Moments after Bachelor Matt James offered contestant Rachael Kirkconnell the final rose on the season 25 finale, which debuted on Monday, March 15, the handsome hunk revealed the reality star couple is no longer together during the After The Final Rose special.
Before announcing their split, James praised his ex-girlfriend's "authenticity" and said their relationship immediately after the show was "like an extended honeymoon." However, once racially charged photos of Kirkconnell resurfaced online in January, their relationship began to crumble.
The controversy began when a TikTok user accused James' frontrunner contestant of previously bullying her for dating a Black man. Then, another social media user accused her of "liking" a photo that contained a confederate flag. Adding fuel to the fire, a photo of Kirkconnell attending an Old South plantation-themed party when she was in college in 2018 resurfaced.
While talking to Emmanuel Acho — who took over as host of the After The Final Rose special after Chris Harrison temporarily stepped down amid the racism scandal — about the allegations surrounding his then-girlfriend, James explained: "You wanna believe that you know your person better than anybody else knows your person, and while all this controversy's swirling around, who Rachael is, things that she might have attended, and pictures that she liked and people that she's associated with."
James said that before Kirkconnell "addressed anything or Chris Harrison spoke on anything," he was just "trying to be there for her" and "dismissed" the accusations as "rumors," because that's what they were to him at the time.
"You hear things that are heartbreaking, and you just pray they're not true," he candidly added. "And then, when you find out that they are it just makes you question everything."
For James, Kirkconnell's actions took him "to a place that I often try not to think about," as someone who grew up in the south, where there are "events, people, places that I'm not welcome."
In light of her photos resurfacing, Kirkconnell released a statement and asked people to stop defending her because she knows what she did was "wrong," and she deserves to be "held accountable for my actions." She added that she is "learning and will continue to learn how to be antiracist."
"When she spoke out and publicly acknowledged that she would do better and she apologized is when I was finally able to take check on myself and see where I was at, and I wasn't OK," James said of her apology. "It was in that moment and the conversation that I had that [I realized that] Rachael might not understand what it means to be Black in America."
James then told Acho that he and Kirkconnell are no longer together.
"As Rachael acknowledged in her apology, there's a lot of work that needs to be done," James said, adding that he had to "take a step back and allow her to put in that work, and I'm looking forward to seeing her put in that work."
While admitting that the breakup conversation was "tough" and "heartbreaking," he explained why the fact that the pictures took place years prior didn't assuage his feelings about the situation.
"If you don't understand that something like that is problematic in 2018, there's a lot of me that you won't understand. It's as simple as that," he said to Acho on the Monday, March 15, evening special.
James acknowledged that his feelings for Kirkconnell didn't go away overnight but said he still needed to end things. "You can still really care about somebody and want them to do better," he shared. "There's a lot of processing that I have to do, and it's just not a situation that I think that I would help. [That's] why I stepped back and let her do the work that she's committed to doing."
After James and Acho's one-on-one talk, Kirkconnell took the hot seat while James gave her and Acho a chance to speak alone. She first admitted that she was "living in this ignorance" and didn't think once about who her actions could be hurting when those photos took place.
Kirkconnell then confessed she was "very confused" when James called her to address the controversial snaps.
While recalling their breakup, Kirkconnell explained: "I was very blindsided," however, "once that initial reaction went away, I thought about how strong I thought our relationship was. So for him to end things, he must have been very, very hurt by everything."
"It was hard, because I lost the love of my life, but in the process of that, I hurt him while doing so," Kirkconnell told Acho.
Despite how their relationship ended, Kirkconnell said she loves James and "always will." "I do feel like I finally do know what real love feels like," she confessed.
Finally, James and Kirkconnell reunited to have a very intense face-to-face conversation about the racially charged photos and their past relationship.
After taking a moment to say "I'm really sorry" to James, Kirkconnell explained, "once I really tried to put myself into your shoes as much as I could I realized that that must have been really hard for you. You must have been hurting."
"I'm really sorry for not understanding that initially," she told her ex. "I'm really sorry that I hurt you."
As James struggled to gather his thoughts, he simply called the situation really "heartbreaking," "devastating" and "disappointing." He emotionally told Kirkconnell that the "most difficult thing" for him was having to "explain to you why what I saw was problematic and why I was so upset... because when I'm in a relationship, it means that I'm committed to that person."
He shared that "commitment" to him, when he's dating someone, means being on the "track to get married." However, when he "questioned" their relationship, "it was in the context of you not fully understanding my Blackness, and what it means to be a Black man in America, and what it would mean for our kids when I saw those things that were floating around the internet."
The Bachelor said it "broke [his] heart" that he had to have that conversation with Kirkconnell.
"I didn't sign up to have this conversation. And I knew that I had to take a step back for you to put in that work that you outlined that you needed to do," he told the brunette beauty. "That's something that you gotta do on your own, and that's why we can't be in a relationship."
And while Kirkconnell said she only did the show for him, adding that she's "never experienced a love like this," and doesn't "see anyone else out there for me," getting back together was out of the question for James.
"The feelings that I have for you don't go away overnight, and seeing you like this hurts," he admitted, before adding: "but... I don't wanna be emotionally responsible for those tears, 'cause the work and the reconciliation that needs to be done is work that I can't do for you."
While trying to hold herself together, Kirkconnell tearfully told James: "all I want is for you to be happy."
"I just want what's best for you. I am sorry. I just thank God for ever putting you in my life to begin with," she concluded. "I'll always be thankful for everything that we shared and the time that we did have together."
As OK! previously reported, the scandal surrounding the Bachelor Franchise worsened after Chris Harrison failed to denounce Kirkconnell and her racially charged photos during an interview with Extra co-host and former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay — the first Black lead in Bachelor history.
At the time, Harrison said Bachelor Nation should offer the 24-year-old "a little grace, a little understanding" amid the racially insensitive allegations. The long-time host also suggested that the photos of Kirkconnell from the plantation-themed party were more acceptable in 2018 as opposed to 2021 because people are now looking through a different "lens."
One day after Harrison faced backlash from his interview with Lindsay, he apologized to the former Bachelorette and the public. Days later, he apologized once more for his statements before announcing that he would temporarily be taking a step back from the Franchise.
And after Kirkconnell took to Instagram to apologize for her "offensive" and "racist" actions on February 11, James released his own statement, explaining how "devastating and heartbreaking" it has been after learning about the "incredibly disappointing photos of Rachael Kirkconnell and the interview between Rachel Lindsay and Chris Harrison."
Following the racial allegations, OK! exclusively learned that James "regrets ever doing the show and wants to cut all ties and walk away," as he is "disgusted with the whole thing."
In the meantime, Bachelor producers have reportedly been in crisis mode trying to save the show from crumbling.
"For the first ever Black Bachelor to pick a girl with a racist past is a total nightmare for the show. Behind the scenes, lots of finger-pointing is taking place," the OK! source said. "The blame game is in full effect as producers scramble from crisis meeting to crisis meeting to determine what they need to do today to save the show tomorrow."
And since stepping down as host last month, Harrison has made it very clear that he has his sight set on making a return. "I plan to be back and I want to be back," he told GMA's Michael Strahan — who is at the time of producers' list for who should take over Harrison's job — during his first interview since stepping away as host.
However, a return may not be in the cards for Harrison, as "the producers are getting clobbered with calls for Chris’ removal as host and they are weighing that option," an OK! source dished.
While the franchise cautiously monitors their next moves, OK! was the first to report that The Bachelorette has started pre-production in New Mexico with the cast and crew already quarantining and getting ready to start filming in a few weeks. As reported and confirmed during the After The Final Rose special, Katie Thurston and Michelle Young are the next two Bachelorettes.