They rode a roller-coaster through one of the most controversial seasons of “The Bachelor”; now, 15 months on from their first meeting, Matt James says he and Rachael Kirkconnell are in “such a good place” and ready to build a future and family together.
Former footballer James found love with Kirkconnell after becoming the franchise’s first Black male lead, during its 25th season. But their romance was rocked by drama after racially insensitive social media posts shared by Kirkconnell in 2018 surfaced as the season aired. Longtime “Bachelor” host Chris Harrison subsequently exited the series after facing backlash for defending Kirkconnell.
“I think if you make it through something like that, you’re battle-tested,” James reflects, talking to ET Canada. “It’s not going to get easier – you’re going to have kids and build a family, and seeing that you can persevere through those things reiterates the trust you have in one another and how you can make it through hard times. Very early on, our relationship was battle-tested and it was nice to see we’re both resilient people.”
James, 30, never imagined the rocky ride ahead when he signed on for “The Bachelor”. Kirkconnell stood out to him early on for being “as real as they come.”
“Every time I was with her, her authenticity shone through,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I was on a show. I felt like I was back home in Raleigh, just having a conversation with somebody. She is who I thought she was then and continues to impress me day in and day out.”
A key moment “validating” his strong feelings for Kirkconnell, 25, was when her parachute crashed during a skydiving date on the show. Although she was fine, James says it was “scary” facing the prospect of life without Kirkconnell and being unable to pursue a relationship with her.
He chose the graphic designer over Michelle Young during the finale but as the episodes went to air months later, Kirkconnell faced allegations of racist behaviour from former school peers and photos emerged showing her attending an Old South, antebellum-themed party. She released a statement apologizing for past actions and has since used her platform to help fight racism, however she and James split amid the controversy.
James, who later reconciled with Kirkconnell, tells us he turned to his Christian faith in dealing with the situation.
“The way I handled adversity in the show stemmed from my relationship with God and thinking about what people who share my beliefs would do. I feel like I was placed there for a reason and sometimes you have to stand firm in what you believe in, even though it’s not a popular opinion.
“I’m happy with how everything played out and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way because that’s how it was supposed to be,” he adds. “And I don’t believe in regrets. You can’t learn if there’s no mistakes and I learned a lot from that experience, which I’ve taken into my relationship.”
The challenges of his “Bachelor” journey are explored in James’ book First Impressions, out May 3.
“There’s lots that was left on the wayside in terms of who I am, where I come from and what I’m about, so a book was a way to tie a bow around everything I would’ve liked to have shared from my experience and life, to give context to the decisions I make,” he says.
Aside from his book, James has kept busy working with ABC Food Tours, which he founded with “The Bachelorette” contestant Tyler Cameron to help New York students facing adversity and food insecurity. The organization has faced new challenges providing meals, mental health help, and other services amid the pandemic.
“We’re going to be showing up in the metaverse, so students from across the country and world can come together and experience our programming, whether that’s financial literacy, learning English or health and wellness,” James shares.
Health and fitness also remain a priority for James, who completed November’s New York City Marathon and is now training for April’s Boston Marathon. Determined to improve his performance, he credits sports nutrition supplement brand Dymatize for helping him avoid the culinary temptations that come with living in New York – like the “world’s best pizzas.”
“I have the worst eating habits. I gained 20 pounds after the [New York] marathon!” says James, who hopes partnering with Dymatize also helps him motivate others to reach their fitness goals. “I need something to train towards that keeps me focused, so I don’t go off the rails having cookies and donuts for dinner.”
James adds that fitness is also part of his relationship with Kirkconnell. “We’re very health-conscious but we love to travel and explore different foods, so the more we exercise, the more we can explore food,” says the former “Dancing With The Stars” competitor. James remains close with his fellow contestants, noting he and Kirkconnell plan to attend a Jimmie Allen concert and one of gymnast Suni Lee’s meets.
Staying fit and healthy is important for ensuring James is “around for our family in the future.” While children are clearly in the cards, James is unsure about tying the knot.
“I take my relationship and life one day at a time and that’s why we’re in such a good place,” he says about where he and Kirkconnell stand on marriage. “People put unrealistic expectations on their relationships and compare themselves to people who have gone through similar experiences, but we’re all different.”
“There’s people from the show with great relationships and there’s some that haven’t worked out, so we don’t compare ourselves to anybody. We’re two normal people, trying to grow together. As those important decisions come about, we’ll tackle them, but right now, we’re happy and enjoying life together. As we continue spending our lives together, I’m reminded why I made the decision I made and how happy I am I made it. I love what the future looks like with her.”