The pair briefly split after an old photo of Kirkconnell at a plantation-themed party surfaced.
Matt James is opening up about how he and Rachael Kirkconnell reconciled. On Wednesday, Cosmopolitan published an excerpt of the former Bachelor's upcoming book, First Impressions, in which he details how he and his girlfriend found their way back to each other after several controversies.
In January 2021, before James' season of The Bachelor began airing, a TikTok user accused Kirkconnell of previously bullying her for dating Black men. Then, another user accused her of liking racist photos. Pics also surfaced of her at an Old South plantation-themed party while in college. Rachael has since apologized and asked people to stop defending her actions.
In the excerpt from his book, James explains that he made a concerted effort to "ignore social media chatter" while the public watched his journey unfold, and writes that that decision "took weeks" for him to be made aware of the online chatter about his girlfriend.
When the first few things about Kirkconnell popped up online, James writes that he "shrugged it off and told her not to worry about it." That all changed when the photo surfaced, though.
"She called me immediately. I knew the woman I’d chosen to be with. Celebrity gossip, no matter how sensitive, wouldn’t shape my opinion of her. We had gone through too much together already," he writes. "And I knew, in that moment, she’d be hurting. Her voice on the other end was strained and unsteady. Messages -- horrible messages -- had poured into her inbox. My only role in that moment was to console her. I assured her that I knew who she was, that this too would pass."
At that point, James "still didn’t quite understand what kind of crisis we were dealing with," and it led to "a blur" in the days that followed. Things escalated even further when former franchise host Chris Harrison defended Kirkconnell's past racist actions, encouraging people to offer her "grace," and speaking out against the "woke police," during an interview with former Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay. He has since apologized and no longer serves as host of the franchise.
"Rachael suffered, seeing every past mistake, down to the minute, paraded across headlines," James writes. "And of course, during that period, the show’s host gave one of the worst interviews in modern memory. The scandal escalated. The walls closed in."
Days passed before James was able to reflect on what his girlfriend's past actions meant to him on a personal level, specifically that plantation-themed party that "conjured memories from an earlier life" for the reality star.
"I’d spent my life attempting to win favor for the man, the individual, I was. But individuality was useless in a world where my race defined me," he writes. "Looking at the picture of Rachael, I wondered where I would have fit at that party. Then I answered my own question: I wouldn’t have."
The photo also made James aware of the fact that he and Kirkconnell had "hardly talked about race," and made him realize for the first time "the role that race would play between the two of us."
The pair met up in Georgia for Valentine's Day, in a house away from prying eyes, as The Bachelor was still airing on TV.
"I shared how it felt seeing her, a woman I loved, embody a role that had once so antagonized me. My emotions welled up, and she met me at their peak," he recalls. "She leaned forward and dove in. She’d only been in the sorority a short time; she left the semester following the party. She didn’t know about the context of the party when she chose to attend; it was just another college event in her mind. She didn’t offer her ignorance as an excuse. Just a fact -- she paired it with the facts of her remorse and regret. Tears streamed down both our faces. She apologized for the pain I felt. I forgave her."
Though he did forgive her, James and Kirkconnell decided to "step away from each other for a time" in order to "give our love a chance to be maintained." They broke their silence weeks later, when the "After the Final Rose" special was fast approaching. At that point, they decided to "keep talking, to be open to our love building back."
While "ATFR" viewers saw a couple who'd ended things, James writes that, "when the cameras shut off, we strode hand in hand back to the greenroom."
Things weren't smooth sailing after that, though. The pair had nightly talks on FaceTime, but didn't define what they were to each other.
"I took advantage of our undefined, gray space and reconnected with former flings... It was a mistake," James writes. "Rachael got wind and was justifiably hurt and feeling betrayed... After that, there was silence. More painful silence. She stormed out of my life for the last time, I thought."
Then fate brought them back together when they were both separately visiting Atlanta.
"I received a pinging notification on my phone: 'Rachael Kirkconnell is now sharing her location with you.' I was confused. We hadn’t spoken in two long weeks. I checked her pin. She was two blocks away. Was this some kind of cryptic message? I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to see her. I rushed over to her red dot on the map and FaceTimed her when I arrived," James writes. "Turns out, she hadn’t meant to send the notification at all; she didn’t even know I was in Atlanta. She had just unblocked my contact, which triggered the location sharing to return automatically -- a crazy coincidence that felt fated."
The pair met up in Atlanta and had a hours-long conversation in Kirkconnell's car.
"We talked for four hours in that car about all of the issues that had kept us apart -- her mistakes, my mistakes, insecurities, family drama, public perception, and everything else under the sun," he writes. "I decided to be better going forward. She had done self-work that I hadn’t reciprocated. I promised her that I was all in. It was the best decision I could have made."
First Impressions: Off Screen Conversations with a Bachelor on Race, Family, and Forgiveness will be available May 3.