May 20, 2024

“Did you see Gabby?” asks Colton Underwood. “I knew I wasn’t the only one!”

Sitting on a deep couch sipping coffee and kombucha in the Los Angeles home he shares with his husband of four months and their dogs, Underwood is talking about Gabby Windey, a former star of “The Bachelorette.” On the day of this conversation in August, Windey had just come out on social media, revealing that she is dating a woman.

It was two years ago that Underwood, a former pro football player, made history as the first star of “The Bachelor” to come out as gay. His secret was first met with praise, sparking conversations about the need to modernize heteronormative standards in reality TV and in sports. But then, Underwood’s coming-out was scrutinized and met with intense controversy, as the media and fans picked apart his past.

Why would he like and date 30 women on a national TV show, if he was attracted to men? Was he using his coming-out to excuse his behavior towards his ex-girlfriend from the show, who filed a restraining order against him? And was he exploiting his own sexuality – and the larger LGBTQ+ community – to cash in with his own Netflix show that chronicled his coming-out journey?

Since Underwood’s Netflix show, “Coming Out Colton,” debuted to polarizing reception, the reality star and athlete has been laying low – well, relatively low for someone with two million Instagram followers. But the past handful of years have been a wild ride: From starring on “The Bachelor” in 2019 to marrying his first public boyfriend, Jordan C. Brown, earlier this year in Napa, Underwood has been on a rollercoaster journey, all playing out for the world to see.

But now, Underwood is hoping to make an impact behind the scenes.

“I fell into ‘The Bachelor’ franchise and I enjoyed it. Being famous was fun. Obviously, I was going through my own personal journey and it took me a while to get my footing. I slipped in front of America, and I made mistakes,” Underwood tells Variety. “After coming out, personally, my life was back on track, but the media and the public didn’t react well to how I handled my coming out. It was a little discouraging after coming out and finally finding peace in my life to still have this weirdness in my career. After football and TV fame, I didn’t really know what my lane was professionally.”

Now, along with his husband, Underwood has launched his own production company, called As Best Friends Productions, which currently has three projects in active development: one feature documentary and two unscripted projects.

In all of his projects, Underwood hopes to target issues that spark conversation among diverging viewers. He believes that growing up in a Republican family in Indiana, he can push through to middle America and help educate people who have not been exposed to the severity of issues facing the LGBTQ+ community.

“I feel like that’s now my responsibility because I do have a lot of conservative fans. I do have a conservative family. I did grow up in middle America and I think I have their attention,” Underwood says. “And while I have their attention, I want to use my voice and use my platform for good.”

Underwood’s husband is a democratic strategist and has worked in politics his entire life. “He also married into a conservative family,” Underwood says. “And that inspires a lot of the work we are doing together.”

At their production company, Underwood and Brown’s mantra will be to create meaningful content that creates conversations.

“We have a lot in common. We also have our differences. But the way that we approach our differences and approach our conversations is in a really healthy way that needs to be showcased more,” Underwood says. “We won’t take a hostile approach. If anything, it’s a diffusing approach. I want people to watch what I put out and be able to have an in-depth discussion. Maybe they don’t think the same way – and that’s good.”

Underwood and Brown were married this past May in Napa.
Olivia Rae James

Earlier this year, Underwood stepped behind the camera for his first scripted project where he served as an executive producer: the short film, “Scraps,” a coming-of-age gay romance directed by Ryan Nording set in rural 2003 Montana where two closeted teen boys navigate skateboarding, the judgement of their small town and a summer of unexpected young love.

“He’s a 24-year-old queer kid from Montana. He is talking about his queer experience in a small town in Montana. That’s the type of person who needs to be making content in Hollywood right now,” Underwood says of Nording, proudly smiling as he speaks about his newfound role being a mentor of sorts, or at the very least, utilizing his platform to help bring more eyeballs to projects from unknown, queer creatives. After reading the script for “Scraps,” Underwood scheduled a lunch with the young filmmaker. “The film really struck a nerve with me,” Underwood says. “I was like, ‘I need this to get made. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I’m going to be a part of it. This is exactly what I want to be doing. I basically said, ‘I’m in. Tell me where you need me.’”

Underwood was on the film’s set this past summer in Livingston, Montana. In his role as executive producer, he helped with a multitude of jobs from financing to casting to talent relations. Nording and the team behind “Scraps” are currently looking for additional funding and are submitting the film, in hopes of taking it out on the festival circuit.

Underwood on the set of the short film, “Scraps,” in Livingston, Montana.
Kyle Niego

Drawn to the subject matter, Underwood produced “Scraps” as an independent producer. But going forward, he plans to produce every project through his new company, As Best Friends Productions. And all of those projects, Underwood says, will aim to make a difference in communities in need that hit close to home – particularly the LGBTQ+ community and the athletic community.

One project that Underwood and Brown are currently shopping around is a documentary centering around college athletes and mental health. The subject matter is personal to Underwood, who played football at Illinois State and was then signed by the San Diego Chargers in the NFL out of college.

Underwood’s notoriety came mostly from reality TV, and not during his football days, but he understands the pressures college athletes face when they become stars on campus, or even global superstars. He also understands the ups and downs of overnight fame. In 2021, the N.C.A.A. agreed via the NIL policy (Name, Image, Likeness) that college athletes could earn money off their fame for the first time, allowing them to secure endorsement deals, sell autographs and profit off of their social media.

“You now have 18-year-olds making millions of dollars after becoming famous overnight, and I know from experience the mental toll that can take on somebody,” Underwood says. “That’s where we are coming in and saying the government needs to step in. We need help here. These athletes are not commodities.”

Through his Colton Underwood Legacy Foundation, which he launched in 2015, Underwood has supporting the TEAMS Act, a measure that stands for Targeting Emotional Mental Stability, which is being lead by U.S. senators John Boozman (R-AR) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) in an effort to enhance suicide prevention and increase mental health services among college athletes. 

For much of the past year, Underwood and his husband, who is a democratic political strategist, have been visiting D.C. to meet with members of Congress. The legislation that could be passed under the TEAMS Act would expand access to a federal grant that would provide funding for mental health care services, peer-to-peer counseling, training and 24/7 crisis lines. The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Roger Wicker (R-MS), and is endorsed by the NCAA, SEC and more prominent organizations.

Underwood’s work in D.C. has been documented by a camera crew, Variety can reveal.

“We’ve had cameras up the entire time, and we’ve been working with a handful of athletes and universities. It’s going to be an incredibly powerful story,” Underwood says.

“This is a massive problem, and it’s only going to get bigger,” he adds “You have kids signing away percentages of their life earnings at a young age, not knowing what they’re getting into, you have people capitalizing on their fame, and on their fortune. They don’t have the right people looking out for them right now, and we’re basically saying the university needs to be those people – if you are going to be selling tickets and selling jerseys with their number and name on it, you need to be the one helping them with their treatments.”

Indeed, in 2022, a NCAA survey found that student athletes continue to report elevated levels of mental health concerns including mental exhaustion, anxiety and depression, but that less than half of student athletes feel comfortable seeking support from professionals on campus.

Underwood in D.C. with college athletes, Sarah Fuller and Cailin Bracken
Justin Nanfelt

Underwood says that his entry into the limelight – albeit during “The Bachelor” – gives him a birds-eye view into what college athletes are experiencing.

“I think, from an outsider looking in, a lot of people thought that I had my shit together. But I was struggling more than anybody could have ever imagined. A lot of athletes are good at putting the shell on and saying I’m fine. But they are not,” he says. “In my own life, I was going through a mental breakdown, and battling a pill problem with my anti-anxiety medicine. People don’t really realize what people are going through.”

He adds, “I didn’t ask for help until it was too late, during my coming out phase and during my own mental health breakdowns. But now, I feel like I can help lead the charge. These athletes want their voices to be heard, and I want to lift their voices up. I have the ability to get a project off the ground in Hollywood, and I feel like that’s my responsibility.”

In addition to serving as executive producer on the documentary, Underwood will also be the on-camera host.

When his Netflix reality show came out, Underwood had pure intentions to lift underserved voices from the LGBTQ+ community. But backlash ensued with criticism that Underwood, a cisgender white man, was taking a platform away from others in his community. Underwood says that while he has no regrets, he has learned. He pulls out a letter on his kitchen counter that he received from a young woman in Kansas who wrote that by sharing his story on Netflix, he saved her life.

When asked about appearing on-camera in the political documentary, rather than staying behind the scenes, Underwood explains, “Since my foundation is taking the lead on the bill, I just felt it was important that I confidently stand in front of the cameras, as I demand from the senators and from our government that there needs to be a change.”

Aside from the treatment of college athletes, Underwood is passionate about the issues facing the LGBTQ+ community and continues to educate himself, which may inspire another project down the line.

“Rights are being stripped away from LGBTQ+ community,” he says. “I’m working to build a family with Jordan, and it’s still legal in 13 states to discriminate against same sex couples that want to have kids and adopt. Our trans community is under attack right now. Openly in government, they are coming for gay marriage next. That is all very real and it’s scary.”

Colton Underwood starred on ABC’s “The Bachelor” in 2019
ABC

Not every project coming from his production company will be so serious. Underwood reveals he’s also developing a reality dating show.

“It’s still of interest of me to do one, and weirdly, it would be a full circle moment for me,” Underwood says of the dating show he is developing. “I felt like when I was on ‘The Bachelor,’ I could have helped innovate that show. They’ve been there doing that same machine, and they know what they’re doing. But while I was struggling with my own internal battles, I was still very creative, and I could have helped with the format and changed things up a little bit for them. And I’m going to do that in this show.”

Underwood won’t reveal much about the dating show he’s developing, but he says it’s not a gay dating show. What he is happy to discuss at length is the impact he hopes to make behind the scenes.

If the dating show he is development gets off the ground, he says he will ensure that the cast receives funding for therapy for a year after it airs, even if he has to foot the bill himself. Underwood says that after starring on “The Bachelor” franchise, the immense attention he received after the dating show led to him abusing pills. “I started taking my Xanax more aggressively,” he says. “I don’t want to blame them. But that was my starting point.”

Underwood makes clear that he doesn’t want to harp on “The Bachelor” franchise – which he regrets doing for so many years.

“When you know better, you do better. And now that I’m in a position of creating shows and producing shows, I need to take that role on. I feel like I want to turn this into a positive,” he says. “As hard as I’ve been on the franchise, and as many shots as I’ve taken over my years, I was I was in my mid-20s. I said dumb shit. I reacted.”

Speaking of his husband, he continues, “That’s why Jordan is good for me. He slows me down. I took a very heated approach in my words and in my reactions to that franchise. I’m still very grateful for them. They sparked a career for me and an interest that I never knew I had. I’ll always be thankful and grateful. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t hold them accountable. And now that I’m in a place in my career where I’m I have resources, I feel like I can do it and that’s what I’m that’s what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m not trying to take anybody down. I think what they’re doing and innovating with ‘The Golden Bachelor’ is incredible. It’s new and fresh.”

For obvious reasons, Underwood will not be a contestant on the reality dating show he is developing with his husband. That chapter of his life is over. But would he ever participate in reality TV again?

Underwood simply says, “I really feel excited about trying to put my stamp and my mark in Hollywood and do things the right way.”

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