Before appearing on Seasons 10 and 11 of The Bachelorette , Nick Viall was a regular dude, a software salesman living and working in Chicago. While the show was airing, he was a reality TV villain or heartthrob, depending on who you ask, with his face appearing in tabloids and mention of his name sparking heated debate among fans and hate-watchers of the show alike. Now in early September, six weeks after Bachelorette Kaitlyn Bristowe chose Shawn Booth over Viall in the Season 11 finale, he's hanging out with me at a fashion show in New York City. And he's hungover.
Viall is in town for New York Fashion Week. He made a guest appearance on the off-Broadway parody That Bachelor Show over the weekend, had a couple interviews, went to some parties (last night he was boozing with fellow Bachelor Nation alumna Sharleen Joynt's fiancé at a US Open event), and met with his contacts at Wilhelmina Models, a modeling agency. He's just recently started working with Wilhelmina — he says a scout approached him on the street in Miami, not knowing about his reality TV fame — and they hooked him up with an invitation to a show for cool-girl fashion line Houghton at Milk Studios in Manhattan's Meatpacking District.
I'm joining as his plus-one, and when we arrive to check in, we are whisked backstage into a VIP section sparsely populated by fashion-y people having their pictures taken with their cheeks sucked in and arms jutting out. In the 30 minutes before the show starts, I sit next to him eating bruschetta while he strategizes what his Instagram post of the day should be. A photographer pulls him aside for photos before British MTV star Laura Whitmore, who's a friend of his friend, enters and Viall debates whether or not to say hello. He does, and they take a picture together. I notice clumps of women gathering nearby, whispering to each other and glancing in his direction. They clearly recognize him. That happens a lot.
Of course, there's a reason why. "[The Bachelorette] is a wildly popular show," Viall tells me. "It's been on for more than a decade. Everyone watches it. Celebrities watch it. It's become a part of our American culture."
Now that his stint as reality TV royalty is over, though, Viall sits at an odd crossroads previously faced by the likes of household names such as Lauren Conrad, serial reality stars like Adrianne Curry, and "where are they now" candidates like Trishelle Cannatella. He's faced with opportunities that never would have presented themselves before — parties, tickets, free hotels, media appearances. He's taken a six-month leave of absence from his job as a software salesman at SalesForce, and pretty soon he'll need to decide whether to go back, extend the leave, or quit. He's agreed to a lot of interviews, appears to be intent on growing his social media presence, and was said to be in contention for the role as the new Bachelor and for a spot on Dancing With The Stars (he wasn't chosen for either). So does Nick Viall, who's been appearing in the public eye via various platforms lately, want to be famous? Is he looking to extend his 15 minutes?
"I don’t have this desperate desire to be famous for the sake of being famous," Viall says.
That's not to say he isn't open to further exploring his foray into fame, though. "Being in this world has opened some pretty fun and exciting doors that I wouldn’t otherwise imagine," he says. "And since then, I’ve been interested in working on other projects and doing other things with people that are in that kind of [entertainment] space. I don't think there's anything wrong with, if a door is open for you, at least poking your head through to see what’s on the other side."
When the time comes for the fashion show to start, we're seated in the third row (he asks a couple times if I think the seats suck), and we do some people-watching until the lights dim. Wearing a chambray shirt, gray jeans, and a navy tie, Viall says he feels a little "basic bitch" in his outfit compared to all the stylish dudes swarming about. I suggest he lose the tie, and he stuffs it into my bag and undoes a couple buttons, allowing his pecs, which have clearly seen the inside of a gym more than once, a little breathing room. That's better.
When the parade of models in sheer white outfits is through, Viall, having decided what today's post should be, requests that I take a picture of him in the now-empty space so that he can put it on Instagram, and then he monitors the "likes" in the minutes after it goes up. This picture won't perform as well as the myriad shirtless selfies that I told him he should stop posting, but he says that those ones get him more followers. (He has 211,000.) When I ask him why he wants more followers, he has about the best answer I can think of: Not that he wants to build a fanbase so that he can be famous, but because "you can monetize it."
I can't argue with that. "The more of a following you have, the more power you have," he says. "Whether that's to monetize, or to start a foundation, to be an influencer. If you are going to have any type of following, you should want more."
His following appears to be growing quickly (he had 185,000 Instagram followers when I checked a couple months ago), but it's hard to tell if continued fame or influence is in the cards. And what kind of "influencer" would Nick want to be, anyway? To remain famous, you have to, well, do something, don't you? Or is that no longer the case given our modern-day fascination with celebrity-for-the-sake-of-celebrity? For reality TV stars, once a show ends, a return to obscurity often follows — the Lauren Conrad trajectory is not a typical one. But Viall, who has seemingly rebounded from his rough night and is animated in conversation over lunch, plays coy when I ask him what kind of entertainment "projects" he would be interested in. Acting? Appearing on another reality show? Being a full-time model? He's unsure, but he seems content to explore these opportunities until they are no longer available to him — though, he does seem pretty at peace with the idea of his stint in Hollywood being short-lived.
"Unless I do something else, I will inevitably fade into obscurity. I assume that's what will happen," he says. "I'm very comfortable with eventually going back and selling software and looking back at this experience as just that, an experience, that I feel very fortunate to have done. And if nothing else, it will have been a very exciting part of my life." For its part, SalesForce has been very supportive, Viall says, but taking the leave has not been without its risks. He says he's no longer protected by labor laws, and that SalesForce has the right to not bring him back if he decides he wants to return.
Either way, that potential future of obscurity certainly hasn't arrived yet, and I'm getting an interesting window into what daily life is now like for Viall, who's no longer a reality TV star, but still some sort of celebrity nonetheless. In addition to the whispers at the fashion show, an older woman shouted a hello to him while we were crossing the street earlier (he smiled and waved), and later a polite man would ask if he could take a photo of Nick with his wife. Then, two southern ladies wanted a photo too — he obliged and gathered them in for a cozy group pic.
"It's something you never really get used to," he says of the recognition. "It can be flattering at times. I know what I signed up for and I want to be gracious, though at times it's not ideal — picking your nose in public, fixing your wedgie. You realize that, without you knowing, people might take a picture of you and post it on the Internet. That's an uncomfortable feeling."
Viall was notorious for being a "villain" on the show so it's a little surprising to see such a warm reception from every Bachelorette fan we encounter — though I never really understood why he got that reputation in the first place. He received the coveted "first impression rose" on Andi's season and came in late on Kaitlyn's season, both moves that tend to put a target on a contestant's back, and then he proceeded to break some of the show's unwritten rules — you must make friends with all the other contestants in the house; you can't be too sarcastic or verbose or else people find you pretentious; when you're safe for the week, you have to hang back and let all the other guys flirt with the girl you like.
His biggest offense was saying to Andi, when they saw each other on After The Final Rose after she'd chosen contestant Josh Murray in the Season 10 finale, “Knowing how in love with you I was, if you weren't in love with me, I'm just not sure why you made love with me." What savvy viewers called slut-shaming, Nick refers to as "an emotionally charged moment." All this added up to him filling the role of The Asshole, one that The Bachelorette producers seem to feel the need to shoehorn someone into each season.
"Everything you saw was me. It was facets of me. It may be embellished or dramatized, but I've been cocky before, I've been a jerk before in my life, I've been competitive," he says of his onscreen persona. "Is that who I am as a person? No."
So, who is Nick Viall? Which parts of his onscreen portrayal were fair and which were embellished? And which parts of his personality were left on the cutting room floor? Viall's longtime friend and coworker Dustin Kolo has some thoughts.
"Seeing and hearing a good friend on TV is a new experience in and of itself, but seeing them lay out all of their emotions in front of millions of people is intense," Kolo says. "It's a side of a friend that you rarely get to see. Most of the time when you are hanging out with a bunch of guys, everyone is pretty macho, so I give him a lot of credit for being completely in the moment and so himself. Nick definitely has a romantic side, and he was not afraid to show it."
In person, Viall seems friendly, smart, and articulate — qualities that don't necessarily come through on a show where contestant soundbites are kept short and are generally reserved for forced analogies about how, say, rappelling off the side of a building is a lot like falling in love. He doesn't shy away from difficult conversation (we end up discussing the merits and pitfalls of both the feminist movement and organized religion). He says he likes strong women, and backs it up when discussing his dating behavior. Is he cocky? Yea, a little bit, but it seems tempered by a relatable touch of insecurity borne out of being thrust suddenly into the spotlight. Frankly, the "asshole" label doesn't quite fit.
Of course, it seems that the fury his persona has sparked online fades a bit when viewers come face-to-face with the guy they claim to hate. "The same thing happens all the time," he says of his encounters with Bachelorette fans like the ones we've met today. "They look at me with this curiosity, they ask, 'Are you really a jerk in real life?' And then they'll be like, 'Oh, you seem really nice.' And then they want a picture like everyone else, and then they want to take me home. It's all the same.”
A browse through the comments on his Instagram confirms that, indeed, lots of women want to take him home — they leave their phone numbers, send him direct messages, get into breathless discussions about his body (no wonder he let those pecs breathe at the fashion show). He seems pretty spoiled for choice, and I have to wonder if this guy who publicly went on national television "looking for love" is still interested in being tied down. Amid all this attention, does he really want a girlfriend?
"I don't actively not want to have a girlfriend," Nick hedges. "I don't want a girlfriend just so I have someone to have lazy Sundays with and 'Netflix and chill' with. But I really look forward to meeting that person who I want to do that with."
Kolo has some thoughts on the type of woman Viall should end up with. "I see Nick ending up with a girl who is fun, easy going, and able to get along with anyone they are with," he says. "Someone that values friends and family and is excited to be part of such a cool family. He needs to be with someone that challenges him, but in a positive way."
And is there any chance that person could be one of the admirers who are contacting him via social media to pledge their love? Viall seems turned off at the prospect of dating someone who would call themselves a fan because, as he has maintained, he's just a normal guy. A normal guy who has his photo taken at fashion week, that is.
"Sometimes I almost get uncomfortable with in any way being treated like a celebrity. It's like — you realize I'm just a f*cking guy on reality TV, right?" he says. "Like today for example, would it have been cool if they put me in the front row? Sure. They didn't, and I don't care."
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Images: Kenny Suleimanagich for Bustle