BOARDROOM BOOK CLUB

Matt James is Ready to Reclaim His Story

The first-ever Black Bachelor, entrepreneur, and crypto enthusiast speaks to Boardroom about his book First Impressions: Off Screen Conversations with a Bachelor on Race, Family, and Forgiveness.

After putting his whole life on reality television in the quest for love, it wasn’t until the cameras turned off that Matt James knew how to tell his own story.

In the year leading up to his debut as The Bachelor‘s first-ever Black lead, James became a mainstay on the club appearance circuit and even launched an early quarantine sensation on Instagram with his best friend, former Bachelor contestant Tyler Cameron and Bacherlorette lead Hannah Brown.

But as he moved from sidekick to main character, James stepped under a high-power microscope. The former Wake Forest wide receiver grappled with his own identity and struggled to watch as the show awkwardly edited his real life into a tightly packaged storyline.

Upon the replay, he saw only a part of what he knew had happened. The character arc he observed on-screen differed substantially from the person he knew himself to be. Thus, when the opportunity to write a memoir presented itself, James jumped. However, he was committed to telling the truth and the whole truth.

In this episode of Boardroom Book Club, we caught up with James to discuss his first book First Impressions: Off Screen Conversations with a Bachelor on Race, Family, and Forgiveness, the power of moving through discomfort, and what lies beyond life after the final rose.

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Bernadette Doykos: After appearing on The Bachelor, what made you want to sit down and put your story out there yourself?

Matt James: I would say that as someone who likes to be in control, it’s very frustrating when you lose that power and someone else is narrating your story. I was so honest, open, vulnerable, and sharing everything. It wasn’t for myself. It was for the women who were there so that when they left, they knew what was coming with me. I was a package deal. The baggage that comes with me, it isn’t being left at the show. Like, that’s going home with you.

Opening up about my dad being incarcerated, my brother being incarcerated, those are things that if you’re planning on marrying someone and marrying into that family, you should know. And I think at times I was too open and too raw with my experience because a lot of that stuff didn’t make it [to TV].

I realized this is a curated experience. And I felt like if we’re gonna go for it, then we should share all of it because you’re like, I feel like we’re trying to manipulate what the Black experience should be when in reality my experience is my own. So, I think that’s where they missed a mark, but I’m not an [executive producer]. It’s not my network. So, I wanted to have control over my story. And I felt like writing a book was the best way to do that.

Rachael Kirkconnell & Matt James (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

BD: What do you feel like the difference was between being on a reality TV show, where you were truly being yourself and putting it all out there and writing your own story?

 MJ: I think that when you’re on a show, if your energy or your narrative or your story isn’t matching the plot, then there’s no part for you there. So, if you could be your most authentic self, presenting in the most authentic way possible, and there isn’t a character arc for you and what they’re envisioning for the audience.

I felt like that sometimes as the main character, you know, a lot of the things that are important are overshadowed by someone getting called a ho. It’s not something that we’re gonna be talking about 10 years from now. Whereas, being the first Black male in this position, we had an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum [of the moment] and have a conversation that could change people’s lives and redirect the course of the show. And we decided not to capitalize on it, in my opinion.

It’s just a missed opportunity, but hopefully, it’s paved the way for the next person of color to step in and have an opportunity that they hadn’t had before someone like myself coming in.

BD: What was the writing process like for you?

MJ: If I hadn’t been on The Bachelor, I don’t think there would be a book because I wouldn’t have had the courage to talk about things that were shameful at the time. I don’t think they’re shameful anymore because it’s made me who I am. I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve been through because I wouldn’t be the same person. I wouldn’t be here right now.

Going onThe Bachelor, you have to embrace being uncomfortable … You have to push yourself to get to where it’s [OK] being vulnerable and opening up, traveling places that I’ve locked away. I don’t ever want to relive the things that I talk about in the book, but I had to go there.

I can’t tell part of the story, I have to tell the whole thing.

Tyler Cameron & Matt James
(Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Hudson River Park)

BD: Was there anything in process of writing the book that was super surprising to you?

MJ:  Something I had to come to grips with was that a lot of people might be uncomfortable reading the book because no one wants to have their family cast in a negative light. … But again, I thought it was important to tell the whole story. I was initially worried about that, but I had to tell the whole truth, like Bryson Tiller said.

 BD: As you put a book out into the world, what do you want people to know as they sit down to read it?

MJ: The biggest takeaway I hope is that people see that I’m no different than they are. I feel like a lot of people, when they experience things in life, think that they experience them in a tunnel. And they’re the only ones who have been through that thing. So they tend not to share. And the more serious those events are, the more reserved they are.

BD: Now that the book is out there, how does it feel?

MJ: It’s a relief. There were things that I wanted to provide context to that I was just sitting on. I was chilling because I knew that I would have a time that was meaningful to talk about them. But I decided, I’m gonna get my thoughts together in an organized manner, and we’re gonna put it to paper. And it turned into a book, by the grace of God.

Now, if people have questions, I’m just gonna refer ’em to the book. I’m like, once you read the book, I’ll be happy to talk to you about it, ’cause I probably touched on it.

But what I’ve seen is that the more I open up about the things that are the hardest for me to come to grips with, the more it calls other people in who have been through similar things or who are going through things that are like, Man, I need someone to talk to, or if Matt’s gone through something like this and made it out the other side, then why can’t I? Overall, I just want to be relatable and someone that they can go to for advice and pull strength from my story.

BD:  You’ve written a book. You’ve starred on the show. What’s next for you?

MJ:  Just to continue to pursue things that make me happy … When I pursue those things is when I see the most growth. Like, I thought I needed to go work in finance, but it wasn’t until I started working in the community [with his organization ABC Food Tours] that all these other opportunities came to me, and it’s because I was passionate about that.

So, getting back to doing things that I’m passionate about, such as hands-on work with kids, hydroponic farming, and education around financial literacy with our students. Anything that I’m personally interested in, I just selfishly put onto our programming. So, we’re working on stuff with crypto and NFT education for our students.

I think that it’s important to onboard them to decentralized finance as soon as possible because there’s no standard education for that. You can’t take a course on that in high school. They’re not offering it in college. But if you had that education going into those places and you can speak that language, then you’re just going to be set up for success.

BD: Is there anything else about your own story that you feel like you still want people to know or that they will continue to learn about you in this next evolution of you?

MJ:   I just want people to be confident, and I want them to be empowered by what I’ve been through because I think a lot of people can relate [to] having a shit job, having a shit living situation, having to deal with adversity. But the consistent theme is, like, you’re pushing forward and you’re not feeling sorry for yourself. And I really do believe that you create your own luck. If you continue to work hard and put yourself in the right position, that good things will happen to you.

I’m constantly taking risks because I’ve seen from my own research — and just from history — that the people who take risks are rewarded. I don’t think that crazy things happen to people that sit at home all the time.  

I am driven by thrill-seeking and by tapping into my max potential and to do that, I’ve got to push myself and be uncomfortable and say yes to things that I might not want to do. And in doing so, you’re rewarded and if you’re not, then you learn from that and you bounce back.

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