Mike Fleiss, the dark genius behind the Bachelor franchise, has always been a consensus first-round pick for Reality TV’s All-Asshole team. Even with his exit, following accusations of racial discrimination and bullying, Fleiss has fueled controversy about the team taking his place.
A round of applause on the Warner Bros. lot is probably in order for Samantha Mirabello. She’s the Warners attorney and investigator who, I’m told, looked into Bachelor franchise creator Mike Fleiss’s behavior after several staffers complained about racially discriminatory casting and emotional bullying. The results of Mirabello’s probe led Warners and Disney to finally push Fleiss out this week after 21 years as a notorious figure in the unscripted television community.
I won’t summarize Fleiss’s well-known Bachelor scandals—resisting diverse contestants; that civil rights complaint claiming outright race bias; allegedly beating his pregnant wife (he denied it); waging a war on his Malibu neighbor David Charvet that included “loud barking sounds emanating from loudspeakers in the wee hours of the morning.” Behind the scenes, Fleiss has always been a consensus first-round pick for Reality TV’s All-Asshole team, not to mention a classic right-place right-time guy.
By most accounts smart and savvy, Fleiss happened to be pitching shows during that crazy 1999-2002 period when the juggernaut broadcast formats that still define the genre—Survivor, American Idol, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Big Brother, and The Bachelor—all debuted. He initially brought a dark genius to the concept of women desperately jockeying for a man, and in those early years he constantly pushed to up the humiliation and shock value, all while packaging the degradation as wish-fulfillment, fantasy romance and soap opera. Then he rode that Bachelor franchise train for two decades, never creating another hit show.
What’s probably less known is how vindictive Fleiss has been toward colleagues over the years, especially as the franchise flourished. When producer SallyAnn Salsano left the show after its early success, Fleiss vowed to destroy her, according to two sources who worked on Bachelor. Instead, she created Jersey Shore and sold her company to Fremantle for millions. (Salsano didn’t return my email.) When another Bachelor handler I won’t name left for a much better job with Mark Burnett, Fleiss lashed out at her husband, who also worked on the show, and refused to renew his deal. That kind of garbage.
In more recent years, Fleiss has been a more sporadic presence on the Bachelor shows, but he was still around and influential. It’s kinda amazing to think that there wasn’t a Black Bachelor until Matt James in 2021—a situation that spun out of control and led to host Chris Harrison’s exit—and no Black lead at all until Rachel Lindsay in 2017. In recent years, ratings for all the Bachelor shows have waned; this week’s finale averaged just 3.2 million same-day viewers, way down from last year’s 4.7 million and waaay down from the heyday. Despite industrywide declines, Fleiss would blame the erosion on the show’s efforts to diversify, even trying to edit Black people out of scenes. He also made moo-ing sounds when he saw a contestant he thought was overweight, according to one show source. Classy guy.
So why is Fleiss out now? According to two sources close to the show, the Warners inquiry began with complaints about casting. Mirabello and her team started with casting executive Lacey Pemberton, who ended up leaving the franchise, and it quickly led to Fleiss—and specifically, some racially biased casting directives he had allegedly made. In addition, Martin Hilton, a longtime Bachelor executive producer, had been an effective buffer between Fleiss and the rest of the staff. But Hilton’s relationship with Fleiss broke down less than a year ago, and when Hilton left, Fleiss interacted more with other producers and staff. Not good.
At some point, ABC unscripted executive Rob Mills, Fleiss’s longtime friend, who in later years worked with Fleiss to try to diversify the show, wanted to give Fleiss an ABC development deal. But that was scrapped when the investigation began.
And now he’s gone. Fleiss, in his ridiculous farewell statement, praised the choice of Claire Freeland, Jason Ehrlich, and Bennett Graebner as the show’s new shepherds—as if Fleiss himself was the showrunner being replaced. But those hires are also raising eyebrows because others who have been with the franchise longer had wanted a shot at the top jobs.
I’m not gonna go deep on Bachelor politics, except to say that several current Bachelor employees are looking at their own possible claims and have engaged attorney Bryan Freedman, the same lawyer that represented Harrison in his exit from the show, as well as Fleiss’s ex wife. Susie Arons, Fleiss’s publicist, declined to comment, as did Warner Bros. and ABC. But Fleiss did send me a statement in which he says he’s “proud of the work we’ve done over the past five years to make the show substantially more diverse, but I do believe I could have done more. Hopefully, the franchise will continue to move in the right direction.”