I’d say 90% of my friends are Asian and yeah, they’re kind of like in my boat where they’ve never really cared until now,” says Luong, who is based in Irvine, California. “The bad rhetoric I was seeing was like, ‘Oh, she’s a diversity hire.’ Maybe but, like, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. … Tapping into a whole different demographic — I think it’s a smart choice.”

Luong has already received invites to watch parties happening within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Luong, whose boyfriend is white, wants to see how Tran and the show handle interracial dating and any culture clashes. She’s also looking forward to how Tran’s mother handles the boyfriend meet-and-greets.

“This is where I’m like, ‘Oh, this might get really interesting,’” Luong says. “If there’s something you have to know about Vietnamese people, is we are very, very blunt people, very direct people, especially our parents’ generation.”

The star herself says her mother has only watched Vietnamese reality TV shows. Tran isn’t sure how her parent will react to whatever makes it to air — but her mother wasn’t shy during filming, which Tran thinks will make for good TV.

“There are some concerns and things that she brought up because of our Vietnamese culture. So that’s something that I’m excited for people to learn about,” Tran says. “She really was just trying to wrap her head around it all.”

Only a few of the 25 men vying for her affections appear to be of Asian descent, and only one is Vietnamese American. The franchise’s dearth of Asian men has been an ongoing gripe: The “Bachelor” universe, which debuted in 2002, didn’t have an Asian contestant until the 2016 season of “The Bachelorette.” Jonathan, a half-Scottish and half-Chinese technical sales rep, entered in a kilt and was primarily remembered for a crude punchline implying that his Asian side wasn’t as manly.

In response to the lack of Asian men, Asian American production company Wong Fu Productions made two parody “Bachelorette” skits in 2017 and 2018. Collectively, the YouTube videos, one of which features a pre-“Shang Chi” Simu Liu, have amassed more than 9 million views.

Philip Wang, co-founder and video director, plans to check out Tran’s journey. He called her casting “a net positive move” but hopes the series avoids any stereotypical tropes.

“Ultimately the bachelor/ette shows are very white leaning/adjacent so it’s an uphill battle to shift that branding/audience…if it’s even worth it,” Wang wrote in an email.

In a wide-ranging interview last month with the Los Angeles Times, the showrunners who took over from creator Mike Fleiss last year addressed the franchise’s troubling history with race. They acknowledged falling short in responding to concerns of the few non-white leads and online bullying, and acknowledged Tran should have had more Asian suitors.

As for if any of those suitors put a ring on it, Tran will not confirm.

“I can tell you that I’m happy with the way things ended,” she says with a smile.

Besides romance, Tran also feels that she found her voice on “The Bachelor” franchise. She has been candid about wanting to break a streak of toxic relationships. She hopes viewers will see an Asian American woman unafraid to advocate for what she knows she deserves.

“Throughout this journey I really learned to stand up for myself because if you don’t, nobody else will,” Tran says. “I hope that women will see that and will resonate with that and will understand that it’s okay to have a voice and in fact, that makes you stronger in who you are.”

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