“I have a girlfriend, and we are in a committed, exclusive relationship,” the 20th Bachelor tells ET exclusively. “It’s really exciting, and there’s a ton of peace behind it.”
That girlfriend is Jessica Clarke, a 23-year-old Nashville resident and University of Mississippi graduate who sells LED lighting for a living.
This is the Generous Coffee co-founder’s first public relationship since his fiancé, Lauren Bushnell, who he got engaged to on The Bachelor in 2016. The two split in May 2017, and except for one fairly brief, private relationship, he’s been single since.
“There is something about [saying I’m in a relationship] that’s not easy,” he admits, “I’m realizing how much of my identity was being single. … I’ve been in one place for so long now, and had to accept that one status, that it’s exciting and I know it’s the right thing, but it’s also abnormal and unfamiliar for me to say out loud that I’m in a committed relationship. ... I am a little concerned because this is a big identity shift and switch for me, and that feels weird. But I’m ready for it, I’m excited about it and I wouldn’t do it with just anybody.”
So, what makes this partnership one he wants to share with the world?
“Jessica kind of came inside this whole thing and said ‘I get your struggles, and I just like you for who you are,’” Higgins explains. “With the right person this does feel great, exciting, peaceful. And I know that I’m not super messed up! Somebody actually likes me!”
Higgins calls Clarke an “incredible person” who has all the things he’s looking for in a partner. They’ve been dating for a few months, and while they might not have a Bachelor love story, it is a modern day one: they met through social media. Higgins saw her Instagram profile when looking for posts about a Nashville hockey game and was struck by her beauty. Around Thanksgiving, he direct messaged her.
Three weeks after the first Instagram exchange, Higgins flew Clarke to visit him in Denver so they could interact face-to-face for the first time. “She showed up the same weekend a restaurant I’m involved with, Ashkara, opened, so it was an exciting time,” he says. “The next day she also went with me to an event I’d already committed to. Since the beginning, she’s been really understanding, and focused on whatever time we can get together. For me, that weekend, seeing her, I felt like we’d known each other and been around each other many times before. There was a comfort.”
“It’s been incredible to, at the end of the day, have somebody to talk to without fear of judgment, getting yelled at or criticized,” he says. “Just somebody to talk to and enjoys you, appreciates you and tells you that and shows you that. It’s nice to have a partner who thinks I’m awesome. I like being with somebody who thinks I’m pretty great!”
Higgins travels often for work, but his home is still in Denver, while Clarke lives across the country in Nashville. Being long distance is the pair’s biggest struggle right now. They FaceTime frequently to stay close. A question fans might have: do the two FaceTime while watching … The Bachelor?
“She’ll watch The Bachelor more now because of what I do, but she doesn’t show any interest in talking about it,” Higgins says. “It comes up never.” He says Clarke did not watch his season of the hit ABC show, but … her mom did! And, her family approves of the pair; both he and Clarke have met each other’s parents.
So, what’s it like to date someone so removed from the limelight, when he was once engaged in a relationship that millions of people followed from start to finish?
“It feels nice,” he says. “It feels different, but no matter what I hope the foundation is the same in any relationship I’m in: one of trust, empathy, encouragement and understanding. [Clarke] doesn’t have a public persona, or a massive following, and she doesn’t really, I don’t think, have any desire to. And I’m OK with that. … I have prepped her like, ‘Your name is going to be out now, people are going to look at your profile and judge you.”
Higgins says he actually never dated anyone else from Bachelor Nation -- a rarity in a franchise that literally has a show (Bachelor in Paradise) for its castoff contestants to connect on.
“There’s a confidence in where this is going,” Higgins shares. “I want the people who’ve followed along since the beginning to know that I’m happy, things are good and that I’m in a committed relationship that I’m pursuing the best way I know how. And, I think it would be unfair to hide it, and I don’t want to hide it.”
The two haven’t said “I love you,” yet, but are on the same page about their futures: marriage and family are priorities, though not anytime soon. “It’s brand new,” he explains. “Every time I’m with her and around her, it builds … every time I’m with her I want to see her again. I have a feeling that once she’s around my family, my friends … I can only imagine my feelings will increase.”
Currently, Higgins and Clarke are in Honduras together, supporting Higgins’ longtime work with the charity Humanity and Hope United. Safe to say, though, this particular international trip won’t end in a proposal.
“The way I’ve done this in the past is pretty aggressive,” he says with a smile. “It’s quick! I don’t want to rush anything again, but I also don’t want to waste time. I’m not getting any younger here! I’m turning 30 next month, which is wild, and not OK!”
But Higgins and Clarke are taking another big step fairly soon: she'll join Higgins for the next episode of his podcast, The Ben and Ashley I Almost Famous Podcast, and talk about their relationship for the first time publicly herself.