WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Spend 10 seconds with Colton Underwood, and you get why “The Bachelor” figured he was a home run. He has a boy-next-door smile and an aw-shucks manner. He’s brawny. He hikes.
But in April, in an emotional interview on “Good Morning America,” the former N.F.L. linebacker, who made hearts flutter two years ago as the virginal leading man on ABC’s aggressively heterosexual hit dating franchise “The Bachelor,” said the no-going-back words “I’m gay.”
Underwood, 29, brawls with contradictions. He’s a Christian who refuses to believe in the version of God he learned about as a Catholic altar boy. He loves football, but the locker room is where he felt most afraid to reveal his true self.
Now he shops at Kohl’s and on Rodeo Drive. He has a boyfriend, and is also attracted to women, but is not bisexual. His Grindr tribes would probably be Clean-Cut and Rugged.
So much identity straddling — that’s what brings Underwood back to reality television for “Coming Out Colton,” a new six-episode docu-series on Netflix that arrives Dec. 3. The series, which started filming before his “Good Morning America” appearance, is a heartfelt but carefully packaged diary, in which Underwood reveals his sexual orientation to unsuspecting family members, friends and others, and gets a crash course in gay.
Underwood hopes the show helps people see how coming out can be a gift. But he also wants to make amends for going on “The Bachelor” in a failed attempt, he said, to “bury being gay.” And to address troubles that arose in turn, including a restraining order filed against him by his ex-girlfriend and criticism that he’s cashing in on something he shouldn’t.
“I’ve lived my life so publicly straight, and I ran from a community I’ve belonged to my entire life,” he said over breakfast at Hugo’s, a diner on Santa Monica Boulevard he picked. “I knew there was going to be a lot of people who didn’t understand. Maybe at the end of these six episodes, people still don’t understand. But at least I’ve tried to undo the wrongs.”
Underwood gets an assist on the series from his friend Gus Kenworthy, the skier and Olympian who came out as gay in 2015. Compared to Underwood, Kenworthy is a gay sage: He teaches Underwood what cisgender means (“cis means that your gender that you identify with is the same as the gender you were assigned at birth,” he explains in one scene) and sits with Underwood for a history lesson at the Stonewall Inn.
An executive producer on the series, Underwood knows he has privilege and a platform, which is why he said he sought counsel from people who aren’t white gay cisgender men, including Nicole Garcia, a transgender Latina pastor. In an email, Garcia said Underwood could be a role model, especially to let young athletes know they “can be male, athletic, gay and be successful, loved and respected.”
This being reality TV, Underwood didn’t prepare the people he comes out to on camera — what we see, he said, is their genuine reaction to the news that he is gay. Initially, that didn’t sit well with his mother, Donna Burkard, the first person he comes out to on the show. (Underwood’s parents are divorced but on good terms.)
Burkard said her son’s revelation was a surprise, and she was uneasy with the camera but resigned to it. Then her mama bear emerged.
“We decided if we could help a single family, and hopefully multiple families, by showing the love and support that I believe I displayed, other gay men and women in hiding could see a flicker of hope that their parents are going to respond with open arms,” she said in a phone interview.
Underwood’s biggest protector on the show is his father, Scott Underwood, who said he loves his son — “a strong person,” he called him for coming out on national television. But did he have to get the news while they fished?
“I’m not saying I’m upset about it, but I would have preferred it had been done differently,” he said by phone. But his son is “an entertainer, let’s face it,” he continued. “That’s what he’s chosen to do for his career.”
“Am I going to say it’s for fame?” he added, referring to his son’s decision to star in the series. “No. Did he come out on TV for money? Sure. But who in reality entertainment doesn’t leverage their life and put it all out there for money?”
Check out Underwood’s recent Instagram post about the series, and it’s clear that a lot of people think his post-“Bachelor” controversies should disqualify him from a Netflix deal. (Many others disagree.)
An online petition with over 35,000 signatures as of late November asks Netflix to cancel the series because of stalking and harassment allegations that Underwood’s ex-girlfriend, Cassie Randolph, outlined in a restraining order she filed against him in September 2020. Randolph was the woman Underwood chose to marry on “The Bachelor,” but their season didn’t conclude, as most do, with their engagement.
In November 2020, Randolph dropped the order, and the two reached a private agreement that prevents much from being said publicly. Underwood has apologized for his behavior.
“It’s more sad than anything else that I was ever even in a position to say the things I said to her or do the things I did,” Underwood said. Randolph did not reply to requests for comment.
Jeff Jenkins, an executive producer of “Coming Out Colton,” said a talent agent originally pitched the show to him as a reality series about Underwood and Randolph as a couple. When their relationship ended, Jenkins said, the show’s direction pivoted. Underwood met with him to explain that he was considering coming out.
“We saw the positive of him sharing his story,” said Jenkins, an executive producer of “I Am Cait,” a series about Caitlyn Jenner’s life as a transgender woman, with which “Coming Out Colton” shares L.G.B.T.Q. reality show DNA.
Asked about Underwood’s motives, Jenkins said: “He already has fame and — not to speak out of turn — but this documentary is not going to make him rich.”
Damla Dogan, Netflix’s director of unscripted series, wrote in an email that the streaming service trusted the producers to address Underwood’s “complicated story, which includes him taking accountability.” Asked how the show fits into Netflix’s strategy for queer programming, especially following the accusations of transphobia in Dave Chappelle’s most recent comedy special, “The Closer,” Dogan said, “It would be unfair to Colton to put the weight of all L.G.B.T.Q. representation on his shoulders.”
“One person’s experience will not fill the void of queer stories on TV,” Dogan wrote in an email. “We have to do better as an industry to highlight more kinds of lives and love.”
Then there’s the timing. The series begins on Nov. 6, 2020, five months before Underwood revealed his sexuality on TV, which means he came out to his professional team before his family. To some, that appears more like a monetized career move than an unvarnished emotional reckoning.
John Casey, the editor-at-large for The Advocate, wrote in an opinion column that Underwood “has failed women and the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community by deriding our coming out process, particularly for those of us who took on great peril to be ourselves.”
Attempts to reach Casey were unsuccessful. The L.G.B.T. advocacy organization GLAAD, which is thanked in the show’s credits, declined to comment.
Underwood said his hand had been forced because, as he also told Variety, he got an anonymous email last year from someone who claimed to have nude photos of him at a spa known for a gay clientele. He admits he was there, but the photos never surfaced. The first person he ever came out to was his publicist.
Underwood knew his family had to be next. Having cameras around, he said, captured the drama but also held him accountable. He said he found comfort thinking: “Today you’re about to come out to your dad and you cannot run.” (He came out to people in his life off-camera, too.)
The only time Underwood looked antsy in our conversation was while talking about his boyfriend of several months, the political strategist Jordan C. Brown. Underwood didn’t say much other than that he was “very happy and very in love” with Brown and that the two men’s families have met.
“The easiest way for me to say it is that it was like me bringing a girl home,” Underwood said, blushing and sounding like someone who really is new to this whole gay thing. “Like, nobody batted an eye.”
Underwood isn’t sure what comes next — maybe another gay TV project of some kind. His priority, he said, is doing something he has never been good at. “I have to take care of myself first,” he said.
And that means social media, Christians, gay guys, Bachelor Nation, everybody else will have to wait.
“If it does not make me happy and it does not fulfill me, I don’t want anything to do with it,” he said.