The Most Interesting Man In Reality Television
For more than a decade, Elan Gale has put a tongue-in-cheek spin on dating shows from The Bachelor to FBoy Island. But the man behind the curtain doesn’t believe in tidy endings.
When Ashley Iaconetti walked into a room full of Bachelor producers for casting in 2014, one man sitting front and center among a dozen others stood out. It wasn’t just his “wizard look” — though his head of frizzy salt-and-pepper hair and long beard certainly helped. He also asked the most invasive questions. Why was she, a virgin, going on a dating show? “I was like, this guy is a character,” recalls Iaconetti, now 34. “He just had such a dominating presence — not like in an intimidating way, in a very approachable way. He had this presence where you just wanted to be around him.”
The man was Elan Gale, then a co-executive producer on The Bachelor. In his nine-year tenure in the franchise, he became one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in Bachelor Nation after creator Mike Fleiss. “I remember thinking he was always in charge,” says Nick Viall, the Season 21 Bachelor and a former Bachelorette contestant. Gale is widely credited with lightening up the often-rigid fairy tale factory, having played a key role in spin-offs like the tequila-soaked Bachelor in Paradise; alumni like Iaconetti also say he shaped the overall tone through over-the-top montages and irreverent editing (sometimes at her expense). Since he left the franchise in 2018, multiple threads on Bachelor Reddit have identified his departure as a turning point in the shows’ quality. “It’s just a lot of drama and less comedy,” says Viall. “Once he left, they went back to the original roots, because they didn’t have Elan speaking up.”
Today, Gale, 38, oversees his own mini-empire of dating shows, including Prime Video’s missed-connections fantasy The One That Got Away and HBO Max’s FBoy Island, in which the titular lotharios compete for women’s attention against a pool of self-described “nice guys.” (Its second season finale airs this Thursday.) In other words, he is America’s foremost expert at getting people to hook up and divulge their deepest vulnerabilities on camera.
Thanks to scheming portrayals on Unreal (a Lifetime drama about the morally bankrupt crew of a Bachelor-esque dating show) and the fact that they are never on camera (and therefore easy for disgruntled contestants to blame), reality TV producers have a reputation for manipulation: tricking people into saying or doing things they otherwise wouldn’t in the name of TV gold. In the case of The Bachelor, which sequesters contestants without their phones and with free alcohol, a producer might tell a contestant that two other contestants were talking behind her back. Or they might fly her ex to the set so he can remind her what she’s missing back home. According to a former producer, they may even plan confessional interviews around women’s periods to elicit the most emotional responses.
Yet Gale, sipping a cold brew in the backyard of his new Sherman Oaks home, describes the work of unscripted TV as simple pattern recognition. “We gather all of these little pieces of data from all of these people, all the things they say and all the things they feel, and we try to just make sense of it,” he says, while the two small dogs he shares with his fiancée, Castle actor Molly Quinn, bask at our feet in the late afternoon sun. “We try to turn it into something that’s logical and coherent.”
“I don’t ever know what’s going to happen, and the truth is, if I can imagine it, that means that it’s probably too simple.”
Iaconetti — who competed on one season of The Bachelor, two seasons of Bachelor in Paradise, and one season of the Olympics-themed The Bachelor Winter Games — became famous for her seemingly bottomless tear ducts, in no small part thanks to Gale’s work on the other side of the camera. “I probably viewed him as a friend before producer far too many times when he was in producer mode,” Iaconetti says. But while she’d occasionally call him to complain about her portrayal in certain episodes, she always felt she could trust him in the end. Today, Gale still has a spot in her phone contacts as “Father Elan.” He even officiated Iaconetti’s wedding in 2019 to Jared Haibon, a former Bachelorette contestant she relentlessly pursued on Bachelor in Paradise (and often was crying over).
“Elan has never lied to me,” Haibon says. “He just has a way about him where he’s going to tell you the truth, but he’s going to say it the way that only Elan can say it. And so in the moment you’re like, ‘Oh, OK, great, great.’ And then you walk away and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. That’s happening?’”
Gale’s charisma was so strong, in fact, that contestants sometimes transferred their romantic yearnings from the Bachelor to Gale. “I had a few friends that were like, ‘I have a problem, I have more feelings for Elan right now,’” Iaconetti recalls. “And it’s just because he was so easy and warm and comfortable to be around."
In person, Gale is a preternatural host, offering me several flavors of seltzer and Japanese snacks and making easy small talk about the upkeep of his signature beard. “He struck me immediately as someone I would’ve assumed was meant to be in front of the camera,” says horror writer-director Mike Flanagan, a close friend. Gale wears a loud geometric-patterned T-shirt, striped track pants, and neon-streaked sneakers, plus enough jewelry to short-circuit a metal detector: a long necklace, multiple earrings, and silver rings on all of his fingers (which are painted with white nail polish), including an emerald engagement ring that matches Quinn’s. He popped the question on a picturesque Japanese ski slope in 2019 after buying the ring years earlier, and his expertly paced Twitter thread about the proposal went viral. “If I were to pretend that years of watching incredibly romantic scenes didn’t absolutely influence me,” he says, “that would be a lie.”
But in reality, Gale finds being the center of attention a little uncomfortable. “I’m more used to asking other people how they feel,” he says. When I express surprise, he offers the kind of capital-V Vulnerability that’s currency in the shows he creates.
“I’m an incredibly anxiety-ridden, nervous, fearful person who spends basically every minute just trying to avoid thinking about my impending doom,” he continues. “That’s 80% of my life.” We’ve been talking for barely five minutes.
To say Elan Gale was an anxious child would be an understatement. “I would run into my parents’ room when I was 3, 4, or 5 screaming and crying about the fact that I would die one day,” he says. It wasn’t an immediate fear — he recognizes he grew up in the safety and security of Bel Air, Los Angeles, with an oncologist father and a homemaker mother. “It was the existential dread that was immediate in me.”
After spending his childhood and adolescence performing in theater and musicals, he developed an interest in screenwriting. He studied film for a semester at the University of California, Riverside; took night classes at the University of California, Los Angeles, extension; and made a documentary in his early 20s about the comedian Lenny Bruce and the First Amendment. But it wasn’t adding up to much; the only work he was getting was unsatisfying PA jobs and side gigs. “I think mundanity is the scariest thing to me because, again, death,” he says, shrugging. “I want to do as much as I can before that happens.” (For years, he struggled with alcoholism — “I always just wanted more everything,” he told NPR in 2017 — and is now eight years sober, a journey he details in You’re Not That Great: (But Neither Is Anyone Else), his twist on a self-help book.)
A chance connection to Coolio (yes, that Coolio), who wanted to write a horror film, changed his career path. When meetings with the rapper were proving fruitless — Coolio preferred making food to writing — Gale suggested pivoting into the kitchen with a reality show, and the two created the 2008 web series Cookin’ With Coolio. Soon after, Oxygen bought another show from Coolio — Coolio’s Rules, about starting a catering company — and brought Gale in as a consulting producer. “I just fell back-asswards into all of it and loved it,” he says.
Gale liked making reality TV for the sense of order it provided. “Do you ever go to a bookstore and get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things that you’ll never ingest? That’s how I feel about everything,” he says. But with TV, “you occupy this one very small world very directly and very deeply for a very short period of time. It’s not sustainable year-round, but you enter into an experience with people, and that experience is generally more shared than the world because it’s controlled, it has boundaries, it has borders, no one leaves.”
“Nothing is scarier,” he adds, than the day after filming wraps. “I’ve just gotten to the point where I might have figured out what today is going to bring, and then it’s like, fuck you — chaos! Chaos reigns again.” This may sound like a deep way to talk about the process of making FBoy Island, which mostly involves watching wasted bros attempt to pick up women. But the ridiculous and the profound go hand in hand, Gale says. “To me, life is a comedy because it’s unbearable any other way. It’s just too hard to be alive unless it’s funny. So when it’s a show that I’m in charge of, it’s a comedy.”
FBoy Island co-executive producer Bill Dixon remembers trying to pry Gale away from late-night conversations with contestants so everyone could go to bed. “He’s asking about philosophy stuff: ‘Why are we here? Isn’t this a miracle?’ He’s just talking to people for an hour, after we’ve worked 16 hours, about their dad’s business or their relationships with their mothers. And a lot of guys sitting around, who are also profoundly exhausted, they cannot get enough of it,” Dixon says. “It has nothing to do with anything that has to do with the TV show. We’ll never ask about it in an interview. It’ll never materialize in a TV show. It’s just this vigorous interest in human beings. I think that’s the secret sauce.”
Though some of The Bachelor’s biggest scandals — its recent racial reckoning and subsequent exit of longtime host Chris Harrison — happened after Gale’s departure, his tenure wasn’t without its controversies. Season 4 of Bachelor in Paradise in 2017 was marred by sexual misconduct allegations, though filming resumed after an internal investigation cleared everyone involved; a racially charged feud between a white and Black contestant on the first Black Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay’s season drew criticism from fans (and later, from Lindsay herself) for luridly playing into racist stereotypes. When I ask if he has any regrets, Gale pauses to think for what feels like an interminable 14 seconds — the kind of silence most people would be tempted to fill.
“I’ll put it this way: I think it’s fair,” he says of the criticism. He sweeps his fingers through his beard as he carefully chooses his words. “I don’t think it’s possible to ever get everything right. I always tried my best, but it doesn’t mean it was good enough. I think there are limitations to how well anyone can handle the wide variety of human emotions that are valid and real. I look at every moment in my entire life as hopefully having tried to do my best, but knowing that I’ll never get it right.”
Other than that, if Gale has thoughts on the current state of Bachelor Nation, he’s keeping them to himself. “I know that sounds like a cop out, but I don’t really watch it [anymore],” he says. “It was such a big part of my life that to engage with it as a tertiary thing feels wrong, and to engage with it fully feels like I couldn’t commit to the rest of my life. I don’t know what’s going on over there. I know that I love a lot of the people [who work there]. Not all, but a lot. That’s life.”
Leaving the Bachelor world behind in 2018 — giving up the safety and predictability of a familiar workplace — terrified Gale. “That show is a juggernaut. It’s scary to leave something that will probably be permanent, you know what I mean?” he says. “That kind of job security rarely exists.”
But Gale was ready for something new, including another genre. His friendship with The Haunting of Hill House creator Flanagan, which started years earlier via Twitter — Gale tweeted about being a fan of Flanagan’s movie Hush, and Flanagan and his wife were fans of The Bachelor — opened doors. The two had bonded over a shared love of film, and horror in particular. (Flanagan even gave Gale a memorable cameo in The Haunting of Hill House in 2018, just for fun.) So when Gale sent Flanagan a script he’d written for a low-budget horror feature, Flanagan had an idea.
“I was very pleasantly surprised to find it was really well-written,” Flanagan remembers. “Yet another surprise that Elan has up his sleeve. It’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a very good writer.’” He staffed him in the writers room for his 2021 Netflix horror series Midnight Mass and again on his upcoming Netflix series The Midnight Club, out Oct. 7.
“At the heart of it, he is a storyteller,” Flanagan says. “He has an innate understanding of people. He knows how and why they behave the way they behave. That carries over really well because part of his job in both situations is to figure out what feels like a realistic and satisfying arc for a person to undergo in the story.”
Producing isn’t about being a puppet master, according to Gale. It’s a quest for understanding. That doesn’t mean he’s never plotted ahead — Viall says more than once that Gale was “playing chess while other people were playing checkers” — but he knows the more you try to control the outcome of a situation, the more unnatural it feels.
“I really try to let whatever’s happening lead, and then try to make sense of it afterwards,” he says. “Because I don’t ever know what’s going to happen, and the truth is, if I can imagine it, that means that it’s probably too simple. It means that I’m reducing people conceptually into cause and effect.” You can’t fight the chaos — you have to embrace it. “People are much more interesting than we think they are. And so rather than containing them, I think our job is to allow them to be the exploding supernovas they are.”
When Gale meets new contestants on his reality shows, he always tells them the same thing: “It’s going to be really good and really bad.” You’ve seen these shows, he’ll tell them. You know what you signed up for. “I really mean it when I say, ‘If you engage fully with the experience, you will have some of the most wonderful experiences of your life, and you will also have some terrible experiences, and you’ll have happy days, and you’ll have sad days,’” he’ll tell them. “It’s just like life; it’s condensed, and it’s compressed, and it’s heightened. But life isn’t good or bad, or happy or sad, it’s a whole clusterfuck of everything.”
He’s looking me straight in the eyes. “I always promise people an interesting experience. It will be very, very, very interesting.”
Photographer: Jeff Minton