Reality TV

Messica No More

Jessica Batten’s chaotic turn on Love Is Blind’s first season was followed by vindication and an engagement. But her happily ever after was hard-won.

Tracy Nguyen

The ring is a honker.

As we talk, Jessica Batten’s engagement ring periodically catches the sunlight streaming through the windows of the beachside Los Angeles house she’s staying in, creating a bright cartoon glint. “Show me the ring,” I interject.

Batten, 37, gamely holds her knuckle up to the camera on her iPhone so that the diamond’s glittering face fills my whole Zoom screen. With the finesse of one who has been asked to show off her ring quite often, she then reorients her hand horizontally, so I can appreciate the height of the stone.

The ring-showing-off ritual is always laced with triumph, whether intended or just perceived, but for Batten that triumph may be magnified. The nation met her during the first season of Love Is Blind, a dating show from Netflix and Kinetic Content that introduced participants to each other blindly, in “pods.” If cast members agreed to get engaged to someone they’d never seen before, they moved on to a resort in Mexico to get to know each other face-to-face; if not, they went home. The suspense lay in who would say “I do” at the end of the season.

Batten had assumed her role in the cast would be “the career girl,” the babe in her 30s who had been successful in her work but unlucky in love. Instead, her least flattering moments became the loci of the show: Batten, visibly inebriated, flirting with her “ex” Matt Barnett, then hanging off her fiancé Mark Cuevas; Batten letting her golden retriever drink from her wine glass; Batten dumping Cuevas at the altar. A character emerged, soon to be dubbed “Jessica the Messica” by a castmate.

On the Sunday morning we meet, Batten seems mellow. She wears a gray hooded sweatshirt and holds a mug the entire time we talk. She has said she has significant social anxiety, but in conversation she is funny and unguarded, like someone you’d bond with while waiting in line for a bar bathroom, and whom you might actually follow up with after you tipsily exchange numbers.

Batten believes she was dealt a “bad edit,” but that doesn’t fully explain the biblical online pile-on that grew as audiences discovered the show. While even the most earnest reality TV viewers generally approach a show’s “villain” with some suspension of disbelief and awareness that the person before them has been curated for the purpose of a narrative, the responses to Batten were often remarkably unironic and personal. Audiences love to hate a wildcard, and what is a single woman in her 30s if not the ultimate wildcard?

Viewers criticized her behavior, her drinking, and even her voice. (Batten has long been aware that she slips into a babyish register in certain situations, such as when she is excited or speaking to men. It is, she says, “not anything I thought would ever be a thing.”)

And it felt like everyone, even those who didn’t typically enjoy reality TV, was watching the show. In April 2020, Netflix estimated that 30 million households watched Love Is Blind in its first four weeks. The release of the first season (the second kicked off Feb. 11) also coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Americans were suddenly umbilically tethered to their televisions and social media as proxies of entertainment and socializing.

Even while filming in 2018, long before Love Is Blind was acquired by Netflix, Batten had a feeling that her portrayal on the show wasn’t going to do her any favors. The experience of watching early cuts of episodes four through six of the show before filming a reunion episode was so painful that she turned it off and told producers they’d have to summarize the rest for her. “I was just kind of hoping and betting that the show wouldn’t get picked up,” she says. But after two years of anxious waiting, Netflix began serving Love Is Blind to distraction-starved viewers across the nation. Ugh.

But now, the ring! The ring selection was an assist by a close friend, Batten explains — a friend who also initially flagged her now-fiancé, dreamy foot doctor Benjamin McGrath, in the slew of Instagram DMs she received from men in the wake of her debut on Love Is Blind. Many of the men, Batten says, were professional athletes with opening lines in the u up? genre. Then came McGrath: “He said, ‘I think you’re gorgeous and genuine and I just want you to know that.’” Bless you, Dr. Ben. Bless all the Dr. Bens!

The pal who pulled McGrath from the horny floodwaters of Batten’s inbox began corresponding with him on behalf of Batten, who was now living in Los Angeles. One night Batten texted McGrath, who lived in Temecula, California, asking him to join her on a night out with friends. “We actually kissed that night, after meeting for like an hour,” she recalls. The next day she joined McGrath and his friends for a 15-mile bike ride.

“As great as our relationship is, it was really myself that got me through. The happy ending was just that I was still standing.”

McGrath was upfront with Batten about the possible complications of his life: that he lived an hour-and-a-half from Los Angeles, for instance, and that he already had two kids. She took issue with neither. Besides, when Los Angeles locked down soon after they met, the drive from Temecula became much faster with no cars on the road. McGrath swept up to Los Angeles every weekend, and in between visits they would FaceTime and watch Suits in tandem.

“It was a different thing, going through that experience together, which a lot of couples had through COVID. It expedited the seriousness of the relationship,” Batten says. In September 2021, a year-and-a-half after they met, McGrath proposed.

Batten’s “edit” had shifted. People magazine went all out, publishing exclusive photos and a blow-by-blow of the proposal. Batten’s Instagram overflowed with congratulations. Hers was the apex Jane Austen happy ending: Once a pandemic punchline, Jessica the Messica had found love. And with a doctor — a very tall doctor — no less. America loves a good marriage plot even more than we love to hate a good wildcard.

But Batten bristles at the narrative that her engagement to McGrath somehow “fixed” her.

“As great as our relationship is, it was really myself that got me through,” she says. “The happy ending was just that I was still standing. That’s a message that I want to send out to every — not just woman — but to every person who doesn’t feel that they fit into societal norms of getting into your 30s, got to get married, got to have kids. Being able to make adverse decisions that are maybe unpopular, then getting through it to live another day.”

Getting through it was a process. Batten is very composed throughout our conversation — even seeming vaguely corporate early on — but when she describes the period after the show aired she begins to cry. She starts to say how Love Is Blind didn’t “break her spirit, nothing like that,” then aborts. “I was broken down for sure,” she says. But, she continues, the experience also solidified her faith and reminded her that she had wonderful people around her.

She got “a really good attorney and a good PR person.” Netflix provided her with counseling, and she still meets with a therapist weekly. A glam phalanx of reality TV alumni reached out: Christine Quinn of Selling Sunset; Kaitlyn Bristowe and Olivia Caridi of The Bachelor; Tori Spelling; Batten’s Love Is Blind castmates Kelly Chase and Giannina Gibelli.

And her friends rallied around her. Ashley Thompson, an Emmy award-winning journalist in Atlanta with whom Batten just launched a podcast, The Unsettled Podcast, says she tried hard to downplay the situation for her friend. (She also tells me, a little sheepishly, that she was the one who passed along the casting call for Love Is Blind to Batten.)

“I feel like she was doing the best she could with the situation at hand. She was cut off from the world, experiencing this whole new semi-crazy thing — and you have no cellphone for a while,” Thompson says. “I just felt like it wasn’t that bad. I always thought, and even to this day think, ‘You didn’t, like, kill somebody. What’s the big deal? You didn’t like this guy?’”

Batten has also started to let herself off the hook. She explains that while some of her castmates who had watched a lot of reality TV knew how to get through the experience unscathed (she later clarifies that she was referring specifically to Cuevas), she “jumped in and took everybody on as mentors.” She abandoned the drink limit she had agreed on with her friends before appearing on the show, and at some point she simply stopped caring that the cameras were on her.

Her co-contestant Kenny Barnes, whose portrayal on the show was a solid “neutral-good,” acknowledges that the psychological impact of filming for weeks on end took a toll on everyone. “I was doing my best just to stick to my guns: I know what you guys are trying to get out of me, and I don’t know how this is going to spin, or how it’s going to impact me, but at least if I stay consistent, and basically stay true to what’s going on… That’s the only control I had,” Barnes says. In the last five days of filming, though, he and his onscreen match Kelly Chase did find themselves at odds, having received mixed messages from producers. “And a lot of that was just the strain, emotional and physical, of filming 40 days straight,” he says, “and getting hounded, and broken down.”

I ask Batten about the difficulty of balancing the implicit mandate to entertain, the explicit mandate to find love, and a desire to enjoy the experience. “Let’s really peel back the onion on this,” she says, suddenly animated. “I hadn’t taken a two-week vacation… ever,” she says. She worked, and still works, in tech sales. (Her company has been very supportive of her turn on reality TV, even mentioning it to prospective job candidates; the company’s CFO was on Millionaire Matchmaker years ago, Batten adds.) When she realized in Mexico that she and Cuevas were not a match, she initially wanted to quit the show, but decided to see it through. “I did just kind of want to let loose and have fun with it… I think that’s when you see the best me come through, in the original series.”

She does have regrets. Some scenes made her introspective about the alcoholism that runs in her family, she says, and she wishes she hadn’t told the story of her dad adopting her as a baby. “I don’t know why I shared that. A lot of people in my life didn’t even really know that. And it’s not even something I thought about very often — I didn’t have cognition before my dad. That, coming to light alongside the Jessica character, was tough.” She has since worked to separate that onscreen character, whom she and her therapist have dubbed “Hollywood Jessica,” from her real-life identity. She tries not to think about the former too often.

When Netflix’s “After the Altar” follow-up to Love Is Blind premiered this past July, a sea change occurred. Cuevas did not join the rest of the cast for the special, and in that round, Batten got the good edit. In subsequent interviews she presented an alternative storyline to her callous altar-dumping of Cuevas. She described how she and Cuevas had agreed to break up during their scheduled nuptials, but at the altar, Cuevas said yes, leaving Batten to look like the villain for saying no while he appeared surprised and heartbroken.

When I ask Batten whether she trusts the outpouring of support that followed “After the Altar” and her engagement, I expect her to express some bitterness over the flip-flop. “Um, I mean, it’s amazing,” she says. “People have come through who have been supportive since the beginning, and people who have changed their opinion... It’s made it all worth it.”

She still has her detractors. When she released the trailer for The Unsettled Podcast, she says, “there were already some comments that were coming up, and it brought some things up inside of me that didn’t feel good, and it really scared me.”

On the podcast, which debuted on Feb. 11, the women will discuss Love Is Blind, among other subjects: The tagline reads, in part, “candid conversations from the Love Is Blind star you love, or love to hate.” Batten says she hopes the podcast, which includes a hotline, will help and give a voice to others who have been in her position. Already, she points out, with the dawn of Love Is Blind’s next installment, fans are speculating about who will be “the Jessica of this season.”

On the surface, Batten’s experience looks singular: Unenthused by online dating, she made the unique choice to appear on a dating show for singles in Atlanta, which in a surprising turn of events was then viewed by 30 million households. But there are a lot of variations on reality TV’s “bad edit.” The parable of Jessica the Messica is on the shelf next to the parables of Couch Guy, West Elm Caleb, and every other accidental public figure.

There will always be another Jessica. But this Jessica is doing just fine.

Photography by Tracy Nguyen