Rachael Kirkconnell, who came under fire in February after a photo resurfaced online of her attending an “Old South”-themed party during her college days in 2018, is addressing the controversy for the first time since she appeared on Season 25 of “The Bachelor.” At the time, she had accepted a final rose from the series’ first-ever Black leading man, Matt James.
The scandal led to longtime host Chris Harrison to step aside after he tried to defend Kirkconnell in an interview with former “Bachelorette” star Rachel Lindsay, who made history as the first Black “Bachelorette.”
It prompted backlash and the blowback led to a public apology from the 49-year-old star, followed by a decision to step aside for a time of personal reflection. James also took to Instagram to address the matter. He called the photos of Kirkconnell “incredibly disappointing.”
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Having already come out in full apology for her past actions at the time the photos appeared online, Kirkconnell appeared Monday with Michelle Saahene and Melissa DePino via Instagram Live on their “From Privilege to Progress” social media channel.
In the Instagram Live, Kirkconnell spoke candidly about the backlash she received for attending the party and how she’s used the experience to move forward with her and James’ relationship.
“It was honestly weird reliving all of that, like having that photo resurface from that time in my life and everyone — and I get it — but everyone, when they saw that photo, including Matt, it was like that had just happened. Like for them, it was brand new but for me, it was years ago,” Kirkconnell began in an at-length, uninterrupted confession.
“It was weird having to go through that and relive it and have everyone look at me as if I was that exact person back then that I am today,” she continued. “And it was just really difficult to deal with in that sense, but really with my journey started years ago sadly, after that formal. I was talking to one of my family friends and she actually helped me – we were just talking about Greek life and everything and she really was the one to open my eyes about that formal because I went to a very small school and I saw so many things about that formal now like when it was surfaced, but back then it wasn’t what everyone was saying it was at my school, at least.”
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When Kirkconnell was asked by a Live listener how she was unaware of the type of history the fraternity was celebrating, she maintained that she didn’t even attend the party and that she and her sorority sisters simply snapped some photos for social media and headed to the beach afterward.
“I saw the full antebellum-themed plantation party, everyone dressed as Confederate soldiers, the parades and when she was telling me, ‘Oh, this is how it is at some schools,’ I’m like so ashamed that I basically participated in that unknowingly because I’m sitting here in my own little privileged, selfish world just thinking, ‘Oh, we just put dresses on to go take a photo op,’” she explained, adding that the Georgia college she attended enrolled around 7,000 students. “It was nothing more than an Instagram opportunity and how terrible is that?”
“I was mind-blown when I heard that that’s what the formal was at other schools, or at least used to be because for us it was just a trip to the beach and the girls before we left, would go take pictures in those dresses,” Kirkconnell pressed. “And I’m sitting there thinking, really, I’m not even asking myself why we dressed up like that but I guess if I had to think about it at the time, I was probably just thinking, ‘OK, just some super traditional fraternity and they probably just want to continue the tradition of what they used to wear when the fraternity was founded. I didn’t think anything about it because it didn’t affect me personally.”
She went on to explain that between the perception of the “Old South” party and “just a lot of other things about Greek life,” Kirkconnell decided she no longer wanted to be associated with that part of the collegiate experience and eventually dropped out of her sorority after that moment.
…having all those conversations – that was my rock bottom because I just was like, I have lost everything at this point and I’m labeled as this person now and what else do I have to lose?”
“I guess that’s the first time my eyes opened about ‘OK, there’s a difference between being not racist and anti-racist, because back then if you would have asked me, ‘Are you a racist person,’ I would be like, ‘Of course, I’m not,” she said. “I would never, ever, ever judge someone by their skin color or be prejudiced towards them or racist towards them like that.”
“You can obviously be overtly, openly racist, but you can also be or have implicit bias and these racial tendencies within you that you don’t even know about, or you can be racially ignorant, and that’s probably the first time I had realized that and I think the peak for me was last summer during the movements after George Floyd – that’s when I realized, ‘OK, I need to do more than just not be racist.’”
For Kirkconnell, her journey has been far from a smooth endeavor. She admitted during her hour-long conversation that she has not only lost friendships over her stance of speaking out about racism or its undertones but she’s also had to refrain from speaking with certain family members who she claims have no desire to hear the adverse perspective related to the history of such themed parties and the meanings others have of those types of public displays.
“I lost some friends along the way last summer, I don’t speak to certain family members anymore because that was probably the first time in my life I realized I need to stop standing aside and I need to speak up and do something because it’s obviously – like we should have been doing this for years and years and years ago, and it’s great that now that movement was the biggest I’d ever seen it. But I was just realizing, ‘OK, I need to stop standing aside and I need to walk with people.'”
‘BACHELOR’S RACHAEL KIRKCONNELL RELEASES VIDEO AMID RACISM CONTROVERSY: ‘PLEASE STOP’ DEFENDING ME
Kirkconnell also revealed that the entire ordeal essentially became “rock bottom” for her due to the fact she was being labeled as something she wanted no part of – especially considering she was now in a relationship with James.
The ordeal had taken such a toll on the pair that they ended up breaking up because of the heat James and Kirkconnell were taking, being flanked from all sides of the argument.
The reality star pressed that she felt it difficult to find the proper way to go about voicing the fact that she wanted to be a part of the conversation and not a punchline for James.
“It was just so much that I felt like I had to fix and to deal with and answer to, and a lot of people were mad about me being silent for so long too,” she said. “And I guess at the beginning when I saw certain TikToks and certain people saying some things and they just were not true whatsoever to where I was like, well, I don’t want to give any attention to things that are rumors, because if anything, it’ll just look like I’m trying to defend myself because I did do that and I’ll look guilty.”
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“So I went back and forth like, ‘Will it look guilty if I say something? Will it make things even worse than they already are?’ And then all of that went out the window when that photo resurfaced and then certain interviews were had and it got even worse,” she continued. “And then that’s when I finally was like, I don’t care what you guys say, because I had a lot of people in my ear saying, ‘You’ll have your time to speak, don’t make it worse. Just wait it out. And so I felt pressured to just keep it all in – to wait and stay silent.”
Recalling the tense “After the Final Rose [ATFR]” exchange with host Emmanuel Acho, Kirkconnell also made it a point in her interview to clarify the remarks she made about not thinking about the overall impact the photo would have on her now-future as a former reality star and contestant on “The Bachelor.”
“I remember Emmanuel asking me on the after-show, ‘How many nights did you lay awake in bed worried about that photo?’ I said, I never thought about it and everyone was like, ‘See, she didn’t even realize how wrong that was,'” she said of the backlash.
“I don’t know if they just didn’t show the full thing but I didn’t think about it because I didn’t even know that the photo still existed because when I dropped out, I erased all that from my phone, from my social media, my computer – and it wasn’t because I’m worried about getting caught because I didn’t even know that three years down the road I would be on a TV show,” Kirkconnell explained.
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“It was really just because I didn’t want that to be a part of my life anymore because I was like, that isn’t who I am or who I want to be. And so that’s when I said, ‘No, I never thought about it,’ it was because I just didn’t even know that those photos even still existed.”
At the end of the day, Kirkconnell said she stands on her convictions that change needs to come one way or another but said she also takes umbrage with the way she was being spoken about in the media and all over social media.
“I didn’t try to make excuses for myself because there are none,” she firmly stated for the record. “I mean, of course, things were twisted along the way but whether it was a party or me just going to take some photos, that dress and the history of that formal was racist and I was completely ignorant to that and I needed to be held accountable for that.”
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“So I completely understood that and I knew I had to apologize. I wanted to apologize, not that I had to, but I wanted to,” she avowed. “I get that, of course, for some people that will never be enough and I completely understand that people are more than entitled to not forgive me but that was at that point in the ‘ATFR,’ just having all those conversations – that was my rock bottom because I just was like, I have lost everything at this point and I’m labeled as this person now and what else do I have to lose?”
“So I put that video out, we did ‘ATFR’ and then I guess the last few months, I have tried just to find some sort of normalcy that I have wanted to just shut that whole chapter out.”